An experience of yoga therapy with MS

By Michael Kuang

As in so many conditions, the progressive degenerative disease multiple sclerosis (MS) shows up differently in each individual case, partly because it can affect different areas of the body. MS is caused by the immune system mistakenly attacking the myelin sheath, nerve fibers’ protective protein coating. There is no cure, but medical advancements have helped improve the symptoms and extend the lives of people who have been affected.

Still, imagine if your muscles regularly became numb or tingled, or you experienced unexplained pain or constant fatigue—all potential MS symptoms that can cause the body to feel like an unmanageable enemy. Daily exercise as well as relaxation techniques, both possible components of yoga therapy, have been shown to improve the mind-body connection. This is one reason yoga is becoming an increasingly popular adjunct therapy for those with MS and other neurodegenerative conditions. (This page from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society links to some of the research.)

Whole-person assessment and tools for a whole-person condition

Formerly a teacher and writer, Rebekah* was adamant about building strength and improving several areas in her daily life after 18 years of living with MS. As a yoga therapist, my job is to assess the individual and look at the whole picture of their daily lifestyle.

On our first visit, I noted a distinct difference between the right and left sides of Rebekah’s body. The right side had the most nerve damage, so her right arm and leg were atrophied, with limited strength and mobility. She used a walker to get around, and balancing was a big challenge. Mentally, Rebekah experienced a lot of fear and distrust of her body, making tasks many would take for granted difficult for her to perform. Over time, it became clear that she was emotionally drained, which had opened the door to the anxiety and depression she described.

Each time we met, I first tuned into how Rebekah felt, which varied from week to week. My main focus was to offer tools to strengthen the mind-body connection to ease her movement as much as possible, so our sessions adapted with that goal in mind and focused on asana (poses), done either seated or standing using her walker. Each pose worked Rebekah’s muscles both statically and dynamically, helping to build strength, stability, and mobility. Attention to breath and focused concentration on the exercise made the moving meditation possible.

Sometimes we used visualization and muscle activation to build the mind-body connection through neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to create new pathways in both thinking and function. Even simply visualizing a movement before doing it can increase the brain’s signal to the body area involved.

Rebekah’s fear and doubt gradually decreased as she became more comfortable in her body and re-learned some movements. For example, she had difficulty letting go of her walker while standing. (Imagine how you’d feel balancing on a high ledge—you’d probably hold on tightly! Rebekah experienced a similar sense of peril standing upright on her own.) We focused on grounding her feet and finding where she did feel balanced and strong. As she felt more comfortable, trust in her own body began to return, and she was able to stand for short periods without fear.

Eventually, the stress and anxiety that were part of her condition decreased, too, as we focused on breathing techniques and meditation directed to the five senses. Some days, Rebekah experienced pain she described as “hugs”—a tightness squeezing parts of her body. When she felt this way we focused more on body awareness and breathing than on poses. We found that a simple body scan meditation and slow breathing relieved physical aches and could transform her mood within minutes. The sensations of tightness decreased with the relaxation techniques.

Rebekah now reports that yoga therapy “has become a welcome and critical part” of her health and well-being, even describing it as a high point in her day. She says the exercises “keep me flexible and [have] improved my balance, something I thought impossible with a progressive, degenerative disease,” noting that she is sometimes surprised by how much she is able to do. “I have been able to gain back strength and balance when the doctors have considered this impossible,” she says. “The biggest surprises are the increases in my endurance and my sense of wellness.”

Michael Kuang, CPT, CES, C-IAYT, RYT 500, is a yoga therapist and personal trainer with a focus on corrective exercise. He has experience working with chronic pain, injuries, and other health issues and recently celebrated 10 years of running Syphon Fitness.

*Rebekah has given permission to share her story.