By Emma Giunti
Yoga. What does it mean? Is it a stretch class? A group of hippies doing weird pretzel-like poses? A great work out? A breathing and meditation class? It’s different things to many people. My teacher once said “It’s not a one night stand, it’s a long term relationship.”
In 2010 I was a fit and healthy 33 year old, newly married and planning to have children. Then I was diagnosed with MS. One of the first people I told was my yoga teacher, Tracee. I remember being nervous about revealing the diagnosis and crying as the words came out, however she was very caring. I had practiced different forms of yoga and Pilates for many years, but when I was diagnosed I was practicing Iyengar Yoga — a fortuitous happenstance as it turned out.
I’ll never forget my first Iyengar class, thinking ‘this is a little different…but I like it.’ Iyengar yoga is a form of Hatha yoga developed by B.K.S. Iyengar. It focuses on alignment, technique and is very detail-focused. The great thing about Iyengar yoga is that props (bolsters, blocks, blankets, chairs and belts) are used as an aid to make the postures accessible to many, from students with tight hamstrings to people with disabilities, like MS.
During my two pregnancies I was well enough to practice until the final few weeks before the births of my girls. A little time later I was back on the yoga mat; it gave me time to myself – which I needed – and still do! I attend classes 4 times a week and also practice at home. I have also been lucky to attend a week-long yoga retreat once a year: I call this ‘Mummy’s Sanity Trip’ and to fully immerse myself in yoga during these retreats is a very special experience.
One of my favourite parts of yoga is how my teachers, Glenn and Margaret Cerisoli, and Robyn Adler, weave yoga philosophy into their classes. They talk about how we use yoga as a tool to penetrate the mind through our physical body. This is yoga gold for my brain!
If you’ve never tried yoga, I’d highly recommend you give it a go. Let your teacher know about your MS so they can adapt the poses for you if necessary. They may suggest modifications as simple as standing by a wall if you have balance issues. If you’re in Sydney, I would highly recommend Robyn Adler’s Iyengar classes for people with MS.
Does yoga help with MS? Well, my Mum says so, so it MUST be true (mothers are always right, right?) A small amount of MS and yoga research has been done and you can read about the benefits here. Research aside, does it make you FEEL good? You are your own research project and you will know if it’s for you.
Since my MS diagnosis I place a higher value on looking after myself and started to explore yoga more deeply; so much so I am now training to be a teacher.
Yoga is definitely a long term relationship that I won’t be breaking up with any time soon.
What’s the Evidence?
In 2013, a team of Canadian researchers undertook a thorough review of the research literature on exercise in MS. The results were published in the Archives of Physical and Medical Rehabilitation.
They found that exercise training is effective for improving both aerobic capacity and muscular strength in people with mild to moderate disability from MS. Exercise may also improve mobility, fatigue, and quality of life.
Yoga in particular offers many ways to develop relaxation skills, which have more benefits than just creating a sense of calm for the student.
Teaching the body to relax has been found to help reduce chronic pain and aid with insomnia, both of which rank high on the MS symptoms list.
MS Research Australia held a workshop on modifiable lifestyle factors in MS, with delegates attending from around the world and representing a large variety of research disciplines and people with MS. Read more about the workshop here:
While much is already known about the role of lifestyle factors in the risk of developing MS, this workshop focused on whether lifestyle factors could impact progression and disease course in MS. The workshop aimed to discuss the current evidence for the effect of modifiable lifestyle factors on MS, determine the knowledge gaps and identify priorities and opportunities for both further research to strengthen the evidence and the best way to design this type of research for the most meaningful outcomes. A key aim of the workshop was also to identify opportunities to translate and implement the current evidence to provide the most appropriate advice to the MS community.