A small pilot study that investigated yoga’s potential benefits in chronic stroke survivors in those who suffered a stroke longer than 6 months earlier has revealed that group yoga can improve balance in stroke survivors who no longer receive rehabilitative care. The study was published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke.

Leading researcher Arlene Schmid, Ph.D., O.T.R., a rehabilitation research scientist at Roudebush Veterans Administration-Medical Center and Indiana University’s Department of Occupational Therapy in Indianapolis, said: “For people with chronic stroke, something like yoga in a group environment is cost effective and appears to improve motor function and balance.”

The study involved 47 participants, of which around three-quarters were male veterans. The oldest participant was in his 90s and all participants had to be able to stand unaided at the start of the study. Participants were split into three different groups. The first group attended a twice-weekly yoga group for eight weeks, whilst the second group consisted of a twice-a-week “yoga-plus” group that had a relaxation recording to use at least three times a week and the control group receiving no rehabilitation.

The yoga classes, taught by a registered yoga therapist, included modified yoga postures, relaxation, and meditation that were progressively challenging with time.

At the end of the study, the team noted that participants in the yoga or yoga-plus group had a substantial improvement in their ability to balance compared with those in the control group. The team also noted improved scores in the participant’s independence and quality of life, and participants’ reported to be less afraid of falling. After suffering a stroke, patients frequently suffer balance problems for long periods of time, which are linked to a higher risk of falling and greater disability.

Schmid, who is also an assistant professor of occupational therapy at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis and as an investigator at the Regenstrief Institute commented: “For chronic stroke patients, even if they remain disabled, natural recovery and acute rehabilitation therapy typically ends after six months, or maybe a year.”

She noted that improvements after the six-month window can take considerably longer, adding, “but we know for a fact that the brain still can change. The problem is the healthcare system is not necessarily willing to pay for that change. The study demonstrated that with some assistance, even chronic stroke patients with significant paralysis on one side can manage to do modified yoga poses.”

The researchers believe that yoga’s combination of postures, breathing and meditation could be produce different effects compared with traditional exercise due to its more therapeutic nature.

Schmid continued:

“However, stroke patients looking for such help might have a hard time finding qualified yoga therapists to work with. Some occupational and physical therapists are integrating yoga into their practice, even though there’s scant evidence at this point to support its effectiveness.”

Due to the small amount of participants and lack of diversity, the study only allows limited conclusions. The number of participants did not reveal any differences between the yoga and control groups and the researchers hope to perform a larger study in the near future.

The team also noted that participant in the yoga groups showed an improvements in mindset, which was evident by their talks of walking through a grocery store instead of using an assistive scooter, being able to take a shower and feeling inspired to visit friends.

Schmid explained: “It has to do with the confidence of being more mobile.” Even though it took some time to achieve, “these were very meaningful changes in life for people.”

Written by Petra Rattue