“Every day you must walk that fine line between courage and caution.”
~ B.K.S. IYENGAR
March is Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month and Sunrise Yoga wants to do its part to raise awareness of this unpredictable neurological disorder. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, “MS symptoms are variable and unpredictable. No two people have exactly the same symptoms, and each person’s symptoms can change or fluctuate over time,” but many have found that practicing yoga and meditation help make it easier to live with whatever symptoms develop.
Multiple Sclerosis is an autoimmune disease of the brain and spinal cord, the main components of the central nervous system, and affects nearly 400,000 Americans. “Common symptoms include muscular weakness, stiffness, and pain; loss of balance and coordination; numbness and tingling in the limbs; speech, vision, and bladder problems; short-term memory loss; impaired concentration; and abnormal fatigue. In severe cases, a person may become blind or paralyzed,” as noted in Sharon Sexton’s article, “A Life Worth Living”, on the Yoga International website.
She goes on to say, “Although the exact cause remains a mystery, many experts believe that MS begins as an immune response mounted against an invader—a virus, perhaps—that mutates into an attack against the body itself.”
The Multiple Sclerosis Association of America supports Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month with educational activities and events. “MSAA has focused 2018’s awareness campaign on Understanding MS Progression, with specific topics addressing MS relapse management, brain preservation and cognition in MS, and healthy living with primary-progressive MS (PPMS).” MSAA lists the following as symptoms related to MS:
Common Physical Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis
mobility and walking issues
Common Emotional, Mental, and Psychological Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis
Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA)
Common “Invisible” Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis
Maryann B. Hunsberger, a New Jersey-based freelance writer/editor who specializes in disability issues, writes, “People with MS – whether they show no outward signs of illness or whether they use a wheelchair – need physical exercise. Yoga is especially beneficial, as it releases muscular tension, improves flexibility and circulation, helps with balance and fatigue, and boosts mental alertness. It reduces the effect of sensory changes by increasing functional abilities to a higher level.
Yoga is a gentle form of exercise, and the authors point out that yoga always gives more energy than it takes, making it ideal for those whose energy is limited from MS. Since yoga involves sustained muscle stretches, it helps with the spasticity that sometimes accompanies MS by promoting muscle relaxation. Holding these postures requires isometric effort that increases strength. Because yoga encourages muscle groups to work together, it helps with impaired coordination and balance.”
These comments appear on the MSAA web site as part of a review Hunsberger made on the book, Yoga and Multiple Sclerosis: A Journey to Health and Healing (Demos Medical Publishing, 2007) by Loren M. Fishman, MD and Eric L. Small. She observed, “Fishman and Small derived the yoga program described in the book from the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the world’s most renowned yoga instructors, who practices therapeutic Hatha yoga in Poona, India. Small has spent the past 40 years as an internationally recognized Iyengar yoga instructor. He has also had MS for more than 50 years. He has further developed Iyengar’s work to create a yoga program for MS patients of varying mobility levels. Fishman, an assistant clinical professor in rehabilitation at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, has incorporated yoga in his medical practice for more than 25 years. Both authors have studied with Iyengar in India.”
In the book, Eric Small says, “I am not cured. Iyengar yoga has become the tool with which I handle the day-to-day contingencies of living with MS. I am very proud to hold a Senior II teaching certificate from Mr. Iyengar personally, which has enabled me to travel far and wide teaching others the benefits of Iyengar Hatha Yoga.”
Yoga Journal reports, “A recent Rutgers University study found that women with moderate symptoms of multiple sclerosis experienced improvements in balance, walking, coordination, and quality of life after eight weeks of practicing yoga.” In this study, researchers from Rutgers’ School of Health Related Professions studied the effects of a specialized yoga program for MS patients, incorporating mind, body, and spirit on the quotidian life scale of 14 women with moderate disability due to the disease.
In addition to the physical benefits of practicing yoga, yoga and meditation address the mental and emotional issues related to MS. “Being mindful has a way of bringing you into the present, so for those with MS who don’t know what they’ll wake up to or what the next day or month might bring, mindfulness can reduce anxiety and pain during everyday life challenges,” says Mindy Eisenberg, founder of Yoga Moves MS, a Michigan nonprofit organization, and author of Adaptive Yoga Moves Any Body (everydayhealth.com). “The Yoga Moves philosophy cultivates empowerment, healing, and fun. Yoga is a way to feel alive in our bodies. The more we develop the mind body relationship, we learn much more about our capabilities than our disabilities and limitations, and open to new possibilities both on and off the yoga mat.”
The Rutgers research team mentioned earlier suggests beginning with the Mountain Pose with overhead stretch (Tadasana) and the Forward Bend to waist height (Uttanasana) and the variations of these two poses. Everyone is encouraged to first seek doctor approval prior to beginning any yoga program.
Sunrise Yoga has offered Chair Yoga for many years. Chair Yoga classes are appropriate for those with special health conditions like MS, those who want a slower paced class or those who are looking for a beginner level class. The class is open to students who use walkers, canes, and wheelchairs.
Most of the class activity is performed seated in a chair. For those who are able, some standing (with support) and floor movements may be given. For those who are unable, alternate poses appropriate for remaining seated will be given. Students could potentially benefit from the practice of yoga and may see improved range of motion and flexibility, involvement in a social activity, strengthened muscles and joints, and reduced stress. These classes include yoga poses for the body, breathing exercises, and relaxation techniques.
If you have been diagnosed with MS or if you know someone who has, please contact us to get started on a yoga journey. Our Sunrise Yoga team is ready to serve as your guide to “walk that fine line between courage and caution” and face each day with mindfulness and empowerment.