Yoga for people living with dementia

By Robyn Lewis

For more than 8 years I have provided group seated yoga practices in residential elder-care and day-respite as well as younger-onset dementia-care settings. Although dementia begins with deterioration of mental functions, the condition has clear effects in all aspects of the self. When taught in an accessible, flexible, invitational, and trauma-informed way, I’ve found yoga to be effective, empowering, and enjoyable for those in elder-care, dementia-care, and end-of-life settings.

Dementia vs. yoga

Dementia is a syndrome, usually chronic or progressive, that leads to deterioration in cognitive function (i.e., the ability to process thoughts) beyond what might be expected from the usual consequences of aging. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, which is an umbrella term for a number of diseases that cause cognitive decline and eventually death. There is currently no cure for dementia. However, a 1-year randomized control trial suggested that mind-body exercise like yoga improves cognitive functioning and assists in improving and maintaining functional status.

Yoga may also affect cognitive functioning through improved sleep, mood, and neural connectivity. According to a study focusing on the psychological benefits of yoga for older adults, the practice has the potential to

  • increase the ability to maintain activities of daily living;
  • increase self-efficacy for maintaining activities of daily living;
  • reduce levels of stress, anxiety, anger, and depression;
  • increase self-control over thoughts and emotions;
  • improve sleep quality;
  • reduce levels of pain; and
  • provide an opportunity for self-reflection and inquiry.

For people with limited movement, yoga may focus less on physical aspects of the practice and more on the breath, mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation. In the facilities where I teach, staff and families are often surprised at the level of engagement, interaction, and enjoyment the yoga participants experience. Yoga practices are holistic, person-centered, and support the well-being of all aspects of the self, meeting those living with dementia wherever they are.

This post is adapted from an article in the Spring 2023 issue of Yoga Therapy Today magazine.

Robyn Lewis, E-RYT 500, is a registered yoga therapist with Yoga Australia. In 2020, Robyn was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to explore yoga for cognitive stimulation for people with dementia.

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