Kim Brooks, instructor with Yoga for Parkinson’s with the Parkinson Foundation of the National Capital Area, encourages people facing this condition to give yoga a try:
Question: Yoga seems hard with its “pretzel” poses; how does it help Parkinson’s?
Answer: There are different types of yoga; the right fit depends on a client’s interest and goals. Yoga is a union of breath and awareness of the moment – for example, how does one feel physically? Internally? A Parkinson client may have problems with floor work or standing poses. But there is always something the client can do. Interestingly enough, those who continue with yoga usually feel stronger and more flexible; they can engage in more yogic poses with longer durability.
Question: I hear that yoga can help with strength and balance. Could you say more about this?
Answer: Yoga increases strength and flexibility, and fights fragility! For example, when we sit up straight the back muscles engage correctly. That strengthens much needed postural muscles that help balance and breathing. When we hold in a yogic pose and breathe, muscles have an excellent opportunity to gather muscle thread to become stronger and stronger. Thigh muscles — which we very much need for walking, getting off a chair or the toilet, getting out of a car and so on — become stronger as they are strengthened through yoga leg poses. They keep one independent and studies show that, surprisingly, leg muscles affect brain health. We all want to reduce or avoid the problems that come from not moving very much: atrophy can set in, circulation is compromised, the heart get weaker, and the neurons in the brain become weaker.
Balance is a very important issue for everyone as we age. It is a critical focus for Parkinson’s, given that falling becomes more of a risk with this condition. Seated poses for back and leg strength help Parkinson clients improve their muscle strength and flexibility so they move easier and feel more confident. The upper body is important for balance because the weaker the upper frame, the higher risk one may have for falling. Leg strength is equally important for balance. The stronger the muscles which support the skeletal frame, the better they protect bones if one does fall; this can prevent serious injury and broken bones.
Another yoga benefit is building one’s confidence as one gets stronger. And yoga helps memory improve. When one focuses on a specific task like holding a leg in a pose as you breathe in a certain breath sequence, the neurons grow stronger!
Let me share another point about yoga’s benefits: Yoga is life. It is living in the moment and noticing what you feel. You ask yourself questions like: “Is my breathing shallow? Are my shoulders tight? Are you clenching your jaws?” When we all == Parkinson client or not — start living in our body we begin to notice the stresses our body is communicating to us. These are important messages. As we begin to understand the relaxation response, we can counteract these stresses. The relaxation response also helps us learn through yoga breathwork and stretches. We learn how to relax and engage in new behaviors that improve physical and even cognitive issues.
Question: What can yoga do for this common Parkinson’s challenge: moving from a chair to standing?
Answer: Indeed, this can be challenging. As one becomes weaker in endurance and muscle strength, the will to try begins to wane. It is critical to improve lung capacity (through breath) and muscle strength (through stretching and muscle poses). It may be a slow start but as the client continues to try, improvements will come. This is easier done in a group with one’s peers, where you benefit from everyone helping one another and cheering for one another. This kind of support truly helps!
Question: What are some of the encouragements you offer to Parkinson clients — newcomers and/or those who once practiced yoga but have given it up?
Answer: In the case where a client has taken a yoga class and was not happy, I always let the client know it is wonderful to experience something new — that is good for the brain! Trying new things in general, and new postures in particular — is an adventure. It may be difficult or uncomfortable but as the clients proceed it may become more interesting for them.
I always encourage Parkinson clients to try many different ways but to always make sure nothing hurts, that they feel safe and secure, and that they never risk injury. Always talk to the teacher and ask for an alternative to a pose!
Question: What do your students like best about yoga?
Answer: Once they become open to guidance with breathing, Parkinson clients love the relaxation response that different yogic breathes offer. There are so many to try and it is great to experiment with them. Trying out the different yogic breaths allows an individual to find the one they will incorporate into their everyday life. I also see that chair and standing poses become quite fun as over time; the clients can see improvements in their endurance, flexibility and strength. Clients say that it’s a wonderful feeling to move more easily and to see themselves improve. The good feelings multiply, as well, because class participants encourage one another and celebrate seeing one another improve.
Many thanks, Kim, for describing what yoga can do for the body, mind and spirit of Parkinson clients. Namaste!
To learn more, contact the Parkinson Foundation of the National Capital Area. The Foundation provides 170+ monthly programs, including yoga, at no cost to help people with Parkinson’s. Call (703) 734-1017.
Kim interviewed with M. Teresa Vandergriff, MSW, a retired grant writing consultant now studying senior health and wellness.
(Portrait and Headshot Photo of Vandergriff by John St Hilaire of Light Enough Studios, Falls Church, VA.)