Many people with multiple sclerosis take advantage of complementary and alternative medicine. Mind-body techniques are especially popular, particularly yoga. But some people with MS may worry that they cannot keep up with a regular yoga class due to MS limitations.
The beauty of yoga lies in its adaptability to fit each person’s needs. You do not need to be able to twist yourself into a pretzel or stand on one foot, eyes closed, and reach to the stars. You just need to “start where you are.” Yoga is not the goal; it is a process that helps to integrate mind, body, and spirit.
Studies have demonstrated multiple benefits of yoga in persons with MS. It can reduce pain and anxiety, decrease blood pressure and pulse rate, and improve general health, body flexibility, cognitive functioning, and quality of life. I have found that regular practice of yoga makes me feel more flexible, calm, and able to handle challenges that may arise.
At the Consortium of MS Centers (CMSC) conference in June, I met Mindy Eisenberg, an inspirational woman who teaches adaptive yoga to people with MS. Mindy’s journey toward adaptive yoga began with her experiences as the daughter of a woman diagnosed with progressive MS who was confined to a wheelchair for over 25 years.
After becoming a yoga instructor, Mindy volunteered as an instructor for support group of people with MS and quickly recognized how the yoga classes improved her students’ sense of self-worth, capability, and well-being. She found that they moved more steadily, felt energized and serene, and had a lot of fun. Mindy subsequently established Yoga Moves MS (YMMS), a non-profit community and movement started to support adaptive yoga for MS classes.
During one of many conversations during conference, I asked Mindy, “What are the most important ways you’ve found that adaptive yoga helps people with MS?”
Mindy’s response: “There’s a few things that people say to us when I ask, ‘What is it that helped you with yoga?’ Usually breath is number one. They realize they can feel so much better just from learning how to breathe again, because when we’re born we know how to breathe but somehow we forget. Breathing alone helps the stress response, it helps focus, it helps energy, so that’s probably number one. And then all these poses; they’re wonderful. What they do is bring in this sense of empowerment because you find a way — adaptive yoga gives you all this leeway with creativity — you find a way that works for you from top to bottom and bottom to top.”
Based in Michigan, Mindy has worked with yoga instructors around the country to establish adaptive yoga classes in local areas. To share her program with more people, Mindy wrote the book Adaptive Yoga Moves Any Body for people with MS and neuromuscular conditions. I purchased my own copy of the book at the CMSC conference.
The first thing I noticed about the book are the hundreds of photos featuring Mindy and her students as they demonstrate poses and suggested adaptive variations to meet individual needs using chairs, yoga blocks, blankets, straps, and even walls. The descriptions of movements are clearly written, and cross references throughout the book are extraordinarily helpful. I own several yoga books and feel this may be one of the most useful as a reference book.
At the CMSC conference, I introduced Mindy to my good friend Karen, who lives with primary progressive MS and uses a power chair. Karen and Mindy discussed adaptive yoga and ways to incorporate simple tools to achieve the benefits from pose variations while Karen sat in her chair. It was fabulous to watch as they worked together.
When I asked Mindy to summarize her approach in working with Karen, she replied: “What we did was give Karen an idea, and she was able to take it to the next level that worked for her. And you could see in her eyes the excitement of realizing that, yes, she can do this! She felt empowered and was already thinking of ideas of what she could do at home by herself.”
The National MS Society offers information about yoga and MS, including additional resources regarding adaptive yoga and ways to find a qualified yoga instructor. Before changing your physical activities, it’s always a good idea to talk with your doctor to discuss your specific needs and concerns.
See more helpful articles:
Complementary and Alternative Medicine with MS
Eisenberg, Mindy. Adaptive Yoga Moves Any Body. Orange Cat Press, 2015.
Hasanpour-Dehkordi A, Jivad N, Solati K. Effects of Yoga on Physiological Indices, Anxiety and Social Functioning in Multiple Sclerosis Patients: A Randomized Trial. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research"¯: JCDR. 2016;10(6):VC01-VC05. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2016/18204.7916.