A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to talk with a Parkinson’s Disease support group. Talk about a humbling experience.
I was invited to give this presentation by one of my yoga students, Merrilee, who was diagnosed with PD 17 years ago and has always used exercise as a way of staying mobile and healthy despite the disease. She started practicing yoga around six months ago, and since then she has reported improved strength, balance, posture and breathing. For people with PD, those are all a pretty big deal. The same results have been reproduced by scientific studies, so while I can’t claim yoga is a cure for PD, I’m certain that even a simple practice can make a major positive impact on a patient’s quality of life.
In the week leading up to the talk, I felt a lot of anxiety about it. Sure, Merrilee has seen tons of great benefits from her practice, but she’s also one of the most physically active people I know. There’s no guarantee that anyone else would have the same results. Furthermore, she’s been practicing at least twice a week for months now, and all I could offer this support group was a one-hour presentation. There’s no way I could give them all the benefits of the practice in a single session.
After one of my studio classes one day, I mentioned my nerves about the presentation to a student named Mike. Mike is what I would call a compassionate spiritual person, and he does a lot of volunteer work including visiting a men’s prison to lead discussion groups. Based on his experience in the prison system, he gave me this advice: Imagine you walk past a great big hole in the ground, and you see a person standing at the bottom. The hole is too deep for them to climb out on their own, and they don’t have a ladder. You can stand at the top and talk down to them, telling them how they should get out. You can hop down with them and give them a boost, but then you might not be able to get out yourself. Or you can get close to the edge and extend your hand. You don’t have to have all the answers or even be an expert. You just have to extend your hand.
I tried to keep that advice in mind during the presentation. I offered what I know how to do: We had a gentle asana practice emphasizing connection to the breath and compassion toward the self. A lot of people had feedback for me. Several meditators and yogis in the group offered their experiences as examples of the power of mindful practice. A few people gave suggestions on how I could tailor a class especially for people with Parkinson’s or other movement disorders. Once again, I’m pretty sure I learned more than anyone else.