By Silas Polkinghorne
Kinesiology students Sarah Junkin, left, and Rachel Donen.
Photo by Silas Polkinghorne
Two grad students are paving new ground with the first yoga research in the College of Kinesiology.
Rachel Donen and Sarah Junkin are both in the final stages of Masters projects studying the effects of yoga practise on middle-aged women.
Junkin says yoga is sometimes viewed as “religious or scary,” and this misunderstanding makes some kinesiologists hesitant to embrace research into yoga – a life practise of mind, spirit, and body.
“Yoga is about learning about the body and learning how to breathe. And we talk about anatomy, and we talk about biomechanics, and we talk about psychology. And all of those things are part of Kinesiology,” she said.
“To me, yoga is Kinesiology in practise,” Junkin added. “When I come to the studio, it’s really the time in my life when I’m most practically using my Kinesiology degree.”
Junkin wanted evidence to back up what she was reading and observing – that women practicing yoga were becoming more comfortable with their bodies. She studied a group of women with limited or no experience in yoga over three months of yoga practise.
Using a questionnaire and a Kinesiology “exercise and self-esteem model” to quantify her research, Junkin found some evidence that women’s confidence in doing yoga poses improved and that women were more accepting of their bodies. She also observed changes in “mindfulness” in daily life, but was surprised to find that no changes were found specifically in self-esteem.
She said the exercise and self-esteem model may not be the best way to look at yoga, since its impacts are much broader than the impacts of exercise. “It’s not really addressing all that yoga is.”
Donen, meanwhile, encountered some obstacles in the approval process of her yoga research project, a purely qualitative study of “mindfulness.” The concept is often misunderstood in the West, but is defined as “purposeful attending with compassion and affection” and involves being present in the moment in a non-judgemental way, Donen said.
When stretching in a mindful way, a person is aware of the breath and the alignment of the body. “It’s going deeper and deeper into how the body moves. It’s building awareness into how we move,” Donen said. “You may learn how to stretch, but you may learn something about yourself in that moment.”
Lack of understanding led to many questions from others in the college, she said. “If you don’t understand something, you’re curious – and there’s a little bit of resistance to it.”
Her study involved a handful of women who met to do yoga and participate in discussions and other activities related to mindfulness. She said themes of compassion, listening, and continuous learning became prominent in her discussions with the women, and the results section of Donen’s thesis is presented unconventionally – as a fictional narrative. “Stories are a bridge that can help people start their journey into mindfulness,” she explained.
Donen says her research into mindfulness may help broaden the understanding of what movement is, how movement can be taught, and about its health benefits. “In sport, if you’re not present in the moment … maybe you lose your tennis match,” she said.
Associate professor of Kinesiology Kent Kowalski – whose interests include self-esteem and body image – is supervising both projects.
Kowalski is excited about the research and its incorporation of the psychological aspects of yoga. He says yoga – a physical activity that continues to grow in popularity – and Kinesiology are a good fit.
“It only makes sense, in our field, that we explore (yoga) and the role it takes in people’s lives.”
Kowalski is also happy that the research gives a voice to middle-aged women who are not often included in Kinesiology research.
He added, “Anytime you try to so something new there will be challenges … Any good research project has some challenges.”
Junkin, who also works as an exercise therapist and a sessional lecturer, says Kinesiology could benefit from a course on Eastern movement. “I think it would be really useful for students not just to learn about hockey … but to learn about Tai Chi and yoga and pilates, and other forms of movement.”
She hopes others decide to take on yoga research. “(Just) because it’s something new doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its place in Kinesiology.”
Both Junkin and Donen teach at the Yoga Central studio on Eighth Street East.