Fresh Hot Yoga Science: Yoga + Mindfulness for Parkinson’s Disease

Video of the audience at a chair yoga demonstration I did on April 7, 2019, as part of the Parkinson’s Symposium at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

A study published April 8 in JAMA Neurology found evidence supporting something every yoga practitioner already knows: yoga is good for easing the symptoms of anxiety and depression — in addition to its physical benefits.

(Here is the study. Too complicated? Here is a Reuters news article summarizing the findings).

But hey, we’ll take it. I’m grateful any time we receive more news of the scientific evidence behind yoga’s benefits — which, if you’re unaware, there is a lot of.

The context for this study was Parkinson’s Disease. The researchers conducted a randomized clinical trial of 138 patients with Parkinson’s. One group did yoga, breathing exercises and mindfulness meditation, and the other did a conventional stretching and resistance training routine.

The groups experienced similar beneficial results in terms of mobility and the motor symptoms associated with Parkinson’s Disease, but the yoga group had the added benefit of easing psychological distress, promoting spiritual well-being and boosting health-related quality of life.

Parkinson’s Disease has physical and mental symptoms, and both are related to low levels or missing dopamine in the brain. Physical symptoms include tremor, bradykinesia (slow movements), limb rigidity, and gait and balance problems. Mental symptoms include apathy, depression and sleep disorders.

The main popular and well-studied physical/occupational therapy program for Parkinson’s Disease works to counteract the disease’s slowing, weakening and motion “freezing” effects. They focus on paying attention to the body as it makes small movements — like buttoning a shirt — and pushing the body to take big movements — like wide steps and lunges.

Other longstanding practices like yoga, tai chi, boxing/martial arts — even dancing — turn out to have many of these same characteristics, and are a popular and accessible way for people with Parkinson’s Disease to exercise.

So, back to the study. What exactly did the yoga study group do?

“Yoga” can mean a lot of things, so let’s see what this group actually did. As part of the study, they developed a practice they called Mindfulness Yoga for Parkinson’s Disease. The 90-minute hatha yoga practice included:

  • 15 minutes of breathing exercises
  • 15 minutes of warm-up yoga poses
  • 30 minutes of sun salutations
  • 15 minutes of cool-down yoga poses
  • 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation

The group met for the practice once a week for 90 minutes and were encouraged to do a 20-minute home practice twice a week.

A detailed list of the poses, breathing exercises and meditation practices are covered in this supplement to the study (pages 4-7). Breathing exercises included bee breath, lion breath, alternate nostril breathing and cooling breath. Poses included mountain pose, upward salute, standing forward fold, high lunge, plank, knees-chest-chin, cobra and downward-facing dog. Mindfulness practices included body scanning, unattached observation, walking meditation and loving-kindness/compassion.

Before the study began, the planned routine was reviewed by a seven-member clinical panel. They recommended one modification for the Parkinson’s population that I found interesting (page 8). To account for balance instability, practitioners were encouraged to take standing forward fold and standing down dog with legs at hip-distance and the knees bent.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to do that anyway.

Also, I like this little caveat in the Reuters article from
Catherine Justice, an integrative physical therapist at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


“Risk of falls could be quite high in standing or balancing poses or when transitioning to and from the floor,” Justice said. “For this reason, I recommend that anyone with Parkinson’s practice yoga next to a wall, with a sturdy chair positioned within reach with at least 2 feet of the chair on the mat.”

Catherine Justice, integrative physical therapist

That’s part of why I like chair yoga and chair-assisted yoga so much. In my chair-assisted yoga class, we always have a chair somewhere on or near the mat and use it to do down-dogs and planks and just to add an extra sense of safety in standing and balance poses.

Whatever the details, I’m glad for more information about yoga’s benefits for everyone in general and the Parkinson’s population in particular. Thanks for nerding out with me on this deep yoga science dive. Namaste!

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