Yoga and wellbeing for people living with dementia

By Janette Junghaus

Earlier this month, I attended a one-day course from Dementia Pathfinders called 'Yoga and Wellbeing for People Living with Dementia'. The session was facilitated by Clare Morris, a Speech & Language therapist, psychotherapist and Yoga Instructor, who is developing therapeutic approaches for people who have cognitive impairment, as well as their caregivers. This includes people who have been diagnosed, or care for someone with dementia.

I joined a small group of participants, all of which had a link to dementia in some way: care professionals, yoga instructors curious to learn how they can adapt their practices and relatives of people with dementia, seeking to find alternative, thoughtful ways to engage with their loved ones.

Yoga is all about using your body to perform movements that work with your body’s limitations whilst building your self-awareness, and I could see how it might deliver therapeutic effects for people living with different forms of dementias

It can offer a sense of wellbeing through social inclusion; encouraging both verbal and non-verbal communication. People have the chance to participate in collective movements, but at their own pace- some can respond to instructions, while others have impaired language skills and can engage with the movements in other ways. 

Yoga creates a relationship between the individual and the therapist; each movement is tailored to the person’s individual abilities and what is comfortable for them. Therefore, it can be practicable regardless of your mobility levels, which is important when considering the varying movement abilities of people living with different forms of dementia. Most crucially, yoga is a union of physical movement and observing yourself, and this encourages a greater sense of self-awareness. The process of focusing only on yourself and concentrating on what is happening in that very moment often visibly reduces both anxiety and disorientation.

Clare also made reference to Jo Manuel’s Seven Precepts of Teaching Yoga as an invaluable approach that anyone could adopt in supporting people dealing with a dementia diagnosis. Whilst Manuel works with children with a wide range of neurological and emotional disabilities, the basis of her teaching has proven equally applicable in working with those affected by dementias. Clare's paper How Yoga Can Promote Therapeutic Relationships provides a useful resource for anyone wishing to explore the subject in more detail.

The day raised thought-provoking questions and ideas, prompting us to consider the experiences and perspectives or people living with different forms of dementia and how this might affect our approaches and practices, 

I came away from the day with an important message: We are not the experts. People with dementia are their own experts, and we must take our lead from them. 

Janette Junghaus is the Project Coordinator for Created Out of Mind. She has a background in languages and a fascination with the human brain. These interests led her to complete a part-time Masters in Neuroscience, Language and Communication at UCL in 2014, where she focused on multilingual language recovery in post-stroke aphasia.