Following the recent release of Yoga for Dementia, we asked author Tania Plahay a few questions about her work as a yoga teacher for people with dementia. Her book is based on the findings of a pilot therapeutic programme Tania ran for people with dementia in care homes.
What led you to become a yoga teacher and how did you become interested in running yoga sessions for older people in care?
Throughout my life I have benefited from the simple practices of yoga, for example, it helped me deal with the death of my father when I was 21 and many other of life’s ups and downs. After practicing for over 10 years I decided to train to be a yoga teacher as I was keen to share these simple techniques with others.
For a while before my father passed away he had lived in a care home. I remember visiting him there and seeing the residents just sitting in their chairs, not really doing anything, or engaging with others. This made me feel very sad and inspired me to work with older people in care.
What are the benefits of yoga for people living with dementia?
Dementia is not one condition but rather a collection of symptoms associated with the loss of memory and other thinking skills and will affect people differently. However dementia does have some common symptoms which yoga can help with. I’ve outlined a few of these below:
- Cognitive decline. Yoga and meditation exercises have been shown to be better than some standard memory exercises in improving mental functioning. For example, meditation can result in improvements in brain grey matter that is involved in learning and memory, regulating emotions, sense of self, and having perspective.
- Living with dementia can bring with it stress and anxiety. Yogic breathing exercises can help deal with these feelings, by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and the “relaxation response”.
- It is estimated that up to 40% of people living with Alzheimer’s Disease also have depression, and yoga has been shown to help manage the symptoms of depression.
- Dementia often results in people loosing a sense of their location in space – known as spatial awareness. Yoga exercises can help improve both spatial awareness, and also our proprioception, which is our sense of the relative position of one’s own body parts and strength of effort being employed in movement.
- Loneliness and a lack of social relationships has been linked to risk of dementia. Group yoga classes can provide a safe non-judgmental space for people to do activities together and can therefore help form social bonds.
- Yoga is a holistic practice, in that it helps with the mind, body and emotional life. Many people living with dementia may have other health issues, and therefore practicing yoga can be beneficial on many levels.
Are there any disadvantages to using yoga with people with dementia?
Obviously there could be potential disadvantages to using yoga with people living with dementia if the tools and techniques of yoga were not used appropriately, or adapted for this group. For example, a too strong physical practice might be inappropriate for someone living with dementia, particularly if they had other health issues. Practices such as guided relaxations or breathing exercises might not be appropriate at certain times of day, or if clients were already sleepy, or feeling disoriented. My book includes a whole chapter about running yoga-based sessions for people living with dementia, which includes lots of advice and things to consider.
Do carers need special training to run yoga sessions with people with dementia?
Of course, it is always best to have appropriate training in yoga. However, many people already working with those living with dementia will have developed transferable skills, and with appropriate guidelines and self-practice could introduce yoga based activities.
With this in mind my book contains comprehensive information on things carers and family members need to consider when looking to introduce yoga-based activities. However, if further training is desired I am happy to offer bespoke training packages to care homes and individuals.
What do you mostly find challenging when teaching yoga to people with dementia? And rewarding?
People living with dementia will have good and bad days, just like anyone else. In care settings I have experienced clients shouting and being angry, which can be easy to believe is directed at you. However, this is all part of the learning experience and trying to put ourselves in the clients’ shoes, talking to others who know the client, and choosing how to respond can help us become better and more compassionate teachers.
The most rewarding experiences I’ve had are the small moments when you can see that an individual or a group really gets into the practices, this could be the first time they can follow along a sequence, or they sing along with one of the mantras. The smile on their faces, or the look of calm when they come out of a deep relaxation is priceless.
Lastly, what do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I would love readers to be left with a sense of hope. A sense that it is never too late to try new things, to form new bonds with ourselves, and those we love and care for. That there are always opportunities to make special moments together, it might just be about a glance or a smile, or sitting peacefully reading to someone or listening to a yoga nidra. In the practice of yoga and meditation we can learn how to just be, without the need for words or expectations, to go within and find the light inside us which is free from all suffering and sorrow.
Use DWB discount code when buying online on our website and get 10% off. Offer valid only for Dementia Action Week 21-27 May.