I am a yoga teacher of 18 plus years. I now teach Yoga Tune Up®. I also have MS, a somewhat hairy neurological disease. I’ll bore you with the gory details of how MS affects me some other time. Let’s just say my 17 years with MS vacillates between being a rocky road and a sweet smooth ride. Because of the unpredictable nature of the disease, there is always the waiting for the proverbial foot drop factor. (Note: foot drop is a real MS symptom.) Enter Yoga Tune Up®.
My first Yoga Tune Up® class made me convert, after an MS symptom that had been screaming loudly for over year disappeared as a result of a simple ball rolling technique. It has not returned. When I realized the next morning that my thigh was a part of my body again I contacted the instructor, met her for coffee and asked her when she would be teaching this stuff to other teachers? I did my Level I Certification eight months later.
Yoga is a significant healing modality for MS. Studies suggest that after six months of practicing yoga, fatigue, depression, cognitive deficits and other symptoms were significantly reduced. Yoga Tune Up® raises that bar. Its adaptive nature, focus on body awareness and ball work address so many of the needs of people who are neurologically impaired.
I believe Yoga Tune Up® has had a profound effect on my own disease. Since the niche of Yoga Tune Up® is yoga therapy, we need the knowledge to handle anything that comes down the pike. We must do our homework ― not just the anatomy, but also the physiology.
So what is MS? MS is a demyelinating disease that affects the nervous system. In this disorder, the immune system attacks the myelin sheath or the cells that produce and maintain it. In lay-peoples’ terms, imagine the nerves are electrical wires and the myelin sheath is the plastic protective coating. If the plastic is removed and the wires touch the signals go all wonky.
This invasion of the myelin sheath results in inflammation, and injury to the sheath and ultimately to the nerve fibers that it surrounds, and may result in multiple areas of scarring (sclerosis). When the myelin sheath is damaged, nerve impulses slow or even stop, causing neurological problems.
MS presents with a myriad of symptoms and severities that are unique to each individual. Beyond the fatigue, depression and cognitive deficits mentioned above, people with MS may experience a host of other problems including but not limited to muscle spasticity, impaired cognition, sleep disorders, anxiety, urinary problems, difficulty with balance and vision impairment.
There are four primary types of MS. The two most commonly diagnosed are Relapsing–Remitting MS (RRMS) and Primary Progressive MS (PPMS.) RRMS is the initial diagnosis of 80% of people with MS, and is characterized by relapse (attacks of symptoms or flare-ups) followed by remission (periods of recovery). PPMS progresses steadily from its onset. There are no periods of remission and symptoms generally do not decrease in intensity. About 15 percent of people who have MS have PPMS. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) web site is a treasure trove of information on all types of MS and the plethora of symptoms it entails.
As Yoga Tune Up® teachers, how do we help people with such a perplexing set of symptoms? In my studio, I predominantly teach yoga for MS sufferers and people with other chronic illness and injury, people with chronic pain, and older students. I structure each class based on the needs of the students.
Let’s say someone comes to your class and tells you they have MS. Ask these questions: How does it affect you? What are your main symptoms? What does it take to make you crash? Determine if your class is appropriate based on what they tell you. If they do join your class be ready with modifications that the student can help initiate, load them up with props, and be sure their needs are not so great it will limit the time you have to work with the other students who also need you.
Other things to consider as a teacher when your student’s needs are more than you can handle. Suggest the student contact the local chapter of the National MS society they can often provide information on classes specifically for people with MS. Consider contacting the chapter yourself to learn more about the disease. Also consider offering a class specifically for people with chronic illness and disability.
Teaching students with MS is undoubtedly a challenge, perhaps a challenge worth embracing, but it is not for everybody. If you choose this path, do your homework. Even if you do not, be prepared with resources, not just for MS students but also for other students who present similar challenges.
For further reading on yoga for MS, here’s a link to a research article I wrote for the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.