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NYU researchers look at yoga's impact on epilepsy

NYU Langone Medical Center / New York University School of Medicine

In a quiet, dark gym, yoga instructor Ramona Shih tells her students to focus on breathing deeply. Her voice is gentle and soothing. At the end of this 90-minute yoga session, a profound sense of peacefulness has descended over the six people taking the class. It would appear to be a regular yoga class, but Ms. Shih's students have epilepsy, and the class is really a novel clinical study at NYU Medical Center's Comprehensive Epilepsy Center.

The six-month clinical study is evaluating whether yoga can reduce the number of seizures in people with epilepsy and improve their emotional well-being. It is based on the observation that alleviating stress can benefit people with chronic seizure disorders, says Steven Pacia, M.D., Assistant Professor of Neurology at NYU 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."

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, more than two million people in the United States have had an unprovoked seizure or have been diagnosed with epilepsy. Epilepsy is like an electrical storm in the brain-the normal pattern of nerve activation is disrupted, causing seizures and other symptoms. Epilepsy may stem from head injuries, complications of other illnesses, genetics, or an unknown cause. Despite advances in medical and surgical treatments for the brain disorder, some 20 percent of patients will continue to experience seizures even with the latest available treatments. Moreover, many people with epilepsy have incapacitating anxiety and depression, which are known to exacerbate seizures.

The yoga classes are held in a gym next door to NYU's Comprehensive Epilepsy Center in the Rivergate building on East 34th Street in Manhattan. A physician is 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. Ms. 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 standardized 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 primary care physician. 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.


NYU's Comprehensive Epilepsy Center is the largest epilepsy program in the Eastern United States. It offers testing, evaluation, screening, medical and surgical treatment, clinical drug trials, and alternative therapies to children, adolescents, and adults with all forms of epilepsy through inpatient and outpatient programs. The Center's approach includes evaluations by teams of epileptologists, neuropsychologists, neurosurgeons, neurology nurses, and specialized technologists. Each year, more than 5,500 patients are treated at the Center.

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