Yoga Improves Balance in Senior Stroke Patients

The Department of Veterans Affairs funded a recently published study conducted by researchers at Indiana University. The pilot study involved 19 men and one woman with an average age of 66. They took part in an hour-long yoga class, twice a week, for eight weeks. The yoga class was taught by a yoga therapist who dramatically modified the poses to meet the veterans’ needs. Our source has been the news release from EurekAlert.

A range of balance items measured by the Berg Balance Scale and Fullerton Advance Balance Scale improved by 17 percent and 34 percent respectively by the end of the program. The lead researcher Arlene A. Schmid, rehabilitation research scientist at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis, also found a measurable gain in confidence the study participants had in their balance.

A score of less than 46 on the Berg Balance Scale indicates a fall risk. Schmid said the participants on average began the study with a score of 40 and then improved to 47, moving them past the fall risk threshold. They also showed significant improvements in endurance based on a seated two-minute step test and a six-minute walk test.

Studies  show that strokes can quadruple the risk of falling and greatly increase the risk of breaking a hip after a fall. An estimated 80 percent of people who have strokes will also have some degree of impaired balance.

The participants performed poses initially while seated in chairs and then progressed to standing poses. Eventually, they all performed poses on the floor, something Schmid considers significant because of a reluctance many older adults have to working on the floor.

Schmid said research into therapeutic uses for yoga is “really taking off,” particularly in mental health fields. Clinically, she has been watching a small trend of occupational therapists and physical therapists also becoming yoga therapists. The yoga performed in the study was modified to the extent that Schmid said it would be very difficult to find a comparable class offered publicly. Such a class should be taught by a yoga therapist who has had additional training in anatomy and physiology and how to work with people with disabilities. Schmid hopes to expand the study so she and her colleagues can explore whether such classes are effective on a larger scale.

Study coauthors are Amanda N. Gerwig and Kristine K. Miller, IUPUI and Roudebush VAMC; Nancy Schalk, Heartland Yoga Community, Indianapolis; Marieke Van Puymbroek, IU Bloomington; Peter Alterburger and Tracy Dierks, IUPUI.

Note: In our local senior center in Bergen County, NJ, the yoga taught is greatly modified, as it has to be to meet group and individual needs. We have almost all women in the group! There is no comparable class taught around here. The advantage is that most seniors keep returning and have been coming for over three years. This means building personal relationships, knowing what they can and cannot do, who needs a little extra push and who needs to be cautioned. There is continuity in practice in addition to a level of trust and comfort. The class also includes modified breathing pranayama practices and  guided meditations, which the seniors really love. So our classes have tended to be 75 minutes and include asana, pranayama, and guided meditation.

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