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June 2020
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Yoga For MS Classes Are Hard To Find
Here Are Some NYC Options

Studies suggest that yoga improves quality of life for those who live with multiple sclerosis. Unfortunately, for people with this unpredictable autoimmune disease, the symptoms are vast and the yoga classes few.  

"I don't think there are many classes in New York or elsewhere," said Dr. Loren Fishman, a physician at Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. A former student of BKS Iyengar, Fishman co-authored Yoga and Multiple Sclerosis: A Journey to Health and Healing.

"MS is whimsical. This is in contrast to a condition like osteoporosis, where I would work with a patient to strengthen wrists, spine, and hip. With MS there is no such commonality." 

According to the National MS Society, more than 2.3 million people are affected worldwide. While the cause is unknown, MS attacks the fatty protective layer of nerve fibers. Flare-ups result in scar tissues that disrupt messages between the brain and body. It is common, at first, for this disruption to come and go, and the episodes are followed by partial or complete recoveries. "I've never seen two people with MS with the same symptoms," said Larissa Nusser, a Staten Island-based yoga teacher who was diagnosed with the disease in 2000. A motivational speaker, Nusser co-created the You Can Do It Yoga for MS™ method. Yogis can practice this method through two instructional videos or for free in person at Pure Blu Pilates and Yoga Studio. Instructors can learn more through her 10-hour teacher training, available this summer. 

"Yoga helped with my spasticity when I first got diagnosed," Nusser said. "I couldn't walk at all. I have a type called relapsing-remitting, so I regained my ability to walk, but I was really stiff. I was taking medications for spasticity, but yoga helped more."  

Nusser continues to do yoga and take medication. While there is no cure for MS, she is a mother of two who says she has a high quality of life. Her rigorous traveling schedule has included MS-speaking engagements throughout the United States and in Australia. Her 1 p.m. Monday class at Pure Blu attracts up to 22 clients. 

"I base my classes on what people bring to me every week," Nusser said. "I call it symptom-based asana. Most of the students are regulars. We are such a tight family. We're like a yoga-based support group. Whether they feel great or terrible, they really know yoga makes a difference." 

According to the National MS Society, MS is not a fatal disease, except in rare cases. People who live with MS can be expected to have a normal life expectancy. While symptoms may be progressive or temporary, fatigue can be the most prominent symptom, occurring in 80 percent of patients.  

"The main function of yoga with an MS patient is that it reduces fatigue, and fatigue is a big thing," Fishman said. "I compare it to being a corporation without money. If you're fatigued, you can't engage in normal activities." 

Fishman prescribes asana to patients with many conditions, including MS. His book, co-written by Eric Small, is the only yoga book recommended on the National MS Society website. The 273-page guide illustrates several practices for patients in many stages of the disease.  

Because MS involves inflammation, hot yoga is absolutely contraindicated, Fishman said. During an attack, a student may have limited mobility. After the episode, the individual has a new level of function. "I compare it to a war," Fishman said. "When the army is gone, they leave famine in their wake."

Fishman recommends that teachers work with MS students one on one. If the student prefers group yoga classes, Fishman advises a 10- to 20-minute chat before each class to discuss symptoms. For instructors on tight schedules, he suggests charging extra for the essential pre-class assessment. 

"My pet peeve with teachers is that they use this gentle tone with MS patients that isn't really compassionate," Fishman said. "It's condescending. For example, 'Don't lift your arm to high. You don't want to hurt yourself.' It's this phony voice that is different from how an adult would talk to children to engage them. My other concern is that teachers do need to have an understanding of alignment and safe movement. You don't want to contract the MS patients' disability. You want to build on their ability. You have to transfer the fire from yourself to your patient. You have to be extroverted." 

For more information on MS and yoga, click here.

To learn about Nusser's ongoing classes and teacher training program, email her at larissa@iamempoweredyoga.com.

--Ann Votaw 

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