It’s 2000. I’m living in Dublin and I’m in the gym. I’m in my daily step class, and inexplicably I loose control of my right foot. I try to put my foot flat on the step, but it “slips” to the side.
The same happened in the following class and I also experienced painful tingling in the legs. I will never forget what my doctor told me: ‘It can be anything from a simple pinched nerve to something horrible like multiple sclerosis (MS).’ I was 34 years old, I had moved to Ireland three years before and I had just begun a doctoral thesis on the Irish economy while teaching at the University of Dublin. My future – like that of the Irish economy- lay in front of me, clear and secure. Or so I thought!
In the following months, other symptoms appeared; colours became darker, my vision got blurred… I took advantage of a trip to France to visit our family doctor as I trusted him completely. Given my age and the first symptoms, he told me that an MS diagnosis was indeed very likely. I knew he was right. I knew something was wrong. But that very same day, my older brother also went to see him and learned that he was suffering from kidney cancer. He left us in November and it was not until the February 4th that I was ready to face a neurologist. The MRI scan and lumbar puncture confirmed my intuition.
People sometimes ask me what the most difficult aspect of living with MS is. I reply that there have been three main challenges. The first is living with the uncertainty linked with MS. Since it affects the central nervous system, everything is possible. Nothing is certain. You just don’t know what part of your body or mind is going to be affected next. Your legs? Your arms? Your memory? Your eyesight? I had to learn to live with that uncertainty without imagining the worst was just around the corner! And without panicking each time a symptom appears.
The second challenge was to find a way to feel good in my body despite MS. It was a riddle: How do I feel good in my body when it self-destructs? How not to blame it? I had always thought that to feel good mentally, I had to feel good in my body. Having MS made me question the way I relate to my body.
The third challenge is to leave ‘enough’ space for MS; to respect it and make enough room for it every day. An MS nurse once told me that I should only use 80% of my energy and leave the rest for MS. She was right. I am convinced that if you try to suppress MS and ignore it, it will just blow up. In the long term, I find it better to spend 20% of my energy to manage MS – resting, doing yoga, relaxing, learning about it- without letting it invade everything, or dominate my life completely. Getting this balance right is crucial for maintaining my wellbeing and my relationships with others, friends, family or in intimate relations.
Yoga helped me to meet and overcome these three challenges.
Before attending the first yoga class, I thought that yoga would be too easy. I quickly changed my mind. Yoga can be amazingly effective to improve the strength, flexibility, balance. But doing yoga when you have MS can be challenging.
I remember one particular episode. That day I was hesitant to go to yoga because I had no sensation in my left leg. It “worked” normally but I couldn’t feel the sole of my left foot. However, I so enjoyed this class that I decided to give it a try despite the symptoms. Everything went better than expected until our Yoga teacher invited us to do the position of the half moon, Ardha Chandrasana, in which the body is supported by one leg and one arm. I fell. But not only when doing the balancing pose on the left leg. I had the same problem on the right leg. I was too frustrated, too scattered to balance on any side. This was one of my first lessons in the Body-Mind connection!
Gradually, over the years, I learned to use the breath to calm my emotions and hold the postures. Yoga helped me reconnect with my body and to some extent, to become friends again. It also helped me relax, step back, and enjoy the present moment. I also learned to recognize the postures and breathing techniques that could alleviate some symptoms. For example, Uttanasana, Utthita Trikonasana and Utthita Parsv. akonasana are great to prevent numbness in the legs and Sarvangasana mitigates extreme fatigue, a symptom which affects a majority of people with MS. I also observed how different postures influence my emotional state. Paschimottanasana always gives me a sense of comfort while I avoid Urdhva Dhanurasana if I feel too vulnerable.
However, the impact Yoga had on my life goes beyond the therapeutic effects of the asanas. It also encouraged me to change my lifestyle. Before starting yoga, I was addicted to the gym, spending hours each week doing aerobics, step aerobics, spinning… but still smoking 25 Gauloises blondes a day. I could see no reason why I should quit smoking since I was doing fine in the gym! But once I started yoga, I was driven towards a healthier way of life, as if my body was eager to “detox”. I now believe that yoga triggered the natural healing force in me, the force that Hippocrates described as: “The natural healing force within each of us [that] is the greatest force in getting well”. In 2001, I had been prescribed interferon to delay the progression of MS but I stopped in 2003, against my neurologist’s advice. I decided instead to opt for an alternative holistic way focusing on yoga but also diet, acupuncture, relaxation and meditation.
Personally, I am convinced that Yoga has helped me to slow down the progression of MS. The MRI scan I did in 2012 shows less lesions than the first one I did in 2001. My neurologist argues that it is not a proof. Maybe he is right, maybe I am just extremely lucky but I do believe and feel that I am healthier and stronger now thanks to yoga, mindfulness meditation and a special diet.
My personal experience motivated me to train as a yoga teacher. I first trained in Vinyasa yoga with Frog Lotus International in 2009 and later did an advanced teacher training in Yoga therapy in the Paramanand Institute of Yoga Science & Research in India. I am convinced that yoga could help everybody! As long as you can breathe, you can do yoga. The toolbox offered by yoga is indeed fabulous. These tools are not a cure, but it is possible to use them to better manage most MS symptoms, stress and emotions. Yoga has become a real therapy for me. Of course, this is not always easy but I’m learning. I learn to listen, observe, read and tame my body and my emotions and live in the moment.