Controlled experiments on the use of Yoga with Parkinson’s Disorder, although so far small, have shown highly statistically significant positive results. The following observations are distilled from my own experience with the effects of Parkinson’s and Yoga on my body and those of my Yoga students.
1. My body (and most bodies, I believe) adapts very quickly to anything I do not ask it to do. If I don’t use a certain range of motion, it goes away; if I do not challenge the strength of some muscle, that strength goes away; if I do not engage in actions requiring a certain coordination of muscles, that coordination goes away, and with it the actions. The above adaptation to disuse is normal, and was always there, but Parkinson’s has accelerated it.
Yoga has been refined over centuries to work against each of the losses listed above. A yoga practice with a sufficient variety of poses challenges, and therefore builds, muscles all over the body together with the range of motion of all limbs plus the spine. Each pose also challenges and builds coordination by working certain muscles in concert with each other, others in opposition to each other.
2. Many common actions require coordinating a large number of little-noticed muscles. A good example is reaching out for something. Moving the upper arm and shoulder calls for the coordinated action of at least thirteen muscles. Parkinson’s compromises this (unconscious) coordination, but sometimes conscious coordination can replace it. Examples include consciously lifting feet and swinging arms when walking.
Yoga practice promotes awareness of the actions of muscles, and the ability to isolate the actions of some muscles from others. This enhances the ability to coordinate by conscious effort that which was formerly coordinated automatically.
3. Parkinson’s compromises balance.
Yoga provides many poses for practicing balance. Many of them have modifications employing walls, chairs or assistants that make the balance poses accessible to those whose balance is already compromised. My experience with yoga for those in their 70s and 80s, and also with my own body, is that the ability to balance responds well to practice – even more quickly than strength and range of motion.
4. I inherited certain mild postural misalignments. They have tended to worsen with age, and Parkinson’s has accelerated the worsening.
The refinement of Yoga over the years has resulted in poses that work particularly strongly against common postural misalignments. A good example is the rounded shoulders plus head forward posture promoted by both deskwork and Parkinson’s. Many back bends and shoulder openers work specifically on this alignment. Another example is habitual over or under arching of the lower back. Either of these tendencies can lead to strain and pain in the lower back. Certain Yoga poses teach awareness of this alignment, and enhance control over it so that the lower spine can be protected in every day use.
5. Often, an apparent, but not real, lack of range of motion is caused by the lack of muscle strength or coordination to put the body part there. This can be detected, and sometimes countered, by (carefully) putting it there with external forces.
When an action cannot be accomplished, not due to lack of range of motion, but due to lack of muscle or control to make it happen, an experienced yoga instructor can sometimes bring about the action through external aid using blankets, blocks, straps, or hands-on assistance. This gives the student a start on feeling the action and perhaps learning to accomplish it without the external aid.
6. Parkinson’s tends to interfere with breathing in subtle ways.
Yoga emphasizes awareness of the breath and maintenance of healthy breathing throughout the performance of poses.
7. No regimen is likely to be practiced often enough and regularly enough to be helpful unless it is reasonably safe and reasonably fun. In this regard I have been blessed with inspired teachers. They have made my practice fun through good fellowship, humor, and enjoyment of a pose done well. They have also taught non-competitiveness and the intelligent substitution of easier poses for harder ones to create a safe practice while maintaining a beneficial level of challenge.
These same teachers have maintained an infectious positive, openhearted attitude throughout each class, and have ended each class with a period of deep relaxation that encouraged a continuing peace of mind. I aim to create a similar environment for the students in the classes I teach and for myself in my own practice. This has allowed me to maintain a varied and widely beneficial practice into my 70’s, and appears to have greatly slowed the effects of Parkinson’s on my ability to perform daily tasks.
8. Finally, neurologists are strongly recommending exercise for their Parkinson’s patients, but report that few actually exercise. Many with PD believe that yoga will be too challenging and uncomfortable. In therapeutic Yoga the poses are adapted to the needs of the individual, thereby creating a program that is both doable and beneficial, while also a positive experience.
Source: Written by H. Paul Zeiger, Ph.D. For further information, Paul Zeiger can be reached by email at paulzeiger[at]aol.com or by phone at 303-954-8595.
Posted by Kate Kelsall on her blog “Shake, Rattle and Roll”