Many people think of yoga as exercise for the limber-limbed young. So you may be happily surprised to learn that yoga can help stroke survivors improve their balance and become more active—even if they start practicing yoga long after their strokes occurred.

This news from a small but encouraging study is important because stroke victims often are left with long-term balance problems that contribute to disability and increase the risk for potentially fatal falls. What’s more, the study results challenge the discouraging yet common notion that significant improvement in motor skills is unlikely when more than six months have passed since a patient’s stroke.

Study scoop: Participants included 47 adults, average age 63, who had suffered strokes anywhere from six months to more than 11 years earlier. All had finished their stroke rehabilitation programs…could stand on their own or with a device…and continued to receive usual medical care throughout the study. For eight weeks, one group of participants attended twice-weekly hour-long group classes involving modified yoga postures, breathing techniques and meditation, with classes growing more challenging over time. A second “yoga-plus” group took the same yoga classes and also received an audio recording of yoga/relaxation techniques to use three times weekly at home. A third group, which served as a control, received no yoga instruction. All participants completed tests of balance, independence and quality of life at the start and end of the study.

Results: No significant changes were seen in the control group. In contrast, members of both the yoga and yoga-plus groups experienced significant improvement in their ability to balance and raised their scores on tests of independence and quality of life. Yoga participants also felt less afraid of falling and reported attempting more challenging activities because of their improved balance—for instance, they talked about walking through a grocery store instead of using a motorized scooter…being able to take a shower…and feeling inspired to visit friends. (Comparing the two yoga groups, the addition of the audio recording did not change the results significantly, though the yoga-plus people did report enjoying listening to it.)

How does yoga work its magic? Researchers suggested that yoga’s mind-body connection may make it more therapeutic than traditional exercise…and that yoga is especially effective in improving poststroke function because it promotes coordination of complex movements, balance, strengthening and breathing.

Stroke patients: Ask your doctor or occupational therapist whether yoga is appropriate for you. If so, request a referral to a registered yoga therapist who is experienced in working with stroke survivors.