While posture and balance are important at every age and stage of life, the effort to make ‘optimal posture’ a habit is especially so for those with Parkinson’s, to whom everyday life may be anything but cohesive. Doctors diagnose as many as 60,000 new cases each year and the percentage of growth in diagnoses is expected to climb in the coming years. A growing number of medical experts are finding that movement therapies, particularly yoga, are helping patients cope with Parkinson disease-related symptoms, including those of balance and postural imbalances.
“Yoga allows you to rediscover a sense of wholeness in your life, where you do not feel like you are constantly trying to fit broken pieces together.” B.K.S. Iyengar
Dianne Ochiltree is a writer who has hands-on experience assisting yoga classes for those with Parkinson’s Disease. In this post, she interviews Lynn Burgess who has been teaching yoga to those with Parkinson’s for over 10 years:
I’ve had the privilege of serving as teaching assistant to yoga teacher, Lynn Burgess, for the past four years as she leads at Parkinson Place in Sarasota. She teaches with equal measures of knowledge, enthusiasm and love. I’ve seen the positive changes her instruction and encouragement have given these hardworking students, week after week. While the postures may change, each class includes pointers and yoga inspired poses and movements that help students have better posture. I caught Lynn at a rare quiet moment to ask her a few questions about the challenges of ‘standing tall’ and how those with Parkinson’s disease can benefit from a regular yoga practice.
From your vantage point as yoga teacher, what is the impact of Parkinson’s disease on students’ posture?
The most common postural change with Parkinson’s disease is a tendency to bend or flex forward (stooped posture). There can also be a tendency to flex or bend to one side. In addition, changes in postural awareness or one’s perceptions of change can happen. For example, you may feel like your posture is upright and straight but it is not.
These postural changes can affect mobility. With normal posture our weight is well centered over the middle of our feet making it much easier to balance. When our spine is bent forward, the head also comes forward and our center of mass shifts ahead of the feet. To keep from falling, the forward flexed person tends to bend his or her knees and hips. This leads to difficulty in taking big steps and requires more energy to walk. Falls are more likely to happen due to shuffling that occurs while walking with knees bent. Forward slouching limits arm swing, can cause shoulder and neck pain, and lead to shortness of breath and/or softness of speech.
How is yoga practice particularly well suited to improve/reverse the ill effects of poor posture in the students we work with? Said differently, why do you think yoga is a good ‘mindful movement’ practice for moving toward optimal posture?
A yoga practice improves posture through strength, flexibility, and awareness. Focusing on increasing flexibility in the stronger muscles, and strengthening the smaller muscles in the spine and back of the shoulder helps to delay postural changes and help maintain a more upright stance. Additionally, postural awareness, core strengthening and proprioception exercises increase a person’s awareness of body position in space.
If you could suggest one simple exercise that Parkinson patients, or anyone else who is interested in improving posture, might do daily, what would that be?
Mountain Pose (Tadasana). Stand with bare feet parallel to each other. If you need help with balance stand close to a wall. Place your feet three to five inches apart, directly under the hips. Become aware of the weight distribution on the bottoms of your feet. Is there more weight on one foot than the other? The weight should be equal on the two feet and distributed evenly between the heels and balls of the feet. Press your shoulder blades into your back, then widen them across and release them down your back. Hang your arms beside the torso. Balance the crown of your head directly over the center of your pelvis, with the underside of your chin parallel to the floor.
Lynn Burgess is the founder and director of Yoga from the Heart in Sarasota, FL, where she teaches public classes and workshops, offers private instruction, and conducts teacher training and advanced-studies programs. You can find out more about her (and her yoga instructional DVDs, meditation CD, and Sanskrit/English CD) at her website (http://yogafromtheheart.com/instructors/lynn-burgess/). She lives in Sarasota.
Dianne Ochiltree is a writer and 200-hour RYT with Yoga Alliance. She is a proud graduate of the Teacher Training program at Yoga from the Heart, where she can be found teaching chair yoga in addition to her duties as Teaching Assistant for Lynn at Parkinson Place in Sarasota. Dianne is also a published children’s author. For more information on her books, go to dianneochiltree.com.