When Parkinson’s Becomes a Meditation

 It Is The Discipline of Yoga That Gives It Power Over Parkinson's

It Is The Discipline of Yoga That Gives It Power Over Parkinson’s

Yoga has become an extremely popular adjunctive therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease. There are a number of studies suggesting that that yoga can improve flexibility, movement, breathing, and mental focus. Yoga classes are springing up everywhere and many of the national and regional PD organizations sponsor programs.

The benefit of yoga won’t surprise anyone who has learned this ancient practice. I do have concerns that many of the PD-focused yoga programs have become somewhat divorced from the underlying principles of disciplined self-mastery.

Hatha yoga, the form of yoga on which PD programs are modeled, is a meditation on the various poses one shapes one’s body into. One doesn’t simply stretch into a position, one focuses completely on the act of moving into and “becoming” the position as one meditates on its ideal form. Westernization of traditional hatha yoga has tended to extract the stretching, flexibility, and balance elements in much the same way we extract vitamins and nutrients into supplements we faithfully swallow in the morning. Context and a natural balance are lost in the process.

One of the reasons I find this to be a troubling trend is that so many individuals who have PD have unwittingly developed a very powerful meditation of their own. Shifting from this unintended meditation to the purposeful yogic form is likely to provide many benefits, not the least of which is some relief from the suffering so many experience because of their PD.

Meditation is essentially directing the mind to a single point of focus. The human mind is a busy place. Our thoughts bubble up and move like an ants in a hill that has been kicked up. With practice, however, we can learn to bring a stillness to our thoughts by concentration on a single point. The point of focus may be the physical pose, a word or phrase, a sound, an image, or something as mundane as the breath. Even the acts of walking or dancing can be meditation so long as the mind is focused intently on the movement. Our chaotic minds can become calm and settled.

 We Can Meditate on the Wrong Things

We Can Meditate on the Wrong Things

Folks with Parkinson’s have inadvertently mastered a less constructive form of mediation that might best be called “symptom focus.” PD has a way of demanding one’s attention. Tremors, dyskinesia, and dystonia are hard to ignore. In fact, they demand attention, all too often to the point of becoming the only thing one can perceive. The problem is that our body is very obliging when it has our attention and is often guilty of intensifying the phenomena under observation. I see this frequently when I call attention to someone’s tremor only to have it magnified because we are observing it.

Notice the feedback loop that can occur here. Pay attention to one of the many annoying phenomena of Parkinson’s and you risk making it not only a single point of focus but an intensified one. I would argue one has then allowed PD to become a meditation. And when I am able to divert this focus, my clients learn something about its impact on how their PD is experienced. This is just the place that the meditative practice of yoga can make a powerful difference in a person’s ability not just to cope with their PD but to transform it for brief periods at least. And as success breeds success, many people are likely to find that they increasingly gain a degree of mastery over what once mastered them.

When yoga becomes a discipline rather than a series of chair exercises a person with PD simply adds to their daily pill regimen, it has the power to transform. Transformation is not a cure but there is a lot to be said for mastery of a difficult life experience.


Dr. Paul

What to Do Between Neurology Appointments

Life is what happens between neurology appointments.

We don’t talk about this much but facts are facts. The best medical treatments for PD can do no more than relieve neurological symptoms. Your medications buy you some time without PD mounting a full assault on your daily life. Without well targeted treatments, that assault would be devastating. Your neurologists can’t cure your disease but can modify its impact on you.

However, your neurologist can’t give you directions for using that time treatment buys you. The quality of life that follows is entirely up to your discretion.

One way to spend the time good treatment buys you is to direct your full attention to that bright future when there will be a cure for Parkinson’s. A cure will come; we all know that. All one has to do is sit and wait, doing nothing more as time passes. Monitor the Internet for the latest breakthroughs, religiously search PubMed, but most importantly, wait patiently and don’t let anything move you from your chair. Life passes you by, of course, but that is just the cost of keeping one’s eye on the future.

Another approach might be to keep one’s eye on the symptoms that are still there rather than being reasonably satisfied that that a significant number are muted. Remind yourself that you have gotten a bum deal, that Life has not been fair, and that you didn’t deserve this. Spend those good moments with a chip on your shoulder and growl in your voice. Life passes you by, of course, but at least you aren’t wasting it on groundless optimism.

Another, perhaps better way to use that time your neurologist buys you is to focus on those precious minutes. Make a decision to use them wisely and completely. Talk with family and friends about how you can dip a toe in the stream of life again, then do your best to wade back in. Think about those things that make your life uniquely yours, those things that give it quality. Be aware that the symptoms will come back and that the disease will become worse over time then resolve not to dwell on either fact. Envision your life as an exception to the rules of Parkinson’s because you are choosing to make it so. Life passes you by, of course, but it will be a life well lived.

Life happens between neurology appointments. The gift that comes from proper treatment is yours to use in whatever way you choose.
Dr. Paul

Gratitude In the Face of Parkinsons

Sun rise at CuaLo
This day, I am grateful for…Foter.com / CC BY-SA

The arrival of a new year brings pressure to change aspects of ourselves we determine need improvement- the infamous New Years Resolution. For a person with PD or their partner, the notion of making a resolution may provoke feelings of pessimism. If the disease gets worse over time, what point is there in resolving anything? What can a resolution of any kind possibly bring when the future is inevitably looks so bleak?

Try a resolution not to see the future as so bleak.

I am not talking about delusionary thinking nor am I urging hopelessly sunny optimism. Neurodegeneration is a fact of life. No amount of resolve to slow, stop, or reverse it will change that. However, the psychological overlay we bring to any chronic illness can be a more disabling factor than neurodegeneration will ever be. When we are disposed to see a bleak future, we are treated to fulfillment of our expectations.

Research has demonstrated that men and women who maintain even a small focus on gratitude weather life challenges better than those who are not able to find gratitude. Gratitude is a subjective sense of well-being that can be developed when it is actively pursued. It is not ignorance of or running from life problems, including PD. Rather it is an active resolve to find one or more things a day brings that one can feel grateful for.

In my coaching practice, I ask my clients to keep a gratitude journal. Sometime during the course of the day, I ask them to write down at least three things they are grateful for. I have yet to meet a person who could not find three tiny things that make them feel better during the course of the day. There are days when this will be a challenge but challenge is not impossibility.

Finding areas of gratitude may be difficult at first, particularly when you have weathered years of frustration with your disease. Early attempts may be as simple as feeling gratitude for being alive so one can attempt to keep a gratitude journal. Or it may mean being grateful for loved ones. My experience is that every body learns to find that little something that has made the day richer, more enjoyable, or even unique. The exercise works, if you do it every day. And it is better that you write it down so you can review past moments of gratitude.

Ultimately, you will observe a journal of possibility in the face of a disease that produces feelings of chronic dread.

Resolve to start your gratitude journal today and let me know if it makes a difference!

Dr. Paul

Dr. Paul Short, Neurocognitive Expert, Behavioral Scientist, and Personal Coach