Sixty-six-year-old Mike Witt sits by himself on a wooden bench to the side of the room, his hands shaking as they come to rest on his knees, a tell-tale sign of the Parkinson's Disease from which he's suffered for seven years.

“I try to come three times a week,” he says, his knee, too, beginning to shake as he looks around a room full of boxing equipment, the smell of perspiration still heavy in the air. “I'll be wasted for the rest of the day, but it's the best (therapy) I've found.

“It's so good for my core strength. I can do this now,” he says popping up, seemingly without effort, into a standing position. “I can get in and out of bed. Showers aren't quite as hard. It's been such a blessing.”

Witt, a transplant from Oregon, is one of several local residents with Parkinson's who have found comfort and, in many cases, healing as a result of Rock Steady, a kickboxing class held at the YMCA of Vincennes that caters specifically to their particular strength and coordination needs.

For many of them, it's been the difference between enjoying their life — and not.

“When Dennis first came to us, we had to hold him up with a belt, and now look at him,” Rock Steady certified trainer Stell Kiefer said as she gestured to Dennis Everett, a sufferer of progressive supranuclear palsy, a cousin to Parkinson's, as he stood, without assistance, and repeatedly punched a body-length bag.

“He's doing great. They all are.”

The Rock Steady program was launched in 2006 in Marion County by a prosecutor diagnosed with Parkinson's and a friend, an avid boxer, who wanted desperately to help. They designed a program that attacks Parkinson's — and other neurological disorders — at their most venerable points.

Seeing its benefits, they started a non-profit and saw Rock Steady expand across Indiana and, eventually, other parts of the country.

Hundreds of people now benefit nationwide, Kiefer said.

The first Rock Steady dojo here was opened by trainer Scott Arnold just a few years ago. Kiefer's husband, Terry, who suffers from advanced Parkinson's, trained under him. And now she, likewise, is helping to train two more, John Ivers and Jo Carney.

With three of them teaching, they're able to offer a Rock Steady class five mornings a week, which makes all the difference in the lives of those living with Parkinson's.

“I think they'd come in everyday if we'd let them,” Ivers said with a grin. “By Friday, they're worn out, but they can move. Come Monday, it's rough for them to get moving again.

“Some of them come in (needing assistance) with belts and within three weeks, they see a difference in what they're able to do. One lady said to me, 'I can open a jar of pickles. That was the hardest thing for me to do.'

“The easiest things for you and me to do at home, these people can't. So when they build strength through boxing, they just function better.”

The class consists largely of various punching and kicking circuits but also floor work, such as exercises where they use their arms and upper body strength to pull them along the length of the floor.

The exercises, too, can be modified for beginners or those with a greater progression of the disease. No one is left out regardless of their abilities.

And it's not only for those with Parkinson's, as is evident by 67-year-old Henry Watjen, who even while confined to a wheelchair (the result of a stroke a year ago) comes as many times a week as possible.

“We've been through all the therapy,” his wife, Sue Watjen, said as she watched him work to strike a small punching bag hanging just in front of his face. “But Rock Steady, he says, feels better to him. It stimulates him to want to do more.

“He just started the first of April and already he is moving his left arm more. He can shrug his shoulders,” she said. “He's doing better with his leg, too. He can swing it, move it. He's just stronger.”

The physical growth and exercise, however, is only part of their commitment to the Rock Steady dojo. Together, participants have found support and the strength to battle the disease mentally as well.

Once a month, after their workout, they sit down for a much-needed roundtable discussion.

“He likes it here because of the atmosphere,” Sue Watjen said of Henry. “He has more socialization here. He doesn't want to sleep as much.

“We're making small strides, but he's doing so much more than he did before.”

Everett, too, once unable to stand on his own, now gets around with the use of a walker and can participate in the class at levels unthinkable just a few months ago.

“This has been the best thing for me physically,” he said, still breathless from the hour-long class. “There's no cure, no treatment for what I have, so this is the best thing I can do.

“And the camaraderie,” he said. “I enjoy the people. They understand.”

For more information about Rock Steady, contact the YMCA at 812-895-YMCA.

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