How yoga can help with MS
Why yoga is a must for MS and other autoimmune conditions. By Hannah Glancy
At 25 years old, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around what the consultant was telling me. I nodded and thanked him, half listening to his advice and half wondering if I could just get out of there. The stricken look on my mum’s face didn’t help as she contemplated yet another family member succumbing to what can be a debilitating condition. Upon reaching the car, my body finally gave in to the news and tears flooded — I had MS.
Multiple sclerosis is an attack on your body. The over-production of white blood cells, usually so helpful, decide to ramp up their protection efforts like an overzealous army in peacetime. They run riot, rampaging through systems and causing tiny lesions and traumas in areas of the brain and spine. In my case, this came out as a really bad case of pins and needles. Only it lasted six weeks!
MS has many forms and no two diagnoses are the same. My dad, for instance, is bedbound and steadily getting worse. I, on the other hand, have had the rare sensory disturbance of tingling legs or arms, or the time my mouth went numb and drinks dribbled down the side of my face providing a novel challenge on a night out.
While no diagnosis is the same, MS has a unique characteristic that most sufferers of an autoimmune ‘disease’ are likely to experience — fatigue. This isn’t just being tired. This is lead weights attached to your body after running 300 miles and being asked to complete several rounds of sun salutations. Grim.
Okay, I may be exaggerating a little but ask anyone with an autoimmune disorder and they’ll say something similar. It’s beyond tiring and often happens as a result of stress; in fact, many autoimmune conditions are direct responses to stress. This is where yoga can help.
Yoga can help
Although I began practicing at 18, at 25 my mind was set on utilising yoga to help me ‘not get any worse’.
Or this is what I told my doctor the next time I saw him. Gone was the initial shock. In its place was a quiet defiance. Yoga will get me through this.
And so far, it has.
Practicing mindful movement, deep breathing, self-care and rest, as well as positive affirmations and intentions, have an outstanding effect on fatigue and other autoimmune-related issues. They are all part of calming our central nervous system (CNS).
The CNS regulates everything from organ function to high-level thought to purposeful body movement. Therefore, the CNS is commonly thought of as the control centre of the body. A calm control centre equals a calm body.
Here are just some of the ways yoga assists us to better regulate our responses:
Certain aspects of autoimmune diseases can lead to loss of sensation, lack of proprioceptive awareness, inflammation and pain. These all disrupt the flow of communication and can have an impact on coordination, balance and self-awareness. The steadiness of slow body-based movement in say a structured Hatha class can give the much-needed boundaries and structure to rediscover balance and rebuild awareness.
Do you notice how you sigh when you get stressed? This expulsion of air is a natural response designed to let your jaw — and therefore tension — in your head, neck and shoulders release. It’s your body’s way of telling you to let go. In yoga deep breathing, exhaling for longer and focusing on the breath has the same effect. Similarly, practicing stronger moves and trying to maintain steady breath re-teaches your CNS to respond rather than react to stress. Ultimately this means you are better able to regulate your reaction to life and its traumas.
Mindfulness and choice
The biggest gift yoga has given me is more awareness and agency over my choices. The practice of consciously understanding your patterns and habits gives you the ability to recognise which ones empower you and which need to be gently left behind.
What’s in your cup?
Here’s a story for you. You are holding a cup of coffee when someone accidentally bumps you, making you spill coffee. Why did you spill the coffee? Because someone bumped into you, right? Wrong answer!
You spilled the coffee because coffee was in the cup. If tea had been in it, you would have spilled tea. Whatever is inside the cup is what will come out. Therefore, when life comes along and shakes you (and it will), whatever is inside of you will come out.
So, each of us has to ask ourselves: what’s in my cup? When life gets bumpy, what spills over? Joy, gratefulness, peace and humility? Or anger, bitterness, harsh words, and reactions? We choose what’s in our cup.
Today, let’s work towards filling our cups with gratitude, forgiveness, joy, words of affirmation to ourselves and others, kindness, gentleness, and love!
Many of the ways in which yoga asks us to set intentions, reassess our minds and get comfortable with the light and the dark within ourselves, aid our ability to accept; to accept what is going on within us and around us. Both are key to maintaining stability within an autoimmune condition and indeed master our response to it.
I could go on all day about how yoga benefits mind and body but my final words are this.
Yoga gives you time to reflect. It is an anchor to a world in which material and physical wealth are not the only markers of a successful life.
Your practice offers you daily opportunities to be in the moment, to realise what’s important and to concentrate on what creates an environment where you can be your healthiest and most contented self. Whether you are affected by an autoimmune condition or suffering any kind of stress response, let your practice carry you holistically through the bad parts so you can enjoy the good ones.
Founder of Proper Northern Yoga, Hannah Glancy is an advocate of yoga as a tool for wellbeing. She currently teaches yoga in an alternative provision to teens whilst running her own studio and teaching people to be teachers online and up north. Visit: propernorthernyoga.com