Ruth Terna has had two heart attacks as a result of a childhood illness that damaged her heart. After her last heart attack in 2010, she lost her confidence. She was afraid to physically exert herself.

“I felt like I was a heart attack waiting to happen,” said Terna.

Then she entered the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s HELA study—the Hula Enabling Lifestyle Adaptation study. HELA is a five-year study evaluating the impact of hula on patients who had been hospitalized for cardiac problems.

The John A. Burns School of Medicine’s Department of Native Hawaiian Health and Queen’s Medical Center, studied 60 cardiac patients—30 received traditional care and 30 took part in a 12-week hula class. The class was one hour, three times a week.

“We found out that hula can be as rigorous as a basketball or a tennis game if you dance it continuously,” said Mele Look, director of the Center for Native and Pacific Health Disparities Research.

But researchers are finding that the benefits from hula goes beyond exercise. The mental and spiritual gains are proving just as beneficial.

“Which is the connection of the mental and the connection of the physical which we must acknowledge helps with healing,” said Look.

“You felt better, your body felt better. How do you describe the spirituality that you feel?” said Terna. “This feeling of caring, of working together to get better.”

Kumu Hula Mapuana de Silva led the hula classes and remembers one man who was in hospice, his heart working at 15 percent. He left the hospice within weeks of starting hula lessons.

“By the time we got to the end of the program, he was doing laps. It helped him not just physically, but spiritually,” said de Silva.

Stories like this will be shared with more than a million international visitors at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Look will be joining approximately 80 UH delegates headed to Washington D.C.

HELA’s findings will be used to develop a cardiac rehabilitation program based on hula.

Through the course of the HELA study de Silva said, “You could see the confidence build, you could see the rosiness in their cheeks come back, you could see the twinkle in their eyes come back.”

Smithsonian Folklife Festival

The University of Hawaiʻi will be among 20 public land-grant universities to be featured in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. from June 27 to July 8, 2012.

The festival celebrates the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Morrill Act, which paved the way for higher education for rural and working class Americans.

The University of Hawaiʻi exhibits will feature traditional Hawaiian health and healing practices, a mini taro patch, non-instrument navigation, medicinal herb and organic farming and much more. Hawaiʻi Community College’s halau Unukupukupu and the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Tuahine Troup will also perform.

See more on the University of Hawaiʻi’s Smithsonian experience.