A great way to catch the attention of those with MS, PD or neuromuscular conditions is to talk about how to improve balance and prevent imbalance. Dr. Mitzi Williams, also known as the Nerdy Neurologist, recently invited me to her Brain Chat podcast to discuss imbalance for those with MS and how yoga can help improve it. Our conversation inspired me to write this blog.

During Brain Chat, Dr. Mitzi discussed how the loss of balance and the risk of falling can be devastating and about the need to keep moving to prevent imbalance. Challenges to balance can look like difficulty walking or veering to one side. Many with MS say that they look like they are clumsy or drunk as written on the t-shirts that say “I am not drunk, I have MS.”

Vision, our inner ear, and ability to help us know where we are in space called proprioception help us with balance. Proprioceptors are located throughout the body and respond when the body is experiencing imbalance. Yoga practice helps to optimize proprioception because of the variety of poses and positions of our body in them. A term that may be new to many is interoception which is the sense that gives us information about what is going on inside of our bodies such as hunger, fatigue, and body temperature. Nerves within the body send signals to the brain to promote balance such as the response to drink water when thirsty or dehydrated. Yoga helps interoception because it increases our sensitivity and responses to internal bodily sensations. For example, when we become more aware of stressful holding patterns in the body, we can choose a response such as focusing on our breath or movement and stretching to let go of contraction.

Yoga Moves MS students often enter class with assistive devices such as canes, walkers, scooters, and wheelchairs because of challenges to balance with ambulation. They may experience symptoms such as weakness, foot drop, visual impairment, and numbness. Yoga can provide a safe and fun environment to practice balance. Props such as blocks, chairs, ambulatory assistive devices, and walls are used to adapt poses for each unique body. They do not lessen the challenge or quality of the practice. Rather they provide a way to fully experience poses, contribute to student safety, and facilitate creativity and pose variety. For example, Tree Pose can be practiced standing against a wall which can help increase confidence to try modifications such as different hand and feet positions. Almost all yoga poses can present opportunities to improve balance and students can choose pose adaptations that are just right for their body. In addition to the physical benefits, poses that require balance have the power to quiet the mind. When challenged to maintain balance, the natural response is to let go of any extraneous thoughts and shift them to the present moment.

Mindful breathing and meditation help with inner balance as they calm the mind, and help to cope with anxiety, depression and discomfort. Breathing, meditation, and the physical postures make up the continuum of yoga, and any one or all of these can be considered a yoga practice. There is also a sister science to yoga that addresses lifestyle called ayurveda which addresses imbalances on many levels including physical and emotional. Yoga is a mind, body, and spirit practice. There are many benefits to add yoga to your toolbox for your overall health and wellness including:

  • Yoga cultivates a functional breath
  • Yoga improves balance, spasticity, fatigue, quality of sleep, strength, mindfulness, concentration, and focus
  • Yoga improves proprioception, posture, coordination, and the ability of the body to react and prevent the risk of falls or injury
  • Increases internal body awareness known as interoception

Dr. Mitzi emphasized the concept of “prehabilitation” which is akin to prevention. We can be proactive with regular exercise and mindful movement before we have a problem like imbalance. When in better condition, we are more likely to bounce to back to baseline with greater ease after an injury or MS symptoms arise. As we concluded the Brain Chat session, Dr. Mitzi questioned how one can begin a yoga practice. The answer is to take the first step even if apprehension is present. Just do it -know that yoga is meant for Any Body!

Suggestions to flow through your day in a balanced way include:

  1. Tune into your breath before you arise and throughout your day. Just by observing your respirations, inhalations and exhalations often equalize. A balanced breath impacts the mind and body.
  2. Attend a foundations to adaptive yoga class that is designed for those with MS or a neuromuscular condition and is taught by an experienced instructor. You may meet privately with a yoga therapist that is trained to empower you with the application of the teachings of yoga to your life. In person and online small group classes offer a great way to build a regular daily practice. Yoga Moves MS provides daily live and On Demand virtual classes. Refer to yogamovesms.org.
  3. Gather a few yoga props such as a yoga mat and folding chair to practice at home in a quiet space. You do not need to purchase most props. You can use a blanket, towel, strap, or belt from around your house.
  4. Consider Adaptive Yoga Cards that were designed as a resource for beginners and those that want simple cues. They contain poses and adaptations and make it easy to learn with photos and easy directions. Choose a few yoga poses. Vary it up and as you feel comfortable with one pose, try another to build your skills and neuroplastic pathways in your brain. They are available at yogamovesms.org.
  5. Meditate with a focus on your breath, sounds in the environment, or sensations in your body, or listen to a guided meditation to help slow down the thoughts in your mind.
  6. Make yourself comfortable with your entry into the wonderful world of yoga and contact me with your questions and thoughts at mindy@yogamovesms.org.

Make sure to listen to the full Brain Chat podcast with Dr. Mitzi Williams and I which can be found on all podcast platforms as well as YouTube. Here is the link.