Proven to decrease fatigue, Yoga boosts flexibility, strength and confidence.
+ Accessible to all levels of disability including wheelchair users
+ Addresses the whole body, quiets and calms the mind
+ Gentle poses help with proper body alignment, balance
- Hard to chose “just right” style without experimenting
- Learning poses may seem daunting at first
- Takes time to find the right studio/class/teacher
Yoga has long been touted for both its physical and mental benefits for those with multiple sclerosis. Indeed, a 2004 randomized controlled trial of yoga found that those with MS who completed a 6-month yoga class (or exercise class) “showed significant improvement in measures of fatigue” compared to a waiting-list control group. But yoga, particularly in a studio setting, also conjures fear in us MSers who’ve never done the ancient Indian discipline. There are lots of strange poses—downward facing dog, upward facing dog, slightly menacing sideways-glancing dog—not to mention strange breathing practices and odd “ohm” new-agey noises. And then if one can wrap his or her head around that, there are myriad subsets of yoga to choose from: Hatha, Vinyasa, Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bikram, Viniyoga, Anasura, Jivamukti, Forrest, Kripalu, Integral, Restorative, Moksha, Sivananda, Kundalini, and many other styles that may or may not sound like types of Italian pasta. Scared yet? Don’t be.
“Yoga can be practiced in several different ways,” explains Sarah Humphries, a yoga instructor who was diagnosed with MS in the early 1990s and writes the blog msyogaandmylife. “The poses that can be experienced standing or sitting on the floor can also be modified to be performed in a chair. In addition, an option exists to modify the poses for those who need to remain in a wheelchair. Yoga is popular with MSers because it is slow and with props—blankets, blocks, straps, bolsters, etc.—can be made available to anyone.”
So regardless of your level of disability, you can do this. I’ve done everything from hardcore power yoga (with challenging standing poses that require significant strength and stamina) to gentle chair yoga to DVD mat yoga to even laughter yoga. As Sarah says, yoga can be adapted specifically to your needs. If you can get around pretty well and your balance is solidish, experiment with any style except perhaps Bikram or Hot yoga, which is practiced in a room that is 105 degrees (icky hot for us MSers). The more disability you have, though, the more particular you’ll want to be.
“It’s best to find a small class,” says Sarah. “Yoga classes for MSers may require lots of hands-on adjustments and that is easier to accommodate in a small class. Also, be honest about your MS. All yoga instructors are trained to offer alternative poses for the individual yogi. If a certain pose is uncomfortable, stop; yoga should never be painful. Ask your instructor for a way to adapt the pose.”
Another twist on yoga classes is the “woo-woo” factor, as one instructor I had calls it. Yoga can be an entire mind/body practice, so if a studio emphasizes too much of one and not enough of the other for you, try another studio. I’m a down-to-earth guy and prefer instructors who focus more on the “asanas” (poses) than the meditative aspects. That said, both are important factors in practicing yoga, so don’t discount the mental side.
“Proper breathing is one of the first things taught in a beginner yoga class,” says Sarah. “Integrating this nasal breath with the slow movements helps to relieve stress and calms and quiets the mind. A quiet, calm mind leads to less stress, and we all know how stress affects MS.”
When I started doing chair yoga at my local MS Society, it was jarringly different from mat yoga. It took me some time to get used to the slower pace since my daily workouts were usually far more vigorous. But I discovered that's okay. I've learned to focus on my breaths and where my body is in space, and to be a bit more in the flow. The biggest surprise from the class, though, was the camaraderie of the group, which ranged from those MSers fully capable to those in wheelchairs. Our gang—our “kula”—was refreshing to hang out with each week, all of us working for a common goal: to stay active.
ActiveMSers Bottom Line: Since most yoga is slow, emphasizing proper positioning of the body along with a compatible breath, it’s an ideal exercise for those with multiple sclerosis, especially those who are particularly heat sensitive. Yoga has the potential to help in many common problem areas: balance, stress, gait, spasticity, strength … and confidence. You’d be hard pressed to find a better relaxing mind/body program.
Yoga improves strength, balance, flexibility and because of those things, also confidence. Working with an instructor in a classroom setting is key to starting the practice. Mat work is good for those balance challenged.
Downward facing dog is not as hard as it looks. As the yoga practitioner continues to learn they will become more body aware, which improves gait, posture and strength.
The common warrior pose can be done using a chair or wall for balance or even sitting. B.K.S. Iyengar, who is credited with developing the use of props in yoga, says that “we use the props so we can, not because we can’t.”