Yoga therapy’s potential for long-term support of neurological conditions

By Nathalie de Meyenburg

Living with a lifelong neurological condition is a daily effort, both mentally and physically. This reality makes yoga therapy, with its emphasis on creating a relationship between the mind and body, a supportive and potentially long-term therapy. Neurological conditions present challenges that may surpass the reach of conventional therapeutic interventions. Symptoms are varied and unpredictable, ranging from imperceptible to profound, and may include cognitive impairment (often referred to by those experiencing the effects as “brain-fog” or “cotton in my brain”), vision disturbances, chronic pain, muscle weakness and/or spasticity, abnormal sensations (paresthesias), and depression or severe anxiety.

Rather than focusing solely on a symptom or perceiving a progressive neurological disease as something to be “fought,” yoga therapy can provide a personalized self-care resource, with an eye to improving or sustaining day-to-day well-being and quality of life. According to a pilot study on people with Parkinson’s disease, “Yoga appears to improve physiological and non-motor factors that can affect [quality of life] over a relatively short period.” Similarly, a study at Rutger’s University suggests that yoga can help relieve the symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS): “[T]hose who participated were better able to walk for short distances and longer periods of time, had better balance while reaching backwards, fine motor coordination, and were better able to go from sitting to standing. Their quality of life also improved in perceived mental health, concentration, bladder control, walking, and vision, with a decrease in pain and fatigue.”

A client perspective

Potential … lost, and found. For one of my own clients with MS, that is what yoga therapy has meant for her. When I first met her years ago, she was leaning heavily on a cane and appeared to have a shoulder residing somewhere near her ear. Our first session—and others to follow—focused on changing how she used her body so that her cane would be beneficial rather than being tantamount to a crutch. We worked from the ground up, developing a sensory awareness of the relationship between her feet and the ground, using the inhale and exhale to lift and support the torso with each step, keeping her eyes and mental focus directly ahead instead of on the ground, and regaining confidence in using her weaker leg for support. Years later, with regular yoga therapy and her own self-practice, she has regained some strength on the left side of her body. Improved proprioception (the body’s sense of where it is in space) means she is able to stand with closed eyes, and she can walk forward and backward without her cane in cadence with the lifting and lowering of her arms. She is pleased to report that, “I can move my feet independently while seated as well as spread my toes apart. This makes me smile!” Perhaps most telling is that she can once again perform yoga poses she last did many years ago.

Yoga may bring subtle or sometimes dramatic changes into someone’s life, yet it is vital to remember that tangible results—both mental and physical—are possible because of intention and practice. A yoga therapist does not create these changes but can be a catalyst and support for change. As my client affirms, “The fact that Nathalie knows and understands MS has given me added confidence to try the poses and to learn new adaptations. Through her yoga therapy, she is meeting my individual needs.”

Nathalie de Meyenburg, C-IAYT, RTT, LMT, is a yoga therapist specializing in neurological conditions, movement disorders, rehabilitation, and disability. She is the founder of EquiLibrium Yoga Therapy, providing individualized therapy, neuropalliative therapy, and comprehensive therapy programs.