Yoga can be beneficial to people with MS as long as they find the appropriate class, teacher or video. More and more MS experts note that yoga, with its emphasis on relaxation, breathing, stretching and deliberate movements, is a good choice of exercise. How can someone with MS find the right type of yoga, the right class, and the inspiration to try it?
Different yoga styles
Some programs emphasize detail of alignment by holding poses (such as Iyengar); others run positions together in sequences (Flow and Ashtanga for examples). Some are meant to be aerobic; others stress meditation. A teacher of one mode may not say that there are other kinds of yoga that might be more suited to your needs.
You'll have to learn to ask questions.
All styles have qualities in common
- They use breathing techniques to focus the mind on the body (“union”)
- They are individualized, non-competitive and adaptable
- They emphasize alignment, which benefits posture and balance
- They educate about where muscles are and how to strengthen and stretch them
- They release tension so the body feels more energized
- They teach relaxation techniques to reduce stress
Now for some background information about yoga: The word “yoga” has its roots in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. Literally, it means to “yoke” or to “unite.” It was created thousands of years ago to help practitioners feel “whole,” uniting mental, physical and spiritual aspects.
Today, the yoga practiced in the West consists of poses, called “asanas,” and breathing techniques, called “pranayama.” Modern yoga is also deeply influenced by modern science—all of the things that have been learned about the body in the past 100 years. Indeed, yoga-like postures, stretches and positions are used today by athletes, in rehab programs and in physical therapy. Today, in many classes, the spiritual aspect is left to the individual.
Yoga for MS? Yes, give it a try! But, as with any exercise program, check with your physician first. A number of Society chapters offer yoga classes or may be able to help you find yoga resources in your area.
To get the most out of a yoga class
- Look for an instructor who has experience teaching people with MS. Contact an MS Navigator about classes or referrals (1-800-344-4867.)
- If you can walk without assistance, try a regular class, but ask what will be expected and explain your condition. Yoga classes are often offered at YMCAs and YWCAs, health clubs, gyms, weight-loss studios, and, of course, in yoga studios. Most instructors are willing to learn about MS and will adapt poses with props such as pillows, or by using a chair, the wall or the floor to assist balance. If the instructor doesn't really listen or provide individualized attention, this is the wrong place.
- Ask about an instructor's experience. The Indian names don't mean nearly as much as the length of time the person has taught. The teacher should have at least 10 years of experience unless the teacher also has a medical or physical therapy background.
- If you use a cane or walker, try a class for seniors. Or try a class offered for people with special needs, such as arthritis. Many yoga stretches and poses can be done sitting down. Again, take the time to explain your MS to the instructor before taking a class.
- Stay close to home. A class more than 15 minutes from home is likely to fall off your schedule.
- If no class is close enough, try videos at home (see Resources). Consider enlisting someone to do yoga with you. It may help you stay disciplined. Your MS support group may want to end a meeting with a yoga tape.
- Although groups are great, beware of peer pressure during class. If something doesn't feel right, stick up for yourself, and stop. Sometimes your mind may be holding your body back. But your body may also be giving you signals to stop, which your mind wants to ignore! So, when in doubt, stop. If you feel pain, STOP!
- Have realistic goals. Yoga won’t cure MS. But it can help you live more comfortably in your own body.
Finding a qualified yoga instructor
As there are currently no recognized standards for the use of the term, “yoga therapist”, we encourage you to do some research before selecting a practitioner. When contacting professionals who describe themselves as yoga therapists, inquire about what they do, including special skills or areas of expertise, and request information on their experience, training and education.
International Association of Yoga Therapists
P.O. Box 12890
Prescott, AZ 86304
Provides an online search tool to locate yoga therapists throughout the world. Search from over 3,000 listings by location, yoga style or therapist name.
1701 Clarendon Boulevard, Suite 110
Arlington, VA 22209
Provides an online search tool to locate Registered Yoga Teachers (RYTs) and Experienced Registered Yoga Teachers (E-RYTs). Search from over 32,000 listings by location, yoga style or therapist name. Learn more about the benefits of yoga, the variety of yoga styles and how to select a yoga teacher.
Yoga Finder Worldwide
Provides an online search tool to locate yoga classes throughout the world.
YOGA for MS: Pathways Exercise Video for People with Limited Mobility
This yoga-based exercise program is suitable for people with full or limited mobility. (But you must be able to get up and down from the floor to a chair.) It includes breathing and relaxation techniques. 48 minutes.
YOGA for Arthritis and Related Conditions
Don’t let the title confuse you. This video has been used widely by thousands of people with MS. It shows five people, one of whom has MS, with varying levels of ability doing poses at different levels. It is also an appropriate video for those in wheelchairs. It includes breathing and relaxation techniques and the DVD includes a Spanish version. 52 minutes.
Both videos are by Shoosh Lettick Crotzer. To order, visit Mobility Limited or call 800-366-6038 for further information.
Yoga with Eric Small
Eric Small is a well-known yoga teacher who has been one of the most influential proponents of yoga for MS. He was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS almost half a century ago, and has been teaching yoga for many of those years. To order, call 310-479-4456 or write the Southern California Chapter of the National MS Society, 2440 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 115, Los Angeles, CA 90064. 100 minutes.
Yoga and Multiple Sclerosis: A Journey to Health and Healing by Eric Small and Dr. Loren Fishman. This new book provides descriptions of adapted poses along with explorations on their effects, advantages and contraindications. It also includes recommendations on postures for fatigue and spasticity. To order, visit Demos Medical Publishing or call 800-532-8663 for further information.
This webpage was written by Shoosh Lettick Crotzer. Ms. Crotzer has been teaching yoga since 1974 and has developed a specialty working with students who have special needs. She has a Masters’ Degree in Diagnostic Education that provides her with the experience of working with people with disabilities that she uses in her teaching. To learn more about Ms. Crotzer, please visit www.mobilityltd.com.