Today my mom can barely walk. But thirty five years ago she was a female pioneer, enrolling in yoga classes when few people knew what they were. She started doing yoga when her eldest child left home. It was a bold choice for a small town mother.
Yoga in Times Square
I’m pretty sure that Mom took yoga to quell the first pangs of empty nest syndrome. I had gone off to college and my sister — her “baby” — was already in high school. We lived in a small, traditional town in the Pennsylvania coal region. It was the kind of place where people distrusted any form of exotic behavior. Local opinion didn’t stop Mom, who went as far as visiting the ashram, while mastering downward dog and tree pose. She even met the yogi from India who founded the Kripalu retreat. Today I still wonder what prompted this strange choice from my normally conservative mother. Something about the yogic way of life appealed to her, but she’s long past the point of explaining what it was.
As a young adult I did not want to be like my mother in any way. Of course, we all end up displaying aspects of our parents’ character whether we like it or not. The one thing I did admire was her early interest in yoga and healing arts. I’ve followed her example by studying these practices for the past few years. Yesterday, I pursued that interest all the way to Times Square in New York City. To celebrate the summer solstice, I participated in a giant yoga event. About 11,000 people got down on their mats in streets that were blocked off from traffic. It’s hard to explain how amazing it felt to bend beneath a blue sky with New York neon spiraling around us, an occasional police siren disrupting our peaceful breath.
I wish my mother could have seen it. She laughs at everything these days, but this was truly entertaining. They say the study of yoga is a journey that can change your life. When I combine that practice with the experience of caring for my mom, I begin to see life as one long phase of transformation.
Sometimes you have to hear a message many times before you really get it. After talking with experts like Dr. Michael Baime and reading the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, I now see why it’s crucial for caregivers and dementia patients to do activities that protect the hippocampus region of their brain.
Research shows that the hippocampus plays an important role in consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory. We have two hippocampi, one on each side of the brain. They display the earliest signs of damage when Alzheimer’s disease attacks.
The work of Baime and Kabat-Zinn has shown that a regular meditation practice can actually promote growth of grey matter in this brain region which is so essential to preserving memories. This week my regular news scan led me to another article, by Margery Rosen, stating that physical exercise has also been shown to boost the size and vitality of the hippocampus. Rosen writes in the AARP report that, “Scientists think exercise boosts the flow of blood to certain parts of the brain, spurring the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) …[which] stimulates the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus….At the same time, [BDNF] repairs cell damage and strengthens synapses, or the connections between brain cells.”
The effects of exercise can be significant, even if you are older or were not physically active earlier in life. A study from the Archives of Internal Medicine found that 70- to 80-years-old women who already had symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, had better focus and decision-making skills after doing one to two hours of weight training two days a week for six months. Rosen also quotes Kirk Erickson, neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of the exercise study, as saying, “This was the first time that we were able to demonstrate that you can actually increase the size of the hippocampus…People need to know that dementia is not inevitable.”
While his comment on inevitability may be an overstatement, these two research studies give us plenty of reasons to try to fit these two activities into our busy lives. It looks like 15 minutes of morning meditation — and a 30-minute walk before dinner — could drastically improve the lives we lead 20 years from now.