Research on Yoga and Epilepsy

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC) epilepsy is a neurological disorder which causes seizures. “There are many different types of epilepsy. There are also many different kinds of seizures.”[1] The CDC reports for two out of three people with epilepsy, the cause of the condition is unknown. However, some known causes include:

· Brain tumor

· Stroke

· Brain infections

· Loss of oxygen to the brain

· Certain genetic disorders

· Some other neurological diseases and

· Traumatic brain injury (TBI).

The CDC reports epilepsy is “one of the most common conditions affecting the brain.” Approximately 5.1 million United States residents have a documented history of epilepsy, and about 3.4 million are living with active epilepsy. The CDC identifies the most common epilepsy treatments as:

· Medication

· Surgery

· Stimulation through an electrical device implanted under the skin, as well as

· A ketogenic diet.[2]

Studies suggest, however, that incorporating a yoga practice could also contribute to good health for those living with epilepsy.

Research on Yoga and Epilepsy

There has been some research on yoga and the effect it may have on epilepsy. For example, a comprehensive review of over 90 articles and studies relating to yoga and various neurological disorders, including epilepsy, concluded that “yoga might be considered as an effective adjuvant.”[3]

Other studies, however, have gone further. First, yoga has long been known to reduce blood levels of serum cortisol.[4] Building on that data, researchers sought to “apply yoga to get seizure control in patients affected by epilepsy.”[5] Participants practicing yoga “reported an 86 % decrease in seizure frequency.”[6] Thus, the researchers concluded, “yoga practice could support seizure control providing a way to ameliorate the quality of life in those affected by epilepsy.”[7]

Yoga and Children with Epilepsy

The majority of people diagnosed with epilepsy begin experiencing symptoms in childhood. Additionally, 20 to 30 percent of patients may not have success with antiepileptic drugs. Consequently, researchers turned their focus to yoga and children. They evaluated the effect of yoga on seizure and EEG outcomes in children living with epilepsy.

After providing yoga therapy for 10 1-hour sessions, researches compared seizure frequency and EEG between the children taught yoga and the control group at the baseline, at three months, and at six months out. None of the children in the yoga group had seizures at three and six months. Further, at the end of six months, only one child in the yoga group had an abnormal EEG. In the control group, seven out of the ten children experienced seizures during this time. Researchers concluded, “Yoga as an additional therapy in children with epilepsy leads to seizure freedom and significant improvement in EEG at 6 months.”[8]

However, while the data on yoga and epilepsy is encouraging, some researchers say more research is needed.[9] Despite the call for additional research, however, the authors note that therapies such as yoga, meditation, relaxation, and biofeedback are “non-invasive, lack serious side effects, and facilitate patient participation.”

Yoga and Epilepsy in Practice

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, yoga and mindfulness expert, and author of Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success. She started practicing yoga in earnest during graduate school, however, she was a practicing psychologist while taking her advanced yoga training and teaching. “As a psychologist, I kept feeling as though there were gaps in what I was doing and couldn’t put my finger on them,” Dr. Bullock explains. “When I started teaching yoga, I would see changes in their mood and their behavior that I wasn’t witnessing in therapy. Ultimately, through a lot of years of studying VINI yoga therapy, and physiology and biomechanics, I started realizing a huge amount of the power of the practice was working with physiological stress and also psychological stress. Yoga gave me a lot more appreciation of the importance of integrating mind and body.”

Yoga Helps People Respond Rather than React

So how can one with epilepsy benefit from yoga? People practicing yoga, Dr. Bullock explains, “can feel more calm and balanced. They are more able to accurately asses their situation. They are more able to find ways of effectively coping with whatever their experience is.” For someone with epilepsy, “there tends to be a great deal of fear about the unknown of seizures. Allowing someone to recognize that fear is a completely understandable part of their reality and giving them some tools so not being as jacked up about the fear. . . empower[s] people to have agency over their experience.”

Specifically, Dr. Bullock says, yoga puts people in the position of “being able to make conscious decisions about how to respond, rather than reacting to fear and anxiety.” The benefit of an ongoing yoga practice includes, but is not limited to, allowing people to “practice regulating when you are doing well so that when you are not doing well, you can rely on those tools in your toolbox.”

Yoga Provides Additional Health Benefits

Dr. Ram Rao holds a doctorate degree (PhD) in Neurosciences. Formerly a Research Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, Novato, CA, Dr. Rao currently is on faculty of the California College of Ayurveda and teaches in their Nevada City location. He is a National Ayurveda Medical Board-certified Ayurveda Practitioner, a dedicated Hatha yoga practitioner. He is also a Registered Yoga Teacher from Yoga Alliance USA (RYT-200). “Researchers believe that Yoga’s benefits in epilepsy is due to increases in muscle strength and tone, improvement in respiration, energy and vitality, improvement in physical performance, increased cerebral blood flow, reduction in stress, anxiety and depression, and sustained improvement in immune and cardiovascular function,” Dr. Ram explains.

Dr. Rao points out that some yoga poses work better than others for reducing or eliminating seizures. “Standing asanas, forward bends, backbends, and inverted poses with support work best.” However, yoga poses aren’t the only way a person with epilepsy can attempt to reduce or eliminate seizures. Dr. Rao explains, “A combination of pranayama and meditation helps to destress and calm the mind.” (Pranayama is a method of controlling the breath.) Dr. Bullock agrees that working on the breath has benefits. For example, “when you can lengthen someone’s exhalation, that can stimulate the relaxation response.”

Which Yoga Form is Best?

Dr. Rao recommends “any form of gentle yoga.” However, he offers a commonsense caution. “The yoga teacher needs to be aware that the student has a history of epileptic seizures. This would prevent the teacher from pushing the student into poses that could cause some issues.” While people with epilepsy “can safely participate in most poses. . . a vigorous/fast paced class or a class in a heated room needs to be avoided since over-exertion, dehydration or hypoglycemia can increase the risk of a seizure happening,” according to Dr. Rao. He also adds this caution: “People with a history of epilepsy need to be aware of warning signs and stop their yoga practice if you feel faint, lightheaded, nauseous or generally unwell.”

Yoga Practice for Children

Asked whether he would recommend introducing a small child diagnosed with epilepsy to yoga practice, Dr. Rao responded, “Introducing children (irrespective of whether they have a pathological condition or not) to yoga at an early age can help them learn healthy lifestyle habits, the ability to calm oneself, focus the mind, to be present, and to concentrate on their breathing.” Like Dr. Bullock, Dr. Rao notes that yoga can provide additional tools in anyone’s toolbox – including the toolboxes of children. With yoga practice, “kids will be aware of their innate capabilities. They are more likely to be positive and optimistic about life and will hopefully be less likely to succumb to emotional upheavals.”




[1] CDC https://www.cdc.gov/epilepsy/index.html

[2] CDC https://www.cdc.gov/epilepsy/about/faq.htm#What%20causes%20epilepsy?

[3] A. Mooventhan, Lourdy Nivethitha, Evidence based effects of yoga in neurological disorders, Journal of Clinical Neuroscience 2017

[4] Kamei, T., Toriumi, Y., Kimura, H., Ohno, S., Kumano, H. & Kimura, K. (2000). Decrease in serum cortisol during yoga exercise is correlated with alpha wave

[5] Shimul Sujit Sen and Gabriele Deidda, Bridging the Gap Between Yoga and Science: A Mini Review (2018).Xjenza Online, 6:59–61.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Kanhere, Sujata & Bagadia, DeepakR & Phadke, VarshaD & Mukherjee, PriyashreeS. (2018). Yoga in Children with Epilepsy: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Pediatric Neurosciences. 13. 410. 10.4103/JPN.JPN_88_18.

[9] Leeman-Markowski, B.A. & Schachter, S.C. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep (2017) 17: 42. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11910-017-0752-z


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