Alzheimer's blog

Yoga can help caregivers find inner calm

By Angela Lunde April 3, 2012

As a caregiver educator, yoga student and teacher, I was intrigued by a UCLA research study last month. It concluded that a simple, low-cost yoga program can enhance coping and quality of life for caregivers.

Many of you are family caregivers who are setting aside (if not giving up) your life to care for someone with Alzheimer's or a related dementia. As a result, your health and well-being is at risk.

Caregivers are more than twice as likely as non-caregivers to say the greatest difficulty of caregiving is that it creates or exacerbates their own health problems, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

More than 60 percent of caregivers rate the emotional stress of caregiving as high or very high, and one-third report symptoms of depression. Even if caregivers place their family member in a care facility, many still report high levels of emotional and physical stress.

Dr. Helen Lavretsky, director of the UCLA Late-Life Depression, Stress and Wellness Research Program, stated, "... chronic stress places caregivers at a higher risk for developing depression. On average, the incidence and prevalence of clinical depression in family dementia caregivers approaches 50 percent."

In addition, many caregivers are older themselves — leading to what Dr. Lavretsky calls an "impaired resilience" to stress and an increased rate of cardiovascular disease and mortality.

There are no easy solutions to ease the emotional and physical impact of caregiving and there's never a one-size fits all solution. However, the yoga study may be of interest to some of you who have ever contemplated trying some type of meditation

UCLA researchers recruited 49 caregivers ages 45 to 91, each taking care of a spouse or parent with dementia. The caregivers were randomized into two groups.

One group was taught a brief, 12-minute yogic meditation practice called Kirtan Kriya. This group practiced the meditation every day at the same time for eight weeks. The other group was instructed to relax with their eyes closed and listen to instrumental music for 12 minutes every day at the same time for eight weeks.

At the end of the eight weeks, researchers found that the Kirtan Kriya meditation group showed significantly lower levels of depressive symptoms and greater improvement in mental health as compared to the relaxation group.

Also interesting was that the meditation group had improved results in cognitive functioning. Researchers stated that this may be due to the "brain fitness" aspects of the Kirtan Kriya type of meditation.

So, what is Kirtan Kriya-pronounced Keertun Kreea? It's a type of meditation from the Kundalini yoga tradition which has been practiced for thousands of years. Sometimes called a singing exercise, it involves singing or chanting four specific sounds along with repetitive thumb to finger positions (these positions are called mudras).

Western research has suggested that utilizing the fingertip position in conjunction with the sounds enhances blood flow to particular areas in the motor-sensory part of the brain. Kirtan Kriya also involves visualization, all of which contribute to its overall effect.

Kirtan Kriya is simple and can be a powerful way to meditate. I've done it and it feels joyful to flow effortlessly into a place of quiet and stillness. The Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation has a nice description of how to practice Kirtan Kriya and an audio CD you can order. The website address is http://www.alzheimersprevention.org/kirtan_kriya.htm.

For some, meditation can be a way to transcend suffering and negative emotions and have a more enjoyable life. Strong emotions overwhelm us and we can become trapped in them.

A way out is to meditate and find calm, which is not running from your emotion or struggle, it's simply giving you a way to deal with it. And, you may experience the insight that an emotion is just an emotion, nothing more.

Meditation rewards me with a renewed sense of clarity and the ability to perceive reality beyond the illusions and difficult emotions that can cloud my mind.

Finally, as with all of my posts, take what serves you from this and discard what doesn't.

Inner calm creates outer calm.

The UCLA research report appears in the current online edition of the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

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Apr. 03, 2012