The focus on yoga as a possible therapy for Parkinson’s stems from its gentleness and its emphasis on breathing, strength and flexibility.

MINNEAPOLIS — It took a while to get to downward-facing dog.

First, the eight men and women at a recent class at Tarana Yoga Studio in Minneapolis engaged in “joint warm-ups,” circling their wrists three times in each direction.

Next, they carefully moved into standing poses, keeping a chair at the edge of their yoga mats to steady themselves as needed.

Finally, their bodies limber, they tilted their hips back with hands and feet planted on the mat — expertly performing the challenging downward-facing dog pose.

Minutes ticked. No one flinched.

Held twice a week, the experimental class is part of a study being conducted by the University of Minnesota to find out if yoga is an effective tool for managing Parkinson’s disease.

Corjena Cheung, a professor at the university’s School of Nursing, said she hopes to build on her previous research examining yoga’s effects on osteoarthritis. The results of that study were so promising — increased mobility and less fear of falling — that she wanted to explore whether yoga could help with Parkinson’s, too.

Yoga is one of the leading alternative therapies used by Americans, according to a National Institutes of Health survey on alternative medicine use.

Cheung’s work would add to a growing body of science on the impact of the popular practice on Parkinson’s disease — a degenerative brain disorder involving the nerve cells responsible for voluntary movement. The condition is diagnosed in about 60,000 Americans a year. Tremors, a shuffling walk, muscle stiffness, depression and dementia are among the symptoms.

The focus on yoga as a possible therapy for Parkinson’s stems from its gentleness and its emphasis on breathing, strength and flexibility.

A Kansas University Medical Center study found a visible reduction in tremors and improvement in the steadiness of gait in people who participated in yoga sessions, according to the American Parkinson Disease Association.

In her osteoarthritis and yoga study, Cheung found participants were better able to cope with their symptoms by doing yoga rather than aerobic strength exercises.

For this study, she recruited participants through local support groups for people with Parkinson’s. It was an easy pitch.

“People are very motivated,” she said.

There are 20 people involved in the study. Half were told to make no change in the way they manage their symptoms. The others are doing yoga. Cheung will measure their stress levels by giving them a blood test and checking for the presence of certain stress hormones. She also will examine their motor functions, checking their range of motion, stride length, balance and gait.

Five yoga experts who had experience teaching yoga to people with physical limitations helped design the hourlong classes, which will go on for six months. Cheung said she suspects that by the end of the experiment, the results will show that yoga improves motor function and reduces stress for people with Parkinson’s.

But for now, all she knows for sure is that the participants seem to be enjoying themselves.

“The fact that yoga includes both physical as well as the breathing and relaxation piece, I think that has added benefits for people with Parkinson’s,” she said. “They are suffering from not only the physical limitations. Yoga teaches them how to cope with the disease and work with what they have and build on it.”

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