You don’t have to be a devoted yogi to reap the benefits of the cobra pose. A new study in chronic stroke survivors shows that practicing yoga can improve balance in patients, giving them more confidence to handle day-to-day activities and potentially reducing disability.
The study, published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke, involved 47 stroke survivors, mostly male veterans, who had had their stroke six months prior. The participants were still experiencing balance problems, which can be long-lasting after stroke, arising from injury to central brain structures and impaired senses. Difficulties with balance can lead to a higher risk of falls, further injury and continued disability.
The oldest patient was in his 90s. To qualify for the study, all the participants had to be able to stand on their own.
The patients were divided into three groups: one group participated in twice-weekly sessions of group yoga for eight weeks; another group, the “yoga-plus” group, met twice weekly for yoga and listened to relaxation recordings three times a week; and the control group received usual medical care, without yoga rehabilitation.
The study authors note that natural recovery and focused rehabilitation therapy typically end about six months after a stroke, but patients may still remain disabled. Improvements after the six-month window take longer to occur, “but we know for a fact that the brain still can change,” said lead study author Dr. Arlene Schmid, a rehabilitation research scientist at Roudebush Veterans Administration–Medical Center in Indianapolis, in a statement.
Indeed, the pilot study found that even patients with significant paralysis following stroke were able to do modified yoga poses. The participants were guided by a registered yoga therapist, who helped them learn various modified poses that increased in difficulty week by week. The patients started with simple rotational moves on the mat, such as pigeon pose, and worked toward more challenging poses that required standing, including chair pose. They also used relaxation and meditation techniques.
By the end of the eight weeks, those in the yoga and yoga plus groups had improved their balance on tests of standing, standing with their eyes closed, standing with their feet together and turning around 360 degrees, compared with patients in the control group. What’s more, the yoga participants also reported being less afraid of falling, feeling more independent and enjoying better quality of life.
The researchers say they also noticed improvements in the patients’ mindset. Participants talked about walking through a grocery store, instead of relying on a scooter, for instance, and feeling motivated to visit friends.
That yoga practice was associated with both psychological and physical benefits didn’t surprise the study authors. “I think that yoga was so beneficial because it is complex and includes the mind and the body, and helps to coordinate movements and breathing,” says Dr. Schmid. “Many of the [participants] stated they wished they had done this type of intervention while in the hospital or just earlier in their life. They were able to use the breathing and meditation to help decrease stress.”
Previous research shows that yoga offers relief from a long list of medical ailments by doing just that, alleviating both mind and body from stress: studies have found that yoga may help teens recover from eating disorders; reduce depression, anxiety and irregular heartbeat in heart patients; ease cases of chronic back pain; and even boost success rates with in-vitro fertilization. Regular yoga practice is also associated with improvements in heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hardening of the arteries and inflammation.
The new study suggests that it may also help stroke survivors reduce disability by boosting their coordination and strength, but because of the study’s small size, the researchers acknowledge that larger studies are needed to draw any firm conclusions.