Parkinson's Yoga Program Is A Hit

The elephant in the room evaporates when Whitney Chapman leads her weekly Yoga for

Parkinson’s class at Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center. Here, her devoted group of diagnosed students learns to work with their unpredictable bodies and engages in a sense of empowerment and community.

This unique program is taking off nationwide, as more people recognize that being present isn’t just good Zen advice, it’s good medical and mental health advice, as well. YogaCity NYC’s Sharon Watts sat down with Whitney to learn more.

Sharon Watts: You have been part of this program development from the beginning, and will be helping national network partners to develop yoga for Parkinson’s classes at their sites. What is your background, and what is your basic approach?

Whitney Chapman: I have always had an affinity for working with special needs populations. I can’t teach to a disease, but I can teach to a person living with it. While I have an understanding of what is happening physiologically in the body, my aim is to use the principles and practice of yoga to help people become more comfortable within their own bodies—to understand the experience of what may be happening, and to be present with, and accepting of, what is.

SW: Is there one basic premise that you always teach from?

WC: I always ask “How are we today?” Yoga teaches everyone how to be present in the moment. That gives them permission to just be how they are, now.

SW: What are some symptoms that you address with them?

WC: At the start of class, we have a public “check-in,” where they say their names and describe how they feel. This gets them to exercise vocal projection, which is good, because the disease takes over the vocal chords and causes them to speak very quietly without realizing it.

I also help them to differentiate between what may be a tremor, or simply part of the aging process. Their ability to recreate a position might include a delay due to a triggered tremor or a medication kicking in.

When freezing occurs—a temporary, involuntary inability to move—it is usually in the transition between poses. I allow the student time and, within a few moments, they are able to respond. Occasionally, with their permission, I will assist the movement of their arm or body, but often just the stimulation of touch is all that’s needed.

Facial masking is the inability to express something like a smile, without realizing it. So we do the lion's pose, with roaring sounds, facial exercises like smiling and frowning, and we talk and laugh at times during class. I have learned to see more expression in their eyes, rather than relying on the subtle shifts that we normally see in students’ faces to read how they are doing.

SW: What other types of poses do you use?

WC: My classes use the whole breadth of yoga diversity, combining therapeutic yoga techniques, traditional asanas, chair variations, standing modifications, and floor work—all while breathing, of course! It is so important for them to learn how to get up and down from the floor. I use different strategies and reassure them not to be afraid if they are on the ground. It’s OK, it’s going to happen to all of us. I try to make it playful: “Just pretend you’re looking for something.”

SW: How else does this program benefit its participants?

WC: Parkinson’s patients often isolate themselves and fall into depression. Here, an incredible community is formed among them. Feelings, laughter, medical information—all is shared. No one looks at anyone else funny. Yet no one has exactly the same symptoms. A delicate balance of trust that we learn to navigate is built up. It is only natural to imagine one’s physical trajectory into the disease, so we talk about it, which brings us back to the importance of being in the present moment, and working with that.

Many people in my classes have never done yoga before, and they were not gym rats before they come. It’s wonderful to see them expanding and taking other classes that offer physical and communal activity.

SW: Clearly you have a gift of instilling trust and hope. How has this program that you were so instrumental in developing affected you?

WC: I personally feel such gratitude, because they have taught me so much more than I’ve taught them.

SW: How might another interested yoga instructor get involved?

WC: Certified yoga instructors can contact the National Parkinson Foundation’s Allied Team Training for Parkinson training program. You can also contact me directly at the Jewish Community Center for more info.

SW: Finally, how did yoga and Parkinson’s first intersect?

WC: The JCC partnered up with the NYU Langone Parkinson's and Movement Disorders in 2007 as part of the Edmond J. Safra Parkinson’s Wellness Program on the Upper West Side.

Noting our success, the National Parkinson Foundation adapted our program nationally in its approach to include adaptive yoga in addressing Parkinson’s disease symptoms. Basically the premise is this: The more that people with Parkinson’s move, the better their chances of delaying the onset of symptoms.

—Sharon Watts; for more of Sharon's work, click here.

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