The first article I read about Multiple Sclerosis (MS) contained pictures of Erik Small doing yoga poses. The article lit a fire inside of me because it described how yoga had helped him in so many ways. As a yoga instructor, I wondered how much I could help a group of students with MS.
As I walked into my first class, I was a little intimidated. I had never taught yoga to someone using a wheelchair or to someone who couldn’t use one side of his body. MS, an inflammatory and autoimmune disease, attacks the central nervous system—the brain and spinal cord. Composed of nerve cells which transmit electrical impulses, the central nervous system’s sheath gets damaged or destroyed. The full course of this degenerative disease may take 20-30 years, depending on the form.
Yet I was committed to my goal: If Small could see results, so should my students. My first class had 12 students; my second had two. What had I done wrong, I wondered? My intentions were good. My two remaining students informed me that my first class was, well, too exhausting. So I went back to the drawing board.
I looked up everything I could find on the subject of yoga and MS. Unfortunately yoga books and articles on MS are not as common as, say, treatises on lower back pain. In the average teacher training, yoga instructors are not taught how to design a class for people with MS. So for the next few weeks I listened to the needs of my students, and together we designed a class that was suited for everyone. I noted their weaknesses and their strengths. I listened as they described how they were feeling on that particular day or week. By paying attention to my students’ physical and mental states, I would adjust my class accordingly. I learned more by teaching my students than what I found in books.
Reclining leg stretches, spinal stretches and twists are always included in my class. These are ideal poses as they can be done on the floor easily without having to stand. Spinal twists are important to get movement of the spine as well as to stretch and strengthen the upper and lower body.
For balancing, I have my students move from lying on the floor to up on all four. I then have them start slowly, extending one leg at a time while balancing on two arms and one leg. While keeping their focus on breathing, we build endurance and concentration. If at any time my students feel wobbly, I have them use either the wall or a chair for extra support. I include several modifications to each pose and encourage each student to find the pose that feels right. Sometimes straps and blocks help with this. In addition I have my students work on strengthening their feet and ankles. From a seated position I will give them a cup of marbles and have them use their toes to pick them up and place them in the cup. This is very helpful in getting mobility in their feet and ankles, which helps with walking and balance, which contributes to overall confidence.
“Since I started yoga 18 months ago, I have noticed improvement in several areas,” says Michelle Love, 38, diagnosed with MS four years ago. “My balance is better, and I am less prone to falls. I am more flexible, especially in the back. My neurologist has especially noticed an improvement in my arm strength. Leg stiffness can be a problem for MS patients and the stretching and stengthening we do in yoga has helped my legs a lot.”
At the end of the hour-long class I have my students lie down in a comfortable position (savasana). From this position I teach various breathing and relaxation techniques. The final relaxation is very important to allow the student to absorb the benefits of their yoga practice and to help calm their central nervous system. Dr. Junella Chin, D.O., describes the benefits of yoga for those with MS. “Disease is the result of the relationship between anatomical structure and physiological function,” she says. “A normally functioning musculoskeletal system plays an important role in wellness, disease prevention and recovery. Yoga therapy helps to restore health, structure and overall improved quality of life for people with Multiple Sclerosis.”
Patty Woolsey, 50, first diagnosed in 1994, agrees. “I have seen tremendous results with yoga,” she says. “I don’t do as well when I am not participating in it. I highly recommended this exercise for all of us!”
As you can see there are a lot of variables to take into consideration when planning a yoga class for students with MS. I always ask my students where they are that day, and how they are feeling. I take my cue from them. Over time, we were transformed into a support group where everyone can talk about what they’re experiencing. The class has become a place where individual spirits are lifted and everyone progresses together. My intention with the class went from making them better at yoga to simply increasing the gifts and strengths they already have inside.
by Simone Hoppe