Epilepsy And Yoga: The Scientific Ties And Benefits

Epilepsy And Yoga: The Scientific Ties And Benefits

Almost one in every 100 people in the UK has epilepsy. This can be caused by a brain injury, concussion, or come out of nowhere. Luckily, yoga can be applied to reduce symptoms and improve quality of life for people suffering from epilepsy.

Here Are The Facts…

Epilepsy goes back a really long way. It is mentioned in ancient Indian texts (the Vedas) and the word epilepsy comes from an ancient Greek verb meaning ‘to seize, possess, or afflict.’ The condition is characterised by seizures, or fits, caused by abnormal bursts of electrical impulses in the brain. The severity of seizures varies hugely with the range of symptoms including:

  • Experiencing strange sensations in the body with no loss of consciousness
  • Going into a trance-like state
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Convulsions

Epilepsy can be caused by damage to the brain, like a head injury, stroke or brain tumour, or it can develop for no reason at all. About 5–10% of people will have an unprovoked seizure by the age of 80 and about half of them will go on to have regular seizures. Most epileptics have a good prognosis and respond well to drug therapy but about 30% of cases will have disabling seizures that limit their ability to work despite drug therapy.

Some people find that fits are triggered by stress and psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression are frequently associated with the condition. Many epileptics also report a reduced quality of life as the fits, and fear of fits, interferes with their normal daily life.

Image Credit: Rob Bertholf on Flickr.
Image Credit: Rob Bertholf on Flickr.

Is Yoga Safe For Epileptics?

Historically there have been concerns about the safety of yoga for epileptics but a recent study designed to assess the safety of yoga in adults with poorly controlled epilepsy found that there were no adverse effects during six weeks of yoga classes and home practice — which is great news! The next discovery was even better…

Yoga reduces the impact of epilepsy.

That same study also found that yoga practice reduced seizure frequency, increased feelings of energy and reduced the incidence of seizure worry & perceived stress. 

A review of the literature around yoga and epilepsy published in the Journal of Neuropshychiatry in 2012 also reported some positive results:

  • 6 months of meditation practice reduced the frequency of seizures and changed brainwaves
  • 5 weeks of yoga practice reduced frequency of seizures and improved quality of life
  • 10 weeks of daily practice reduced seizure frequency

Impressive, isn’t it?

How Does It Work?

Image Credit: LaVladina on Flickr.
Image Credit: LaVladina on Flickr.

So the evidence says that yoga really does work — here’s how:

  • Epileptic seizure frequency has been shown to reduce by about 30% with stimulation of the Vagus Nerve and one of the most powerful effects of yoga is stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system through the Vagus Nerve.
  • Stress can be a trigger for seizures and, as we found out last month, yoga is a proven way of helping to manage stress. Controlling your stress levels with regular yoga practice will reduce seizure frequency.
  • Yoga also can also positively influence the reduced quality of life, anxiety and depression that often goes hand in hand with epilepsy. This makes the condition more manageable and reduces it’s impact on daily life.

It all adds up to fewer seizures, better quality of life and less anxiety and depression for epileptic yogis which has to be good.

Over To You

So if yoga is good for you what exactly should you do? First of all, there are a few things that you may want to consider when developing your practice…

  • If you are attending a class, tell your teacher that you have epilepsy and discuss what they should do if you have a fit. Epilepsy is scary for people who don’t know about it and you are the best person to educate those around you on what to expect. Talking to them about how they can help you during and after any seizure will also help to dispel their fears as well as ensure that you are well looked after when you need it. And, of course, we now have evidence that yoga is safe and helpful for epileptics which will reassure your teacher that it is okay for you to be in their class.

    Image Credit: Greg Rakozy on Unsplash.
    Image Credit: Greg Rakozy on Unsplash.

  • If you get an aura (that is a warning that you are about to have a fit) then you can use this to tell you when you shouldn’t be doing your yoga practice. If it happens when you are on your mat it is worth considering lying down in the recovery position so that you are less likely to hurt yourself during a fit.
  • If you have severe seizures where you fall to the ground without warning you may want to consider whether extreme balances and standing poses are wise. Other than the risk of hurting yourself when you fall, there is no reason why you shouldn’t do any poses that you want to. Listen to your body.

After these considerations, the world of yoga is your oyster. How about trying:

  • Meditation — Proven to work and well worth including in your regular practice. You could join a class or try an on line platform like Headspace.com to develop a meditation practice.
  • Prānāyāma — Known to reduce all the physical effects of stress and a must for your routine. Anything from simple deep breathing into your belly to any of the more traditional prānāyāmas like Nādī Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing.
  • Āsana — Any style of physical practice will be beneficial with none being shown to be better than the others. Try concentrating on moving with your breath and use ujjāyī breathing, or victorious breath, if you can. This brings the added benefits of prānāyāma to your āsana — bonus!

In Summary

Yoga is safe and beneficial for poorly controlled epileptics. So if you are already a yogi — how about challenging yourself to a few weeks of daily practice to gain maximum benefit from your practice? I’d love to know if there are particular poses or sequences that work well for you — let’s share the love by telling the world what works best.

If you have never tried yoga before then it seems to me that there are lots of reasons to give it a go. I recommend a beginners class or one-to-one lessons to start with. When you get the hang of the basics you can add in home practice sessions through the week maybe aiming for daily practice too.  The more you do, the better you will feel!

Sally Schofield
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