Yoga with Dementia: Tom Wojehowski's Story

Laura McMullen

Have you ever tried yoga? Just about anyone who can breathe can practice yoga to some extent and reap its many benefits. We'll prove it. In this series, U.S. News talks with people who are changing the face of yoga.

Tom Wojehowski, 62, has a wife, two sons, six grandchildren, a German shepherd puppy and Alzheimer's disease. The signs started showing a few years ago when he began repeating himself, and in November 2010, a neurologist diagnosed Wojehowski with mild cognitive impairment. Since then, it's progressed to early dementia.

Wojehowski had to leave his job because of the dementia, but has kept busy at his home in Cornwall, N.Y. by doing yardwork, preparing to move houses and going on daily walks with his wife, Suzanne. Exercise is good for the brain, he was told, so he tacked another activity to his list: yoga.

With a few words from Suzanne, Wojehowski shares his yoga experience. Responses have been edited.

How did you get into yoga?

TW: I had heard that any type of exercise is good for dementia. And because I had to leave work, I was looking for other things to do. So I tried it out, and I enjoyed it. I started out with a DVD, and then went to the Mid-Hudson School of Yoga trial classes, and the rest is history. I was going four or five times a week.

How has yoga affected your life?

TW: There would be times when I'd say, "You know, I really don't feel like going to yoga today," but I would go anyway. When I came home, I would always tell my wife, "I'm glad I went, because it was great." One of the slogans on the walls at the school is "body, mind and spirit," and that's what it does. It puts your mind and spirit in a different place. Every time I went, I felt refreshed and energized. When I walked out of the place, I was always so glad I went.

SW: Also, one of the important things with dementia is being comfortable talking to other people, and being able to communicate and putting yourself in a position where you're actually out - not pulling yourself back from people. This also helped Tom in that respect, because he would interact with people in class. People tend to pull back when they have a form of dementia.

Tom, do you have a favorite pose?

TW: I like them all. The head-to-knee pose, the bridge pose of course, the locust pose - they're all good. And because of my dementia, I really can't remember them all, but once I go to the class, everything comes very naturally to me.

Have you had any challenges with yoga?

SW: Tom was promoted to an advanced class, which was challenging.

TW: That class was out of my comfort level. I decided to stay in the primary level, because that was more than enough to satisfy my needs. It was helping my mind and spirit, and I was also getting a decent workout. The instructor saw that I was in my comfort level and how, without even thinking about it, I was helping other people. The instructor would sort of use me as an example.

Do you have any advice other people with dementia?

Whatever interest anyone has, use it to the fullest. Don't just sit around and worry about what's going to happen to yourself in the future. Just live day to day. Go to bed each night and say to yourself, "I had a good day," or "I'm glad I did this; I'm glad I did that." And if they want to try yoga, it's mainly for the inner peace you get from doing it. Don't go there and think you have to build your muscles or break out in a sweat or anything. It's the spirit inside where it really helps. It gets your mind off things you shouldn't be thinking about.