"It's an exciting thing," says study researcher Arlene Schmid, PhD. "People can improve their balance years after a stroke. They can change their brain and change their body. They are not stuck with what they have."
The study is published in the journal Stroke.
Schmid is a rehabilitation research scientist at Roudebush Veterans Administration-Medical Center and Indiana University in Indianapolis. For the study, her team recruited 47 stroke survivors who'd had strokes more than six months ago. Seventy-five percent of them were male veterans, including veterans of World War II.
They were divided into two groups. Ten received no therapy. The other 37 got a specialized version of yoga developed by a yoga therapist and the research team.
At first, many of the veterans scoffed at the therapy.
"'Yoga is for girls, yoga is for hippies,'" Schmid recalls them telling her. "A stereotypical male veteran's response."
After a couple of sessions, though, and with encouragement from their wives, the veterans came to appreciate yoga and the impact it had on their disabilities.
"It was a hard sell, but by the end they wanted more," Schmid says.
They practiced seated, standing, and floor-based exercises like the pigeon pose and the mountain pose over the eight-week study period. By the end, the yoga group showed significant improvement in balance.
The yoga practice also boosted their confidence and reduced their fear of falling. According to the study, nearly three-quarters of all stroke survivors suffer from falls. Such falls can break bones. They can also be fatal. In addition to physical harm, strokes can also contribute to depression.
Stroke Survivor's Recovery Is Ongoing Years After Stroke
The study sends an important message about the ability of stroke survivors to improve well after their first post-stroke year.
"I get really concerned when patients are told that improvements made after the first three to six months are the extent of the recovery they will see," says Andrea Serdar, PT, NCS, who reviewed the study for WebMD. "That's the old way of thinking, not the new science."
Serdar is a physical therapist who specializes in neurology at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. In her practice, among long-term stroke survivors, she sees similar positive results as those reported in the study.
"I'm not the least bit surprised," she says about the study's results.
Complex, progressively challenging activities such as yoga, Pilates, and tai chi help the brain and the body readjust after a stroke, and, says Serdar, participating in a group improves quality of life.
"The interaction of the class is really beneficial," she says. "There's real camaraderie. They bond rapidly over their shared experiences, and there are benefits regardless of what exercise they do."
More Yoga Therapists Needed
Schmid says that additional studies need to be done to confirm the effectiveness of yoga. She also says that yoga therapy is not commonly available yet.
"I used to live in Hawaii, where yoga is everywhere," she says. "Here in the Midwest, it is harder to come by."
Still, she says, therapists are embracing the idea of using yoga in their clinical practice. She says that there is a lot of discussion among them about how to formalize the practice.
Neurologist Roger Bonomo, MD, who directs the Stroke Center at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, also says that the availability of yoga therapy is limited. But he likes the study and would consider informally recommending yoga for patients with access to a trained therapist.
"It is interesting and worth pursuing on an individual, case-by-case basis," says Bonomo. He was not involved in the research.