Multiple sclerosis is a progressive, chronic disease of the central nervous system that can impair a person’s ability to move and function normally. Physical activity is important for people living with MS to stay limber and maintain strength. Yoga is an ancient physical activity that helps people to keep moving freely, with grace, strength, and flexibility.
In a recent literature review published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, evidence suggests yoga provides benefits for people with MS, including reduced depression, decreased pain, reduced fatigue, increased lung capacity, improved bladder function, improved strength and flexibility, lower levels of stress, lower blood pressure, muscle relaxation, and improved quality of life.
I first started practicing yoga in college. A friend and I attended twice weekly classes on campus. Those hours away from normal coursework and studies provided respite from the grueling obligations and responsibilities of a doctoral music major. Throughout the years, I’ve come back to yoga at times of stress in search of mental and physical relaxation, increased flexibility, reduced anxiety, and mental clarity.
People come to yoga for different reasons and enjoy various aspects of the practice. Today yoga helps ease symptoms of my MS, allowing me to become more physically and emotionally resilient. Here are my favorite yoga positions to help with MS.
1. Cat and cow pose (Marjari Bitilasana)
Cat and cow, two poses that go together like opposite sides of a coin, help to warm up the spine, create space between vertebrae, and bring awareness to the curvature of the upper and lower spine. They can be done while balancing on hands and knees or while seated in a chair.
Starting on hands and knees in table pose, the cat pose begins on exhalation as the spine curves upward toward the sky “like an angry cat,” the tailbone curls forward, and the chin moves toward the chest. The cow pose begins on inhalation as the pelvis reverses its curve to create a scooped arch in the spine, the belly hangs down toward the floor, shoulder blades pull together, and the tailbone and forehead reach to the sky. Gently alternating between cat and cow poses gently loosens muscles in the torso.
2. Child’s pose (Balasana)
Child’s pose helps to release tension in the spine, shoulders, and hips; stretches the spine, shoulders, hips, thighs, and ankles; and helps to calm and center the mind. This pose is easily adapted by using supports and variations in positioning.
I have found that to truly enjoy Balasana, I need to support my forehead on a yoga block or folded up blanket. Otherwise I feel like I might topple forward in a clumsy attempt at an unintended somersault. Once I can relax into the pose, my body begins to open up and sink to the floor.
3. Downward facing dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Downward facing dog helps to strengthen and lengthen the spine, legs, and arms, stretch the hamstrings and Achilles tendon, open the shoulders, and energize the mind and body.
In downward facing dog, the body resembles the tip of an arrow with hips reaching high to the sky. Hands and feet support the body, shoulder blades are drawn together and down the back, and the tailbone reaches toward the heels of the feet, which may or may not touch the ground.
Anytime I’ve spent considerable time on the floor and need to get up, I find myself traveling through downward facing dog as I get my feet under me. Sometimes I will pause a moment and enjoy the stretch in my hips and down the back of my legs as I press each heel into the floor and before I continue standing up.
4. Warrior II pose (Virabhadrasana II)
Warrior II helps to strengthen legs, arms, inner thighs, and core body muscles. It opens the hips, shoulders, hamstrings, and inner thighs, improves balance, and builds focus, confidence, and energy.
For Warrior II, step your feet two to four feet apart with legs wide; turn one foot and your face toward the top of the mat; turn the back foot in slightly for balance. Bend the forward knee, keeping it directly over your foot, and straighten the back leg. Lift your arms in a “T” and lengthen through the arms and fingers while keeping your torso facing the long side of the mat.
For those with balance issues, there are several ways to adapt Warrior II using the wall, a chair, yoga block, folded blanket, or even lying on the floor. Excellent examples are found in the comprehensive guide “Adaptive Yoga Moves Any Body” by Mindy Eisenberg.
5. Legs up the wall pose (Viparita Karani)
Legs up the wall pose is exactly as it sounds — you lay on the ground and rest your legs against the wall. This basic pose helps to calm the nervous system; reduce fatigue; increase energy; reduce fluid, swelling, and cramping in legs and feet; and promotes restful sleep.
The variety of positions that can grow out of Viparita Karani are some of my personal favorites. Opening my legs and allowing them to slide into a "V" shape helps to stretch different leg and hip muscles. I also enjoy bringing my feet together, sliding them down the wall toward my hips, and spreading my knees into a butterfly position to gently stretch my inner thighs and to relax my lower back.
6. Corpse pose (Savasana)
Savasana is a relaxation pose, commonly called the corpse pose, that was informally chosen as the most favorite yoga pose among members of my MS community. Savasana provides time to relax and rejuvenate body and mind. It calms the central nervous system, reducing stress and anxiety. Savasana is frequently the final pose in a yoga class.