Loss of control

Reading “What Broke My Father’s Heart,” New York Times Magazine, June 14, 2010, by Katy Butler, plus readers’ comments, disconcerted me on several levels. First, it forced me to contemplate my own parents’ aging (and my ability eventually to help them when I live thousands of miles away). Second, it highlighted the pitfalls in the US healthcare system, frequently controlled by the profit-driven “medical-industrial complex,” if you have the time apply today to reform the healthcare system at home. Third, it illustrated the ups and downs of marriage, of long-term relationships, of where love can lead “for better, for worse.”

Finally, it illustrated a scenario that would stymie yoga.

Yoga appeals to me partly because it allows one to adapt one’s practice—due to age, gender, illness, injury, season, setting, and the gamut of stages and changes in life. If one cannot do advanced physical asana, one can work on other elements of yoga. Seniors can never run as fast as they could in their 20s, but they might well be more adept in sirsasana or more steady in pranayama. It is no small consolation to know that if my body fails over time, I can still work on my breathing and my mental state.

Reading Butler’s story about her father’s dementia exemplified a worst-case scenario for yoga practitioners: loss of mental control. Can one practice yoga when one loses one’s mind?

I doubt it. Consider each of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga: Can one follow the yamas and niyamas without self-control? No. What about asana (body control) and pranayama (breath control)? No. (It’s hard enough fully to engage in asana, much less pranayama, with full faculties.) Pratyahara, dharana, dhyana? Forget it.

So, where does it leave us, if we lose control of both body and mind? Are we ready for that scenario?

Image: New York Times Magazine


  1. it’s a good question… one that i have thought about sometimes.

    during classes we all, students and teachers, talk about the myriad physical benefits of poses. but beautiful, dedicated yogis get cancer, alzheimers, and suffer from the very ailments their daily practices are supposed to prevent.

    i have no answers, but echo your questions.


  2. I am certainly not a specialist in Alzheimer’s or mental health disorders but I have had the opportunity to work with a few patients (as a PT, not a yoga teacher) who’ve had severe brain injuries and dementia. I don’t know if there is a way for people with those afflictions to practice yoga. I’ve often wondered if perhaps, people with these afflictions are actually meant to teach us something, if we’re open to it. By working with them or loving them, what can they teach us about ourselves or about humanity? Maybe they can’t practice yoga in the traditional way but maybe they are yoga. In a way, I think of them as essentially human. They’ve lost memories and inhibitions are are left with some sort of core that is a stripped-down and raw version of who they are. I don’t mean to diminish the tragedy and pain of Alzheimer’s or brain injuries. I’ve never had a close loved one suffer so I can’t speak from that perspective. But as a therapist, I feel blessed to have experienced the humanity of those patients.


    1. Thanks, Emma and Lisa, for your comments.

      I agree that those not “normal” are meant to keep us open-minded–about what it means to be human. (Heck, maybe “human” is not the right word, as I believe that dogs and cats and other animals are often our best examples of “humanity.”)

      But my question more about how we might cope if we ourselves are incapacitated. As yoga practitioners, we are working our consciousness and control (so to speak) of our bodies and minds. We try to observe, regulate, refine, and, yes, control, our movement, breathing, sensory perception, and mental fluctuations. So, if we lose such control, what is our practice then? Is there a way to practice yoga in such circumstances?


      1. It’s a fair question and I have no idea what the answer is. Perhaps we could practice during our ‘good’ days (or hours or moments). Maybe a teacher could guide us despite poor memories and short attention spans. But how to practice mental control when are minds are deteriorating? I really don’t know. I don’t know how or even why.

        Thanks for the thought-provoking post.


  3. Sounds like a heart-breaking story.

    Yoga is a way to help us live life more fully – no to stave off the inevitability of death. We can’t take it as a “preventive” medicine, unless it’s to prevent us from living in fear of the future.

    Yoga teaches us to accept life gracefully and sadly, these types of illness are also a part of life.

    I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Possibly the elements of yoga such as breathing and relaxation techniques could be of great help to sufferers of these conditions – who are truly living only in the moment?

    Beautiful post – thanks for the thoughts.


  4. I have thought about this a lot, since my mother suffered from vascular dementia and my sister is institutionalized with Alzheimer’s. I know that my practice helps with almost all of the risk factors, except genetics.
    My hope is that even if I do eventually suffer from dementia, the “seeing things as they are” that we cultivate in yoga will help me to remain as clear as I can for as long as I can.
    And after that?
    You can slow the progress of Alzheimer’s by living well. Beyond that, there will inevitably be a time when practice ends.
    Wouldn’t it be nice if we could choose the way we die?


  5. Presupposes that dementia is a cause of difficulties. I believe it is an effect. To believe that one MUST or even MAY lose control is violating aparagriha; to live free of disease one must let go of the idea that diseaase is paramount. Not to mention that besdt practice of Yama and Niyama minimizes odds of acquiring illness/dis-ease.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: