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Yoga and MS

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Updated June 10, 2014

Yoga is an ancient mind-body practice that originated in India. Yoga involves series of poses that are held to increase both strength, flexibility and balance. Some people find that yoga improves their energy level, their moods and much more. Yoga is particularly suited for multiple sclerosis (MS) because it can be adapted to an individual’s ability.

Even though I have not been consistent with my yoga practice, I highly recommend it. When I have been dedicated to yoga, I have seen amazing differences in my flexibility and strength even from week to week. I notice that I hold my body more erect, rather than slumping over my keyboard or leaning on the counter. I also notice that I sleep better.

The one piece of advice that I do give to people just starting out or rediscoving yoga is: Give it a chance for at least two weeks. I’ll be honest – the first couple of sessions won’t be pretty or fluid. However, before you know it you will be doing things that you thought were impossible and feeling pretty darn good about it.

Yoga and MS

Researchers recruited 69 people with MS and randomly assigned them to either: a weekly Iyengar yoga class (a form of Hatha yoga, which is the most common type of yoga practiced in the US) with home practice, a weekly exercise class using a stationary bike and home exercise or a group on a waiting list for one of the two classes. These people were followed for 6 months and measures of disability, anxiety, fatigue and cognitive function were taken at the beginning of the study and after 6 months in the study. The researchers found that yoga did not influence cognitive function or mood, but it did lessen fatigue and increase energy level. The study was not designed to investigate whether yoga can help the course of MS.

This is an important finding because fatigue is one of the most difficult and hidden symptoms of MS. Yoga can be done at home with minimal investment. Personally, I recommend that beginners take a yoga classes for a month or two to learn the proper technique, as it is initially hard to understand exactly what the pose should be like. An instructor can help make small adjustments in your poses or suggestions that can make a huge difference. After that, you can continue with the class or begin a home practice using a video or audio recording.

Interestingly, the yoga in this study was developed by Eric Small, who was diagnosed with MS at age 22. Eric became a serious student of yoga after his diagnosis and credits yoga with keeping him in good health despite having MS. His website, YogaMS contains articles with details about the particulars of his approach to MS management using yoga, as well as a video for home practice.

Other Benefits

Yoga has been shown to have the following additional benefits:
  • Improved muscle tone
  • Improved balance
  • Reduced muscle spasms

Yoga as Rehabilitation

Even people who are severely disabled can benefit from yoga. If a person cannot hold a yoga pose, blocks and other assistive devices can be used to get the benefit from the pose when flexibility and other issues interfere. People in wheelchairs can benefit from a trained yoga instructor assisting them in holding a pose by placing arms in legs in a correct position and then holding them. This use of yoga for rehabilitation has been shown to be effective. Be sure that the yoga instructor is experienced in working with people with disabilities. Integrative Yoga Therapy is one organization that certifies yoga instructors in the therapeutic use of yoga.

Sources:

B. S. Oken, MD, S. Kishiyama, MA, D. Zajdel, D. Bourdette, MD, J. Carlsen, AB, M. Haas, DC MA, C. Hugos, MS PT, D. F. Kraemer, PhD, J. Lawrence, BS and M. Mass, MD. Randomized controlled trial of yoga and exercise in multiple sclerosis. NEUROLOGY 2004;62:2058-2064

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