As sun streamed through the windows of a corner room at JCC MetroWest in West Orange, N.J., in late January, yoga instructor Tami Rager switched on the gentle sounds of new-age music and spoke softly to 15 people gathered in a circle.
At her direction, they took deep breaths, chanted and stretched their limbs and necks. Then she asked the class to close their eyes, sit back and place their hands on their stomachs.
This was not a typical suburban class where yogis strive for increased strength and seek ethereal tranquility. Rather, some of Rager’s students limped into the class, their movements were stiff and participants sat on comfortable armchairs, not yoga mats. Many struggled to keep up with her instructions.
This yoga class was designed for people with aphasia, a language disorder that is a side effect of strokes and other brain injuries.
Aphasia impedes an individual’s ability to communicate, including speaking, reading, writing and understanding (though it does not reflect one’s intellectual capacity). Often times people with aphasia experience partial paralysis of their arms and legs. The condition affects approximately two million people in the United States, according to the National Aphasia Association.
Rager, a skilled yoga instructor, modifies her class. “I speak much slower and more clearly with them,” she told NJJN. She said she uses “guided imagery” so they can look inside themselves.
“Go to a place where you feel truly at peace. Relax,” she said at one point during the class. “Send your oxygen and your imagination in and around your brain, around your eyes. Breathe down your nose into your throat and into your belly. Digest and make it delicious.”
Rager has led four 15-week yoga sessions for people with aphasia for the last six years, in conjunction with the Adler Aphasia Center, which was founded in Maywood, N.J., in 2003 to help speech-impaired stroke survivors improve their communications skills. She also teaches yoga at four senior living communities owned and managed by the Jewish Community Housing Corporation of Metropolitan New Jersey
Though the scientific evidence is inconclusive, Rager believes that yoga can aid in physical healing.
“For people with aphasia, yoga brings calm, helps release pain, allows them to breathe comfortably and to feel peace,” Rager told NJJN before the 30-minute session began. “It unites peace in their bodies, peace in their minds and peace in their souls. They can move and let go and get to know their bodies better.”
Practitioners of yoga can experience similar benefits but, according to Rager, it’s particularly valuable for those with aphasia, as the exercises strengthen both the right and left hemispheres of the brain. In fact, she said she has seen several participants’ cognitive functions improve, claiming that over time they are able to speak more clearly and make better connections between their brains and their speech.
Among them is Jerry (full names of Adler Aphasia Center clients are withheld for privacy), a resident of Verona, N.J., who suffered a stroke several years ago. His wife, Sue, said his condition left them feeling isolated. Some friends shied away from Jerry because they weren’t sure how well he could communicate with them.
At the Adler Aphasia Center, they discovered that the variety of physical, mental and spiritual programs, including the yoga class, has helped Jerry recover and improve his quality of life, Sue said in an email to NJJN.
The class allows him to set aside a time for meditation and “relaxation helps with speech, word, and thought retrieval.”
Sharon Glaser is a speech-language pathologist at the Adler Aphasia Center branch at JCC MetroWest who has overseen some 60 yoga classes during the past two years. She told NJJN that in general, exercises, including yoga, help stimulate blood flow to the brain, which is good for anyone with a brain injury. “But I cannot speak specifically to the benefits of yoga,” she said. However, according to Glaser, “the members of the center seem to keep improving their participation in a lot of our activities,” which range from playing board games to acting out a soap opera to discussing history and child development.
Dr. Joshua Schor, medical director of Daughters of Israel, a skilled nursing facility in West Orange, was skeptical.
“Besides the rather trite response of ‘If it feels good and is relaxing, then do it,’ I am not aware of data that would show a benefit or lack thereof,” he wrote to NJJN in an email.
Dr. David Leopold, medical director of Integrative Health & Medicine at Hackensack Meridian Health, agreed. “There is very limited data supporting yoga as an intervention for post-stroke aphasia.” That said, he noted in an email to NJJN, “Some small studies and case reports demonstrate that yoga can benefit people with aphasia. Theoretically, anything that produces relaxation will provide a better healing environment for the body and brain.”
Aside from its programs at JCC MetroWest, the Adler Aphasia Center has branches in Bridgewater, Haddonfield, Hammonton, Maywood, Monroe, Morristown, North Bergen, Scotch Plains and Toms River. It was started by Maywood businessman Mike Adler and his wife, Elaine, 10 years after a stroke robbed him of his ability to speak (Mike died in 2015). The center’s website says its programs “empower our members to participate in their recovery process” with “supportive interventions that allow them to more rapidly return to an active life.”
As the session ended, Rager asked participants to “come to stillness” and consider if they felt a change in the “here and now.” Then she wished them peace, unconditional love and happiness, and said “namaste,” the Hindi word that represents the recognition of another’s soul.
Afterward one participant said, “It is helping to make me healthy.” Another contended that yoga has helped her relearn to walk.
Still another came to a conclusion that could be agreed upon even by a thousand scientists:
“It made me feel at peace.”