Most Americans have read or heard about Parkinson’s disease. While its name is widely known, the disease itself isn’t widely understood. It’s estimated that 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States, joining the 1.5 million Americans who currently have Parkinson’s disease.
With the growing number of people who must face this health challenge, it is important to understand how the disease affects a typical patient; why an adaptive yoga practice can be a beneficial therapy to reduce the negative impact of its symptoms; and how to find a yoga program that targets the needs of students diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease results from the death or impairment of certain nerve cells in the brain. When healthy, these cells produce dopamine—the orchestra conductor in the symphony of brain chemistry.
When too many dopamine-producing cells are damaged, muscular dysfunction appears—perhaps a slight tremor, mumbled speech or stiffness of movement. Symptoms such as these become more pronounced over time, and, while research continues, there is not yet a cure for the disease.
The good news? As scientists work towards a cure, the practice of yoga can help relieve many of the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease.
The gentle, slow and precise moves of yoga guide the body into postures that:
- Increase flexibility and range of motion
- Improve circulation
- Enhance one’s emotional state
- Improve alertness of mind
After a few classes of adaptive yoga, most students notice that they:
- Stand taller by lifting their chests as opposed to slumping
- Have better balance because they are looking forward, not down
- Are more aware of their gait and less prone to shuffle
- Feel stronger and have greater range of motion
- Feel relief from symptoms such as rigidity and fatigue
- Have a better sense of where their body should be and how it should move
These experiences affect patient’s quality of living by:
- Lessening the fear of falling
- Improving the ability to do certain everyday tasks
- Increasing opportunities to socialize and interact
- Counteracting insomnia and the lethargy of Parkinson’s
- Experiencing greater relaxation which helps to control tremors
While there is no hard evidence yet that a regular yoga practice will slow down brain cell death, Parkinson’s disease patients frequently report that yoga increases overall physical well-being, decreases feelings of frustration or depression; and reduces fear of imbalance-caused injury.
How do classes for Parkinson’s disease patients differ from general yoga classes? First, it must be recognized that these students can’t move around as easily or as much as most people. As a result, muscle flexibility and strength diminish. Asana selected and modified for this population need to target the physical needs specific to those whose brain chemistry restricts fluidity.
Building strength, flexibility and balance requires an environment where the risk of falling is minimal. This means plenty of chairs, an underlying knowledge of asana practice that best targets the areas needing opening and addresses key issues for those with Parkinson’s disease like trunk rigidity, hamstring tightness and compromised balance and breathing.
For yoga instructors, it means understanding what is going on in the bodies of those with Parkinson’s disease. For yoga students, it means finding a teacher who understands what is going on in your body. Not all teachers have the depth of training necessary to work with someone with Parkinson’s disease.
If you have Parkinson’s disease or have a family member with this diagnosis, here are some suggestions for finding a qualified yoga teacher.
Ask for a referral from physicians, physical therapists, friends or associates. Once you have a few names of yoga schools or individuals, call or email to ask if they have experience teaching students with Parkinson’s. If they don’t, ask if they can recommend a teacher who does.
Inquire about the school’s approach: some classes are vigorous, while others are milder and more restorative. In the same way that you consider the credentials of any professional, ask about the teacher’s training, certifications, and experience.
Consider a few private sessions. While one-on-one instruction costs more than a class—private instruction can range from $60 – $125 per hour— private sessions allow the teacher time to get to know you so that he or she can tailor postures and instructions to suit your special needs. Private sessions will give you time to become familiar with the studio, learn how to use the props, and experience the postures without feeling self-conscious that you are new.
Before attending a class continue to ask questions: what is the average size of the class (more experienced and popular teachers usually have large classes, and thus less time to work with individuals, while novice teachers usually have small classes but more opportunities to provide personal attention); the length of the class (most run between 60 to 90 minutes); the cost of the class (most average $12 to $18 for a drop-in; most studios offer packages of classes which reduce the cost and teachers with a large private practice typically offer reduced rates when a series of privates is purchased); what kind of dress is recommended; and does the school provide you with a mat and props or do you need to bring your own.
Most yoga students with Parkinson’s disease with a regular adaptive yoga practice soon report they notice themselves moving better, getting out of chairs more easily and walking more steadily. Before long, they are also experiencing the less visible, but equally as powerful benefits, of self-acceptance and optimism.