Yoga Therapy for Muscular Dystrophy: Benefits, How to, and More

A yoga therapist helps a man stretch on the floor, using yoga therapy for muscular dystrophy clients.

Yoga therapy can be an effective way to heal or find relief from mental and physical health issues, including muscular dystrophy. While muscular dystrophy can cause physical weakness, mobility issues, and respiratory problems, yoga therapy can help improve strength and endurance, breathing and cardiovascular function, body awareness and posture, stress management and self-awareness, and more.

There is no cure for muscular dystrophy, but there are treatments that can help improve quality of life. I’ve worked firsthand with clients who have muscular dystrophy and report improvement from our yoga therapy.

Whether you have muscular dystrophy yourself and you’re looking for relief, or you’re a yoga teacher or yoga therapist who has a client with muscular dystrophy who you’d like to help, I’ll share my knowledge and experience regarding the benefits and techniques of yoga for muscular dystrophy below, as well as how to get in touch for professional yoga therapy sessions or training.

Table of Contents:

Is Yoga Safe for People with Muscular Dystrophy?

A physical therapist who is also certified in yoga therapy helps a patient stretch, demonstrating the benefits of both yoga and physical therapy.

Yoga is often safe for people with muscular dystrophy, but it’s important to talk to a doctor first and take any precautions necessary. There are over 30 different types of muscular dystrophy, which can range in severity, progression, and the muscles that are affected. These differences will impact what treatments are relevant and safe for each individual.

I recommend that people with muscular dystrophy seek out an experienced yoga therapist who can help them adapt different poses to accommodate their level of mobility and avoid any harm when using yoga for muscular dystrophy. Chair yoga can be a great way to practice yoga for someone who has balance issues or uses a walker or a wheelchair for mobility, for example. A yoga therapist can also introduce other techniques, such as Prana Nidra and breath work, to assist with more than just movement.

What Exercise Is Best for Muscular Dystrophy?

Exercising can help improve overall muscle tone and fitness levels for some people who have muscular dystrophy, while others cannot exercise safely. It’s important to consult your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine. As muscular dystrophy can affect people differently, any exercise regimen should be personalized to your unique circumstances.

For those who can safely exercise, aerobic exercises, strength exercises, and stretches may be beneficial, as recommended by the Muscular Dystrophy Association:

  1. Aerobic Exercises: Low-impact exercises such as walking, running, cycling, or swimming can help increase endurance and conditioning.
  2. Strength Exercises: Weight lifting with light weights and light resistance exercises, such as with resistance bands, can help increase muscle mass and strength.
  3. Stretches: Gentle stretching can help reduce stiffness and maintain or increase flexibility.

There are yoga asanas for muscular dystrophy patients to address each of these areas, while also gaining other benefits such as improving balance, reducing stress and anxiety, supporting proper breathing, and more.

What Are the Benefits of Using Yoga for Muscular Dystrophy?

1. Yoga Can Help with Muscle Weakness and Stiffness

Yoga can help combat the muscle weakness and stiffness often caused by muscular dystrophy. Slowing muscle loss is one of the greatest benefits of using yoga for muscular dystrophy. Yoga can help to strengthen muscles, improve flexibility, and reduce stiffness and pain. It also often has fewer side effects than medications.

2. Yoga Can Improve Mobility and Balance

A systematic review published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy found that there is moderate evidence to indicate that yoga can improve balance and reduce the risk of falling for older adults and adults with neuromuscular impairment. Yoga can also improve mobility and posture control. As mentioned above, yoga can often be adapted to an individual’s level of mobility with seated asanas and chair yoga poses for muscular dystrophy patients.

3. Yoga Can Reduce Stress, Anxiety, and Depression

Yoga promotes relaxation by stimulating the parasympathetic system, which helps to increase blood flow and lower your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and cortisol levels. In addition to these physical effects, yoga can improve your mood, confidence, self-esteem, and well-being, all of which help to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.

4. Yoga Can Support Cardiac and Respiratory Functions

A mental health professional trained in yoga therapy helps a client with physical movements and poses

Muscular dystrophy can cause heart and breathing problems as the muscles that support these functions weaken. A recent study shows that physiotherapy and yoga are beneficial in maintaining heart rate variability for children who have Duchene muscular dystrophy, a type of muscular dystrophy that nearly always results in some amount of cardiomyopathy by adulthood.

Another study, though the participants were healthy, inactive, middle-aged people, showed that yoga can improve respiratory function. Asanas (yoga poses) improved respiratory function, and adding in pranayamas (breathing exercises) improved the strength of inspiratory muscles, which are responsible for inhalation. It may also be possible to use yoga for muscular dystrophy patients who want to improve respiratory function.

5. Yoga Can Enhance Posture and Awareness

On the physical side of things, yoga can improve posture in a number of ways, including stretching and strengthening:

  • Core muscles, which support movement in your torso and help stabilize your spine and pelvis
  • Hip flexors, knees, and ankles, which support alignment throughout your legs
  • Trunk muscles, which keep your posture erect by extending your vertebral column

Through the incorporation of breathing techniques and mindfulness, yoga can also help to increase awareness and strengthen the body-mind connection, allowing for better control and stabilization of the body.

6. Yoga Can Be Integrated Into Other Treatment Regimens

Yoga can easily be integrated into other treatment regimens to create a more holistic treatment of muscular dystrophy.

  • Physical function: Yoga therapy can work alongside physical therapy or occupational therapy to strengthen muscles, improve flexibility, and promote good posture and balance.
  • Pain management: Yoga has been shown effective at reducing pain and stress, making it a valuable addition to pain management strategies. It can be used in conjunction with physical therapy or medication, and it can support rehabilitation after surgery.
  • Mental health: Yoga can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression while also improving mood and sense of well-being, allowing it to work effectively alongside psychotherapy or medication.
  • Overall health and quality of life: Yoga therapy can support overall health and quality of life for those in palliative care by improving mood, lowering stress, enhancing sleep quality, and more. This can be used in conjunction with physical therapy, occupational therapy, medication, psychotherapy, and other strategies.

Yoga therapists are often used to working with physical therapists, occupational therapists, doctors, surgeons, mental health professionals, and other health professionals to provide holistic care for their clients. Especially when Western medicine offers limited help or relief, yoga therapy can be an effective option to complement other treatments for muscular dystrophy.

Chair Yoga Poses for Muscular Dystrophy

A woman in Warrior Pose demonstrating how to use chair yoga poses for muscular dystrophy.

Chair yoga can be a great way to practice yoga asanas if you have muscular dystrophy and require a walker or wheelchair for mobility. As its name implies, chair yoga refers to yoga poses that can be adapted so they are performed while sitting on a chair. This helps to make yoga poses accessible to those who cannot stand, have difficulty standing, experience balancing issues, or have difficulty moving between standing, seated, and supine poses.

Yoga therapy should be tailored to each individual, which is why I recommend working one-on-one with a yoga therapist to determine the best yoga techniques to suit your individual needs. If you’re curious about using chair yoga for muscular dystrophy, these are a few poses that could be adapted for use in a chair, though they may or may not be a good fit for you:

  • Cat Pose
  • Cow Pose
  • Forward Bend
  • Upward Salute
  • Eagle Pose
  • Extended Side Angle Pose
  • Warrior 1 Pose
  • Warrior 2 Pose

The biggest benefit of using chair yoga poses for muscular dystrophy is to prevent muscle loss and preserve some balance. The biggest concern is making sure that you figure out how to exercise safely.

Depending on your mobility, you may also be able to incorporate some yoga poses performed lying down, sitting, or kneeling on a yoga mat without having to worry about falling from a standing position. If you’re fairly mobile, you may also be able to practice yoga poses for muscular dystrophy yourself, giving you more agency over your treatment.

Prana Nidra Yoga Technique for Muscular Dystrophy

​​A woman using Prana Nidra as a yoga technique for muscular dystrophy

Prana Nidra is a kind of Yoga Nidra. As with Yoga Nidra, Prana Nidra allows you to enter a restful and relaxed state, sleep-like yet still fully aware. What makes Prana Nidra different is its focus on your energy and bodily systems, such as breathing, digestion, blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature.

People with muscular dystrophy may find it helpful to use Prana Nidra to get more prana flowing, which may help them feel better or provide some relief. A yoga therapist who is experienced with Prana Nidra can help guide clients through the process.

In general, you would likely lie down and perform visualizations and breathing techniques throughout your limbs to stimulate prana flow. You might imagine yourself breathing through one of your hands, then crossing your chest, moving through the other hand, and eventually going through the entire body this way.

The main advantage of Prana Nidra as a yoga technique for muscular dystrophy is that it puts your mind in contact with different body awarenesses. It can help to keep your brain in touch with your body and not ignore any parts of the body.

Breath Work for Muscular Dystrophy

Breath work, or pranayama, is a form of breathing in a yoga framework. It involves using specific breathing patterns and techniques to control the breath and the flow of energy throughout the body. Both inhalation and exhalation can be controlled in a rhythmic manner.

Inhales and retentions may be especially beneficial for people with muscular dystrophy. This type of breath work can help people to feel better, have more energy, experience less pain, and increase breathing capacity. It can produce a Brahmana effect, promoting more energy through higher prana flow in the body.

Can You Reverse Muscular Dystrophy?

Unfortunately, you cannot reverse muscular dystrophy. As of this time, there is no cure for any type of muscular dystrophy. However, there are treatments available that can help to manage this condition and prolong a person’s muscle strength, mobility, and well-being. There are new treatment options being tested as well.

Can You Rebuild Muscle with Muscular Dystrophy?

Eventually, muscular dystrophy will cause weakening in the muscles. However, it is possible to improve muscle tone with exercise in the meantime. It is important to talk to your doctor about the specific movements you’d like to practice in order to make sure that you exercise or use yoga for muscular dystrophy safely.

There are also medications for muscular dystrophy that have been shown to increase muscle strength, prolong muscle function, and delay muscle weakening for months or even years. Researchers are also looking into gene therapy, stem cell treatments, and other strategies to potentially protect and rebuild muscle for those with muscular dystrophy.

Contact Us for Yoga Therapy Sessions or Training

Yoga therapy can be a powerful tool for physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual healing. I believe in making yoga therapy more accessible to those who need it, and I think it is especially rewarding to work with people who are facing challenging conditions.

If you have muscular dystrophy: I would be honored if you would consider our one-on-one yoga therapy sessions. These sessions are offered privately with myself or one of our handpicked, certified graduates. We conduct these sessions over Zoom, which means you do not need to travel for your appointment, but you do need enough mobility or in-person assistance to receive yoga therapy online. Learn more and get in touch with us today to see if we can help.

If you are interested in yoga therapy training: We proudly offer yoga therapy training for any stage in your journey, whether you’re already a yoga teacher or you’re just getting started. Even after you become a yoga therapist, you’ll have lifetime access to our community which includes myself, others who have trained you, and your peers to help tackle any challenges you may face and stay on top of the latest developments in our field. Learn more and apply today for one of our programs.

Info Session

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