Whatever the early symptoms, PD is a degenerative disease characterized by a loss of dopamine-producing nerve cells in the substantia nigra region of the brain. Dopamine is the chemical responsible for coordinating muscles and quick, smooth movements. For reasons that aren’t clearly understood, a person with Parkinson’s loses these cells and produces insufficient amounts of dopamine for normal motor control. An estimated 1.5 million Americans have PD, and about 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, according to the National Parkinson Foundation. Unfortunately, by the time a problem is noticed, most people are producing only about 20 percent of the dopamine they normally would.
Degeneration in Parkinson’s patients is usually tracked over five stages. Very often a spouse or a friend will notice that you’re taking smaller steps or you’re having a problem with balance; other clues are a softening of the voice and tremors on one side of the body. By the second stage, symptoms begin to affect both sides, and day-to-day tasks become more difficult. After stage three, people lose the ability to walk straight or to stand. Tremors and severe immobility take over motor control at the fourth stage, when assisted-living care usually becomes necessary. At the final stage, a person may not be able to walk or stand, and one-on-one nursing care is then required.
“We need more studies to determine the most effective type of yoga for people with Parkinson’s and at what dosage,” says Becky Farley, a physical therapist and research assistant professor at the University of Arizona. “However, I’ve seen what happens when people with PD embrace yoga…It [induces] relaxation, which helps control tremors, activates affected muscle groups, and can be a steady reminder of where your body should be and how it should move.”
In her own research, Farley found that certain exercises that target the torso and trunk can help prevent rigidity and maintain normal walking and a sense of balance. Stiffness in the body’s core 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. Restorative twists and poses that strengthen the trunk are thought to reduce stiffness and improve mobility.
The instructions a yoga teacher gives in class, of course, build awareness by getting you to concentrate on the details of the poses. But they also focus the mind and therefore bring you to the present. They ask you to tune in to subtle movements of your body. For someone with Parkinson’s, this is particularly helpful. As dopamine levels decrease, it’s also common to become less and less aware of the motor control that you’re losing. But the mind-body awareness that yoga encourages helps [one] self-correct and compensate for these new impairments.
In 2005, a pilot study conducted at Cornell University placed 15 people with Parkinson’s in 10 weeklong yoga programs, after which participants reported less trunk stiffness, better sleep, and a general feeling of well-being. “A surprising side effect was the social support the class provided,” says neurologist Claire Henchcliffe, director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Institute at Weill Cornell. “I think a lot hinges on sharing problems that doctors simply don’t have firsthand experience with. At a support group, people get great firsthand information and become proactive.”
Excerpts from Yoga Journal Article Moving On With Parkinson’s by Peggy van Hulsteyn