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Researchers look at yoga's impact on epilepsy

30 July, 2001

A six-month clinical study is evaluating whether yoga can reduce the number of seizures in people with epilepsy and improve their emotional well-being.

The study is based on the observation that alleviating stress can benefit people with chronic seizure disorders, says Steven Pacia, Assistant Professor of Neurology at New York University School of Medicine, who is conducting the yoga study.

"Yoga has been clearly shown to reduce stress," says Dr. 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 will be the first prospective study to assess yoga's effects on epilepsy."

The yoga classes are held in a gym next door to NYU's Comprehensive Epilepsy Center in Manhattan, with a doctor on call during each 90 minute class in case of emergencies. 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. "These yoga classes have helped me enormously in terms of my overall well-being," says 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. Ramona Shih, a certified yoga instructor, showed him how to maneuver his body into a relaxation pose, and he soon relaxed. At any point, a person can come into a relaxation pose, she said after the class ended. "Yoga is about connecting the mind and body. Through yoga we try to calm the brain and surrender to the pose. It isn't about competing or about being judged."

The new study is open to patients with epilepsy who experience at least two seizures a month or who suffer anxiety or depression based on standardised surveys. All patients must attend at least two yoga classes each week for up to six months and must receive clearance to participate in the study from their own doctor. Patients should continue taking medication, maintaining the same dosage levels for the duration of the study, if possible. Patients also are required to keep track of seizures, auras, and any changes in medication during the study.