by Patrice Priya Wagner
Ten years after my diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS), I took my first yoga class offered by the MS Society. A friend of mine who has MS suggested I go to it, and so I gave it a try. Although I enjoyed it, I thought it was too easy for me as I mistakenly assumed that yoga was only about physical exercise. I was curious to learn more about yoga, so I enrolled in a class that would suit me better with more difficult poses.
In my new class, my balance wasn't good in standing poses so the teacher quietly moved a chair near me in case I needed to hold onto it. I ignored that chair for a long time until, one day, I put my hands on the chairback to support me in a pose and realized how much more comfortable I could be in the pose if I accepted my disability and made friends with that chair.
At the weekly sessions, I started taking deeper breaths from the abdomen as the teacher instructed me to do, which I liked because it made me feel calm and centered. The poses gave me the sense of being able to move my body and strengthen muscles, something I needed badly since I could no longer jog or play tennis (the ways I got aerobic exercise before then). At that time, my practice was limited to the minutes spent in the yoga studio and I didn't attempt practice on my own at home, even though I had bought all the necessary props in hopes I would give it a try!
About ten years after my first yoga class, a friend organized a 200-hour Accessible Yoga teacher training for people like me, so I enrolled. That’s where I learned how to teach students to do poses, pranayama (breathing exercises), and meditation. At this point, I needed to use a few props to demonstrate some of the poses but most of my symptoms were largely invisible, such as severe fatigue, heat sensitivity, and cognitive "slowdowns." Thankfully, the training accommodated all these challenges and more. My symptoms didn't keep me from participating in class and I ended up really liking what I was learning.
Fast-forward another ten years and you'll notice that I walk with a cane, but other than that, my symptoms are still largely invisible except to people who know me well. I teach a weekly yoga class to people with MS and maintain a daily practice at home. Yoga has helped me manage my invisible symptoms but it’s not the asanas that are providing these benefits. I enjoy stretching and doing poses, standing ones included, but breathing exercises and meditation have played a much larger role in my maintaining optimum health than the asana practice.
That is because over the years I came to realize how badly I deal with ordinary stressors, while I also learned that chronic stress is unhealthy to carry around every hour of the day and, anecdotally, may lead to a worsening of MS symptoms. A few years after the 200-hour training, I took a meditation training that was held at a convenient time for me and would give me enough hours to reach the next level of certification (500-hours). I began to meditate daily as homework for the course, but soon after completing the program, I realized that I was getting a full night's sleep without having changed my medications, diet, or exercises. So I continued meditating even though it was no longer required! During the daytime, I felt more relaxed and calm than I had in a long time, which added to my resolve to continue meditating daily.
I increased my daily practice of pranayama and meditation in order to reduce the level of nervous tension that tends to stay in my body and mind unless I consciously remove it. Without a deliberate "intervention," I might be highly reactive, not allowing a second of pause between hearing something that disturbs me and saying something I would later regret.
As I came to recognize the nervous anxiety I carried around, I began to seek comfort in longer periods of meditation. Currently, I practice two breathing exercises before I sit to meditate each morning for a combined time of fifteen to thirty minutes, depending on how I feel and what I need to accomplish that day. Practicing pranayama brings me into the present moment to witness how my body feels as I inhale and exhale to perform a brief energizing breathing practice of Skull Shining Breath (Kapalabhati) to wake me up a bit, followed by a calming practice of Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana) with my exhalations twice as long an my inhalations.
Then I sit for meditation and usually use my breath as the focus. While some days it seems impossible to keep my mind steady on this one thing, my breath, on other days I'm able to experience a deep calm as soon as my mind stops jumping around. But my mind doesn't stop whizzing around quickly or easily; it always takes some work.
I've had to relearn on occasion that although yesterday's meditation involved less effort, it doesn't mean that today's will come easily. The mind has its own logic, like the heart, and I've come to accept that my task is to slow down a force that won't listen to reason. Each day I start from where my mind tells me we are at that moment, remembering that I'm trying to control a slippery, fidgety thing that needs to be treated gently and never coerced.
Over the years, I've found that meditation is a journey of making friends with my inner mind and thoughts. Through negotiating with my mind during rough times as well as easy days, I've been able to learn when my mind is so troubled that it could be affecting my stress level and, hence, my MS symptoms unless I add one more meditation to my day. Without that awareness, my symptoms may have become worse than they currently are, twenty years after my first yoga class. When I started doing yoga, it was for the exercise, but I've continued practicing because meditation and pranayama help me cultivate a serene mind to better accept my disability and the world around me.
Patrice Priya Wagner, RYT 500, C-IAYT, teaches yoga to people with disabilities in Oakland, California, and has been published in New Mobility Magazine, Works and Conversations, Artweek, and Kitchen Sink. She is Managing Editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog and a founding member of the Accessible Yoga Board of Directors.
This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog.
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