Mobility, mindfulness and mood: exploring the potential benefits of yoga

Health & Fitness

Author: Johanna Stiefler JohnsonPublished: 8 September 2022

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A rear view of Dr Indu Subramanian doing a yoga pose in a sunny field

We speak to Dr Indu Subramanian (pictured above), a movement disorder neurologist based in Los Angeles, US, about how yoga may support people with Parkinson’s disease – from managing stress to improving balance

How does yoga help people with Parkinson’s disease?

Yoga can have tremendous effects on the mind and body. It is thought to be very powerful for the autonomic nervous system, which can help manage stress. The stretches and poses are helpful for posture, which makes yoga good for ageing populations in general. For anyone who is spending too much time on Zoom, getting up and doing some simple yoga poses to break up the sedentary day can be very therapeutic.

Yoga may help with mood, especially anxiety and depression, and sleep – which are all non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s. Meditation may help cognition, and breathwork may help non-motor problems as well as autonomic nervous system issues that are exacerbated in Parkinson’s disease.

The poses may improve balance, stretch tight body parts and allow for better range of motion, while the flow between poses is thought to improve cardiovascular fitness. Poses are modifiable, so the practitioner can increase or decrease the complexity of the pose to adapt to changing issues in the body – day-to-day or year-to-year.

When did you first learn about the benefits of yoga for Parkinson’s disease symptoms?

I have culturally been interested in Ayurveda, a holistic medicine system, for a long time. As a child, I grew up with many practices that were in this system of health – even though my mother is a western trained family medicine doctor. Yoga fits into this system, which has been around for thousands of years and focuses on thinking about a person or patient in a holistic way. After the birth of my first child, I gravitated toward yoga to help my own sense of balance and wellbeing.

There are a lot of folks doing yoga here in California, US, and I see the benefits in my patients as well. As a physician who works largely with men who are veterans, it always amazes me to see the most seemingly unlikely patients thrive with yoga. A Latinx plumber in my practice really enjoyed yoga and looked better, both physically and mentally, after diving into his practice – which he started after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Dr Indu Subramanian does an airplane yoga pose on a street

Dr Indu Subramanian has practiced yoga for two decades.

How can people with Parkinson’s add yoga into their exercise regime?

Yoga can be incorporated a few days a week, with other more cardio-heavy regimens such as running, fast walking or cycling. It can be very restorative for muscles on days in between heavier cardio workouts.

There are many styles that may benefit people with Parkinson’s disease. Hatha yoga and Iyengar yoga, which uses a lot of props and modifications, are good places to start. For people interested in starting yoga, I recommend Mind Body Solutions with Matthew Sanford.

What advice do you have for people interested in starting yoga?

Yoga in popular media has been sold as an extreme commercialised version of reality. There is no need for fancy memberships to an exclusive studio or expensive yoga outfits. It is not only for ballerina dancers who can contort into increasingly crazy shapes.

This year, for example, I mostly studied under a teacher who is a wheelchair user and teaches very accessible, powerful poses to people who are of all shapes, sizes and abilities. It has been an amazing exploration.

Keep trying. Maybe shift the time of day that you practise. Try a new style or teacher. There is a tremendous range of poses and styles. Don’t get discouraged.

This article was first published in April 2021.

Need to know

Dr Indu Subramanian is a movement disorder neurologist and director of a Veterans Affairs Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education and Clinical Centre in Los Angeles, US. Originally from Canada, Subramanian completed her fellowship training in Movement Disorders at the UCLA School of Medicine, US. She is drawn to integrative treatment for Parkinson’s disease, with a special interest in mind-body approaches and alternative systems of healthcare. Mother to three boys, she enjoys yoga, photography, world travel and jazz.

Read more:

Parkinson’s disease and loneliness: “people are hungry for some connection”

Yoga may reduce Parkinson’s anxiety and depression, study finds

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