What is an empowering woman? Immediate words that often come to mind are attributes like strong, courageous, genuine, and influential. But when you look up the actual definition of 'empower,' it means to make someone else stronger and more confident; to give power to another. That is what an empowering woman does above all else - she instills power, strength, and confidence in others.
We are surrounded by so many incredible women at KiraGrace, and we want to share a piece of their stories and characters with YOU in the hope that they will empower you the same way they've done for us. We will be highlighting different women who inspire us, challenge stereotypes, and are just, well, fabulous!
For the tenth issue of our empowering women series, we are featuring someone near and dear to the KiraGrace Community with the most bright and vivacious spirit! Our Warrior Ambassador Valerie Knopik is one of the most exuberant yoga and life teachers, and we are blessed to have her represent our brand!
Valerie Knopik (PhD, E-RYT 500, YACEP) is the Ben and Maxine Miller Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University. She is also a Yoga Medicine Registered Therapeutic Specialist, the Director of Research for the Yoga Medicine Research Institute, and a yoga teacher trainer for Yoga Medicine. Formally trained in classical ballet, as well as a former runner, Valerie has always been a believer in staying active and yoga is the perfect marriage of her work in mental health & her love of movement & anatomy.
With a PhD in Psychology, Valerie is extremely active in mental health research, focusing on how our internal biology and our external physical environment (including yoga, mindfulness, and meditation) can interact to positively change our mental health landscape. Valerie’s sincere hope is that, while the physical asana practice might be the introduction to yoga (as it was for her), her students can utilize the asanas as a tool to find cohesion of mind, body, and spirit in order to experience fullness & purpose in their lives. Valerie lives with her husband and two children (and a big, lovable Great Dane named Justice) in Indianapolis, Indiana.
We’re so excited to be able to feature Valerie in our Empowering Women series, and we loved learning more about her inspirations and experiences…
KG – How and why did you start practicing yoga?
VK – I started practicing yoga during graduate school for two reasons: (1) I had danced (ballet, tap, jazz, modern) my entire life up until that point and was no longer doing so – I needed an outlet that allowed me to move my body and yoga fit the bill; and (2) as a way to cope with the challenges of graduate school. Interestingly, I was terrified to go to a group class….afraid that I wouldn’t know what to do or what poses were what, so I started practicing to the Ali McGraw Yoga Mind and Body VHS (yes VHS!) tape which is a 45 minute practice led by instructor Eric Schiffman…. That was my introduction to yoga. I loved that VHS tape!
KG – What has challenged you the most in your yoga practice?
VK – Two things – (1) My Type A personality (translate into letting go of the need to be perfect in the pose); and (2) Allowing time for stillness/quiet/meditation. This latter point was the hardest thing for me to integrate into my practice and if I’m honest, it’s still a struggle….less so than before, but still a work in progress.
KG – What life challenges has yoga helped you overcome?
VK – Ummmm…..all of them? I mean that in all seriousness. This practice and the community of people that I interact with because of this practice have been life savers. From large and terrible events like the death of my niece and my 6-month separation from my husband to more mundane things like managing the daily stressors of my full-time job…my mat and my breath have seen me through it all. My mat has absorbed copious amounts of sweat and tears over the years.
KG – What is an essential part of your day?
VK – Quiet time in the morning before even getting out of bed. The alarm goes off. I do a series of stretches still laying down. Then sit up, stretch a bit more. Then just sit in stillness and quiet. Sometimes it’s 1 minute, sometimes it’s 10 minutes, but it can be such a lovely way to ease into the day. And then towards the end of the day eating dinner together as a family (although with two teenagers this is getting more and more challenging) …. I love that we’ve tried to maintain family dinners even as our children get older.
KG – What could you not live without?
VK – The love and support of my family.
KG – How has motherhood changed your outlook in life?
VK – In every way. I lost my mom to cancer when I was 12 years old and she had been sick for a few years leading up to that, so most of my memories of her are from when she was sick. I always knew that I wanted to be a mother. I knew that I wanted to try to create memories with my children that I didn’t have with my own mom due to her illness. Motherhood is sobering. It’s nonstop. It’s a constant question of am I doing this right? It can be the source of your highest highs and lowest lows. As my oldest, my daughter, was growing up and particularly once she turned 12, I remember looking at my husband and saying, right now, I’ve had more time with our daughter than my mom had with me. For me, motherhood necessarily puts everything, and I mean everything, into perspective. I’ve heard it said that our children choose us. Obviously, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’d like to so. I look at my children and say a silent thank you that they chose me, they chose us. They teach me something every single day.
KG – What is your mindset when you step onto your mat?
VK – As best I can …. Open mind, open heart – hoping to take what I need from my practice that day.
KG – What do you want your students to take away from their practice with you?
VK – I want to create a space for students to feel comfortable exploring the nuances of this practice…to learn something new or consider something from a new perspective, but also to feel held in support. I guess I want them to find balance between challenge (whether that be technically, physically, intellectually, etc) and ease. But always with an element of playfulness and happiness…..does that make sense?
KG – What is your favorite yoga pose of the moment?
VK – I am not sure that I have a favorite pose right now. Of late, I’ve been really spending time with how to look at poses from different perspectives – whether that’s a common shape looked at in different relationships to gravity or highlighting the less-focused on aspects of the practice, like the transitions between the actual poses. I think that we tend to get complacent in our practice, so I’m trying to freshen things up not only for myself but also for my students.
KG – Why is yoga important to the times we’re living in?
VK – So many reasons. Mental health and wellbeing. Self-awareness. Compassion. Connection. Selfless service. Loving kindness. I could go on and on. Yoga by nature embodies qualities and practices that are potent reminders of how to treat others and ourselves.
KG – What sparked your interest in studying and teaching psychology?
VK – Welllllll……when I was young, I wanted to be in the FBI as a criminal profiler. Once I got to college, I was more drawn to the biological side of psychology and decided that was a better path to pursue. I am just a super nerd that way – I’m fascinated by the fact that our biology can interact with our environment to elicit a behavioral response – and to get other people to think about that (even as just a possibility) is super cool.
KG – How do you integrate your yoga practice into your research?
VK – Integrating yoga and my academic life as a professor and researcher was a dream of mine for quite some time. I just didn’t know quite how to make it a reality. Research takes a considerable amount of resources (grant dollars, personnel, etc) and it also requires an infrastructure that supports you actually doing it! My colleagues and Department Head at Purdue were very supportive of my pursuing this and so currently, I’m working alongside Tiffany Cruikshank and Yoga Medicine to start a research project that looks at the effects of yoga and mindfulness on hip dysfunction, quality-of-life, and wellbeing. A Purdue Health and Kinesiology undergraduate student has been working with me for the past semester helping to get surveys into shape – she did this in order to get research experience for graduate school – and so we are almost ready for prime time. This will be the first research project for the Yoga Medicine Research Institute and it will be a multi-side study with the study staff being a subset of Yoga Medicine trained teachers who are also trained in human subjects research. It’s really exciting to see it all coming together…..it’s been a long time in the making!
Another way that I bring yoga and research together is by creating a 60-hour advanced teacher training module for Yoga Medicine on the topic of Yoga and Mental Health and Wellbeing. This had been something that I’ve wanted to do for years. This is a collaboration between myself, Diane Malaspina, PhD and Tiffany Cruikshank. We’ll be offering it this summer in Portland, Oregon and it’s on a waitlist! I couldn’t be more excited about teaching this module to help our teachers have (i) an in-depth look at the science and therapeutic theory behind psychological health and wellness, (ii) interactive exercises and case studies to integrate the material, and (iii) the application of yoga and related approaches to work with, and to troubleshoot, a variety of mental wellness ailments that may arise with yoga students and private clients.
KG – What accomplishment or aspect of your work are you most proud of?
VK – My children and rebuilding my marriage…without doubt are tied for number 1. After my family, I am so proud of where I am professionally (both academically and as a yoga teacher). I feel like I am stepping into my strengths as a woman, a researcher, and a teacher both in the traditional classroom and in the yoga studio.
KG – Where is your favorite place in the world?
VK – Kauai gets first place. Australia second. But honestly, while I love to travel, there is no place like home. I have a busy and full schedule most weeks, so I completely appreciate and love down time at home with my husband and children.
KG – Do you have a favorite quote or saying that you live by?
VK – “Never forget that you are one of a kind. Never forget that if there weren't any need for you in all your uniqueness to be on this earth, you wouldn't be here in the first place. And never forget, no matter how overwhelming life's challenges and problems seem to be, that one person can make a difference in the world. In fact, it is always because of one person that all the changes that matter in the world come about. So be that one person.” – R. Buckminster Fuller
KG – What makes you feel empowered?
VK – Speaking and teaching from a place of heartfelt authenticity. Standing in my strength. Knowing that I don’t know everything and don’t need to. Knowing that it’s okay to say, “that’s a great question, I don’t know the answer to it, but I’ll do some research and get back to you.” My best friends. My husband. Having people in your life who can lift you up is no small thing. If you find them, hold on to them.
KG – Last but not least, what is your favorite KiraGrace piece?