Therapeutic Yoga for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias
The ancient art of yoga has become more and more popular in recent years as a way to harmonize the mind and the body; a way to enhance our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well being. But what if the mind is unwell? Can yoga help restore harmony and balance to a mind ravaged by Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementias? There has been little exploration of the benefits of yoga for these types of disorders. There is growing evidence, however, that the therapeutic application of yoga has a number of benefits in other areas, which can be applied to enhance the quality of life of those suffering from dementia.
Dementia is a broad classification used to identify a number of symptoms that are a result of deterioration in cognitive function. Areas affected include decision making, rational thought, judgment, memory, personality changes, verbal communication, and spatial orientation. The word dementia comes from Latin de meaning “apart” and mentis meaning “mind”. This is quite fitting, as a person with dementia’s mind appears to fall apart, the person appears to disappear. There is some beautiful work, including Naomi Feil’s Validation Therapy, which shows that the person is still in there waiting to be set free.
The numbers and statistics surrounding dementia are staggering. Worldwide, there are now an estimated 24 million people living with some form of this debilitating disorder. The prevalence of dementia has increased over the past few decades, either because of greater awareness and more accurate diagnosis or because increased longevity has created a larger population of elderly, which is the age group most commonly affected.
Causes of dementia include:
- Diseases that cause degeneration or loss of nerve cells in the brain such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.
- Diseases that affect blood vessels, such as stroke, which can cause a disorder known as multi-infarct dementia.
- Toxic reactions, like excessive alcohol or drug use.
- Nutritional deficiencies, like vitamin B12 and folate deficiency.
- Infections that affect the brain and spinal cord, such as AIDS dementia complex and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
- Certain types of hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid in the brain that can result from developmental abnormalities, infections, injury, or brain tumors.
- Head injury — either a single severe head injury or longer term smaller injuries, like in boxers.
- Illnesses other than in the brain, such as kidney, liver, and lung diseases, can all lead to dementia.
- Lewy body disease and Pick’s disease.
- Alzheimer’s disease causes 50% to 60% of all dementias.
Currently, available treatments have little or no efficacy in slowing the progression for most forms of dementia. Tranquilizers and sedatives can ease agitation, anxiety, and aggression, however, many have side effects that impact the patient’s quality of life in other ways. This growing epidemic is calling for a better way to address the symptoms, a non-pharmacological way to manage behaviors, a holistic method of enhancing quality of life.
Yoga is an effective treatment for many of the challenges that face those afflicted with dementia. It has been shown to improve mental, social, spiritual and physical wellbeing. Asana (postures), meditation, and pranayama (breathwork) all have well-documented benefits for a variety of ailments – both mental and physical. Music, chanting, laughing and movement help to improve mood and create a connection. The communal nature of yoga practice fosters a deep sense of connection between participants. They are happier, more grounded and exhibit less anxiety. Most importantly, they are able to harmonize the fractured portions of the “self” and experience love.
Asana or physical postures of yoga were created to prepare the body for meditation. Asana for dementia should be adaptable, nonstressful and presented in a way that is fun and joyful. Familiar music should be incorporated as well as laughter, singing and reminiscing. The environment should be quiet and conducive to the practice. Minimize disruptions and skillfully decide on proper levels of lighting and sound. Discuss Ahimsa and monitor participants closely for comfort and enjoyment. You may want to set the intention of the practice to address the higher level developmental needs of love, belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization, and connection.
Meditation reduces stress by lowering harmful stress chemicals in the body. It also increases mindfulness, which enhances emotional stability and feelings of peace and calm. The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation and the University of Pennsylvania conducted a groundbreaking study known as the Kirtan Kriya Study, which identified the effects of meditation on memory. The results of this study prove that daily meditation not only improves memory, it also enhances cognitive function. Brain scan images showed increased blood flow to the thalamus and prefrontal cortex (areas known for their impact on memory and emotion). This study also showed many other aspects of mental function to improve with meditation. “For the first time, we are seeing scientific evidence that meditation enables the brain to actually strengthen itself, and battle the processes working to weaken it,” said Andrew Newberg, assistant professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
Meditation can be achieved by practicing:
- Guided Imagery and Visualization
- Deep Breathing
- Mindfulness Practices
Meditation and stress management has many other positive benefits as well, such as an improved sense of well being, heart function, reduced anxiety, better sleep, relief from chronic pain, and even increased longevity.
Prana, or breath, is the life force. Pranayama is the control of the life force. Many of us go through our lives paying little attention to the breath. We breathe in a shallow manner, only filling the top of our lungs. We let stress, anger and emotion inhibit the natural flow of the breath. Retention becomes a regular coping technique; strain becomes the norm. Yoga teaches us to let the breath flow, to let the life force fill us; expanding and contracting naturally; diving deep beneath the surface of our emotional waves until we find that peaceful, steady place beneath the surface. Physiologically, the breath is nourishing, it brings much needed blood and oxygen to the brain and other organs. It regulates the autonomic, sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It brings peace to the mind and calmness to the heart.
Some pranayama beneficial for dementia include:
- Diaphragmatic Breathing – guide the participant to place their hands on the balloon of the belly. Gently feel the rise and fall of the belly.
- Chandra Bedhana or left nostril breathing – guide the participant to place right thumb on right nostril. Breathe in and out through the left nostril. Chandra Bedhana is settling, cooling, relaxing. It is good for anxiety and agitation. You may want to place a warm blanket on the recipient’s lap.
- Thich Nhat Hahn’s meditation – guide the participant to notice the breath at the nostrils. Repeat “As I breathe in, I know I’m breathing in. As I breathe out, I know I’m breathing out.” Monitor the individual or group’s energy level and adjust rhythm, tone of voice and space between the mantra accordingly.
Experts are just beginning to understand the effects of yoga on the mind, but it is evident that yoga can help immensely. Yoga helps us connect in a way we never thought possible. It helps us bring comfort and relief from pain. It relieves stress, provides a safe environment which emphasizes trust and comfort, and offers opportunities for joy and play. “People who suffer from dementia are still here, still reachable, at a depth of memory and presence beyond the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. We are learning to listen and listening to learn. They are still able to love and to be loved. “
“Can Meditation Reverse Memory Loss?”
WebMD Health News.
“The Energetic Effects of Pranayama”
Sifton, Carol Bowlby.
Aspen Publishers (February 1998).
Some additional Resources: