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
by Simone Hoppe