What do you do when you see a study purporting to show that a particular activity or lifestyle choice is associated with improved outcomes for people with MS? Are you the first to give it a go? Or have you perhaps become a bit jaded after reading too many (sometimes contradictory) suggestions? I fall somewhere in the middle. Given my medical background, I am naturally sceptical about many of the things I’ve seen – if it doesn’t make biological sense, I’m not going to try it unless there is very solid evidence it works! Particularly if there are risks involved. But when I read about possible benefits from something that is safe and healthy for anyone, I’ll give it a go. I keep my vitamin D levels high. It’s a no brainer to avoid smoking. I’ve tried a few of the diets recommended for MS. Some of them were clearly not for me (I have never been sicker from an MS perspective than during a six month period of sticking carefully to one of the most popular ones!), but once I found one that seems to suit me better, I’m happy to stick with it. I’m a firm believer in regular exercise to promote health and function, so the endless stream of publications claiming specific benefits from exercise on MS have only served to reinforce a behaviour that was already part of my day. Until recently.
Over the last few years I’ve seen several studies suggesting that practising yoga may have benefits for people with MS. As a not very flexible person, now with some spasticity and poor balance added in for good measure, I have had my doubts about whether this one would be right for me. But the combination of yet another study on the subject together with a good friend who is doing particularly well with MS confiding in me that she is pretty sure her years of yoga practice make a substantial contribution to her health got me motivated to give it a go.
Everyone I have spoken with who practises yoga has told me that it is a very gradual process – with the benefits building over months and years. So I made a pact with myself in August that I would attend at least two classes a week for the rest of 2015 before making a decision about whether yoga is something I want to continue with or not. At the five month mark, I’m loving it! If you were looking in the window at a class, I’d be one of the people who looks as if they are not quite sure what they are doing, and who doesn’t bend very well. If it was a Wednesday class, where the teacher periodically walks among the students and gently corrects / improves what we are doing so we get closer to what she is trying to help us achieve, I’d be one of the ones she always gives a hand to. She seemed really pleased when I told her at the start of my first class that I have MS and wanted to find out how much yoga could help – telling me she was sure I’d benefit over time. I suspect she takes a little bit of extra care to make sure I’m practising as well as I can. So I feel privileged rather than criticised when she shows me how to improve a pose.
What you wouldn’t see if you looked in the window of a yoga class I was part of is that no one cares who is a beginner, who is super-flexible and who is not. Yoga is not a competitive sport. It’s completely OK to be “hopeless” – with the only goal being to do the best you can with your body at that moment. You can imagine my surprise when my Saturday teacher told me at my first class “just lie on your back and breathe if anything gets too much. Actually, feel free to lie on your back and breathe for the whole class if that’s what feels right. If all you do is breathe mindfully, you will benefit”!
She wasn’t joking, either. We start every one of her classes working on our breathing, and she reminds us all the time of the importance of our breath as we aim for or hold each pose. Even after months of attending her class almost every week, I remain one of the less flexible and least able to balance students in most classes. But I have improved a bit – and at the end of the class you don’t hear the teacher telling someone “well done on how amazingly flexible you are”. It’s all things like “Well done – you worked well today” and directed just as often at people like me who did our best, as at a more experienced person who had a good day. Most of the people who attend frequently are nice, too. I’ve become an accepted “regular” already, and get smiles and hellos as we wait to go into the class.
Since I started yoga, I’ve learned that there are yoga groups run out of MS (at least in Melbourne). One of my friends attends a weekly class that is specifically designed for those with more severe mobility impairments. When I told her what my teacher said about it being OK to just lie on the floor and breathe, she said that there are a few people with profoundly impaired mobility who sometimes attend the class she does – including some in electric wheelchairs who have minimal upper limb function – and who benefit from being there by closing their eyes, concentrating on their breath, and visualising their body doing the poses.
If you had asked me a year ago whether it made sense for someone who could not perform even the simplest of poses to attend a yoga class, I admit I would have had my doubts. Five months in to my own “yoga experiment” I have no difficulty believing the benefits could be real. Much as I enjoy the challenge of attempting the poses (not to mention discovering the next day which unaccustomed muscles I have used!), I have already noticed that I get no less out of a class when there is time spent on something I simply cannot do at this stage. The teacher will always offer something much simpler for those who cannot do something for any reason – and no matter how simple the modified version is, I always feel just as good after the class if I do it as well as I can and try to really focus on my breathing and what my body is doing in that moment. The act of bending, twisting, stretching, balancing (or whatever) feels great, but it really isn’t the only aspect of yoga that makes me feel good. Mindful breathing and trying to turn off extraneous thoughts and worries for a full hour is incredibly challenging – and I’ll bet people feel all sorts of benefits if they practise towards achieving this, even if their practise is purely mental.
So what has yoga given me so far? It’s really hard to say. Five months in, I am still a complete beginner and wondering why I ever thought just sticking with it to the end of the year would be enough to find out what yoga could offer me! I’m definitely going to keep at it. Already I’ve started unrolling my mat at home on some of the days when I don’t go to a class and doing little five minute practices of some of the simplest poses on my own. It’s surprisingly useful for undoing any knots I may have tied in muscles during a gym workout. It only takes a few minutes to give me a sense of calm and of somehow growing taller. And my four-legged friend finds the whole process completely fascinating and likes to lie right underneath me on the mat as I attempt to be a “downward facing dog”!
Has yoga begun to benefit me from an MS perspective? I don’t know. But it’s certainly not hurting, it’s costing me nothing (the classes are included in my gym membership), it’s introduced me to a bunch of nice people, and I’m enjoying it. So – if you are peeking in a window at a local gym and see someone in a “Kiss Goodbye to MS” T-shirt who is doing their best, but often not quite managing the poses – that will be me, and you can rest assured I’m having fun!