By Jon Berry
BALANCING, SKIPPING, TUMBLING, DANCING: “People with Parkinson’s Can’t Do That, Can They?” is not just the title of a video celebrating the graceful achievements of the Parkinson’s Disease patients who are students of John Argue. It is also a phrase that comes easily to mind watching the film (to view, click here or go to end of article).
For the past 25 years, John Argue has been teaching people with Parkinson’s how to move mindfully and consciously. Drawing on the skills he had developed to train actors – ranging from traditional theater arts to Tai Chi and yoga – he helps Parkinson’s patients mitigate the stiffness, tremors, and impaired balance that are characteristics of the disease.
His pioneering methods, developed in his studio in the San Francisco Bay Area, have spread across the country, through books, videos, and teacher training.
I talked with John about his work and the remarkable path his life has taken, from his upbringing in Catholic orphanages in the Southwest – where his desire to teach first took form – to the spiritual approach he calls “jackhammer Zen.”
QUESTION: To start, could you give me a brief CV?
JOHN ARGUE: I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1936. When I was very young, just turning 7, my family disintegrated because of my father’s alcoholism. I was sent to St. Patrick’s Indian Mission in Anadarko, Oklahoma. I attended through eighth grade; my two sisters and I were among a small handful of non-Indian, non-Mexican kids there. I graduated high school from John Brown Military Academy of the Ozarks, in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, a Christian military academy for "wayward youth." In 1954 I joined the Navy. I mustered out in 1957, and used the GI bill to go to college in California.
I took a BA in English and an MA in drama at the University of California, Berkeley. I worked for a while in professional theater, then set up my own small theater company and acting school in Berkeley in about 1970. I did that for about 10 years. Sometime in the middle of that period I started doing drama therapy with children and with hospitalized adults.
In the 1980s a friend of mine with Parkinson’s asked me to help her by teaching her to “move consciously.” So I took her on. We were so successful her doctor began sending other people to me. Over time, my career shifted over completely to working with Parkinson’s people. I’ve now been doing this for 25 years.
Q: Tell me about your work with Parkinson’s patients.
A: I lead classes here in Berkeley, and travel and train movement therapists from across the country. I have two classes running now. I’m starting a third one. The Monday morning class is for beginners. I call them the Freshman Class. It runs an hour and a half and has maybe 12 people. Tuesday’s class, the Sophomores, is for people who have been with me more than a year, some for as many as 8-10 years. Since the illness is incurable, people stay with me.
Constant training, constant reworking, seems to be the way to keep the major symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease at bay. That is basically what the work is. Through exercise and mindfulness training, I teach people to keep themselves active and use their bodies in efficient ways, to prevent the kind of curling-up and withering that happens to people with Parkinson’s who don’t exercise.
Q: At the time that you started this work, what were the options out there for people?
A: There were medications. And the medications were pretty good. There was a recommendation from the medical community that exercise was helpful. But nobody had devised a specific Parkinson’s exercise program. I was the first in that area. My background in yoga, Tai Chi, and teaching acting, all my skills that I had developed to teach actors, were very applicable to the problems of Parkinson’s.
I broke it down into three main features. One was mindfulness. People with Parkinson’s can control their movement if they keep their mind engaged with what they’re doing. If their mind wanders or if they do things automatically, their disease takes over and they become awkward.
Second, actors because of their training learn how to be graceful in everything they do. One of the marks of Parkinson’s people is they tend to move clumsily. The automatic gracefulness they mastered as children, they lose that as a result of the disease.
So they need to be taught again how to gracefully get up from a chair, or gracefully get out of a car, or even roll over in bed. All of those things have to be done mindfully. If you train in it, a lot of people can move, on good days, so that nobody really knows that they have Parkinson’s.
Third is completion. One trains to complete each action before beginning the next. People with Parkinson’s Disease tend to begin the next action well before the first is complete, causing a cascade event, like the soldiers behind stepping on the heels of the ones in front, or like the crowd furthest from the door in a fire trampling over the people closer to the door. So we train in "mono-tasking" to break the common habit of multitasking. As in a zendo, we train to bow to the pillow before we sit on the pillow.
"We train in 'mono-tasking' to break the common habit of multitasking. As in a zendo, we train to bow to the pillow before we sit on the pillow."
Q: It sounds like you had a lot to learn. How did you do it?
A: I learned primarily from the people with Parkinson’s who came to work with me. They would come in with this problem or that problem. Using my acting skills, I would give myself the problem and figure out how I would solve it. Then I would go back and teach people how to do it.
For instance, they were having trouble standing up from a chair. So I tried to give myself an imaginary Parkinson’s, have the same problem they were having, figure out what they were doing that was causing the difficulty, and devise a method of getting up from a chair.
Q: It’s a fascinating how you describe the solution: to move to the front of the chair, then put one foot back, and, bringing your arm down to the floor, lean over to push yourself up. How did you figure that out?
A: If you observe your own self, standing up after sitting in a chair, particularly when you’re tired, you’ll notice you actually do this. You put your nose beyond your toes. You put your head beyond your feet. What that does is shift the center of balance to a point between the two feet. When you’re sitting on a chair, the point of balance is somewhere behind your feet. The rock forward shifts the physics of the center of gravity in your body to a point between your feet.
A young person can do that with his or her feet parallel. An older person needs to move the line between the feet closer to the chair. In Parkinson’s you can’t use momentum for any movement. Everything slows down with Parkinson’s. People are moving against a lot of interior resistance. The muscle tone that inhibits movement is stronger than the muscle tone that initiates the movement. The brakes are on. It’s like moving with the brakes on all the time. If you’ve driven your car with the emergency on, you know what I mean. You have to figure out how to do all the moves in the way Tai Chi is done, in slow motion.
Q: When I watch your videos, and read through the book, one thing that comes through is you’re having fun. Do you have that sense as well?
A: Acting is playing. You play a part. I deliberately set it out to be that way. I wanted to avoid as much as I could anything that smacked of the rigors of boot camp or anything that had to do with calisthenics or pushing. These people are too old to scold. I made it as playful as I possibly could. I feel creativity always functions better out of a spirit of play. I am training them to be actors and dancers. I want them, if they work with me long enough, to move better than most people their age, to have more grace than people who are not trained.
A: Being an orphanage kid, I always felt like I was passing as a normal person in the world away from the orphanage. So acting was second nature to me. As I moved into new situations, be it the Service, or college, or moving from Oklahoma to California, I always learned how to talk like the locals as quickly as possible, and to walk like them and trim my hair like them and turn my collar up like them, and all of that. Acting is the way I go through the world. (The photo above shows John, second from right, at the orphanage.)
I’ve always identified with the person who is the odd one out, who needs to find out how to pass, how to get by. I don’t see people with Parkinson’s primarily as their awkwardness or their illness. I tend to be able to see through to the person underneath whatever mask or disability they have.
"I’ve always identified with the person who is the odd one out, who needs to find out how to pass, how to get by."
Q: You said you worked earlier in hospitals. What did you do, and how did that happen?
A: I had a mentor who was a clinical psychologist. He gathered around him several artists. He collected us, and showed us how some of what we were doing could be used therapeutically. He invited us to attend his groups, in the day care facility, the mental institution, things like that, in Berkeley and Oakland. I worked for a while doing drama in a local hospital for acute care mental people. Then I worked with children in a residential home where they were attempting to treat seriously acting out children without a lot of drugs, with a lot of staff, 3-1 ratio, and a lot of physical contact and direct mental engagement with each kid. I was the drama teacher. I did plays with them and taught acting.
A: I’ve always tended to accept people how they are. Remember that the kids in the orphanage, we were all pretty crazy. We were all kids who had been in crazy homes. We were the cast-off kids of alcoholics and people that hadn’t made it in life. So I didn’t have that feeling of either revulsion or fascination with people with mental-health issues.
With Parkinson’s, it’s different in a certain sense. When I started working with Parkinson’s, I was in my late 40s. I started working with people who were 20-30 years older than me. All of a sudden, I was surrounded in my classroom with people who had already completed their careers. In Berkeley a lot of Parkinson’s people are retired professors or doctors. These are folks who have made it in the world. I was useful to them. I got their approval, their interest, even their affection.
I was getting a lot of my parenting needs met. And, with my history, I have a big parenting deficit in my life. In a sense, I found the perfect right livelihood, where I was able to be helpful to people who could help me. They would shower me with approval, just beamed me up the way parents do. I felt like I got a major contribution to my emotional and psychological health through choosing this work. Isn’t that pretty amazing? I was guided into this kind of work to heal the biggest wound of my life.
"In a sense, I found the perfect right livelihood, where I was able to be helpful to people who could help me."
Q: If someone had told you coming out of the Navy what your life would be like, what would you have said?
A: At that point, when I just got out of the Navy, I had pretty well identified what I wanted to do with my life. The grownups I knew and admired most as I was growing up were my teachers. I decided to be a teacher. At 21 or 22, I thought to myself, where are you happiest? Where do you feel best? I felt happiest in the classroom; at some point in my childhood I began to shine in the classroom. I’ve been a teacher all my life.
Q: Who was your first influential teacher?
A: The priests at the orphanage in western Oklahoma. In particular, there was Father Girard Nathan (OSB). Basically we were kept by the nuns. But there was one priest who headed up the orphanage. It was a farm orphanage; we all did farm work. I saw Father Girard on a tractor quite a lot.
Q: What did you learn from him?
A: I’ll tell you a story. That’s probably easiest. At harvest time, when they’d harvest the corn, there would always be ears of corn that dropped to the ground throughout the field. Father Girard got all the little boys down by that field and gave us each a bushel basket, and said, you get a dime for every bushel basket of corn you glean. So we went out gleaning, filling our baskets as fast as we could and hurrying them back to get our dime. We kept this going as the sun went down. We were barely able to see anymore.
Exhausted, we traipsed back up to the main building to find that we had missed the dinner bell. Here you had 8-10 boys, all around 10-11 years old. Since we’d missed the dinner bell, we’d missed dinner. The nun wouldn’t let us in the dining room. We went back up to Father Girard’s house, which was unheard of, 200 yards up the road, and told him about it. He by then had changed out of his farm clothes and was wearing his cassock, a long floor-length black gown, and was reading.
Well, he headed back off down the road to the main building, with all us little boys dancing around him, walking so fast that we were all running – these long strides with his long black cassock. And we got into dinner. He just said so, no bones about it.
Q: He cared about you.
A: He cared about work. He cared about being fair. He would bend the rules when justice demanded it. And he would stand up to the nuns; we were all terrified of the nuns.
Q: Those were all good lessons to learn.
A: Oh, yeah. I feel grateful for an awful lot that I learned there.
Q: This is probably a good segue to ask about your own sense of spirituality and how you see it reflected in your work.
A: What makes work delightful to me is I always feel better at the end of my class than when I began it. I get something from every class. That’s proof positive to me that I’m in the right line of work. If you feel better at the end of the day then when you started, you must be doing something right.
My work is about serving others. I find that when I forget myself and focus just on what my students need, where they’re at, what I can bring, what need I can answer, I do my best work. Something comes through me. How does that relate spiritually? To me, spirituality implies service.
Q: How would you describe your practice? Do you go to church? Create a spiritual space in the morning?
A: My practice is to rise early and to sit without turning on the lights. For maybe 45 minutes, I reflect on my life and let the dawn come up around me. I gradually see the world comes in as the light increases. My mind seems to work at its very best in this moment, so I’ll take a notebook and assign tasks if they float into my mind.
My other time, which I’ve been practicing for the 10 years I’ve lived in my current home, is to take a walk for about an hour in the afternoon in a large cemetery, which serves as our local park. I’ve learned all the paths in that cemetery. I’ve learned a lot of the names, too. Sometimes I’ve gotten interested in a particular tombstone and looked up who that person was. I’ve gotten to know the gardeners. I sometimes think this is a melancholy place to get your exercise. But it suits me. Sometimes I think of the Memento Mori meditations you find in Christianity and in Buddhism, to remember death, that life is not permanent, and that what you have is the present moment. And also to live a good life, to use your life to create good in the world, to make the world a better place. That seems to be the message of my local graveyard. What people record on gravestones are their family relationships, their contributions to the world around them, a line of verse.
"...remember that life is not permanent, and that what you have is the present moment. ...live a good life, use your life to create good in the world."
Q: I’ve just been reading about how the ancients integrated death much more into life.
A: One problem of working with people with Parkinson’s, who are 20-30 years older than you, is that your students die before you do. That’s not quite usual for most teachers. Most teachers are teaching the young. I love my people. They’re with me for a good, long part of their lives. To see their courage and walk this path with them is a real privilege. But then they’re gone. Part of what I do while walking is remember them.
In my spiritual world I didn’t connect with any religion. I did a lot of religious stuff as a child. I started high school as a priesthood student. But somewhere along the way I figured out that celibacy was not going to be part of my path. Then I got seriously antireligious. I developed a big interest in Zen in graduate school, and practiced ZaZen for 10 years or so. I wasn’t particularly good at Za-Zen. So I went into studying Tai Chi. I started thinking Tai Chi was a spiritual practice, but also it would strengthen my body, so I could sit longer. I found I could get into as meditative a state as I was moving in Tai Chi as I could sitting still.
Eventually, I coined the term for myself of jackhammer Zen. I don’t want to retreat from the world. I want to be in the jackhammer world. I want to walk the walk where the noise and the pressure are high, and not feel that I have to go off into a closet to hear the message from a power greater than myself. I should be able to hear it at the moment of crisis. And, often, I do.
"I don’t want to retreat from the world. I want to be in the jackhammer world."
For more on the John Argue Method, or about John’s book, Parkinson’s Disease and the Art of Moving (New Harbinger Publications, 2000), or about his exercise and movement DVDs, Parkinson’s Disease and the Art of Moving and Parkinson’s Disease and the Activities of Daily Living, please visit his website, http://www.parkinsonsexercise.com/ .