Why You Should Be Practicing Yoga for MS

This mind-body-spirit practice is shown to relieve symptoms

yoga teacher and mature student
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If you've been thinking about yoga but feeling hesitant to try it, hear this: This ancient mind-body-spirit practice was tested specifically for its ability to ease multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms. And the findings were promising.

The Research

In a 2014 study conducted by the Rutgers School of Health Related Professions, 14 participants practiced yoga twice a week for two months at 90 minutes a session. At the end of the program, they were better able to walk, had better balance and fine motor coordination, and had an easier time going from sitting to standing than before starting yoga. They also experienced a drop in pain and fatigue as well as improved mental health, concentration, bladder control, and vision. 

Why Try Yoga

While yoga won't cure MS it can be helpful in reducing symptoms, which is enough reason to try it out if you're interested. As someone with a chronic and unpredictable illness, yoga can help you feel more in touch with your body as well as help you live more comfortably in it.

Through positions and breathing, this practice improves posture, increases stamina and flexibility, and teaches you how to relax and focus. You'll also likely see positive changes in your flexibility and strength, even from week to week. ​​

You may not see or feel the benefits right away, but don't let that discourage you. The one piece of advice that I give to people just starting out or rediscovering yoga: Give it a chance for at least two weeks.

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.

Power Over Fatigue 

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 U.S.) with home practice, a weekly exercise class using a stationary bike and home exercise, or a group on a waiting list for one of those two classes.

Measures of disability, anxiety, fatigue, and cognitive function were taken at the beginning of the study and after six months in the study. The researchers didn't find a connection between yoga and cognitive function or mood (strangely, as yoga is touted for these benefits), but it did lessen fatigue and increase energy level. This is an important finding because fatigue is one of the most difficult and hidden symptoms of MS.

Yoga can also be done at home, with minimal investment. Personally, I recommend that beginners take yoga classes for a month or two (or perhaps try private lessons at home) to learn the proper form, as it is initially hard to understand exactly what the pose should look or feel like. An instructor can help make small hands-on adjustments to 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 if you'd like.

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 his approach to MS management using yoga as well as a video for home practice.

A Method of 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 chair yoga in which a trained yoga instructor assists them in seated postures. Just be sure that the yoga instructor is experienced in working with people with disabilities. ​​

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Article 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
  • 6th Cooperative Meeting of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers (CMSC) and the Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ACTRIMS). Abstract SX02. May 30, 2014.