Yoga and Multiple Sclerosis

“Everyone has the right to decide to practice Yoga”, notes yoga master Sri T. Krishnamacarya and teacher of the legendary BKS Iyengar. “Once the urge or aptitude takes possession of a person to do Yoga, then he or she alone is the sole authority to decide to practice Yoga".

In his book, Yoga Makaranda - The Nectar of Yoga, Krishnamacarya further explains “there are differentials that exist in our society today – divisions such as the learned, the brave, women, men, youth, elders, very old people, the diseased, the weak, boys, girls and so on. None of these is an impediment for the practice of Yoga ... However, the important the important condition is to know the teachings and practice under the guidance of a competent teacher”.

In the Iyengar tradition, poses are adopted to address a particular condition and adapted, through the use of props as necessary, according to the individual’s ability.

MY JOURNEY

In May of 1996, I was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. Leading up to diagnosis, I was extremely busy with my acting pursuits and producing a play in Hollywood. Over the course of about a month, I progressively began to experience loss of feeling – a tingling and numbing sensation began to inhabit my arms, legs, torso and eventually envelope my face and skull. I had difficulty with balance and my walking and motor skills were compromised to the point where I could no longer button my jeans or use a pen to write my name. Once I saw a neurologist at UCLA Medical Center I was immediately admitted into the hospital and underwent a series of tests, including 3 MRI’s of my brain and spine. The results were conclusive: white matter lesions, consistent with multiple sclerosis were discovered on my brain and in my cervical spine. As I have always been an active individual, this new reality prompted me to ask my doctor within minutes of being diagnosed his recommendations for my physical discipline/therapy. He recommended yoga and swimming, as long as I avoid overheating the body.

A visiting friend recommended Iyengar yoga as the Iyengar system employs props when necessary (ropes, blankets, belts, chairs, etc.) to help the practitioner access the poses in order to gain the potential benefits. Once I was released from the hospital the following week, I literally stumbled into the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles and embarked on a journey that has changed my life. The yoga practice, with the initial help of intravenous steroids, successfully got the MS into remission. Subsequent relapses that I have experienced, which have been few and far between, have included loss of balance, tingling and numbness in my arms, legs and torso, loss of motor skills, optic neuritis (temporary loss of vision), loss of bladder and bowel control, overwhelming fatigue, the L’Hermittes symptom (electrical buzzing sensations in the body and limbs when moving the neck) and a banding sensation throughout the torso that felt like I was being squeezed in a vice grip. Although these symptoms have been severe at times, I find solace and have faith in my practice of Iyengar yoga which, in my opinion, has been integral to overcoming these terrifying symptoms and getting them back into remission.

Additionally, I sought out nutritional counseling and changed my dietary discipline. I embraced a vegetarian diet and eliminated caffeine. I limit my intake of wheat, sugar and dairy products and I regularly perform metabolic and gastro-intestinal cleanses. The combination of Iyengar yoga, diet, nutritional supplementation and swimming has produced very positive results. My daily yoga practice allows me to remain very active and lead a relatively normal lifestyle. Some days can be challenging but as Mr. Iyengar so wisely expressed to me on my first visit to India in 2000, “Everyday you must walk that fine line between courage and caution.”

When I had two severe exacerbations within months of one another in 2001 – optic neuritis resulting in the temporary loss of eyesight in January 2001 (the vision returned within a couple of months) and loss of feeling from the navel down in June 2001, fear and doubt crept in and I started the weekly protocol of Interferon beta 1-A. As the medications do not offer a cure for the MS, I often found the ongoing side effects of my weekly injections to be more challenging than the condition. In January 2004, I chose to once again forego the medication.

While I am not advising or advocating that people with MS ignore the benefits of the pharmaceutical approach in managing their course of MS, I personally opted for the side effects of a daily practice of Iyengar Yoga over the ongoing medications. Yoga certainly is not a cure for the condition, but I can attest that Iyengar Yoga has been and continues to be an effective tool in the ongoing management of my course of MS.

My agreement with my neurologist is to have an annual MRI to monitor the lesions on my brain. The MRI reports, taken annually since 2005, have been promising, initially showing a reduction in size of the brain lesions (2005 compared to 2001), as well as consistently showing no change in activity since 2005 – which is really good news. I have been able to successfully overcome the symptoms listed above and remain symptom free, with the exception of fatigue and the residual loss of feeling in my right leg and foot, which results in strength and balance challenges on my right side. I see my neurologist, (Dr. Hart Cohen, Director of Multiple Sclerosis Research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles) semi-annually to continually monitor my course of MS.

FIND A TEACHER YOU CAN TRUST

Certified Iyengar Yoga Teachers are held to an unusually rigorous standard, earning their certification only after years of training and evaluation. The Iyengar Yoga Certification Mark is your guarantee of a yoga experience that’s safe, suitable for individual physical conditions, and beneficial for both body and mind. To find a teacher, contact your local Iyengar association. In the United States contact: http://iynaus.org

Need some guidance?

Check Yogarth Guidelines for Yoga and MS

DISCLAIMER

Please seek the advice of your health care provider prior to commencing any yoga or exercise program. The information presented herein is for reference and informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure multiple sclerosis and should not be considered as a replacement for expert medical advice. To the extent permissible by law, Garth McLean, The Estate of BKS Iyengar, BKS Iyengar, Geeta S. Iyengar, and any of their respective agents, representatives, employees, heirs or assigns, collectively and/or individually, hereby disclaim any liability for any injuries incurred as a result of the information contained herein. Prior to commencing any yoga or exercise program, please seek the advice of your health care provider.