But now, it turns out yoga doesn't just help the person with the ailment -- it could also help the person taking care of the person with the ailment.
Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles found that meditation from yoga can help lower depression in caregivers, and may also improve their cognitive functioning.
The researchers even found that the meditation was associated with a decrease in cellular aging from stress.
"To a varying degree, many psychosocial interventions like this have been shown to enhance mental health for caregivers," study researcher Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, said in a statement. "Yet given the magnitude of the caregiver burden, it is surprising that very few interventions translate into clinical practice. The cost of instruction and offering classes may be one factor. Our study suggests a simple, low-cost yoga program can enhance coping and quality of life for the caregivers."
Researchers reported that caregivers are known to be at an increased risk of depression and devotional distress -- plus, many caregivers tend to be older, which can lead to a lowered defense against stress and conditions like heart disease.
According to the American Medical Association, 16 percent of caregivers have worsened health after they've begun caring for someone. And about half of Alzheimer's disease caregivers go on to develop psychological distress.
For the study, published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, the researchers recruited 49 caregivers between ages 45 and 91 who were taking care of a relative with dementia. Thirty-six of them were adult children of the person with dementia, and 13 were the spouses of the person with dementia.
The researchers separated the study participants into two groups: One was taught a 12-minute yoga routine that included a chanting meditation (called Kirtan Kriya), done every day for eight weeks. The other group relaxed with eyes closed for 12 minutes a day to a relaxation CD with instrumental music.
By the end of the study period, researchers found that in the yoga group, 65 percent of people had a 50 percent better score on a depression scale, and 52 percent had a 50 percent better mental health score. Among people in the relaxation group, on the other hand, 31 percent had a better score on the depression scale and 19 percent had a better score in mental health.
In addition, the researchers found that the yoga group's telomerase activity had improved by 43 percent, while just 3.7 percent of the relaxation group's telomerase activity improved. Telomerase activity is important because it slows down the process of cellular aging.
According to a past UCLA Center for Health Policy Research policy brief, about 29.9 percent of caregivers say that their emotions have gotten in the way of chores, and 32.9 percent say their emotions have gotten in the way of social lives. And about one-third of caregivers reported spending 36 hours, on average, taking care of their patient (and more than half of them also reported having a full-time or part-time job, aside from caregiving).
If you're a caregiver and wondering how to field difficult questions you may be faced with, Walter St. John Ed.D., author of "Solace," provides some advice in this slideshow:
When an ill person brings up subjects that make you feel uncomfortable, it's natural to want to squelch the discussion or rapidly change the subject. However, it's very important to listen unselfishly and avoid responding with, for example: "Let's not get into that right now. Can't we discuss something more pleasant?" or "Do you really think it's helpful to dwell on this topic?"
Whether the patient asks a spiritual or theological question that catches you off guard or she wants to know about the side effects of a medication, it helps to learn how to be noncommittal without seeming evasive. You don't want her to think that you don't care or that you're hiding something, and you definitely don't want to offer misinformation that might do more harm than good.
Even for people who weren't very spiritual or religious throughout most of their lives, it's natural to experience spiritual anxiety during a serious illness. And it's also natural for this anxiety to lead to questions that caregivers might find difficult or even overwhelming. If your loved one asks, for instance, 'What's next? Will prayer help? Why did God let this happen to me?' it's best to call in a qualified cleric.
Just as most of us are not comfortable with chronic illness, we are also not comfortable with crying. When tears appear, we tend to whip out a tissue and murmur something along the lines of, "It's okay. Don't cry." From now on, continue to pass the tissue when your ill loved one starts to tear up, but don't pressure him to stop sobbing. Tears are a natural emotional release for emotions ranging from anger to sadness to fear, and can be very therapeutic.
When your loved one is uncomfortable, upset, or worried, you might be tempted to utter platitudes like, "Everything will be okay," "I know how you feel," "God has given you a long life," or "It's God's will." While we hope that these phrases will be a quick fix to problems we'd rather not deal with, the truth is that they're trite and meaningless. What's more, sugarcoating reality doesn't fool most people, and it certainly doesn't spark positive change.
Anger is a natural human emotion, and it's important to recognize that chronically ill people have a lot to potentially feel upset about. Understandably, many patients are angry that they are so sick. Plus, their pain and energy levels might make them less patient or less able to handle stressful situations. Therefore, it's not unusual for caregivers to be on the receiving end when their loved one's fuse blows for any reason.
Understanding how and why an illness is getting worse and more painful is intellectual. But experiencing it is a very visceral and emotional thing. The patient needs for you to connect with him on a heart-to-heart, gut-to-gut level, not just a mental one.