Yoga & Parkinson's
Yoga Visibly Reduces Tremors and Improves the Steadiness of Gait
by Renee Le Verrier, RYT
According to the National Institutes of Health, which evaluates the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) every five years as part of its National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), yoga is among the leading alternative therapies in the United States. Thankfully, skiing appeared nowhere on that list. I could never ski, despite growing up in Buffalo's notoriously snowy winters. In fact, I never really understood skiing, to venture downhill seemed a ridiculous idea; paying to swoosh, slip, oof. Now, living with Parkinson's, why hit the slopes when I can experience a tumble on dry land? No, I can't ski.
I can, on the other hand, practice yoga. It doesn't require any special equipment, clothing or weather. The yoga mat is a handy accessory, but it's not necessary. Warm sunshine is a pleasant bonus, but the weather plays no role. Yoga pants? Yoga studio? Yoga music? All are add-ons. I've practiced yoga on airplanes, at the kitchen counter, on the back deck in my pajamas while listening to robins sing.
When it comes down to it, yoga requires one thing only. Breath. If you're reading this, odds are that you're breathing. So, yes, you, too, can do yoga.
Yoga practice, whether at home or in a class, starts with the breath. One area we can still control in our dopamine-challenged lives lies in our breathing. According to the Parkinson's Research Foundation (PRF), "Controlling your breath (Pranayama)... helps in moments of panic such as feet sticking to the floor when walking."
We can choose to take a deep breath. We can use the breath as a tool to lead us inside and notice what might be going on in there. The PRF adds that, "In this form of yoga, the mind is always watchful." When we notice stress from the vantage point of an inner witness, our response can shift from the fear or anxiety of stumbling to choosing to take a deep breath and relax.
Yoga stays with the breath through asanas, or poses. When moving, for example, into virabhadrasana - any one of the warrior poses - our breath leads the motion. Our awareness is right there, too. The inhale invites us in with it as muscles release, joints open. The exhale lets us settle in further. It doesn't matter if your version of a warrior resembles a knight or a pawn. Feel the flow, watch the rigidity loosen, notice both the softening and the strengthening. In a study on yoga and Parkinson's at Kansas University Medical Center, Yvonne Searles, PT, PhD, said, "I think I was most amazed by the visible reduction in tremoring and improvement in the steadiness of gait immediately following the yoga sessions."
If your mind won't follow your breath inside because it's too busy focusing on staying upright or listening to a screaming muscle spasm, consider changing classes, teachers, videos or routines. I often open a class with a reminder that when we feel our breath is strained, our body is, too. Remember, we can control our breath. Notice when the strain happens and bring yourself back to where your mind can join your breath.
I recently attended a traditional yoga class. Since I create modifications routinely for my own classes, I felt confident that I could adapt the teacher's poses how I needed to stay with my breath. I used my blocks for added support, moved to the wall for additional balance. Two-thirds of the way into the class, the teacher demonstrated a pose I'd never seen. It may as well have been named The Skier since I knew I'd land with an oof if I tried even a variation of it. I chose to gaze out the window, aware of my breath, until that part ended.
I couldn't do that pose. But I can do others, and I can do yoga. I can benefit from all it offers. You can, too.
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Renee Le Verrier is a certified yoga instructor who specializes creating adaptations for people with movement disorders. A stroke survivor and person living with Parkinson's, Renee is also the author of the book, "Yoga for Movement Disorders," as well as its Companion DVD. She teaches classes regularly, including at Massachusetts General Hospital and Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital. In conjunction with the APDA Massachusetts Chapter, Renee conducts yoga teacher training seminars on meeting the needs of students with Parkinson's. You may contact Renee via her Website at http://www.limyoga.com.