By Sheryl Nonnenberg | Special to the Almanac
The words "yoga instructor" conjure up the image of a hyper-flexible person, balancing on one foot or twisting body parts into seemingly unnatural shapes. The words "Parkinson's disease" bring to mind the opposite extreme: formerly able-bodied people who now have slurred speech and uncontrollable tremors that often result in violent shaking movements.
Now imagine being a yoga instructor and learning that you have joined the ranks of an estimated one million Americans afflicted with the devastating neurodegenerative brain disorder.
For Keith Erickson, 52, a highly regarded yoga teacher at Menlo Pilates and Yoga and other studios on the Peninsula, this scenario became a reality last February. While undergoing a routine health test, the medical staff noticed that his right hand was shaking and suggested that he explore the cause.
He was aware of the slight tremor but thought it could be fatigue or too much caffeine. A visit to a neurologist, however, confirmed his suspicion that it was Parkinson's. In addition to being faced with the diagnosis of a having a serious and chronic disease, he had to carefully consider the impact it would have on his vocation.
"Hide it, ignore it, were my first reactions," he admitted. But it soon became too obvious to ignore and students began to ask questions. He realized that honesty and full disclosure were the best ways to deal with his situation.
He began to inform his employers at the various studios and health clubs where he has been teaching since 2002 and to let his students know. Their reactions, he says, have been incredibly supportive and helpful. "Opening up to my students has strengthened my connection to them," he says.
Mr. Erikson began his yoga career after 25 years in the high-stakes world of finance, overseeing mergers and acquisitions for established companies, such as Franklin Templeton Investments. He found himself feeling dissatisfied and restless and, in 1998, bought a one-way ticket to India.
His original goal was to simply travel around Southeast Asia and soak up the culture. He had only taken one yoga class previously in a health club and noted, "I wasn't very good at it."
Arriving in Pushkar, he signed up for a week-long yoga class and decided that the practice of meditation might be helpful in his new pursuit.
He attended a lecture given by the Dalai Lama, during which attendees are expected to sit cross-legged. Erickson found himself in pain after just an hour and a friend suggested he really invest himself in a yoga practice, with the aim of sitting longer, and more comfortably, during meditation.
Soon, he was hooked, and he enrolled in an eight-week yoga teacher training program held in Bali.
Upon his return to California, he began teaching on the Peninsula and in San Francisco. Although yoga was not as widespread then as it is today, he was able to find enough work to earn a living and he says with a grin, "I never looked at the finance resume again."
Now that he has had a few months to come to terms with his diagnosis, he says the biggest surprise has been how much time is consumed in dealing with the disease. Having chosen a holistic treatment plan, he devotes a lot of time to finding and preparing organic foods. He takes around 75 supplements a day and is working with a functional medical practitioner (rather than a medical doctor) to treat his symptoms and stave off the effects of Parkinson's.
Also included in his regimen are a full eight hours of sleep each night and one hour each morning spent in breathing exercises and meditation. He claims that the breathing and meditation are the most helpful part of his treatment and have the added benefit of helping him deal with the uncertainty of the Parkinson's prognosis.
"Parkinson's is like aging," he says, "and my efforts now are to slow the process."
One thing that has not changed much is his very busy teaching schedule. He currently teaches about eighteen classes a week, including three at Menlo Pilates and Yoga.
"Keith has been teaching here since early 2012 and has helped to grow a strong community of students consistently over the past four years," says Fran Phillip, who owns the Menlo Park studio.
She says she hopes to add a class for those with Parkinson's disease.
Mr. Erickson is philosophical about the future, saying that when he can no longer teach yoga, he will find something else to do, perhaps in a place like Australia ( his wife's homeland), where health care is more affordable. He remains hopeful and optimistic: "This journey is a marathon and I am just getting started," he says.
Go to yogakeith.com to read more about Keith Erickson, including his blog. The author of this story, Sheryl Nonnenberg, has studied with Mr. Erickson and teaches yoga at the Menlo Circus Club.