A therapeutic yoga technique for Alzheimer’s disease
By Dharma Singh Khalsa
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease characterized by memory loss and impaired cognition, a decline in ability to perform activities of daily living, and changes in personality and behavior. The increasing severity of symptoms over time may ultimately leave people completely dependent on others for care.
A bit of good news for the more than 50 million people worldwide who have Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, as well as for those who wish to prevent or slow its development: Research suggests that several easy-to-do lifestyle and yoga-based techniques can help. One promising therapeutic yoga method is called kirtan kriya (KK). This 12-minute practice, which combines meditation, vocalization, and touch (finger mudras), can confer significant physical and mental benefits when practiced daily for 8 weeks. Peer-reviewed medical journals, including the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and International Psychogeriatrics, have begun to publish studies on yogic techniques such as KK.
The medical literature documents how practicing KK can enhance activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, upregulate positive genes, downregulate inflammatory genes, and increase telomerase (the enzyme that slows cell aging). Other benefits of chanting meditations like KK include increased blood flow to the posterior cingulate gyrus, a brain region involved with memory retrieval.
Kristen Manuel, who is an IAYT-certified yoga therapist, says she teaches KK because it has a calming effect. Manuel perfected her KK practice while studying to become a Certified Brain Longevity Specialist through the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation. Here are Manuel’s instructions on how to do KK:
“First, sit in a comfortable position. Second, chant sa, ta, na, ma while rhythmically touching the thumb to the index finger, to the middle finger, then to the ring finger and the little finger, in that order,” she explains; the mudra continues through the whole 12 minutes of the practice. “The chant is vocalized out loud for 2 minutes,” she continues, “then whispered for 2 minutes,” and then said silently for 4 minutes. “The chant is then whispered for 2 minutes; then said again for 2 minutes out loud. Throughout the practice, visualize light coming in through the crown of the head and out of the third eye,” the space just above and between the eyebrows.
As Michelle Kronenberg, C-IAYT, relates, “Even simple conscious breathing helps people stay energized . . . and anchored in their bodies. The breath,” Kronenberg continues, “can bring you back to the present moment, and foster the felt sense of calm.” Marilyn Peppers-Citizen, C-IAYT, adds, “Meditation aids in activating the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing Alzheimer’s risk factors such as [persistently elevated] heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety.”
Additional yogic support for healthy aging
Other vital ways to maintain mental edge, focus, and brain health include physical exercise. “The World Health Organization suggests that adults require at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity weekly,” Kronenberg says. According to Manuel, “Adult exercise routines should include cardiovascular exercise, strength and flexibility training, or yoga. Exercise strengthens the systems of our body, including the immune system, while helping promote mental health and positive moods.”
Additionally, Manuel notes, “Nutrition is another key to maintaining brain and body health.” Some yoga therapists have additional training that enables them to work with this aspect of a yoga-informed lifestyle, and they might recommend an eating plan based on fruits and vegetables, with plenty of leafy greens, healthy fats, and limited sugars and processed foods.
Yoga therapy techniques show promise for reducing multiple risk factors that contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Those caring for people with these conditions may benefit from even simple deep breathing, too, so there’s no reason not to give it a try!
Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, is Founding President and Medical Director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, Prevention Editor of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, and author of the books Brain Longevity and Meditation as Medicine.
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