By Beth W. Orenstein
Every morning, Homa Fani, 56, of Los Angeles, spends about an hour practicing Iyengar yoga. A form of Hatha yoga, Iyengar focuses on breathing, alignment, and postures to improve strength and flexibility, and to enhance the mind and body.
Fani, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than 20 years ago, says that practicing Iyengar yoga regularly helps her better manage her disease. “When you have MS and you get up in the morning, you need to stretch your body and do things that help you continue for the rest of the day,” she says. “Practicing yoga — breathing and stretching — not only helps me physically but it also helps me mentally and emotionally.”
Fani isn’t the only one who believes strongly in the healing power of yoga for people with MS.
Shoosh Lettick Crotzer of San Luis Obispo, Calif., has been a yoga instructor for more than 38 years. She specializes in working with people who have MS, arthritis, cancer, and other limiting conditions. “I tell my students that yoga helps you live in your body more comfortably,” she says. “Yoga is not going to cure multiple sclerosis — definitely not — but it will teach you, through its postures and breathing, how to focus your mind and pay attention to your body. It can help you to feel better.”
A Gentle Approach to Yoga
Crotzer believes that people with multiple sclerosis can attend most regular yoga classes, and most yoga instructors are happy to help students adapt the postures and stretches for their disability. Many yoga stretches and poses can be done while you’re sitting, if necessary.
Crotzer suggests exploring traditional yoga with its meditative component rather than the trendy types like Bikram or hot yoga (the very high room temperature can be dangerous for people with MS), or very aerobic yoga styles. Yoga classes aren’t competitive. That’s one of the many things that makes them ideal for people.Do what you can comfortably and what makes you feel better. Think relaxation.
Eric Small, a senior Iyengar yoga instructor, director of the adaptive Iyengar yoga program for the National MS Society’s Southern California chapter, and author of Yoga and Multiple Sclerosis: A Journey to Health and Healing, says Iyengar yoga addresses many MS symptoms. Small, who was diagnosed with MS himself 60 years ago and is now 80 years old, studied in India with BKS Iyengar, the discipline’s founder.
Small says that Iyengar yoga instructors have a minimum of five years of training and can create a personalized sequence of yoga poses, called asanas. These may help address various health problems associated with multiple sclerosis, such as loss of bladder control, balance, and fatigue.
Small has been practicing Iyengar yoga for 48 years. His mornings are devoted to asanas and his afternoons to pranayama, which is a study of the breath. He credits Iyengar yoga with helping him maintain both balance and range of motion — before he incorporated it into his daily routine, he struggled with regular falls and serious fatigue. He also believes that Iyengar yoga is responsible for his outlook on life, helping him and his students “to look at the positive side of life rather than be a victim of MS,” he says.
Yoga in Action
Janet Walker, 60, of San Luis Obispo, started doing yoga on the recommendation of her neurologist about a year after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2009. Yoga has definitely helped her cope with the tightness and stiffness that the disease causes. “I still get spasticity," Walker says. "It doesn’t make it disappear, but doing yoga makes it more tolerable.” She takes an hourlong class with Crotzer that ends with a relaxation segment, and "you just have a feeling of well-being afterward when you walk out of there,” she says.
Some days Walker, who uses a cane, says she doesn’t feel much like going to yoga class, or anywhere else for that matter, "but I force myself to go because I always feel better afterward." The only exception is if she’s absolutely too fatigued or it’s too warm out. “I don’t do well in heat, and the classroom is usually warm," she concedes. "Those days I’ll skip.”
Yoga Your Way
Consider these tips for incorporating yoga into your multiple sclerosis management plan:
Find a qualified yoga instructor. Yoga classes are usually offered at Y’s, health clubs, gyms, weight-loss studios, and dedicated yoga studios. Search for Iyengar instructors by state on the Web site of the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States.
These sites can also help you locate qualified instructors in your area:
Start slowly. Talk with your instructor about your disability and how to adapt the stretches and postures to your abilities. Crotzer recommends taking gentle yoga classes for beginners or for seniors, at least to start.
Aim for regularity and consistency. Crotzer says that if you practice yoga postures once a week, you’ll feel better during the time you’re doing yoga but won’t see much change in your body. If you practice yoga twice a week, you might begin to see changes. Three times a week is ideal. “No doubt you’ll notice a difference,” she says.
Choose a class nearby. Having to travel a long distance to class can be discouraging. If there are no close options, consider a yoga DVD that you can follow in the comfort of your home. Fani regularly practices yoga at home with two or three friends and relatives, some of whom also have multiple sclerosis. Practicing yoga together, she says, helps her stay committed and makes it more enjoyable.