Steffany Haaz, MFA, Doctoral candidate, School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore

Steffany Haaz practices what she investigates: A dancer and yoga teacher, her Arthritis Foundation-funded research looks at how holistic movement forms (including yoga, tai chi and dance) can serve as a complementary treatment for RA and other chronic conditions. “We can give people medicine, but it’s important to understand how to use the mind-body connection to make living with a disease like RA easier,” she says.

AT: What led you to be a committed environmentalist and vegan, as well as a practitioner of yoga?

SH: A lot of it was intuitive. When I was only 6, I didn’t want to eat meat – I would spit it out into my napkin. It just never felt right to me. Being an environmentalist ties into my food choices – organic, local, low on the food chain. 

AT: How did you get involved with dance?

SH: I started dancing when I was 2. It was a hobby – I intended to major in neuroscience in college and become a scientist. Somehow the dance department sucked me in. My parents were frightened – “What do you mean you’re majoring in dance?!” Now, though, they see it coming together.

AT: So how did dance lead you back to science and eventually to rheumatology?

SH: My graduate work focused on the mind-body split. We tend to value the work of the mind and see the body simply as a container. But they are two parts of a whole. I became interested in that approach and its relationship to health.

AT: Why did you choose science over art, finally?

SH: I love the open-ended questions in art, but I also love the nitty-gritty details of science. I need both. Bringing the arts into science feels like a better fit for me than trying to bring science into the world of the arts.

AT: Describe your research.

SH: My doctoral dissertation examined whether yoga is as beneficial as other types of exercise for someone with RA, and whether there is anything unique about yoga’s mind-body connection that can help address all the ways arthritis can affect your life.

AT: You teach yoga to people with arthritis. What do you observe in your classes?

SH: When you’re used to not being able to do much with your body, you can develop an adversarial relationship with it. So when you are able to move beyond that, even in a way that might seem insignificant to someone who is able-bodied, it’s a big deal. One student went from sitting to standing without help for the first time, and the whole class applauded – it was really a triumph.