Researchers bent over backwards to help those with MS realize the benefits of yoga in a new study. More clinical trials are soon to follow.

Researchers at the Rutgers University School of Health Related Professions are excited to announce that their small pilot study uncovered many benefits for people with multiple sclerosis (MS) who practice yoga. At the end of eight weeks, the study participants noticed a whole slate of improvements to their health, including better vision and bladder control as well as improved balance and cognition.

The study took place at Still Point Yoga Center in Laurel Springs, New Jersey. Fourteen women with MS, ranging in age from 34 to 64, participated. The length of time since their diagnoses varied from two to more than 25 years.

“It was twice a week for an hour and a half, for two months,” explained Susan Gould Fogerite, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and associate professor at Rutgers. “Although we had homework assignments, that was variable. People did what they could and what they had time for.”

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Physical ability varied among the volunteers, but the exercises were adapted to meet their needs. Some lay on yoga mats while others stood, sat in chairs, or used a wall for support.

“I felt like I became steadier and stronger in my core,” Paula Meltzer, a study volunteer, said in a press release. Before yoga, she said she was a “wall walker,” reaching out to steady herself on nearby walls for support. “To be able to stand on one leg and feel balanced is amazing,” Meltzer said.

Although the study was small, the results astounded the researchers.

“We all were really gratified and delighted at the level of change that we saw and the breadth of it,” Gould Fogerite said, explaining that her team not only saw improvement in participants’ physical abilities, but also in their mood, cognition, and overall quality of life.

“We were concerned to start with that [the study] might not be long enough. Particularly if many of our participants had had MS for a long time,” she said. “To be able to see this level of shift was very, very gratifying.”

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For many, yoga is a lifestyle, not merely exercise. Even basic, beginner yoga programs teach a full range of techniques addressing mind and spirit as well movement. Breathing, meditation, and relaxation are integral parts of the practice.

On the advice of experts, Gould Fogerite and her team incorporated certain yoga philosophies they “thought would be helpful to people with MS in particular, but would benefit anyone with a chronic disease,” Gould Fogerite said.

The yoga discipline can elevate mood by “encouraging people to think beyond the body they inhabit or the labels they’ve been given,” she said, “and the participants in our program actually said they enjoyed the philosophy part of it!”

To help with cognition, participants were taught several Sanskrit words traditionally used in yoga. “[Participants] learned them, repeated them, and practiced how to say certain phrases because we know that learning a new language is really great for neuroplasticity,” said Gould Fogerite.

“One of the volunteers confided to me that after the study she was able to feel the sand under her feet at the beach for the first time in years. That means a lot to me.” — Susan Gould Fogerite, Rutgers University

One thing that distinguishes yoga from simple exercise is the level of awareness involved. “You bring that awareness and focus into everything that you are doing. The practice and focusing, coupled with learning, are all things that can help with cognition,” she explained.

Yoga is something anyone can do in nearly any setting. Gould Fogerite described how one volunteer resourcefully carved out her own space. “She would retreat to the bathroom and close the door just to have a quiet spot to be able to focus, and breathe, and meditate,” Gould Fogerite said.

Joining a yoga class for MS can have many benefits. Among them are the social enjoyment of exercising with others, learning proper technique, and discovering how best to modify poses to suit your needs.

If you can’t find a class near you, you can still practice yoga at home. MSActiveSource, sponsored by drug maker Biogen Idec, offers a free yoga video designed with MS patients in mind.

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Gould Fogerite is encouraged by the results of this small pilot study and said that she and her co-investigators are planning a follow-up this year with either a comparator trial or a randomized control trial.

“One of the volunteers confided to me that after the study she was able to feel the sand under her feet at the beach for the first time in years,” said Gould Fogerite, who is passionate about helping those with MS. “That means a lot to me.”

To fund their next study, she said, they are seeking support from the National Institutes of Health and the National MS Society.

As for Meltzer, this study had a real and lasting impact.

“When I was first diagnosed, I no longer felt safe in my own body,” she said. “I didn’t trust my body at all. What the program did was really bring that trust back.”

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