Yoga for Multiple Sclerosis

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, approximately 400,00 people are diagnosed with MS every week. There are over 2.1 million people with Multiple Sclerosis worldwide. There are many factors that can cause this disease, including gender (it affects almost twice as many women as men) genetics, age, geography and ethnic background. This disabling disease attacks the central nervous system, affecting the brain spinal chord and optic nerves. It can cause pain or numbness of the limbs, and moderate to severe paralysis as well as vision loss. This Autoimmune Disease is treated with allopathic means to some degree of success but yoga may be a suitable alternative in lessening the symptoms, if not reversing the deterioration of the eyes, muscles and neurofunction.

When someone has Multiple Sclerosis their body cannot recognize a fatty substance called myelin that surrounds and protects the nerve fibers in the central nervous system (CNS). The nerve fibers are also sometimes damaged as well. Sclerosis means ‘scar tissue.’ Often, the damaged nerve fibers cause scar tissue to accumulate and nerve impulses traveling from the nerve to the brain are distorted or completely interrupted by this barrier. There are different forms of Multiple Sclerosis, each being progressive or in remission, sometimes there are flare-ups or relapses and sometimes a spontaneous remission occurs. Allopathic is uncertain of what treatments can help to cause remission, but yogic science can point to an explanation.

From a yogic point of view, the body does not contain any disease in and of itself, but it manifests it the physical form due to other reasons. The Upanishads, a great yogic text from the Vedic period and updated until quite recently, describe five layers of existence within a human being. These are called Panchakoshas, or just koshas, meaning layers or sheaths. These are expressed as the Annamaya Kosha, Pranamaya Kosha, Manomaya Kosha, Vijnanamaya Kosha and Anandmaya Kosha. According to ancient yogis, diseases arise in Manomaya Kosha (mind) and infect Annamayakosha (the physical body) because of disturbance in Pranamaya Kosha (the pranic energy channels- or nadis). When disease is approached from this standpoint, a vital change can happen at levels of existence more subtle than the physical, and therefore, disease cannot manifest physically. Asana, pranayama, meditation and other yoga kriyas address the body from this energetic perspective. One can liken this to pulling up weeds in a garden. If the mental sheath is not planted with weeds, then they cannot grow to infiltrate the physical garden.

When we address the deeper aspects of the self, we can see why the tools of yogic science are beneficial. Meditation can help to strengthen the nervous system and brain and asana can increase body awareness, release muscular tension, relieve spastic muscles in MS patients and increase coordination and balance. Additionally, asana can help to increase flexibility overall, increase stamina and lessen fatigue, increase organ functions including bowel and bladder control and break up scar tissue that the body is making due to the destruction of myelin. Yogic tools will also give the MS patient a better sense of control over their symptoms. When you add pranayama practice, the deeper sheaths or koshas of the body are engaged and Life Force is taken into places in the body that may not receive appropriate energy flow. Pranayama will also change mood, enhancing happy hormones like DHEA and Seratonin, and increase dopamine levels so that the brain can communicate more easily with nerve fibers, even those that are damaged.

Every MS patient should have a yoga teacher work with them that is specifically familiar with their disease and its symptoms. Most MS patients will need to start with a very gentle practice to avoid overheating the body, abstaining from Sun Salutations or Warrior Poses, and sticking to supine or prone asana instead, until symptoms start to lessen. Since fatigue is already an issue, the practice should not leave the patient feeling more exhausted, but gently challenged and invigorated, with a sense of greater well being at its end. As body awareness is increased through practice, more standing postures can be added. Pranayama practices such as Shitali, Nadi Shodana and Pratiloma Ujjayi will help to bring Prana into the cells and damaged nerve fibers. Even a simple deep, rhythmic yogic breath can start to change the body’s physiology with great benefit. Incorporating meditation should be a goal, as the benefits from this practice alone are many-fold.

In the case of a secondary progressive or more advanced MS, such as where eye sight is drastically reduced, and fatigue and muscle control are limited, a yoga teacher can guide a patient from a chair to practice extremely modified poses. Sometimes a yoga teacher can even place the body in positions for the mind to memorize, just as in a regular yoga class when corrections are given, only in this case, they will be more overt. There are many modified asana which can be attempted from a chair, including paschinmottanasana, janu sirsasana, matsyasana, yoga mudra, bada konasana, seated twists, staff pose, and many arm, shoulder and neck asana. The more mobility that can be achieved, not matter the level of progression, the more likely the patient will see relief from their symptoms and a possible remission. If the patient is so advanced that they cannot even sit in a chair or have little to no muscular control, you can work with them to relax the mind and practice pranayama from a supine position. Teaching the MS patient to develop a witness, and observe their breath, no matter its state, can give them great relief from the mental stress that accompanies physical deterioration.

For sufferers of MS whose symptoms are not far advanced, they can attend a gentle yoga class at a studio or even follow along with a video at home, but those with more advanced symptoms may need to engage an instructor who does private lessons so that the practice can be regular and mindful. It will be difficult for an instructor to give an MS patient with advanced symptoms the attention they truly need in a group environment. Addressing MS with yogic tools can provide relief, though, no matter its stage