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.
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.