A Lifesaving Practice: Yoga for Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s Disease (PD) strikes about 60,000 new people every year. According to the National Parkinson’s Foundation, this degenerative disease occurs when certain nerve cells (neurons) in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra die or become impaired. These cells are responsible for producing dopamine, the chemical that allows muscles to move smoothly and the body’s functions to stay coordinated. When enough of these dopamine-producing nerve cells die, they cause symptoms like tremors, difficulty balancing, and rigidity.

Recently, the Parkinson’s community has been taking an interest in yoga as a therapeutic tool for dealing with the effects of the disease. An article on New Jersey news website Packet Online mentions several studies that have supported the beneficial link between yoga and PD, including research from a pilot program at Weill Cornell Medical Center that showed increased energy, improved sleep, and reduced stress and stiffness in participants. And Yoga Journal cites a 2002 study from the John F. Kennedy Institute in Denmark that “recorded a 65 percent short-term increase in dopamine levels during restorative yoga and meditation in the test group”.

While all exercise is encouraged for those with PD, yoga has special benefits, the least of which is an emphasis on building flexibility, balance and strength. Consider some of the specific problems caused by PD:

1.    Stiffness in the torso and trunk – According to author and Parkinson’s patient Peggy van Hulsteyn in her article for Yoga Journal, this is “one of the most debilitating symptoms of PD because it hampers a person’s ability to walk across a room or simply stand upright”. There are many asanas that counteract this immobility, helping PD patients avoid the halting, shuffling gait so common with the disease.

2.    Loss of motor control
– Since a lack of dopamine means less awareness of how your body moves in space, yoga’s emphasis on the mind-body connection may help Parkinson’s patients hone new skills to make up for that loss.
3.    Breathing and vocal problems – Many people with PD find that their breathing “stiffens” and their voices get quieter as the disease progresses. Using deep, full, restorative breaths, yoga can strengthen and tone the muscles involved in speaking, inhaling and exhaling.
4.    Self-confidence – Some of the more obvious and awkward symptoms of PD can make patients hesistant to join group classes, where tremors or jerky movements might be misunderstood. Hence the beauty of yoga classes specifically designed for those with Parkinson’s.  Says the wife of one participant in the New Jersey class featured in Packet Online, ”We’re all in the same boat. That’s therapeutic, too. It gives us strength, like things are going to be OK…The greatest thing is, it calms him and helps him realize what he’s capable of and respecting his limitations.”

Unfortunately, no cure has been found for Parkinson’s, despite the significant number of people affected (around 1.5 million people in the United States alone). Alternative treatments can help alleviate symptoms, but for most people with PD, medications are needed to maintain quality of life. Still, yoga is a great complementary therapy, and one that is being recognized by more and more physicians and advocacy groups. In fact, the National Parkinson’s Foundation has funded community yoga programs as well as research studies to examine the physical and emotional effects of yoga on the disease.

While we wait for scientific proof of how much yoga can help those with Parkinson’s or other degenerative diseases, there are plenty of real-life, human examples of its efficacy. As van Hulsteyn tells Yoga Journal, “While I’m gliding through the postures, I sometimes forget, if only for a few brief moments, that I have Parkinson’s. Unlike the rest of the day, when my mind often races ahead to the next task at hand, I can relax and be fully present in the forest of my meditation. And for that magic span of time, as I move normally, I simply feel like myself.”

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