Yoga and MS (and other chronic illness)

Tips for yoga for Multiple Sclerosis and other chronic illnesses

Yoga has been used to manage the symptoms of MS for over thirty years, with teachers in the States and the UK,modifying common yoga postures to accommodate the varied physical abilities of people with MS anddeveloping specific programs for particular symptoms.

Some students have found that yoga has maintained flexibility and movement over a long period of time, whereas others have limited or no progression in their condition and some a reversal of their symptoms and a reduction of fatigue.

How does yoga benefit MS?

Physical postures

There is a physical posture to stretch and strengthen every part of the body and balance all of the body’s systems, and they can all be modified for limited mobility and what can’t be done physically can be visualised.

I have taught a whole course of chair-based yoga. There were opportunities for people to stand if they wished but generally people chose to sit – we found a way to stretch and strengthen the whole body while sitting in a chair.

Here are some of the benefits of physical yoga practice:

  • Improved balance
  • Improved flexibility
  • Improved strength
  • Balanced endocrine system
  • Balanced digestive system
  • Improved mental clarity and concentration
  • Higher energy
  • Greater self/body awareness – I began to inhabit my body again

And what can’t be done physically can be visualised – go to the visualising page

Yoga in a chair for the upper body

  • Sit in an alert, erect sitting position with your core stability gently engaged

Side bends

  • Place your left hand in front of your navel, palm up. Elongate your spine and raise your right arm sideways and overhead. The palm faces down as though you are holding a large beach ball between your hands. Lift and stretch from the right elbow.
  • Bend over to the left, stretching from the right hip through to your shoulder and into your right hand.
  • Engage your core stability muscles, breathe in and straighten up, lifting from the right elbow. Your arms reverse positions symmetrically as you rise up, as if you are rolling the beach ball between your hands.
  • Repeat two more times to each side.

Arm Rotations.

  •  With your arms a little distance away from your sides, rotate them forwards. The movement flows from the shoulders, into the elbows and wrists.
  •  Rotate your arms backwards, beginning the movement from the shoulders. Feel your chest opening.
  •  Continue the rotations, gradually raising the arms to shoulder height.

Rotate your arms in alternate directions so that one arm rolls forwards at the same time as the other one rolls backwards. Your head turns in the direction of the upturned hand. Extend your arms on the out breath and release and twist on the in-breath and then reverse.  Lower your arms to your side.

Shoulder circling

  •  Place your fingertips on your shoulders with your elbows in front.
  • Keeping your fingers on your shoulders, draw your elbows up and above your head. Raise your head slightly as you lengthen your upper spine. Keep your shoulders and neck relaxed throughout.
  • Take your elbows back and out to the sides as you lower them as though drawing circles with your elbows. Complete the circular movement, raising the elbows in front, and repeat the movements.
  • Repeat two more times.
  • Reverse the movements, breathing in as you raise your elbows behind you and out as you lower them in front.
  • Repeat two more times, then lower your arms to your sides.

The quick fix is to breathe up through the spine, lift the breastbone and gently roll the shoulders but a quick warning, once you start, it feels so good you will want to do all three stretches, so be prepared.

Breathing

All yoga practice includes breathing practices, called pranayama, one of the eight limbs of yoga. These practices are varied and can have a range of benefits, including:

  • Relaxation
  • Balance between the two halves of the brain, encouraging traffic across the corpus colossum
  • Higher oxygen levels in the blood due to deeper, more complete breathing
  • Improved mental clarity and energy levels due to higher oxygen
  • There is a cooking breath for those of us who are heart affected (and/or menopausal)
  • Breath practices, specifically for improving mental clarity (very useful for those occasions of MS Brain)
  • Working with your breath can be an extremely effective way to manage pain (ask a woman who has just given birth)
  • And I find Deep Yogic Breath incredibly useful when my chest muscles don’t work so well because using my diaphragm to draw air into my lungs reduces the work on my chest muscles, allowing for air to enter and leave the lungs, even when it is hard to lift my ribcage.

Even breathing

The easiest breathing practice to begin is Even breathing.

  • Sit quietly and observe your own breath for a few moments, until you feel calm.
  • Count your inhalation and exhalation, then lengthen the shorter one until they are equal in length.
  • Repeat this for a few repetitions (no more than ten) and return to your normal breathing pattern. Sit for a few moments and notice how you feel.
  • This can be repeated through the day, whenever you think about it.
  • This is particularly good for calming panic and bringing balance back into your present.

Breathing practices can be very powerful so practices them in small amounts (begin with no more than ten repetitions) and build up slowly. If you experience any dizziness or light-headedness, return to your normal breathing pattern immediately.

Relaxation

Relaxation is also part of every yoga practice and for me has been nothing short of life-saving. In a Dru yoga class we give a deep relaxation at the end of every class to allow body and mind a chance to integrate the practices and their effects – settling your mind and body into a smooth pond.

I could wax lyrical about the importance of relaxation in healing and managing any chronic condition, so if you would like to read more, click here for the relaxation page.

Meditation

Meditation is also often included in many yoga classes as it is also one of the eight limbs of yoga. Many complimentary therapists include meditation as a key element in  working towards wellbeing. In Australia, Ian Gawler, George Jelinek and Petrea King all conduct retreats and classes with an emphasis on meditation for wellbeing.

It has been such an important part of my recovery that I have written a page on meditation, so if you would like to know more, click here for the meditation page.

Cautions to be aware of when beginning a yoga practice and choosing a class

Of course, there are always things to be aware of when beginning any new activity, so I will list as many as I can think of, from my own experiences and those of others I know.

  • Always tell your yoga teacher you have MS because she may know of specific practices that may help and will be better able to modify the class to suit you – anecdotally, a person with MS recently joined a friend’s class, who then asked me to recommend practices, considersations etc and the student is now enjoying a full and satisfying yoga class, so it is really worth disclosing.
  • Be prepared to sit down during the class if your body is showing you need a rest. For example, some postures may increase your core body temperature and you may need to rest until it returns to normal.
  • Always work within the limits of your own body. this applies to all yoga students but particularly for those of us with chronic illness or disability. I have a policy in my classes that we never look at what other people can do, only appreciate the stretch and strength we have in our own body – a body pushed too far has an awkward an often painful way of showing you.
  • Balance postures are often difficult in an open class, so find a chair, wall or partner to work with to keep you upright and safe.
  • Begin a new class as a casual student so you can attend a few classes to ensure the class and the teacher are right for you.
  • Be aware of other conditions that may affect your ability to do certain postures. For example heart conditions, blood pressure issues (low and high), arthritis, hip replacement, glaucoma, pregnancy, menstruation and abdominal surgery can all require modified or alternative postures in some cases.
  • Drink lots of water during and after the class. This will reduce the likelihood of headaches occurring as a result of the detox effect yoga can have on the body.
  • Notice how you feel at the end of the class and in the days after, and if you have any questions, ASK THEM.

Most importantly, enjoy your yoga practice and feel free to contact me if you have any questions or would just like to chat.

Om shanti