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A Move to the Mat

April 2014

Carl Schuetz Uses Yoga to Fight Parkinson’s

Carl Schuetz credits the practice of yoga as one of the reasons why he is able to manage Parkinson’s.

Carl Schuetz credits the practice of yoga as one of the reasons why he is able to manage Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s disease is a frustrating, terrifying and devastating disease. It’s a gradual degenerative disease, there is no cure and it can be extremely difficult to correctly diagnosis, even for the most skilled physician.

Unfortunately for Timonium resident Carl Schuetz, 61, the aforementioned description is exactly what he has experienced since his diagnosis three years ago. “There were some early symptoms – my gait was failing, my voice went soft and I noticed that I was writing really small – a condition called micrographia – where when you write it gets smaller and smaller as you go,” says Schuetz. “I forgot how to walk, forgot how to swim, forgot how to dance … you lose muscle memory,” he explains. “My now ex-wife asked me one day, ‘Why are you walking funny? Walk like the rest of us.’ So I started to learn to imitate how others walked … started focusing on walking ‘normally,’ but I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it.”

Like any disease, the symptoms for those with Parkinson’s disease (PD) vary from patient to patient, and the first signs are often overlooked, as they can be barely noticeable. One might experience a slight trembling of one hand or some slight stiffness in a leg, which can be dismissed as simply a byproduct of aging. Adding to the difficulty to diagnose, some PD patients may experience a common symptom one day and not the next, and tremors – one of the more noticeable signs – are not experienced by all PD patients. Compounding the medical challenge is that there are no definitive tests for diagnosing PD; most times, a series of tests are used to rule out other disorders that cause similar symptoms.

Helpful Tips
• When diagnosed with Parkinson’s, people can take steps immediately to battle the progression of the disease.
• Exercise and vocal cord strengthening are important.
• It is important to see a physician who specializes in Parkinson’s disease, a Movement Disorder Specialist.
–Source: Parkinson Foundation of the National Capital Area

According to the Parkinson Foundation of the National Capital Area (www.parkinsonfoundation.org), a non-profit organization that aims to improve the quality of life for people living with PD, their care partners and families through support and education programs, exercise programs, and public awareness, it’s crucial that patients see a movement disorders trained neurologist to receive a correct diagnosis.

Schuetz says he was misdiagnosed for 4 ½ years – even treated once for Lyme’s disease, which he did not have – before seeing Lisa Schulman, M.D., of the neurology department at the University of Maryland Medical Center, who specializes in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. “She diagnosed me in 10 minutes; it was amazing. When I received the diagnosis in February 2011, my reaction was, ‘’Yes!’ Her reaction was, ‘Why are you happy about this?’ It may seem strange, but now that I knew what it was, I felt like I had something that I could sink my teeth into. You can fight it if you know what it is,” says Schuetz. “I knew nothing about PD. The more I read, the better I felt. It helps you attack it. Parkinson’s is progressively degenerative, so I had to be progressively proactive.”

According to the American Parkinson Disease Association, Parkinson’s affects more than 1.5 million people in the United States. While older people are more likely to have PD, it can occur at any age – in fact, about 10 to 20 percent of those diagnosed are under age 50, and about half of those are diagnosed before age 40. Parkinson’s affects the central nervous system and results from the gradual degeneration of the pigmented neurons in the Substantia Nigra of the brain, resulting in decreased dopamine availability, which affects controlling body movements. The cause of PD is unknown – there are some cases where several generations in a family have been affected, leading to the theory that certain forms of the disease are hereditary or genetic – and there is currently no cure.

Schuetz2After his diagnosis, Schuetz was put on a dopamine agonist, which can be used in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease to reduce symptoms and “stimulate the receptors in nerves in the brain that normally would be stimulated by dopamine. Unlike levodopa, a dopamine agonist is not changed (converted) into dopamine when it enters the body, but it behaves like dopamine,” according to the medical reference website, WebMD. Also, the use of a dopamine agonist delays the use of the drug levodopa, as studies have shown that long-time use of levodopa can cause motor fluctuations. “They put me on a dopamine agonist for three years and then two months ago, they switched me to dopamine. They said it was remarkable that I got three years out of the agonist, as most people have hallucinations or OCD symptoms, but I was lucky. I watched for any indication of those side effects,” says Schuetz.

Schuetz, a father of two, is a Baltimore native – he graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, then obtained his bachelor of fine arts degree from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and a master’s degree in publication design from the University of Baltimore. He flourished in the field of graphic design as, among other things, a web designer and developer for the University of Maryland School of Medicine, a professor at MICA teaching computer graphics, and an adjunct professor at Loyola University Maryland teaching web content management, graphics and interactive media.

However, after his Parkinson’s diagnosis, he says that he no longer wants to practice graphic design and made a significant career move.

Schuetz started practicing yoga 45 years ago and got more serious about it about 10 years ago. “Once I was diagnosed, though, I decided I not only wanted to practice yoga, but also teach it,” he says. “I did not immediately connect the effects of yoga with Parkinson’s, but the day I was diagnosed the doctors said that I should try yoga. So I decided to take it more seriously and take it five, six or even seven days a week. The more I go, the better I feel. Parkinson’s makes you feel that either you are in someone else’s body or there is someone else in your body with you … like an alien. When I am practicing yoga, for those 60 or 90 minutes, I don’t feel different; I feel just like everyone else in the room.”

Schuetz noticed how yoga straightened his gait and helped with balance. He recalls how three years ago he could not do the “tree” pose in yoga – a pose where you balance on one foot with the other foot resting above your knee with your arms above your head and palms touching, mimicking a tree. “Now I teach tree pose,” he says proudly. “Yoga strengthens and improves mind-body connections, and I have found this to be true for me. I can now do balance poses that I was not able to do 18 months ago. This newfound ability spills over from the yoga mat into my daily life. Thanks to daily yoga practice, my balance and gait have improved, my attitude toward my condition is better, and my overall outward appearance is noticeably improved. One doctor, a PD specialist, even said I look as if I don’t have PD.”

With the awareness of how yoga can help Parkinson’s patients, he earned the RYT-200 yoga teacher certification through Charm City Yoga, and is working on completing the RYT-500 certificate at Susquehanna Yoga. In the meantime, he teaches “Yoga for Parkinson’s” at the Maryland Athletic Club and Wellness Center (MAC) in Timonium and at Susquehanna Yoga, also in Timonium. He notes that the MAC class is offered free through support from the Parkinson Foundation of the National Capital Area and the MAC. “I have Parkinson’s disease, and know how much yoga helps me manage my symptoms. Now, I am helping other PD patients by teaching yoga,” he says. Schuetz also teaches yoga in a private studio for friends, neighbors and relatives. “I get to not only practice yoga but share with others. I have five younger brothers (he’s one of eight kids), so I grew up teaching and sharing with them, so it comes natural. I get a big charge out of that.”

Featuremat2Schuetz’s class at the MAC began in July 2012. Schuetz approached Liz Rhode, owner and co-founder of the MAC. “He explained how yoga had helped him. We are all about wellness here with a focus on living stronger and having a healthier lifestyle, so it was a good fit. We are always looking for innovative ways to bring something new to our members, and we also have a altruistic philosophy to help each other and educate,” says Rhode. “On a personal note, my aunt passed away from Parkinson’s, so I saw the devastation of that disease. She was a very strong business woman, mother and wife, so I wanted to help others in her honor.”

Rhode adds that she is impressed by the effort of Schuetz’s students. “They make the effort to come here, and they are so determined. Their spirit moves me, and I see how confident Carl’s students are when they finish his class. ‘I can’ is such a powerful antidote to Parkinson’s.”

Suzy Pennington, owner of Susquehanna Yoga, heard about Schuetz’s class at the MAC and approached him to offer one at her yoga studio as well. “Our yoga classes are based on the Iyengar style, which has always been known for its therapeutic mission. The founder of Iyengar yoga was innovative with improving access to yoga by incorporating the use of blocks and chairs, so this style of yoga is good for Parkinson’s patients,” says Pennington. Schuetz agrees. “With vinyasa or flow yoga, most PD people cannot move that fast. With the type of yoga I am learning at Susquehanna – Iyengar yoga – there is no flow so it’s easier for PD patients. Instead of having a few seconds to get into a pose, you may spend one to two minutes to get into a pose. Once you are in the pose, there is something called ‘work in the pose,’ which deepens the experience. It expands their knowledge of the pose so that the next time they are getting into the pose they are better at it because they have a better understanding.”

Pennington says, “Yoga is actually a training of the mind … helping the brain to send out nerve impulses and move the muscles. Yoga allows PD patients to use the brain in a multitude of ways to keep nerve pathways open and to focus better.”

To help with the structure of his classes for people with PD, Schuetz says that he conferred with two other yoga teachers – one of whom teaches seniors with arthritis, so she shared how she uses chairs in a class. “I have PD, so I have a great understanding of it,” Schuetz adds. “My students can now do several balance poses that they could not do when they started the PD classes. I see improvement with my students, and they are so happy. I teach chair yoga and mat yoga simultaneously. With my core group of eight or 10 people, two-thirds of them had to use a chair in the class in the beginning, but now they are on the mat. They have improved tremendously and they know they have. When they can do a pose – a half moon, for example – it’s such an achievement. One thing I will tell you about PD – it sometimes takes you minutes instead of seconds to do your shirt buttons because you are clumsy with your fingers … every day you are looking for small victories. So, when they get a victory on the yoga mat it’s huge.”

Schuetz says that despite his love of his new career and helping others, day-to-day life is still challenging. “Depression is a continuous battle. It’s easy to get nothing done. The whole day goes by and you realize that you got nothing done because you’re depressed. You don’t feel like going out, cleaning up the dishes or anything. But you have to keep going … maybe I cannot beat PD but I am not going to let it beat me. My new path of becoming a yoga teacher feels like it’s a part of my life’s purpose, my reason for being here now. And since I’m helping people who may be depressed and feel under-served, who thank me with heartfelt expressions of gratitude, it’s also rewarding. I love my new life. Now I can see Parkinson’s as a gift … it is a gift to me. Teaching yoga helps me share this gift.”

Schuetz’s yoga classes for Parkinson’s patients are at the MAC every Saturday, 12:30-1:30pm, and at Susquehanna Yoga class every Tuesday, 4:30-6pm. He hopes to form a non-profit, Yoga for Parkinson’s, soon and offer more classes at no cost to the students. I95

A 2007 National Health Interview Survey by The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the Federal Government’s lead agency for scientific research on complementary and alternative medicine and one of the centers that makes up the National Institutes of Health, found that yoga is the sixth most commonly used complementary health practice among adults. A recent Yoga Journal survey found that over 20 million Americans practice yoga.So why are so many Americans hitting the yoga mat? Many are drawn to yoga to improve their balance and physical fitness, reduce stress and enhance their quality of life. However, a large number of Americans are turning to yoga to help alleviate pain and symptoms for a variety of diseases and conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, back pain, joint issues and common side effects of aging.

Regina Armenta. Photo by Kathy McLean Photography.

Regina Armenta. Photo by Kathy McLean Photography.

Regina Armenta is a Baltimore-based yoga instructor who has been teaching yoga for 10 years after receiving her bachelor of arts degree in Physical Therapy from The Ohio State University. Armenta, who completed a 200-hour teacher training in Vinyasa flow, a 9-month Anusara Immersion and a 200-hour teacher training in Anusara Yoga, has worked with teens, adults and seniors, and has witnessed the positive effects yoga can have. “I remember when I was studying physical therapy, there was a study that focused on the difficulties that some Parkinson’s patients have when walking – they have difficulty starting and eventually stopping their movement. Through yoga, you can visualize movement, which is very helpful for those with Parkinson’s,” she says.

Armenta adds that yoga can also help Parkinson’s patients, as well as other ailments and diseases, with their mental state. “It’s easy to focus on the negative if you are ill and all the things you think are impossible. Yoga can help build confidence through positive experiences – completing one yoga pose beautifully – even when your body presents limitations. You may not have control of your disease, but you can control your attitude, outlook and spirit.”

Armenta recalls a student of hers who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis in her feet and hands, a  condition that causes deformation and painful inflammation. “One common yoga exercise is to spread your toes. She would say, ‘I can’t,’ which was true. So I would urge her to simply try to engage her toes to create muscle strength and increase blood flow. When she engaged her toes, she felt like she had accomplished something and it was emotionally rewarding. Sometimes instead of focusing on the end goal, it’s important to just do something loving for your body,” Armenta says. “Yoga can open up doorways to choices … you come to understand that you have many choices with your own health and you learn something new each time about your body.”

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