When I hear the latest health claim, I’m skeptical. I’ve studied research methods enough to know that anyone can study anything that “proves” something. And the media will take the best sound bite and run with it. Unfortunately it often takes a degree (or two) to be able to weed through the hype and truly understand research, to dissect it, and it know what the results really mean. When it comes down to researching something I’m interested in, I’m willing to weed through the stats and the lingo. With two close family members diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I jumped on the chance to read this study* on the effect of yoga and Parkinson’s.
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive neurological disorder that affects many Americans. The symptoms affect the nervous system in many ways including decreasing balance, altering gait and other movement patterns and altering posture. These symptoms slowly worsen over time. Chances are you, too, know someone who has received this diagnosis or maybe you have been diagnosed yourself. The benefits of exercise in people with PD have been studied and programs are being developed and implemented all over the country to help improve or delay the decline in these areas.
A recent pilot study examined the effects of yoga in people with PD. Pilot studies are initial studies done with a small sample size to get a sense for whether or not there is merit to the researchers’ hypotheses. This also means the data collected isn’t very strong – but it does mean that bigger – and better – studies will likely be performed. For a more “Eastern” approach like yoga this is a good thing that our world of “Western” medicine is seeking to validate it. The more we can prove through research that yoga is a useful tool for overall health and for treating disease, the more available, justifiable, and – someday, possibly – covered by our health insurance it might become.
Colgrove’s study members participated in a 12-week Iyengar based Hatha yoga program that included 60-minute sessions twice a week. Therapeutic modifications were implemented for the group and participants were encouraged to honor their own limitations and needs. (Something we all should be doing with our practice no matter what our overall health needs are…) The yoga practice included breathing and relaxation techniques, stretching and strengthening poses in lying, seated and standing positions – standard for a yoga class but not necessarily standard for a regular exercise class. I liked this aspect of the study. So often people think of yoga just as physical postures but there are such great benefits to meditation and pranayama (breath work). Look for further discussion on the research on those topics here in the future on our evoblog.
The study found that participants in the yoga group had bigger improvements in motor functions including speech, facial expression, posture, bradykinesia (slow movements), gait and tremors than those who did not attend yoga sessions. There were also more improvements seen in balance and flexibility.
This is just the beginning. More research needs to be performed for us to truly understand what types of yoga are most effective for people with PD, how frequent participation should be, and at what ability level yoga is most effective. But the exciting point is that this is even being looked at! And, perhaps most importantly, there were no adverse effects from participating in this yoga class. This study’s design was not strong. Pilot studies usually aren’t. Their job is to see if it’s worth performing a bigger and better study to really delve deeper. And it is worth it!
Here at Evolution we have many options for people with PD to include yoga in their lives. Our physical therapists work one on one as part of a physical therapy session to address individual needs for anyone – including those with neurological disorders like PD. We have many classes on the schedule that take a therapeutic angle to address posture, balance, breath, and movement patterns including three Yoga Therapeutics classes. And several of our 6-week series, though not only geared towards people with PD, are extremely relevant such as Yoga for a Healthy Back, Chair Yoga.
Alison Aiken PT, DPT, CYT
*Colgrove Y, Sharma N, Kluding P, Potter D, Imming K, VandeHoef J, et al. Effect of Yoga on motor function in people with Parkinson’s Disease: A randomized, controlled pilot study. J Yoga Phys Ther 2012;2:1-11.

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