For people with Parkinson's disease, yoga has been shown to increase flexibility and posture, ease stiffness, and possibly improve balance, says Roy Alcalay, MD, assistant professor at Columbia University and medical adviser with the Parkinson's Disease Foundation.
To find out which poses are best and why, we spoke with Kaitlyn P. Roland, PhD, a yoga teacher at the Parkingo Wellness Society (http://parkingo.org) in Victoria, BC, Canada. A postdoctoral fellow for the Institute on Aging & Lifelong Health at the University of Victoria, Dr. Roland studies the specific care and rehabilitative needs of people with Parkinson's disease.
Before starting any exercise program, including yoga, clear it with your doctor. To find a teacher who can guide you through the poses suggested here, visit Yoga Alliance at http://bit.ly/YA-FindATeacher or YogaDopa at http://bit.ly/Yogadopa-Teacher.
POSTURE: THREE-PART BREATH
How it helps: “Slowing down and deepening the breath calms the nervous system and is especially good for anxiety and depression,” says Dr. Roland.
Getting started: Sit comfortably on a chair with your feet flat on the floor directly under your knees and your hands resting on your knees. Notice your natural breathing. Place your hands on your abdomen and take a few deep breaths. Feel your stomach soften with each exhale. Move your hands to your rib cage and inhale to expand the ribs. Exhale and allow the ribs to soften and the stomach to relax. Repeat three times, then place one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest. Inhale into the abdomen, then the ribs, then the chest. Exhale, allowing your chest to relax, the ribs to come in, and the stomach to soften. Repeat three or more times.
POSTURE: MOUNTAIN POSE
How it helps: “Stooping is common in Parkinson's disease due to changes in muscle strength and balance. Becoming more aware of posture and strengthening the muscles that hold the body upright improve walking, balance, and even digestion,” says Dr. Roland.
Getting started: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your back to a wall. If your heels don't easily reach the wall, keep them slightly forward. As you improve, move the heels toward the wall. Press into your toes and heels at once to engage the arches of your feet. Draw your belly button in toward your spine and slightly up toward your ribs. Gently press the backs of your hips, lower ribs, shoulder blades, and head into the wall. Keep your head in line with your spine and tuck your chin slightly.
POSTURE: MODIFIED BOAT POSE
How it helps: “Strengthening the back and stomach muscles makes it easier to move from one place to another, such as getting out of bed or standing up from a chair,” says Dr. Roland.
Getting started: Sit on the front edge of a straight-backed chair and put your hands on the sides of the chair. Draw your belly button in and slightly up toward your ribs. Lean back and engage your stomach muscles. Raise your right arm while lifting your right foot off the floor. Repeat on the other side, then lift both arms and feet together.
POSTURE: WARRIOR 1 VARIATION
How it helps: “This pose is great for balance and opening the chest,” explains Dr. Roland. “It should make you feel like you have a strong foundation and an open heart.”
Getting started: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Step your right foot back about three feet, keeping feet and hips facing forward, and bend your front knee slightly. Inhale and lift your arms overhead, then exhale and move them behind you as if to place them in a back pocket. Press into your feet and engage your leg muscles. Press your hands into your hips and draw your elbows together behind you. Lift your chest and gaze toward where the wall meets the ceiling. Inhale and step your right foot forward and bring your arms back to your sides. Step your left foot back and repeat on the opposite side.
POSTURE: RELAXATION POSE
How it helps: “Relaxing helps calm the nervous system,” says Dr. Roland. “For those who have tremors, placing light weights on the body can help create a deeper relaxation in those muscles. Fully resting is just as important as mindful exercise and movement.”
Getting started: Lie on your back with your lower legs resting on a chair or extended over a cushion under your knees to create a natural curve in the lower back. Rest your hands on the floor by your side and let your feet relax naturally. Place eye bags or light sandbag weights—or ask your instructor to place them—on your thighs, ankles, upper arms, and wrists. (You can make your own sandbag weights with uncooked grains of rice in a Ziploc bag.) Close your eyes and let your whole body release into the floor. Allow your lips to part and your eyes to relax. Rest for three to five minutes.