Some pairings go together naturally: dark chocolate and red wine; my dog and her tennis ball; Starsky and Hutch. But when did ‘gentle’ and ‘Parkinson’s’ become synonymous?
Look at the local gym or online. Classes, books, DVDs list Gentle and Yoga alongside Parkinson’s and a litany of other disorders, as though slowing down the pace and setting a chair on the mat is an elixir for anyone with a neurological condition.
Meet Joe. He’s a marathoner. At 60, he started competing in ultra marathons. He has lived with Parkinson’s for more than 30 years.
Chris is a cyclist. He recently rode a century – 100 miles in one day. His route was a particularly hilly one. Doug rode across Alaska solo this summer. Both live with PD; both are in their 50s.
Pam dances, David runs. We walk, swim, and hike. Speaking of hiking, the Parkinson’s Association of Ireland is hosting a fundraising trip for their members: they’ll be climbing Kilimanjaro in September 2011. These are not people who take life gently.
Research on Exercise
While we’re not all athletes, studies show that at least some exercise is beneficial. Actually, more than just some is turning out to be better for activating brain cells. At a session at the World Parkinson Congress in Glasgow, Dr. Giselle Petzinger discussed the findings of a recent study conducted at the University of Southern CA. She and her fellow researchers identified several parameters that make exercise additionally beneficial to people with Parkinson’s. These included intensity, difficulty and complexity.
Problem-solving – such as learning a new motor skill – falls into the the latter of the parameters. Good old sweat covers the first, which contributes to neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to repattern, grow new cells. Gentle was not mentioned.
Research on Yoga
In another study conducted by the Parkinson’s Disease & Movement Disorder Society of India, Dr. Maria Barretto and her fellow researchers concluded that “the mobility, emotional well-being and quality of daily life significantly improved with the practice of Iyengar yoga” as compared to the control group of matched age and gender.
Conducted over a six-year period, asana practice included Adho Mukha Svanasana and Sarvangasana. Downward-facing dog and shoulder stand may not be the most challenging poses for the advanced yogi, but they’re certainly not among the gentler of the asanas.
Nor is ‘Inversion’ the magic word to be uttered with Yoga and Movement Disorders. A person with PD may have symptoms that affect the autonomic system which can wreak havoc on blood pressure and trigger anxiety attacks when the head falls below the heart. However, choosing a half dog over the full down-dog isn’t unique to a Parkinson’s patient.
Age and Parkinson’s
Gentle has its place. Sometimes the elderly move with less ease and some forms of arthritis respond better to a tender approach to movement. But not everyone in their 70s on up has arthritis, and certainly not everyone with Parkinson’s is in the aging category. According to the Cleveland Clinic, 10,000 new PD cases diagnosed annually are under the age of 50. Some of us are older. Many of us aren’t. A great number of us are not the grandparents; we’re parents with young children.
The faces of those with movement disorders are old, young, active, sedentary, strong, struggling, fierce, fighting, and at peace. In teaching yoga for Parkinson’s, if there is any one approach to embrace it should be that of knowledge, understanding the disease and its many and varied symptoms. This, rather than a blanket ‘gentle’ approach, will better ensure that students are increasingly gaining body awareness, that the choice of where and when to modify best suits the individual’s needs, that class can be safe and challenging at the same time.
Do Not Go Gentle
Gentle has its place, but not as a constant in yoga classes for students with movement disorders just as it is not a constant in a yoga class for students without movement disorders. Dylan Thomas’s poem suggests we fight against the dying of the light. Let light fall on the false, forced, frightening notion that Gentle, Yoga and Parkinson’s necessarily belong in the same sentence.