B V. Nayak was barely four years old when one of his legs developed gangrene and had to be amputated. That didn’t stop Nayak, now 74, from leading a normal life. He got an artificial leg, moved from Karnataka to Mumbai for higher studies and worked as a senior executive with RBI till Parkinson’s disease set in about 18 years ago. The trembling associated with the degenerative disorder of the central nervous system slowed movement and made it impossible for him to use his artificial leg.
He still finds life beautiful and meets his friends sometimes. For this bespectacled man, the mantra of life is determination. And it is this daunting will power that sees him through at the Iyengar Yogarshraya, where he vigorously matches steps with other people with Parkinson’s disease. Props such as rope, rod, belt and bolster are his only support, though his driver steps forward occasionally to aid him.
There are 25 others like him, all patients with Parkinson’s trying to improve the quality of their life by doing the toughest of asanas (postures).
Vinod Kumar Behal, a retired Bank of America executive, is among the best yoga students. “I look older than my age, I’m only in my 70s. I live alone for six months in Mumbai and six months with my son in the US.” His motivation? “If others can do it, why not me?”
The credit for scientifically proving that Iyengar yoga improves the quality of life of patients with Parkinson’s goes as much to them as the team of specialists from Light on Yoga Research Trust, Parkinson Society of India, Bombay Hospital Trust and neurologists from the Hinduja and Bombay Hospital. The findings were presented at the First Asian and Oceanian Parkinson's Disease & Movement Disorders Congress in Singapore in October last year. Significantly, of the 200 abstracts submitted from Asia, Australia and New Zealand, this was one of the six best research papers.
Obviously the mood among the investigators is upbeat. Says Dr Rajvi H Mehta, one of the investigators, “As a trained bio-medical researcher, I always wanted to do research on yoga but was always haunted by the question, ‘Are scientific techniques powerful enough to measure the subtle physiological, emotional and intellectual changes brought about by yoga? Are there tools to even measure these changes? Yoga is a holistic subject but scientific research studies tend to study parts to understand the whole.”
This project started when Dr Maria Barretto of the Parkinson Society of India approached Jawahar Bangera, the chairman of the Yoga Trust to organise classes for patients with Parkinson’s disease. It started as a daily two-week programme with 10 sessions of 90 minutes each, with the weekend off. This was followed by a weekly session for over three months to correct patients who were doing the asanas wrong. After that patients were expected to do yoga at home.
The only hurdle now seemed to be the poor health of the patients. “When I first saw them trickle in for the yoga class, my heart missed a beat. They had acute tremors; half of them shuffled their feet while walking, while one of them was literally dragged into the hall by his wife. His entire body was stooped, he could not even look up at the wall,” says Dr Mehta. The person referred to is Geoffrey Mascarenhas.
Their determination was infectious and inspiring. They started sessions with simple asanas like Tadasana and Urdhya Hastasansa using the support of the wall. “It was not easy. The average age of the group was 64 years and they had been suffering from the disease for two to 15 years. It had made their body stiff,” says Dr Mehta.
The change for the better became obvious within weeks. “It was amazing to see the body stabilising and at the end of two weeks, we could see the change in gait and posture,” says Dr Barretto. She mentions a participant who had flown down from Dubai after quitting his job. He improved so dramatically that he eventually resumed work.”
Even while the researchers wait for their data to be published, the patients have moved on to meet life with new self-confidence.