As I sat writing this article, I heard that Janet Reno, the first female U.S. Attorney General, whom I admired for years, had succumbed to complications of Parkinson’s Disease (PD). Even the best of conventional care, it seems, falls short in slowing progression and preventing mortality in this still incurable condition. As in other chronic medical conditions, integrative approaches may reduce suffering and disease progression in people with PD. I have observed this first-hand in David, one of the members of my Body & Brain center, inspiring me to write this article and spread the good news.
During class one day three years ago I noticed a new member who was barely moving and I knew from my medical background that he must have PD. He displayed the hallmark motor features of slow stiff movements and gait. PD is a common neurodegenerative disorder, affecting 1% of people over age 60. It results from an as-of-yet unexplained loss of specific neurons (nerve cells) in the midbrain which make the neurotransmitter dopamine and help control bodily movements. Although a wide range of dopamine medications can control symptoms, there is no established cure; over time PD usually worsens, causing more and more disability.
David, however, is not following this usual course. I spoke with him about the great improvements he has made in his PD symptoms since we first met. David was diagnosed 6 years ago after his son noticed a change in his gait and he experienced trouble moving his legs while skiing. Other typical symptoms developed including a weak voice and decreased dexterity. David found himself gradually retreating from his usual physically active life due to fear of tripping, falling, and hurting himself. He lost confidence in his body and his ability to cope with joint and muscle pain, as he listened to well-meaning friends who advised him to “just take it easy.” After 3 years of decreasing energy, strength and coordination, David sought a new approach, and tried out the four different types of yoga practices in his neighborhood. The last one he visited, Body & Brain yoga, seemed perfectly suited for David and his PD.
“The key for me is Body & Brain’s focus on the brain and mindfulness. When I connect my brain and body in the exercises in class, I feel like my brain is replenishing neurotransmitters and energy, and this carries over to my activities of daily living. Tasks which were difficult are now easy for me including shaving, buttoning, and lacing shoes. Class makes focus, attention and concentration our natural and automatic skills. I still trip occasionally but I no longer fall.”
Research shows that many types of exercise can help PD symptoms and may even be neuroprotective.1 But many people with PD are understandably fearful about exercises that require coordination or stamina. Body & Brain yoga is gentle and adaptable to all fitness levels. David feels that the most beneficial feature for people with PD may be the breath training incorporated into all aspects of the practice. PD often weakens and restricts chest and airway muscles essential to respiration, leading to shallow breathing, poor lung function and a high risk for pneumonia. Coordinating deep chest breathing and abdominal breathing with movements, and practicing this breathing during meditation, relaxation and daily life, strengthens and maintains these muscles, helping prevent pulmonary complications while enhancing the mind-body connection.
This continual focus on connecting mind and body is unique to Body & Brain yoga and ideal for a neurologic disease that interferes with the brain’s signals to the body. Stretching, strengthening and shaking exercises and the moving meditations of Ki Gong and Tai Chi all help David’s stiff joints and muscles respond more smoothly after class each day. His power, flexibility and comfort with his body have progressively increased over time. The practice’s emphasis on building core strength has resulted in better posture and balance. Tapping and self-massage of acupressure points boosts David’s blood and energy circulation, and helps him feel and connect to his whole body, with more confidence to accept and move through his significant joint and muscle pain. This new outlook on the pain experience led David to regain trust in his body, and even to return to jogging and the tennis court.
Other elements of Body & Brain practice are similarly well-suited for PD. Cognitive rigidity may occur in people with PD; the Brain Education techniques incorporated into classes have helped David decrease episodes of brain “freeze” (what he calls the sudden inability to remember words). As his center manager observes, David is much more open and flexible both mentally and physically now. He sleeps better, lessening fatigue and mood issues, and uses his breathing practice as a frequent reminder of all the positives in his life.
David is also benefiting from Belly Button Healing. Recent studies show that dopamine producing cells in the enteric nervous system, the gut’s ‘brain,’ are also lost in PD, leading to distressing gastrointestinal problems.2 David’s intestinal symptoms have improved significantly since he started Belly Button Healing. His neurologist told him he should write a book!
Over the past three years of regularly attending Body & Brain yoga classes and workshops, David’s energy has grown and he is working for his vision, which is to reach older people with chronic diseases who are “suffering needlessly without the benefit of Body & Brain yoga.” He teaches classes at local senior centers and has developed a gentle weekly class just for this population at our yoga center. For the members of his monthly PD support group fearful of exercise, David exemplifies the rewards our mind-body practice imparts to all facets of health. Bravo David!
1. Bega D , Gonzalez-Latapi P, Zadikoff C, Simuni T. A review of the clinical evidence for complementary and alternative therapies in Parkinson's disease. Curr Treat Options Neurol. 2014 Oct;16(10):314. doi: 10.1007/s11940-014-0314-5.
2. Mukherjee A , Biswas A , Das SK. Gut dysfunction in Parkinson's disease.
World J Gastroenterol. 2016 Jul 7;22(25):5742-52. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v22.i25.5742.