Can yoga reduce epileptic seizures?

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NEW YORK – In a quiet, dark gym, yoga instructor Ramona Shih tells her students to focus on breathing deeply. Her voice is gentle and soothing.

At the end of this 90-minute yoga session, a profound sense of peacefulness has descended over the six people taking the class.

It would appear to be a regular yoga class, but Shih’s students have epilepsy, and the class is really a novel clinical study at New York University Medical Center’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Center.

Can yoga help? The six-month study is evaluating whether yoga can reduce the number of seizures in people with epilepsy and improve their emotional well-being. It is based on the observation that alleviating stress can benefit people with chronic seizure disorders, said Steven Pacia, the neurologist who is conducting the yoga study.

“Yoga has been clearly shown to reduce stress,” said Pacia. “We are fairly confident that it will improve the quality of life of our epilepsy patients by reducing the number of seizures they experience or by easing their anxiety or both.”

This is the first prospective study to assess yoga’s effects on epilepsy.

Like an electrical storm. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, more than 2 million people in the United States have had an unprovoked seizure or have been diagnosed with epilepsy.

Epilepsy is like an electrical storm in the brain – the normal pattern of nerve activation is disrupted, causing seizures and other symptoms.

Epilepsy may stem from head injuries, complications of other illnesses, genetics, or an unknown cause. Despite advances in medical and surgical treatments for the brain disorder, some 20 percent of patients will continue to experience seizures even with the latest available treatments. Moreover, many people with epilepsy have incapacitating anxiety and depression, which are known to exacerbate seizures.

The yoga that is taught is a gentle form called hatha, which does not involve strenuous movement. The classes are structured so that the last half-hour is devoted to breathing exercises and meditation.

A sense of peace. “These yoga classes have helped me enormously in terms of my overall well-being,” said Regina Scudellari, who is part of the epilepsy study. “Yoga brings such a sense of peace, which I feel like I can always tap into.”

During a recent class, one patient felt like he was having an asthma attack. Shih, a certified yoga instructor, showed him how to maneuver his body into a relaxation pose, and he soon relaxed.

“Yoga is about connecting the mind and body,” Shih said. “Through yoga we try to calm the brain and surrender to the pose. It isn’t about competing or about being judged.”

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