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This is the text of a talk delivered at a PALS meeting in June, 1999 on Yoga and Relaxation in PD by Marie Lennon, a yoga therapist and teacher.

Marie Lennon may be contacted by writing to:
Yoga Therapy Ireland, 20 Auburn Drive, Killiney, Co. Dublin
Telephone/Fax 01 2352120

Reproduced here with the permission of the author

exercise.gif I would like to start by telling you a little bit about what yoga is. The word 'Yoga' comes from the Sanskrit word 'union', or 'to unite' and in this context, it means to unite or integrate the body with the mind and spirit. So when you do something in yoga, you do it with all of these, not just one. Yoga is integration of the whole being, the integration of the body with the mind and spirit.

This integration, this kind of thinking, has always been recognised as being important in the East. In recent times, in our part of the world, there has been a growing awareness amongst scientists and medical people of how the different systems within the body interact, and how the breakdown in co-operation between these systems can lead to illness. We now know that the health of a person not only depends on their physical well-being, but also on the unique mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of that person.

You have to look at the whole body, 'holistically', not just at the muscle and bone, as that's just the outer shell, and there is a lot more. I can give you an example of my understanding of this. As I look around at you all now, you are here in front of me. I can say that because I can see you. Your bodies are here, but if I ask you to take a deep breath, and your mind is off planning tomorrow's dinner or worrying about Johnny's Leaving Cert. results, do I have your full attention? Do I have all of you doing this movement? Of course I don't. You are here in body only, and the rest of you - your mind, your spirit, your energy - is elsewhere. The problem is that, for that breath to be life enhancing on all levels of your being, you must be here. A deep breath or a yoga posture is not yoga until you bring your mind and spirit along with you in the movement. Yoga teaches us to be totally here with whatever we are doing, whether it be a physical movement, or reading a book, or washing the floor.

Why is it so important that all of these elements are working together? If you constantly plug your energy into the past, or into the future -"Oh, I have this illness and...", if you constantly think about it, or if you are constantly worried about the future, then that's where your life force or your energy is. So it is very important not to constantly plug yourself into what has happened in the past or what will happen in the future, but to live in the present moment. In order to self heal, we need to be in the here and now, as it's in the present moment that healing occurs

When I talk about 'healing', I'm not just talking about physical healing. If you have Parkinson's Disease, you have no control over that fact. What you have control over, however, is your attitude to it. The way in which we look at things is the most important force in our lives. There are always two ways of looking at things; we have good days and bad days. I like the story about the Zen Buddhist with one half cup of rice. You can see it as being either half full or half empty! Your response on the one hand is optimistic and upbeat; on the other hand, it may be quite pessimistic. So, you either look at it in terms of "look at what I've lost", and only that, or you look at what you still have, and cherish that. This is where self healing and empowerment come in.

A very good example of that is the actor, Christopher Reeves, who became paralysed as the reseult of a riding accident. Instead of just lying down and saying "that's me done", he put his energy and his money (and money is energy) into speaking out about his condition and into endeavouring to find ways to help himself and others with similar disabilities. He has done an enormous amount of work, and, to me, he looks like a happy man, where another person who is 100% healthy could be miserable over something quite trivial.

When you look at things, the way you look at things, is the most powerful force in your life.

Sometimes our language can tell us profound truths. If a friend greets you, full of sympathy, and holds your hand and asks in a concerned tone of voice how you are, and you say something like "I'm shattered", and you may be saying it without thinking. Your physical body may be here, but your mind, emotions and spirit are tied up in fear. You are literally in bits! A less sympathetic friend might suggest that you have to start to pull yourself together. That is exactly what we must do to empower ourselves; we must pull our spirit back from wherever it is. You can visualise yourself doing this. Think about you out there, worrying about the future, and think about how much of your energy is being expended out there, worrying about that, rather than in here. Consciously give your energy a colour, bring it back into your body. Then, going back to our example: if I ask you to take a deep breath, you do it with maximum awareness, feeling every sensation of that movement.

Yoga unites the mind and spirit, and so, by its nature, it must encompass more than just a set of physical postures. This it does. As well as the physical postures, an important part of yoga is employing breathing techniques, relaxation, and meditation, to help to nurture the emotional body and to calm the mind.

Before I go on to talk to you about yoga therapy, I'll just briefly tell you about my journey in yoga. I sought out yoga originally as a self-help tool, a way of coping with life. I started to go to a weekly yoga class, and soon the quality of my life improved so much that I became completely hooked. I did a two-year teacher training course, and went on to teach. By now I had realised the healing effects of yoga. People coming to my class were constantly telling me how much better they felt.

Now, I knew yoga worked, but I didn't know how. With further learning, I discovered that we are 90% energy and 10% matter. This has been recognised in the East for centuries. Their scientific endeavours have brought them to look inwards, whereas in the West, we look for answers outside of ourselves. In the East, the energy body is scientifically mapped out, and in the Vedic tradition it is called the Chakra system. There are something like 72,000 energy channels in our body. In acupuncture, it is these channels that are used. Again, it is your physical body that benefits, but it is your energy that changes, not your muscles and bones. The practice of yoga brings the energy body into balance, to enable the whole person to come into harmony.

Yoga therapy is the adaptation of yoga to the needs of a certain set of people, people with health problems. Although general yoga classes can often help with minor health problemss, they may be ineffective, possibly even harmful to a person with a chronic illness, unless the yoga teacher knows a little about the medical condition. Yoga therapy tailors yoga to individuals, taking into account not just their physical health, but also their emotional state and their life situation. Despite being specialised, however, yoga therapy retains the basic principles and aims of yoga, and so all aspects of the human being are taken into account. Even though people come because of a problem, they often benefit in larger ways as well. Every yoga therapy session would include a balanced set of practices that calm the mind and body as well as acting on the specific problem.

How would yoga benefit those with Parkinson's Disease? I beleive it would help on several ways. Words that come to mind are 'self-help', 'empowerment'. Your yoga therapist would design a program for you, but you yourself would do the work.

Most of you will have had physiotherapy, and would be aware of the importance of keeping your body supple and strong. With PD, it is vitally important to prevent stiffness setting in. In yoga, the body is taken through its full range of movements. This is very important, especially for the joints of the body. We use our bodies in a habitual way, and usually take the line of least resistance, so that our joints move only in a limited way.

For example, take the hip joint, the ball-and-socket joint. It has a huge range of movement, yet we generally move it forwards and backwards only, e.g., in sitting and walking. It is essential for the integrity of the joints in the body that we use accessory movements as well as the movements we need for our daily round. Otherwise, we run into problems with arthritis etcetera. In the East, arthritis is not as prevalent, as people squat, or sit cross-legged.

In the same way, the hands are rarely put through their full range of movements. We drive, we use our computers. We seldom open our hands out fully, and as a result, as we age, the finger joints become stiff and the hands can become arthritic.

For people who find movement difficult in the first place, all of this is especially important. Yoga therapy uses graded sets of exercises, including very simple ones, so that it should be possible to practise on your own, even after the first lesson, whether you have done yoga before or not.

But you might say to me "I can't do that" or "I can't stand straight" or "my balance is poor". Yoga can be modified to suit everone. You can doan entire yoga programme lying on the floor or in bed. You don't have to have any elaborate equipment. You can incorporate your yoga into your day. For example, while peeling the spuds, you can pause for a moment and do a few wrist exercises or take a few slow breaths. You can do a stretch or two before getting out of bed in the morning and again before going to sleep. You can measure all of it into your day.

In yoga,aligningg and exercising the spine is important. This is also essential for people with PD. If your PD affects you on one side of the body only, then you tend to collapse into that side, and become weaker on that side. If this happens, your yoga teacher will be constantly giving you tips to lift up and open up this side of your body.

The second thing that I think would greatly help with PD is in breathing. People with PD tend to breathe very shallowly (indeed, so does most of the population). Also, you can be prone to chest infections, especially in the later stages of the illness. Therefore it is vitally important to do anything you can to strengthen your lungs and to expand the rib cage so that your lungs can move and expand to their full capacity. There are very specific breathing techniques and yoga postures to help you with that. Some yoga postures also help to keep lungs clear if mucus is a problem.

When we breathe, we can use the conscious or unconscious neural pathways, providing a bridge between mind and body. This is an important bridge because breathing affects the muscles, joints, and also all the internal organs of the body on a ongoing basis. Breathing patterns also closely affect our emotional and mental states, and are nearly always didsturbed in an illness. Improving the breathing patterns enhances health, and can greatly help in the management on may chronic ailments, including PD.

An Example of a Breathing Exercise:

Start by simply watching the breath flow, allowing yourself to float along as you tune into the rhythm of your breathing. When the mind wanders - and it will - bring it back again and again to the breath. Then place your hands on your tummy, and feel the tummy move up in your hands as you inhale. As you exhale, allow the tummy to move back, and feel the entire body relax down.

Continue in this way for a while and then move your hands up to the sides of the ribcage. This time, as you breathe in, the ribs move to the side, pushing your hands away. As you breathe out, feel the ribs fold in and simply let go, let go everywhere.

When you are comfortable with this (it may take a few sessions), move your hands up to just underneath the collarbones, and as you exhale, feel the breastbone lift a little. As you exhale, let the shoulders relax and the entire body spread on to the floor.

After some practice, these three stages are put together so that the inhalation starts in the tummy, rises up to the chest, and then fills up to the top of the chest. Feel the in-breath coming up to the front of the body and the out-breath going down the length of the back.

The rewards of this are quite great. You will find that you have a tool to help you stay calm in situations where you used to become tense and uncomfortable. If you suffer from stress and internal tension, focusing your mind on your breath will lessen these, so that you can move your body and concentrate your mind with greater ease. Sleeping patterns also improve.

A vital part of yoga is relaxation and meditation. The relaxation technique used in yoga is called 'conscious relaxation'. It is a skill - you have to learn it. It's a bit like learning to ride a bike. Once you know it, you can use it any time as needed. First though, you really have to give it a bit of attention and learn it. So it's called conscious relaxation.

For example, you would start with the top of your head, and work all the way down through your body, relaxing everything. You need to ask your body to let go - often, it just lets go, but you need to ask it, as it doesn't just "happen".

When you go to bed tonight, try this conscious relaxation:

Start with the top of your head and move your awareness down all over your body, relaxing each part on turn. For example, as you become aware of the top of your head, ask it to "soften and let go", and then work your way slowly down over the face and the back of the head, down to the neck, shoulders, arms, then the chest, back, abdomen, hips, legs and feet, consciously letting go in each part of your body, saying "soften, let go; soften, let go" all the way down.

Use this relaxation technique throughout your day.If you want to do something and your hand won't move, instead of getting too wrapped up in "this won't work", just see if you can relax around it a little, and not pour all your energy into willing that hand to move. Think of the sun overhead, and take its warmth right through your body - soften, let go. Pull your attention away from the frustration of trying, and just breathe. It's not going to sort your problem, but it gives you space to perhaps try something else. For example, if your hand still won't do as you want, ask for help, or see if you can find another way to do it. Be inventive; be creative, find a way around it, and always relax around it. You may be expending an awful lot of energy where it's not needed. Relax and say: "I'll try again in a few moments". I bet you it will make a difference. Just try it. Relaxation is everything.

I know that with PD, you will all be a different stages of the illness, and what might apply to one may not apply to another. I have worked with people who are wheelchair-bound and bed-bound, and have found that with a little patience you can achieve a lot. All that is needed is the commitment to give it a try. A good sense of humour also helps! There is something in yoga for everyone, and it's very encouraging to see what can be done with the body when you are treating it holistically.

When you are diagnosed with something like PD, you have to trust the medical profession, because they are all you have. What happens, however, when your doctor tells you "well, there's nothing else we can do for you." You can go home any say "that's it", or you can say "now what can I do for myself?We tend to hand over our power to the medical profession when we become ill. We need to trust our doctors, but it is a big mistake to hand over all your power. So instead of waiting for a wonder drug to appear, how about taking responsibility for making life today, on this day, as fulfilling as possible.

I would say "Go for it!" If it's not yoga, it could be some other self-help régime. A somewhat overused phrase in the alternative circle is: "I create my own reality". I don't particularly like that phrase, but it's true to a certain extent. If you take charge and do something for yourself, you can create your own reality.

Yoga does not have a magic formula which will cure your illness, but I believe that it will certainly add to the quality of your life. It will give you a tool which will enable you to help yourself on all levels of your being, so that you can take each day - this day, this present day- for yourself, and make it as fulfilling as possible.

Marie Lennon may be contacted by writing to:
Yoga Therapy Ireland at 20 Auburn Drive, Killiney, Co. Dublin
Telephone/Fax 01 2352120

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