More MS news articles for June 2001

Mind, body & spirit

Yoga classes offer soothing therapy for those who want to get rid of stress

Saturday, June 16, 2001
Marian Wilson - Correspondent

Sheryl Coyle drops her metal cane near the back of the room and pulls a chair close to her usual spot. She uses the wall and seat for balance as she bends and twists through her yoga class.

Coyle was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the early '90s, but suspects it was brewing for years. She joined yoga two years ago to fend off progressive weakness and poor coordination.

"I have trouble walking," says the Coeur d'Alene woman. "With MS you need help with flexibility, balance, strength and stress. The more I stretch the better. My physical therapist was amazed at my strength. Some yoga poses really help."

Coyle hands a tape to her teacher.

"It's Native American flute music, very relaxing," she says.

Instructor Laurie Regan dims the lights as incoming classmates set up floor mats to a background of soft melodies.

After practicing yoga for nearly a decade, Regan started teaching at Kootenai Medical Center a few years ago. Originally, she wanted to offer help reducing stress for the mental health clients she counsels as a social worker. The classes grew. Some cater to advanced students, others to those who prefer a moderate pace. This fall Regan plans to add a class for cardiac patients and senior citizens.

"One misconception is, you have to be a pretzel to do yoga," said Regan. Her Gentle Yoga class is filled with students of every age, shape and size.

Regan sees bodies transform through a practice of poses (asanas) and deep breathing (pranyama). Perhaps the most dramatic change is in Midge Kristin, an 81-year-old Coeur d'Alene woman who suffers from severe scoliosis. A curved spine pulled her into a hunched position.

"I wanted to learn to walk tall," Kristin said.

After two years of exercises that strengthen spine-supporting muscles, Regan notices a huge difference in her student.

"I see that she's standing up so much better. She's straighter and so much more flexible," Regan said.

Kristin's doctor has also been impressed. Her trend of losing bone density and height has been halted.

"The lump in my back seems to have gone down," Kristin said. "I think the yoga has helped."

At the start of classes, Regan asks if there are problem areas students notice in their bodies. Someone mentions tight muscles along her side. Sitting cross-legged, Regan folds her arms and curls her head toward the floor, demonstrating a stretch that might bring relief.

This is just the sort of move that Sandra Clary takes home and practices after a long day in front of a computer screen in KMC's medical records department.

"Typically, by the end of each day my neck and shoulders are tense and tight. I think I'd have a lot more trouble if I didn't do yoga," she said.

At the end of each class, Regan turns out the lights and guides students through relaxation exercises. This is one of Clary's favorite parts.

"It's amazing how much stress and tension you can get rid of in just 10 minutes," Clary said. "I use the same techniques at home to help with sleep."

Yoga means "union," which represents a connection of mind, body and spirit. What started 5,000 years ago in India as a philosophical discipline, focuses mostly on physical postures in the west. Many local classes teach Iyengar-style yoga which stresses body alignment. Wooden blocks, straps or blankets are used so positions are possible for most anyone to do.

With a stiff body and weak back, Betty Hays finds that the use of props in Regan's class is crucial for performing some of the poses.

''If Laurie sees me struggling, she'll come and put a block under me. Everybody can do it using a prop,'' said the Post Falls woman.

Hays admits that she hasn't enjoyed some other classes quite as much.

''I tried a different class, on a hard floor. It wasn't comfortable,'' she said. The soothing pace of Regan's class is just right for her.

''Some people probably think it's too difficult. They've seen stretches that are advanced,'' she said.

Hays suffered with constant pain in her lower back and neck, relying on aspirin and ibuprofen to manage her day. She hasn't taken any in quite a while and attributes this to yoga.

''I could really tell this year that I'm more limber,'' she said.

With positions named ''proud warrior'' and ''hero's pose,'' yoga sounds competitive. Unlike traditional exercises that are goal oriented, in yoga you succeed by trying.

''The end goal is not the pose,'' said Regan. ''The poses are a vehicle to get where you want to go. We focus our attention in the body so we can listen to what the body has to tell us.''

Physicians, chiropractors and physical therapists are warming up to yoga and referring patients to local classes. Studies suggest it can help many ailments, from carpal tunnel syndrome to heart disease. For Coeur d'Alene yoga instructor Patricia Berger, this is a thrill. She has a soft spot for those who come to lessons with medical concerns. With her combination of scoliosis and arthritis, she believes she might be confined to a wheelchair if not for practicing yoga the past 25 years.

Her students report they remain calm under pressure now. They are more focused, breathe more deeply and feel a sense of inner peace.

Student Coyle has talked to the multiple sclerosis support group and told them how she's benefited from yoga. Her audience seemed skeptical.

''They think, `Oh, I could never do that,' '' Coyle said. ''I tried to explain to them, `Yes, you can.'''