Yoga Instruction Expands Minds, Function of Veteran Stroke Victims

by U.S. Medicine

September 6, 2012

By Steve Lewis

While clinicians who work directly with patients may serve the healthcare needs of veterans, those who do behind-the-scenes research also play a critical role.

A good example is Arlene A. Schmid, PhD, OTR, who teaches at Indiana University but has been working with VA for more than eight years exploring the benefits of yoga on stroke victims.

Arlene A. Schmid, PhD, OTR

It began, Schmid says, by being in “the right place at the right time.” Her mentor when studying for her PhD was working at VA, she notes.

Schmid and her colleagues at the Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis recently reported that stroke victims using yoga showed significant progress in static and dynamic balance, compared with controls, who underwent traditional rehab. The study was published online in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association.

Though her day-to-day work doesn’t involve being on the floor at the VAMC, Schmid says she has a strong connection with veterans.

“My dad was a veteran,” she explains, “And this gives me the opportunity to work hands-on with patients – which I love and which I much prefer to working just with data. I like walking down the halls and seeing and chatting with them – it makes me feel like I’m based in the clinic with people who have served.”

This most recent research grew out of a long personal involvement with yoga, Schmid explains. She previously lived in Hawaii, where she began to practice yoga personally. She then introduced its use, along with other Eastern influences, into her occupational therapy practice. When she went back for her PhD, she says, the therapeutic use of yoga was “always in the back of my head.”

One of her research colleagues had started to do work with yoga and cancer, “So this led to our working with older adults and then specifically to people with strokes,” Schmid explains. “I’ve always talked about being holistic – treating the mind and the body – so for me this was personally very exciting.” Her research was funded through a grant from the VA’s Quality Enhancement Research Initiative (QUERI).

Yoga Instruction Expands Minds, Function of Veteran Stroke Victims

Advantages for Veterans

Does having served in the military better prepare veterans to meet the challenges of recovering from a stroke? While she does not have scientific proof that this is the case, “Anecdotally, I would say yes,” notes Schmid. In this particular research program, which treated veterans who had had a stroke at least six months prior to being enrolled as a participant, almost all of them were older men. 

“A couple of them were World War II veterans; they have a very different mindset than those who are coming back from the current wars,” she shares. For example, they were asked their opinions about yoga both before and after the program; before it began, many said it was “for girls” or “for hippies.”

“After we were done, they said everyone should do yoga,” says Schmid. “It was really fun for us to get them to think differently.”

The eight-week program was fairly simple, she recounts: There was a lot of focus on breathing and eye movement. Each day, another element was added, and the exercises became more complex.

What was most important, she says, is, “From the very first day, we wanted everyone to feel successful. We didn’t want to lose someone on the first day.” Eventually, she notes, the participants progressed to standing with or without support, being able to do knee bends while standing, in addition to prolonged lunges. Finally, they undertook more complex bends and stretches.

“I think that’s really important after stroke – to be confident you can do something without falling or losing your balance,” says Schmid. “And for stroke victims, self-esteem, that psycho-social piece, may be even more important than physical improvement – even more than we would have guessed.” The patients talked about going out with friends, walking around the corner to the grocery store, even taking shower for the first time since their stroke, she recalls.

Schmid says she probably got as much out of the program as the veterans.

“I got to really know their stories; I felt I was able to connect so well with them because they were veterans,” she says. “And it was really exciting for us to watch them go from people who had no social outlet to meeting fellow veterans, asking each other where they served and in what branch and then starting to go out to lunch together or helping each other around the house.”

Most exciting for her, perhaps, was bringing veterans together years after they had served. “If you just put any older adults in a room together, they would not feel so connected,” she observes. “Some of them work or volunteer at the VA. One had been at another of our studies, and this has helped change life patterns.”

Schmid says she has applied for additional funding, in order to do a much larger study. She also is being guided by comments from the participants. “They said they wished they had learned about yoga when they first had their stroke, so we just finished a small study involving veterans who were still in the hospital,” she notes.

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