Renee Le Verrier leads a group of five women in stretching, balancing and relaxation poses on a recent afternoon at the Yoga Center of Newburyport.
The only difference between this class and others is that a chair and variety of other props makes the class more accessible.
Blocks, straps, blankets and cushions all help to make stretches lighter and bring the distance from hand to foot closer for the participants.
"This isn't chair yoga because we are not just in the chair," Le Verrier said. "The chair is just a prop to bring the floor closer to us."
Le Verrier teaches yoga for movement disorders, a weekly class aimed at making yoga possible for individuals who have any restrictions, including those stemming from osteoporosis or Parkinson's disease.
But it is also geared at those who just feel a little "creaky."
"If you can breath, you can do yoga," Le Verrier said. "Yoga can be intimidating to people especially when you go to a yoga studio, but yoga is most beneficial to those with limitations and movement disorders."
Le Verrier should know. As a child, she suffered a stroke. Five years ago, at age 42, she was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a brain disorder affecting both men and women. She has been practicing yoga for eight years and teaching for three at the Yoga Center of Newburyport as well as Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Bradford and Massachusetts General Hospital.
"I've learned through yoga to live in the moment," she said.
Le Verrier was recently chosen as one of 25 people nationwide to attend the Parkinson's Disease Foundation's Clinical Research Learning Institute. The training prepares participants to serve as advocates for bringing new treatment information to their communities as well as serving as a formal representative on clinical research and advisory boards.
According to the National Parkinson' Foundation, the condition usually develops after age 65, but 15 percent of people, like Le Verrier, are diagnosed before age 50. About 1 million Americans suffer from Parkinson's, with an estimated 60,000 new cases diagnosed each year.
Le Verrier said yoga is an effective tool for Parkinson's because the disease affects certain dopamine-producing nerve cells (neurons) in one part of the brain that die or become impaired. Dopamine allows for smooth, coordinated muscle movement, so when it becomes limited in the body, symptoms such as tremors, shaking and rigidity are said to result.
Le Verrier credits yoga with aiding her not only physically, but spiritually as well. While her once excruciating back pain is now gone, she said she continues to benefit by the lessons yoga has taught her about breathing through hard times and noticing life more.
"When I feel myself being affected by something, I can go back to my breathing," she said. "I'm not dismissing whatever is happening, but I can breath it out."
Le Verrier said yoga also helped her unblock energy flow and allowed her to become more creative through painting.
"Before, I had a phobia of art," she said. "But one snowy day, I started painting with my first grader and I just let the creative energy happen."
As a yoga teacher, Le Verrier has pushed to provide classes for other students like herself and has also worked to educate teachers on how to work with individuals who have Parkinson's. Recently, she taught a large workshop for yoga teachers from area gyms, hospitals, rehabilitation centers and studios.
"Exercise is beneficial in managing Parkinson's," she said. "It gives a sense of well being, makes breathing easier, affects posture. I hope I can bring a little of that in."
When students with movement disorders or Parkinson's attend a typical yoga class, Le Verrier said teachers often don't tailor the class to their limitations or become too gentle with them, and they're unable to fully garner the benefits.
"The teachers get nervous and tell the student to sit a pose out," said Le Verrier, who gives instructors specific things they can do to change their teaching approach.
In addition to her work teaching, Le Verrier has published a yoga book, with another on its way to the printer. "Yoga for Movement Disorders," published by Merit Press, is a workbook with poses and stretches those with limitations can do at home or in a studio setting. "A, B, C ... X, Yoga, Z," a playful introduction to yoga for kids using the ABCs, is due out soon.
Le Verrier said many people stop doing the activities they used to when they are diagnosed with Parkinson's or a movement disorder, including playing with children and grandchildren.
"The ABC book is a wonderful way to do something and move together," she said. "Grandparents can do this with their grandchildren even though they may not be able to play soccer with them anymore."
For more on Renee Le Verrier's yoga work, visit www.limyoga.com.