Yoga and Multiple Sclerosis

02 July 2014

"I took part in my first yoga class twelve years ago. I hated it! I vowed to never go back”,remembers Kelly Nichols, a yoga instructor who has been teaching yoga to Members of the MS Society of WA since 2013,“twelve years on and here I am…a yoga teacher!”

Kelly’s story

“My vision of soft glowing candlelight, gentle flowing yoga sequences and the beautiful serene sounds of ‘OM’ vibrating throughout the room were rapidly obliterated by the hard core yogi next to me who was gracefully contorting herself in to all sorts of ‘beginner’ yoga postures as I looked on in complete awe, wondering how many ribs she had had surgically removed in order to be able fold herself in half like that”, says Kelly as she recalls the utterly disillusioning experience. Needless to say, she didn’t go back.

But a while later, a close friend who needed some support, invited her to a local yoga class. “And you know what? I learnt a lot about myself in that second class. I initially thought yoga was just a physical exercise, and a torturous one at that! After that second class, I felt drawn to the practice of yoga. At first, it was to comfort myself. And now each day is about getting to know ‘me’, the real me, just that little bit more. I am more centred, kind, compassionate, and able to look anxiety in the face and overcome it rather than allowing it to engulf me.”

What is yoga?

Yoga is more than just physical exercise. The physical postures, known as asanas, are the most well-known aspect of yoga practice. However, meditation and breathing techniques are also integrated into the practice, bringing mindfulness to the body. With its emphasis on relaxation, breathing, stretching and deliberate movements, yoga may certainly assist in alleviating some symptoms of multiple sclerosis, as well as providing stress relief and facilitating emotional and mental wellbeing.

Students are encouraged to slow down and nurture themselves.

“There is no ‘perfect’ pose, everyone’s bodies are different, and how the poses look for each person will be different”, says Theresa Venz, a yoga instructor also teaching at MSWA. “It therefore teaches us how to be accepting and non-judgemental of ourselves and our bodies. Yoga can also help to build confidence and self-esteem. Sometimes just being able to master a pose can itself be confidence boosting.”

“I enjoy yoga because it teaches me to relax and stretch at the same time. I feel a sense of achievement at being able to do some of the harder poses after I practice.” said Sue Ellen, a participant in a MSWA yoga class.

Finally, the social aspect of practicing yoga in a class environment, with like-minded people, can be beneficial, helping to assist depression and improve emotional and mental wellbeing.

The research

Scientific research on the impact of yoga on multiple sclerosis (MS) is in its infancy, but the few studies that have been done have indicated some positive benefits for people with MS. In one particular study, yoga was found to be beneficial for symptoms such as “fatigue, muscle weakness, spasticity and pain”.[i]Another study showed significant improvements over a six month period for measures of fatigue.[ii] A Yoga Nidra meditation programme was also found to significantly reduce stress over a six week period for MS and cancer patients.[iii]

Further research is needed to fully understand the benefits of yoga for MS. While yoga cannot cure MS, through the postures, meditation and breathing it teaches students how to focus the mind and pay attention to the body and live more comfortably within it.

Experiences of people with MS

“Yoga leaves my mind refreshed. It stretches the places I need stretched the most. I look forward to my next yoga session each week. Helps me think, breathe and feel invigorated” said Jan, a participant in a MSWA yoga class.

Anecdotally there are a number of people who promote the benefits of yoga for MS. In Australia, Lynette Dickinson credits yoga with helping her to walk again, after MS left her wheelchair bound.iv Closer to home, Perth resident Curtis Aiken espouses the benefits of yoga and meditation for MS, noting that with regular yoga practice he notably experiences “improved flexibility and joint mobility; overall muscle building, toning, and strengthening; increased stamina and increased circulation.” v

Both Theresa and Kelly have accredited Hatha Vinyasa teachers. They are passionate about introducing people to yoga gently and have been running yoga groups for the MS Society of WA since 2013.

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For more information on the classes available click here. If you have any questions, contact MSWA Physiotherapy Department on 9365 4834, or Kelly Nichols on 0409 108 742 /hello@iheartlife.com.au

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[i] Zwick, D. 2004 Yoga and Multiple Sclerosis. Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers. Available at: http://www.mscare.org.

[ii] Oken, B.S., Kishiyama, S., Zajdel; D., Bourdette, D., Carlsen, J., Haas, M., Hugos, C., Kraemer, D.F., Lawrence, J. and Mass, M. 2004 “Randomized controlled trial of yoga and exercise in multiple sclerosis.” In Neurology Vol. 62: 2058-2064.

[iii] Pritchard, M., Elison-Bowers, P., and Birdsall, B. 2010 Impact of Integrative Restoration (iRest) Meditation on Perceived Stress Levels in Multiple Sclerosis and Cancer Outpatients. In Stress and Health Vol. 26: 233-237.

iv http://asparkofsplendour.com/

v Aiken, C. Blessed by MS. pg. 19. Available online at http://curtisandcandice.com/ .