We are sometimes asked “What is the best exercise for a person living with Parkinson’s disease?” The answer – the exercise you will actually do. For some people, it is yoga. I first met Renee Le Verrier several years ago at a Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease conference in Providence, RI. I was amazed at how she transformed the room while leading a chair yoga class for people living with Parkinson’s disease. We are grateful to Renee for sharing the impact that yoga has had on her life and her Parkinson’s disease.
Renee Le Verrier, RYT, is a certified yoga teacher and author of Yoga for Movement Disorders: Rebuilding Strength, Balance and Flexibility for Parkinson’s and Dystonia (book and DVD). She teaches at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Parkinson’s Yoga and Lecture Series, Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital’s stroke rehabilitation program. Renee also collaborates with the MA Chapter APDA and TriYoga Boston in offering a five-day certificate program for yoga teachers who want to learn how to work with students with Parkinson’s. For more information, please visit http://www.limyoga.com/.
PUW Event Director
I stumbled in to my first yoga class, literally, when I was in my 30s. I didn’t notice the half-step up and I entered the quiet space with an aayee, whoop, and oof. Embarrassed, I tugged my hoodie around my reddening face. Though my left side moved slowly and felt uncoordinated – the result of a childhood stroke – I’d never quite gotten used to the limp, the stumbles.
When I snuck a peek around the room, I discovered that no one seemed bothered by my noisy, clumsy interruption. A peacefulness lingered in the room.
The teacher led us through poses and I felt my body absorb both the movement and the calm around me. Sore muscles softened, my breathing had a rhythm to it. Even a bit of the residual hypertonia and imbalance in my left arm and leg released. I felt taller.
The biggest surprise came as I realized that my mind relaxed, too. All that brain chatter – mental to-do lists, a review of the morning’s appointments in my head, automatic self-correcting (those should’ves and could’ves, as in: should’ve seen that step) – hushed. Even the song lyric that had replayed itself over and over for the past three days was gone. Yoga had led my mind from planning ahead, thinking back, judging myself. It guided me to the only moment that there really is: the one happening now. I felt free.
My Parkinson’s diagnosis occurred after a decade of practicing yoga. I’d started to stumble because my right side moved slowly and felt uncoordinated. Thoughts rushed into my brain: What will happen? How will I manage? Can someone please help me open this jar? I was 42 and I was running out of sides.
Parkinson’s provided plenty of opportunities to stumble and to worry about the future and yearn for what was. Yoga helped ease the physical struggles by making me stronger and more flexible. It also calmed the emotional struggles because it continued to guide me along the path to the center within me.
I decided to spread the good word about yoga for Parkinson’s while I was attending physical therapy sessions early after my diagnosis. In that six-week program, I worked with therapists in the pool, socialized with fellow patients during lunch, attended counseling sessions. There was a bit of almost everything therapeutic. The one thing missing, I commented at one point, was yoga. As engaging as the rehab was, no one session linked body and mind, providing that freeing sense of well-being, of being in the moment.
I still remember the look the OT gave me when I said that. She gazed across the table, raised her eyebrows and with a dramatic blink, tilted her head and stared wide-eyed at me. What she said without saying a word was: What are you going to do about that? Can you think of anyone who knows yoga and knows what it’s like to live inside a movement disorder body? Um, I remember thinking. Me? Within the week, I had registered for teacher training. That was seven years, countless classes, and a published book ago.
When I stumbled into that first yoga class, I stumbled into something bigger than an approach to movement. I discovered that I do have another side. In addition to my left and my right, there is a healing, centering side: my inside.
Renee Le Verrier