Parkinson’s Disease is a troubling degenerative disorder affecting the way that we move, think, and feel.
Symptoms show up gradually over many years. While doctors still don’t understand its cause, research shows that people with the disorder don’t have enough of the biochemical dopamine.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘reward’ chemical because of its involvement in the brain’s pleasure response, dopamine plays an important part in automatic movement. This includes all the movements that we make in everyday life without really thinking too much about them.
For instance, when we’re thirsty we reach for a glass, and fill it with water. However, a lot of the time our minds are elsewhere. We are running on auto-pilot, and yet the glass still gets filled, and our thirst quenched.
While Parkinson’s Disease is not fatal itself, disease complications are serious. If you have the disorder you will already know that it’s important to have regular medical check-ups and to receive ongoing information, care and support.
Treatment and support options include medications, deep brain stimulation, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, and relaxation methods.
What is mindfulness?
While many continue to think of mindfulness as just another type of relaxation there is really much more to it.
Mindfulness is an ever-evolving practice of maintaining an intentional state of awareness of our thoughts, emotions, our bodies, and experiences moment-to-moment, and returning attention in a gentle, non-judgemental way when it wanders.
Ways that mindfulness can bring ease to the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease
Meditation to calm the mind
Research shows that Parkinson’s Disease, or its cause, alters the brain’s biochemistry. With these changes a normally cheery person can find themselves feeling agitated or depressed. These mind states can stress the body. For instance, when we panic, the body swings into survival mode. The heart beats faster, breathing is shallower, and many more physical changes happen to help us survive the worrying or even catastrophic thought.
Daily mindfulness meditation helps settle the mind when it’s been besieged by ‘run away’ thinking of this kind.
Find a quiet spot to sit, or lie. With eyes gently closed focus your mind on how the breath feels at your nose. Sometimes people overthink this bit. You don’t have to concentrate too hard!
This simple and quick exercise may be helpful to get you started.
For only a few seconds, gently hold your breath and notice, no breath. Once you’ve been aware of holding your breath, breathe normally again.
Now, bring your attention to the sensation of breathing in and breathing out – different of course from holding your breath!
If you find thoughts happen – it’s not unusual – just say to yourself ‘thinking’ and come back to the breath.
Use a timer and continue at first for 2-5 minutes. Find ways of remembering to do this every day, and as your daily practice evolves the length of time can be increased up to 15 minutes.
Mindful walking for concentration and steadiness
Mindful walking builds calm, keeps us in the present and helps us to wind down uncomfortable, stressful thinking. This movement practice may even help you to walk with a little more steadiness.
The focus of mindful walking is on simply moving one foot after the other. Remember learning to walk? Our toddler determination and lots of trial and error eventually got us upright, and we no longer think twice about getting about. Walking became automatic. However, often the mind gets distracted and goes on auto-pilot when we’re walking.
This mindfulness practice returns us to that practice of intense concentration we used as toddlers. Mindful walking involves focusing on each and every step without thinking about anything else.
Find a stretch of room at home
Halls are great! Take about six steps. Bring attention to how it feels to lean into one side of the body to balance as the back foot lifts. Experience with the intensity of a beginner how the foot lowers to the ground. After those first six steps, turn around and repeat.
Of course the mind may get distracted or even start saying things like “What’s the point of all this? Let’s think about the weekend instead.” Each time this happens, just as you did with the sitting meditation, gently guide the mind back to walking.
Begin by doing this gentle practice every day for just a few minutes until you get accustomed to it. If you’re feeling steady you may find that you can build up to 8-10 minutes. It’s important not to push yourself physically. In mindfulness even though we are bringing attention to the body, we are really working the mind.
Walking mindfulness can be done anywhere. There are a lot more distractions outdoors even in the backyard, and certainly in more public places like at the beach or in a park. So factor that in. You will need to really work a little harder with your concentration in these locations.
Yoga is another way to practise mindfulness. The most suitable yoga for people experiencing Parkinson’s Disease is either gentle floor-based restorative yoga or modified Yin yoga.
What is restorative yoga?
A restorative yoga sequence typically involves about six positions or poses, supported by special yoga props like bolsters. These help the body to relax deeply while still receiving the benefits of stretching, twisting, and contracting in safe ways.
What is Yin yoga?
Yin yoga is a slow-paced, somewhat meditative practice in which you hold the postures a little longer than in a standard Hatha yoga class. Yin yoga can be practised while sitting in a chair.
The postures mainly work the lower part of the body – the hips, pelvis, inner thighs, and lower spine. This style of yoga is designed to increase circulation and to bring some ease to muscular and connective tissue tension.
If you have Parkinson’s Disease and have not tried yoga before, a private yoga session is a great way to start. Be sure to share the day-to-day challenges that you have with Parkinson’s Disease or any concerns that you have about doing yoga. In this way your teacher can modify the postures if necessary for your safety, wellbeing and enjoyment.
The guidelines in this article are general and are not in any way meant to replace other medical or health support. If in doubt consult your healthcare provider or doctor before proceeding.
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