We interviewed Steffany Moonaz, Ph.D., RYT 500, winner of MUIH’s first Excellence in Research and Scholarship Award, for her research on the effects of yoga practice for people with rheumatic diseases.
Maryland University of Integrative Health: Can you give a general overview of your research interests and goals?
Steffany Moonaz, Ph.D., RYT 500: I am interested in investigating the effects of yoga practice for people with rheumatic diseases, which includes but is not limited to rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, lupus, and juvenile idiopathic arthritis(arthritis in children). Specifically within this, I am focused on something called patient-reported outcomes or PROs, which medicine is moving toward emphasizing more. There is a science to measuring PROs, and it includes the development and validation of instruments to be able to accurately measure aspects of the patient experience. I suspect that in the realm of integrative health practices, the patient experience is where we stand to have the greatest impact. Medicine is looking for cures for these chronic, irreversible conditions, but as integrative practitioners we can help people live differently with these conditions in the meantime. We can help to improve their quality of life on the whole; the way they feels and lives with the disease as it exists, and adapting to life with the disease as it changes.
MUIH: How did you become interested in yoga?
SM: My mother was a dance teacher and I started dancing when I was 3. My first exposure to yoga was in the dance world because there are yoga asana that are part of dance training. My interest in mindful movement, which happens in dance as it does in yoga and in other modalities like tai chi, began at a young age. As a child I remember feeling something different in the yoga studio, that there was some kind of a transformation in my way of being, and I saw the power in that. I remember thinking when I was young, If more people knew about this, there would be less suffering. Particularly, I think there is something about mindfulness in movement because it’s not just happening in the mind; it’s engagement with the physical body during the practice of mindfulness. It is mindfulness embodied.
MUIH: And what led you to yoga research?
SM: My path to yoga research is very serendipitous. I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor, and then became interested in public health as perhaps a way to help change the way people live. I was doing a summer internship in gastroenterology looking at herbs in culture with cancer cells and the gastroenterologist came into the room where I was sitting and said, “You’re a dancer and yogi, you should write a paper about how movement can help people with rheumatoid arthritis.”
I knew nothing about rheumatoid arthritis, but I wrote the paper. I was invited to serve as a research assistant at Johns Hopkins while pursuing my PhD. In that role, I worked on several studies and got to know the rheumatology patients quite well. As that was happening, I was refining my understanding of what a yoga program would look like for this population, which we piloted and it took off from there. There’s something in yoga we call dharma, which is sort of your life purpose, your reason for being here. And so I believe that this is my dharma, which started as a seed when I was very small.
MUIH: How much research has been done on this topic? Are you among a few or are you seeing growth within the field?
SM: I’m one of the only people that has really focused on this. At the time that we started the randomized control trial at Hopkins, there were maybe half a dozen other very small pilot projects. The rigor of the science was lacking, and that actually was true in yoga research broadly at the time. There was recently a bibliometric analysis that was led by Pamela Jeter, adjunct faculty at MUIH, and it shows the exponential growth in yoga research, and that’s not just quantity but quality. The rigor has increased, and it’s part of a movement toward more research in these areas in general. And there is so much more to be done.
MUIH: With the increased rigor of yoga studies, do you see the greater scientific community responding to that positively?
SM: I think that yoga is gaining traction. Yoga therapy as a field is becoming professionalized. I think that more research will help raise awareness about the role for yoga therapists. It is a bit of a wild west right now, but we already see that many hospitals, medical facilities and schools are offering yoga both for patients and for staff. Now we need our evidence to catch up to the evidence in other health fields. The more evidence we have, the more we will be able to speak the language of other health professions, and the more we can inform our current practices with that evidence.
I and a team of yoga researchers around the world are working to develop yoga research reporting standards. The improvement in the way that we report our yoga research is going to help us to answer some of those more nuanced questions going forward.
MUIH: Do you see MUIH conducting further integrative health research to become a leader in the field?
SM: I wouldn’t be here if the answer was no. I’m a researcher and I took a chance by coming here and trying to build my body of work as a yoga researcher at an institution that historically has not emphasized research. As a university, that’s a direction that we’re moving. I hope and intend to be a key member in the development of a culture of research and research literacy among our student and faculty, as well as in the university’s research capacity and research evidence. I believe that is the direction that we’re going as an institution and that I will help to continue moving that forward.