Senior psychology major Joanna Kuang has spent many hours at Carolina helping others find wellness through the Pilates classes she teaches at UNC Campus Recreation.
Senior psychology major Joanna Kuang first began thinking about the prevalence of mental health illness in teenagers during her sophomore year of high school. After publicly sharing her own mental health challenges, her classmates began sharing their own stories.
When Kuang arrived at Carolina as a Morehead-Cain Scholar in 2017, she had never taken a psychology course but quickly declared the subject her major so she could better understand the mental health issues facing adolescents and try to help more people live well.
Kuang has spent the past three years pursuing that interest in her coursework and by studying eating disorders in the Bardone-Cone Lab. Her senior honors thesis even focuses on eating disorders and social pressures like body shaming.
Beyond the classroom and lab, Kuang has also spent a lot of her time at Carolina helping others find wellness through the Pilates classes she teaches at UNC Campus Recreation.
“It ties together a lot of what I’m good at,” said Kuang, who grew up in New York City. “I’m very outgoing, I’m very bubbly, I like helping people and I’ve always done Pilates, so I figured this was a great way to take what I love to do and give it to others and do it together with them in this really fun, upbeat atmosphere.”
Much like her psychology studies, Kuang dove straight into fitness instruction. After taking a Pilates class her first year at Carolina, she signed up for a Campus Rec course that prepares students to teach their own fitness classes.
She began leading Pilates classes her sophomore year. She teaches both a traditional Pilates class and “Pop Pilates,” a music-based rhythmic Pilates course. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Kuang was teaching two or three classes a week.
The courses gave Kuang an outlet to share her passion for Pilates and a chance to meet Tar Heels she likely wouldn’t have met in classes. Teaching also served as a stress reliever as she balanced her coursework and research.
“There’s no way for me to be distracted when I’m teaching,” she said. “I really have to be present and forget everything else that is outside of the studio.”
When the pandemic forced most Carolina students to move off-campus in March, Kuang leaned into Pilates as a way to stay connected with the community and take her mind off the world. She and several other student fitness instructors transitioned their courses to an online format so that Carolina students and employees could continue to work toward their fitness goals.
“It was important that we put out accessible videos,” Kuang said. “We wanted to make sure people could access quality exercise videos that were scalable to their fitness levels for no charge.”
She began by teaching live classes through Zoom but moved to pre-recording her classes and uploading them to Campus Rec’s YouTube page to allow people to work out on their own schedules. Campus Rec held workshops about cultivating stage presence and worked with student-instructors to hone virtual courses, but the transition was still tricky, Kuang said.
“There’s no feedback from participants, so it’s hard to see if what you’re teaching is scaled to their level. It’s hard to see if your moves are too easy or too hard. You can’t make adjustments on the spot,” she said. “It’s really hard to have energy come through across the screen.”
Still, the ability to teach remotely has been a way to relieve stress, Kuang said. Teaching has also allowed her to continue helping people live well — both mentally and physically — when they’ve needed it most.
“It all goes back to what really drives me, which is holistic wellness,” she said. “I really like teaching mind-body formats because I feel like it forces people to be more in tune with how they feel and not just do burpees. It’s helping people find that sweet spot where they feel empowered and know what’s going on in their bodies and minds. That’s what really drives me.”
By Brandon Bieltz, University Communications