“Yoga Is My Pain Relief”—Practicing with Multiple Sclerosis

June 30, 2015    BY Mary Smith

Never in my life, when suffering from physical pain, have I said to myself “I must do yoga to take my mind off this!” However, there is one person who has made me re-think pain. Her name is Christine, and she says that yoga is her pain relief. But she's not talking about localized pain; this is chronic pain, which derives from multiple sclerosis (MS).* Multiple sclerosis literally means "many scars," an etymology which can indicate just how painful this disease can be.

Never in my life, when suffering from physical pain, have I said to myself “I must do yoga to take my mind off this!” However, there is one person who has made me re-think pain.

It’s not just yoga that helps Christine deal with her MS (which is now in a progressive state); it’s also her positive attitude which enables her to transform any negative emotions she has toward pain. “I've heard a quote about how a spiritual being has a human experience," she says. "These words give me a reason for going through this, like it’s meant to be my experience.”

It is this outlook that enables Christine to be mindful when it comes to experiencing emotions such as sadness and anxiety, which numerous studies have shown can aggravate pain. (A famous example and one of the very first research papers on the subject explored how wounded soldiers in World War II expressed less pain than civilians with comparable wounds—likely because the soldiers were so happy to be off the battlefield— demonstrating that one's mental state can play a key role in modulating physical pain.) 

For me, as a yoga teacher and science writer, Christine’s words demonstrate the remarkable person that she is. Although I have never met her, I feel that I know her because I have heard so much about her from my yoga colleague Julia Green (we work together as co-founders of WriteIntoYoga). Together, Julia and I meet many people who are not usually able to express themselves, but when we ask them to tell us what yoga means to them (at our writing and yoga retreats and workshops), then the emotive words come flooding out. I emailed this question to Christine and her words touched my heart: She said that without yoga, she wouldn’t be here right now. Words that, given her personal story, hold such a significant meaning.

But it is Julia who has the honor of teaching Christine. Julia is an expert when it comes to teaching yoga to people with challenging conditions where bones can easily break or muscles are frequently pulled. "I first met Christine when her daughter, a doctor, approached me five years ago to teach a private yoga session," she explains. "When we first started working together, Christine was able to get down on the floor, and we would do postures like child's pose, cobra, and cat; we even modified tree pose so that she could do it lying down. But since then, she has suffered a severely damaged knee from a fall, a broken sternum bone, and two broken vertebrae from muscle spasms that are symptoms of her MS. Later, after these injuries, we modified the poses further so she could use a chair."

Despite these setbacks, since she started practicing, the longest Christine has gone without yoga has been about two weeks for each injury. However, she says that she never wants to stop because if she doesn’t stretch she is in pain, and without yoga she feels worse. So even though her body is changing, she has never given up on yoga. "When my arms are stretched for me, the relief is almost indescribable," Christine explains. "When most people wake up in the morning they stretch without thinking about it. I can only think about it! I have no movement but my limbs are not numb—I just feel heavier as my joints stiffen. Then we do yoga and I breathe a sigh of relief."

Despite these setbacks, since she started practicing, the longest Christine has gone without yoga has been about two weeks for each injury.

For Julia, part of the challenge is being prepared, because every day that she works with Christine is a little bit different. She says: "Another challenge for me as a teacher has been simply learning about MS. I have spent hours, days, and weeks studying so that I can better understand how to teach her, but MS is tough. It's hard to fully understand because there is no known cure and everyone with it suffers differently. Therefore, when Christine and I work together, I focus on how she feels rather than trying to teach out of a textbook."

"Christine is by far the most determined woman I have ever met," she emphasizes, "and she always seems to stay upbeat. She accepts each day as it comes, whether good or bad. Knowing her is humbling. When I ask her how she maintains such a positive attitude, she tells me that her mood is managed by her yoga and goes so far as to say that yoga has helped her to hold back time. As her MS changes we face it and deal with her unspoken aches and pains together."

"Julia always asks me if I have any new aches and pains," adds Christine, "or if anything is particularly bad that day. [MS] is not a condition you can ignore, but I don't like talking about it to my friends and family; I don't like to burden anyone with it. I only talk to Julia as she isn't fazed by anything I say, and we can laugh together. I'm not sure I could laugh about this condition with anyone else. We don't speak about tomorrow or what might happen next week. We talk about what I'm going to do when I can walk again.”

"One thing Christina has always said to me over the years," says Julia, "is 'I wish I could somehow send a message out there to everyone with my condition and tell them to try yoga. It is such a relief.'”

Christine says that yoga stretches alleviate the dull aches and pains she feels throughout her body, and adds, “Before we start yoga I feel heavy, tight, and stiff, but as my arms and legs are stretched out into the various poses and positions I feel light, comfortable, and more relaxed than I can ever explain.”

And Julia can certainly vouch for that: "As our sessions near their close, Christine is sometimes so relaxed that I have to wake her up after our final meditation to say our closing Namaste!"

"I have trouble sleeping because I can’t move in bed," explains Christine. "It hurts not being able to move. Sometimes I [feel] pins and needles, sometimes I get cramps, and sometimes I get muscle spasms. But I am unable to move in order to adjust or get rid of any of it. The muscle spasms have been so violent I've broken my spine—it’s broken right now as you're interviewing me! I always ask Julia to come 'round as soon as my carers have gotten me up, as a stretch in the morning not only helps with the pain that’s been brought on by lying in one position all night, but it also helps me face the day."

Though Christine has found asana to be immensely helpful, she's also found great benefit from other aspects of yoga. "We do breathing exercises [too]," she says. "Sometimes due to the blankets feeling so heavy on my chest, I get up in the morning struggling for breath. Yoga helps with that as well. I've tried to get my husband to help me stretch before bed to help me sleep, but it’s not just stretching [that helps], is it? It’s yoga."

For others with MS or other chronic pain her message is this: "Give yoga a try!"

Obviously the stretches Christine does now are not the typical yoga poses you see in the pages of magazines, but they are modifications and variations of those poses. And for her, they work. And Christine wants everyone to know they work. So for others with MS or other chronic pain her message is this: "Give yoga a try!"

"I'm proud to be Christine's yoga teacher," says Julia, "but really, she has been MY teacher in so many ways too. MS is an unkind bully, but Christine is a shining example of a person who won't be beaten by it. She has also taught me so much about yoga itself. If I hadn't met her I would never have learned as much as I have about MS, and I wouldn't have learned so many ways to adapt the poses. Working with her has kept me on my toes as I constantly have to keep abreast of what is happening in the MS world and even more importantly, I have to keep studying adaptations to keep her safe. She keeps me learning."

MS Facts:
*Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic autoimmune disorder that affects movement, sensation, and bodily functions. It is caused by the destruction of the myelin insulation covering nerve fibres (neurons) in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).

For more information see: http://www.mssociety.org.uk/

With a background in the criminal justice and prison systems, Julia Green learned a long time ago that the only way to keep going was through yoga. She decided to train as a teacher 20 years ago, and still works within the criminal justice system—just one of the places she teaches yoga! Her classes are fun, energetic, and disciplined—with a focus on the physical body. However, as a qualified yoga teacher and therapist (accredited by the Yoga Alliance and BWY) she is equally comfortable working with different ailments and health conditions. She brings life experience and originality in her teaching as a yoga teacher within their joint venture, WriteIntoYoga, which aims to inspire writing in its purest form through yoga and mindful meditation. 

Mary Smith
Mary has been teaching yoga since 2007 having trained in Yin, Hatha and Vinyasa. She is also trained in various styles of meditation and has experience in fitness, nutrition, Reiki and other energy balancing techniques.

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