Atlanta, GA,
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Yoga Program Expands Amid Growing Popularity And Clear Mind-Body Benefits

Group, community and new one-on-one yoga classes help staff, patients and caregivers pause, gain serenity and body awareness.

For many people, the practice of yoga offers dedicated time to unplug and reconnect with oneself.

“The stress and anxiety of living in a 24/7 society can take a mental and physical toll,” explains Lauren Tudor, CTRS, recreational therapist and yoga instructor at Shepherd Center. “People crave the calm and quiet that yoga can offer.”

The practice of yoga trains the relaxation response through the encouragement of breathing and the practice of focusing the mind. This is a well-understood physiological response in the nervous system.

Since it started in 2003, Shepherd Center’s yoga program has grown rapidly, boosted by support from Rebecca Washburn, manager of the hospital’s ProMotion Fitness Center and Beyond Therapy® program. Shepherd now offers more than a dozen weekly classes at ProMotion that are designed for staff, military personnel and people with spinal cord or brain injury, stroke and multiple sclerosis, as well as community outings to Atlanta Hot Yoga studio. New, one-on-one sessions allow instructors to meet patients where they are and tailor techniques.

“Our patients have experienced a great deal of trauma, and many have lost control of their bodies,” Tudor says. “We can adapt the practice to a specific patient’s needs.”

Yoga combines physical poses, controlled breathing and mind training or meditation. Props, such as foam blocks, soft cotton bolsters, straps and cloth sandbags can give patients optimal support and comfort during practice.

Practicing yoga has many benefits, including:

  • Greater flexibility, core stability and balance
  • Improved fitness, range of motion and muscle strength
  • Stress relief
  • Improved blood pressure and lower heart rate
  • A more positive outlook

One important goal is to allow someone to achieve better mind-body awareness so they can get better at sensing subtle changes or sensations in their body. This is especially important as neurological injury, by its very nature, can disrupt the mind-body connection. Part of rehabilitation is about re-establishing that relationship.

Interest in yoga has soared. In fact, the number of Americans who practice yoga has nearly doubled in the past decade, according to a 2015 survey from the National Institutes of Health.

Today, yoga is being widely used as a complementary and integrated therapy in many healthcare settings, including those for people recovering from spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, multiple sclerosis and other neurological conditions.

Tudor and Anneke Bender, MPT, a physical therapist and certified yoga teacher at Shepherd Center, both trained with Matthew Sanford, a yoga instructor who has complete paraplegia. He teaches adaptive yoga techniques for people living with disabilities. Tudor and Bender say the benefits of yoga in a rehabilitative care setting are profound.

“One student was very contracted at her knees and hips and had not been able to lie on her stomach,” Bender recalls. “But shortly into our session, she [was able to] spend the rest of the class on her stomach and said she felt this energy in her legs that she hadn’t felt for years.”

After a few months of yoga practice, another patient was able to regain a sense of balance that helped her steady herself and stay upright when her kids would jump on her lap.

Other benefits Tudor has seen through the program include immediate improvements in the ability to slow and lengthen breathing in patients on a ventilator, reduced phantom limb pain in amputees, and a general easing of anxiety, tensions and pain. These benefits help patients perform their physical therapy exercises, regain balance and transfer, for example from a bed to a chair.

Shepherd Center therapists plan to begin collecting data to examine how yoga can help improve therapy and overall health outcomes.

“Even when someone has lost movement or sensation, or when there are cognitive declines, yoga can help patients feel connected to their body, even if through an intention to move,” Bender says. “It’s an important part of healing that patients, family members or caregivers can do together.”

There is also the added peer support that comes with taking a class with others. As always, it’s important for patients to talk with their care team about yoga, and ideally find an instructor who has experience working with people who have sustained traumatic injuries or who have conditions that limit their function or range of motion.

For more information about group or one-on-one yoga sessions, please email Lauren Tudor.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.