Even when Alzheimer’s disease makes almost everything unfamiliar, positive quality of life is still within reach. But it takes adaptability and flexibility around the present circumstances and challenges. Luckily, yoga is an excellent practice in flexibility: for the body, the mind, and the spirit. Whereas Alzheimer’s is a disease of disconnection, yoga is a science and practice of connection.
The brain is a plastic, adaptable organ, constantly creating new pathways as it encounters new experiences. How we use the brain determines how it restores and rewires itself. As such, it makes sense to challenge the brain in productive and appropriate ways, even when impaired by cognitive decline. In fact, especially when impaired by cognitive decline, the brain needs special attention and opportunities for exercise.
A student doesn’t need to know or remember anything to practice yoga; it’s about what’s happening in the moment. And if the teacher—or you as a caregiver doing yoga with your loved one—knows how best to communicate with an individual with Alzheimer’s, the experience can be successful and rewarding in many ways. Yoga for Alzheimer’s patients can offer freedom to just be in the moment without the pressures to remember or to fulfill others’ expectations.
The Benefits of Mindfulness and Yoga for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Patients
Yoga for seniors with dementia and Alzheimer’s is three-fold: it’s 1) exercise for the body, 2) exercise for the mind, and 3) a tool for stress reduction. A wide range of wellness benefits can come from gentle yoga classes:
- Relaxation and stress relief to counter anxiety, confusion, and overwhelment
- Opportunities for diverse expression, including non-linguistic expression with the body—similar to movement therapy for seniors
- Understanding through the senses
- Engagement in the moment
- Body awareness, which builds confidence, calm, and balance
- Flexibility and range of motion
- Endurance and cardiovascular exercise, which can bring energy and motivation for more regular physical activity
- Core strength, which can greatly improve balance and mobility
- Balanced mood
- Lots of fun
- Opportunities for socialization and community building around fitness
Some of these benefits can be felt almost immediately while others take longer to settle in. Either way, it’s best for a senior to continue their yoga practice on a regular basis to sustain the benefits over the long-term. Classes designed specifically for aging adults transform some of the barriers that would otherwise make exercise inaccessible. Modifications, appropriate pacing, and creative communication help to bridge certain gaps and challenges in students’ physical and cognitive capacities.
What to Expect from a Yoga Class for Seniors with Alzheimer’s and Dementia
While it’s entirely possible to learn yoga from home, group classes open the door for an immersive experience of both healthy movement and enriching community. It’s always important to start out with a gentle class, especially for someone who is unfamiliar with yoga. Gentle classes tend to be slower paced, leaving a lot of time and space for personal adjustments and modifications. Here are some of the elements you can expect to find in a gentle yoga class for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients:
- Breathing Exercises, or Pranayama. Slowing down to focus all of the attention on breath can be very calming and relaxing. Students may be encouraged to focus on specific physical sensations: the breath moving through the nose or through the throat and the chest expanding and contracting with the lungs. Exercising and improving the flow of breath in the moment is a foundational benefit for a good practice and for overall wellness.
- Physical Postures, or Asanas. Physical yoga exercises work to improve strength, flexibility, balance, and confidence. Poses can be performed sitting in a chair, standing and holding onto the chair for balance, or down on a yoga mat on the floor. Many yoga postures were originally inspired by elements in nature, and class teachers will often bring related imagery to the class. It can help students to imagine that they are mirroring the form of a tree or a bird’s wings or reaching up to pick apples from a tree.
- Relaxation Techniques, Including Shavasana. While all of yoga tends to be a practice in relaxation, classes will often include some dedicated time just for calming the body and mind. This time might include meditation or visualization, such as this guided meditation designed for people with dementia, more attention on the breath and body sensations, or special techniques to develop more constructive relationships with thoughts and feelings.
Yoga is a personal practice. In most cases, teachers will help each student to find their particular expression of a pose and any modifications or adaptations they need to feel comfortable. It’s a great idea to talk to the teacher before class about your aging loved one’s needs and comfort zones, so they know how they can be most helpful. Classes for older adults with Alzheimer’s and dementia are welcoming, both in terms of the exercises and in terms of the social environment. Since each person finds their own unique expression of the poses, there isn’t really a right or wrong way to do things, so judgments and pressures are left at the door.
Finding Opportunities for Yoga for Alzheimer’s in Your Community
Yoga is gaining popularity all around us for good reasons: it’s accessible for people with diverse needs and abilities, and it can help lay a foundation for a thriving lifestyle. You may need to try a few different yoga classes with your aging loved one before you find the perfect fit, but it’s worth it for all of the great benefits. Let’s look at some of the different places in your community where you can look for yoga opportunities.
- Your local senior center may offer yoga classes that are likely gentle and perfect for older adults with various limitations.
- Yoga studios often offer chair classes designed for seniors and others with limited mobility, or gentle classes may be another option if you speak with the teacher first to ensure that the pace and opportunities for adaptations might suit your loved one.
- Social Day Programs sometimes integrate holistic benefits such as yoga and meditation classes that are perfect for participating older adults.
- Together, right at home, you and your aging loved one can practice gentle yoga. This chair practice might be a great place to start.
Getting active is just one part of the wonderful journey of yoga for aging adults. Those with Alzheimer’s and dementia can enjoy these opportunities to engage more completely in the present and with a social group experiencing similar challenges in everyday life. A yoga class may be a way for someone with Alzheimer’s—otherwise isolated by their own mind—to belong to a community.
Find more great resources on our blog, including a guided yoga practice designed for caregivers. Institute on Aging offers programs, services, and other resources to help older adults and caregivers thrive. Contact us to find out how these services might help to brighten your life or that of an aging loved one.