Stroke survivors may amply benefit from group yoga, which helps them to regain balance and maintain independence, claims a new study.
In a small pilot study, researchers tested the potential benefits of yoga among chronic stroke survivors - those whose stroke occurred more than six months earlier.
"For people with chronic stroke, something like yoga in a group environment is cost effective and appears to improve motor function and balance," Arlene Schmid, lead researcher of the study from Indiana University, said.
The study's 47 participants, about three-quarters of them male veterans, were divided into three groups - twice-weekly group yoga for eight weeks, a "yoga-plus" group, which met twice weekly and had a relaxation recording to use at least three times a week, and a usual medical care group that did no rehabilitation.
The yoga classes, taught by a registered yoga therapist, included modified yoga postures, relaxation, and meditation. Classes grew more challenging each week.
Compared with patients in the usual-care group, those who completed yoga or yoga-plus, significantly improved their balance.
According to the researchers, balance problems frequently last long after a person suffers a stroke, and are related to greater disability and a higher risk of falls.
Furthermore, survivors in the yoga groups had improved scores for independence and quality of life and were less afraid of falling.
"For chronic stroke patients, even if they remain disabled, natural recovery and acute rehabilitation therapy typically ends after six months, or maybe a year," Schmid said.
Improvements after the six-month window can take longer to occur, she said, "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 oldest patient in the study was in his 90s. All participants had to be able to stand on their own at the study's outset.
The researchers said that yoga may be more therapeutic than traditional exercise because the combination of postures, breathing and meditation may produce different effects than simple exercise.
"However, stroke patients looking for such help might have a hard time finding qualified yoga therapists to work with," Schmid said.
"Some occupational and physical therapists are integrating yoga into their practice, even though there's scant evidence at this point to support its effectiveness," he added.
The study has been published in the journal Stroke.