MS & Yoga

“Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.” -Albert Einstein

Yoga changed my life – and increased my own ability to manage my chronic illness. (See my yoga story at Carolyne’s Yoga Transformation.) Personally, I was so hooked by my first yoga experience at a local studio that I jumped right in and took my Certified Yoga Teacher (CYT) training – with my main focus being to fully understand how yoga is done, and how it can help my body and my overall health. While it was expensive and took a big time commitment, the CYT course is money & time that was very well spent – I do not regret it at all! But then again, my curious nature makes it important for me to understand what I am dealing with – so understanding yoga became vital to me. Still is!

Here is a YouTube video that made me cry when I first saw it…because I experienced the same growth and mobility freedom. Watch it – you will be blown away. The benefits of yoga are clear.

The effect of yoga on MS is of such great interest that there have been funded studies of the effects of yoga on MS patients. Preliminary data has shown improvement in the fatigue experienced by people with MS. The researchers found that yoga did not influence cognitive function or mood, but it did lessen fatigue and increase energy level. This is an important finding because fatigue is one of the most difficult and hidden symptoms of MS. in my own personal experience as I study yoga’s effect on me, I have found that maintaining a practice of yoga does indeed help my mood greatly, in that it helps me to manage my stress and pain – which goes a long way to helping mood!

The yoga positions in one study run with the National MS Society support, was developed by Eric Small, who was diagnosed with MS at age 22. Eric became a serious student of yoga after his diagnosis and credits yoga with keeping him in good health despite having MS. His website, YogaMS, contains articles with details about the particulars of his approach to MS management using yoga, as well as a video for home practice.

Practicing yoga helps you to accept, love and work with what your body will allow you to do, at anytime in your life, whether or not you are living with MS. You can do yoga if you are fully mobile, or if you are confined to a wheelchair, or even if you are confined to a bed. You may notice an increase in energy; improved mobility, range of motion and balance; a more positive outlook; effective stress management and enhanced focus.

Yoga has been shown to have the following additional benefits for MS’ers:

The physical benefits:

  • Improved muscle tone.
  • Improved balance (I have more balance now even with vertigo than I did years ago!)
  • Reduced muscle spasms
  • improved digestion and regular elimination (The twisting poses are great for this. Yoga helps you go to the bathroom regularly. Good bye, medication constipation!)
  • Creates a toned, flexible, and strong body.
  • Improves respiration, energy, and vitality.
  • Helps to maintain a balanced metabolism.
  • Promotes cardio and circulatory health.
  • Relieves pain.

The mental benefits:

  • Builds awareness of your body, your feelings, and the state of your MS.
  • Helps you relax and handle stressful situations more easily.
  • Teaches you how to quiet the mind so you can focus your energy where you want it to go.
  •  Encourages positive thoughts and self-acceptance.

The spiritual benefits:

  • Builds compassion and understanding ofthe world around you, the needs of others.
  • Teaches you to look at how you manage your illness with self-awareness, self-compassion and non-attachment.

Yoga can be done at a studio, at a local gym, or at home with DVD’s or following the cable television shows. Personally, I recommend that beginners take a beginners yoga class series for a month or two at a yoga studio in order to learn the proper technique and make sure you learn the poses correctly. Sometimes, it can initially be hard to understand exactly what the pose should be like and doing a pose incorrectly can cause injury. An instructor can help make small adjustments in your poses or suggestions that can make a huge difference. After that, you can continue with the class or begin a home practice using a video or audio recording.

Studying with a certified yoga teacher (CYT) or an MS-trained instructor can improve your chances of moving through the practice at an appropriate pace for whatever stage of the MS cycle you may find yourself in. Also, you will learn specific sequences designed for challenges such as fatigue, constipation, problems with digestion, lack of mental clarity, or balance. Another benefit is the community within a yoga studio – they can be a fantastic support system! Personally, the community is a major support emotionally when the  stress and frustration of dealing with chronic health issues gets me down – just soaking up the community energy in a yoga studio is enough to make me feel more centered and content.

For a yoga student with MS, there are three types of symptoms that yoga can directly target: fatigue and heat intolerance, numbness in the limbs and loss of coordination, and loss of flexibility and balance.

Fatigue and heat intolerance appear to be the most limiting factors to MS students. For that reason, Hot Yoga classes should be undertaken only with a doctor’s approval and individual awareness as to your body’s ability to withstand heat. Yoga generates an internal heat of its own, and sometimes adding outside heat in the form of a heated studio can overwhelm the benefits of the yoga practice. To ease this, learn to master the breath and practice restorative postures. Both techniques cool the body and calm the nervous system. I have done hot yoga, and I love it…but I don’t do it if I am in an MS exacerbation or too fatigued – the heat flares up my symptoms too much at that time. I love attending a hot yoga class whenever I can, and whenever it makes sense health-wise, because I can loosen the stiff muscles much more with the heat. (And, frankly, in the cold canadian winter time, hot yoga is almost as good as a hot beach in the south!!)

MS can also result in a daily struggle with numbness of the arms and legs, muscle spasms, and loss of coordination. I get this alot myself – especially in my legs. The practice of yoga emphasizes stretching and breathing, which helps lengthen muscles, can release tension and improve circulation and body awareness. Yoga can also increase your ability to be aware of your body, differentiating between the muscular and nervous systems of the body, possibly resulting in more fluid movement and relief from muscle tension. As your level of body awareness improves, you can improve your ability to recognise what is MS, what is not MS, and so on. It also help you recognize outside emotional stressors that may be affecting you and possibly exacerbating your symptoms.

Finally, in addition to evolving body awareness, yoga increases flexibility and balance. The poses increase the range of motion in the joints and improve muscle tone, and work of most of the body’s muscle groups.

Your yoga practice can be tailored according to your needs. If you are in a period of remission and your balance is pretty good, you can often do most of poses practiced in an ordinary class setting. During periods of relapse, stay in the groove of practicing by doing a modified practice, for example lying on the floor or using chairs and the wall. I once got through an entire balancing sequence using my own cane as a prop! Hey – whatever works!

So what does all this mean in a practical sense for you as an individual with MS or another chronic illness? Well, here are some tips from my own yoga journey to help you to embark on your own yoga journey:

  1. Yoga is for anyone – not just for people who are super flexible, or rich, or skinny, or athletically gifted. Yoga is about you and where you are in this moment. I spent my first months on the yoga mat using my 4-footed cane as a balance prop! If I can do it, so can you!
  2. Take your EGO out of the equation! It doesn’t matter if you can touch your toes or if you haven’t seen your toes in ages…you CAN do yoga, one millimeter at a time! I learned quickly to let go of my competitive nature when it comes to yoga – I focus on my own body and any changes…maybe I can fold forward just a smidgen more this week; or, maybe I am tighter today than yesterday and reaching my toes is really tough today. It is all good!
  3. You may never master some poses. The beauty of yoga is that you don’t have to. Yoga is a continuous learning journey  – learning to accept your body as it is, and accept your limitations.
  4. It doesn’t have to be expensive. While I definitely recommend that you seek out a studio offering a series of beginner lessons, when you start on your own yoga journey, it need not be expensive. All you need is a sticky mat to start! Your local library will have an assortment of books about yoga that you can reference. Contact your MS Society – they may have copies of yoga DVD’s that they can lend out. You can download free yoga lessons on-line – just google it! There are many options – you have to simply seek out what works for you.
  5. Explore yoga and have fun! There are many forms of yoga out there. Keep to the restorative forms, such as hatha, anusara, Yin, Iyengar (for positional accuracy) and such. Go with your own body’s needs. No one knows you like YOU!

“Your body is precious. It is our vehicle for awakening. Treat it with care.” -Buddha

Namaste.

Carolyne

Related Posts

Carolyne’s Recommendations for Yoga DVDs and download-able classes

7 thoughts on “MS & Yoga

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  2. Carolyne, I thoroughly enjoyed this post and highly agree with you! I too am a Yoga teacher and I teach yoga to persons with MS. A partner, (he is a yoga teacher and has MS), and I have created a Yoga for MS DVD. I would love if you could share this with your audience. Our websites are YogaChuck.com and yogaandinspiration.com. I’m going to share your blog post with my MS students. Thank you!

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  5. I have been dying to try hot yoga but have been to scared. Thank you for your wonderful blog! I am going to try my first hot yoga class tomorrow. I hope it goes okay. As long as I don’t pass out I will count it a success!

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