In recent years there’s been an explosion of yoga studios popping up everywhere. Each one offers different disciplines, and based on your abilities you can choose which type best suits your needs.
Hatha, Vinyasa, Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bikram, Kundalini, Yin Yoga and Hot Yoga.
Years ago no one discussed how beneficial yoga could be for someone living with MS or any chronic illness. The medical community scoffed at it. They needed scientific evidence as proof of any benefit instead of considering it as part of a treatment plan.
Even today no large studies have been performed on the direct relationship between yoga and MS, but you can’t argue with story after story of patients reporting tremendous health benefits when practicing yoga.
In his book Optimal Health with Multiple Sclerosis, 2014 Dr. Allen Bowling explains the existing research on yoga and concludes:
“Yoga is relatively inexpensive, generally safe, and may potentially improve multiple sclerosis symptoms. One rigorous MS clinical trial found that yoga decreased fatigue. Other studies in MS and various other medical conditions have reported improvement in anxiety, depression, fatigue, bladder function, pain, spasticity, weakness and walking. There are anecdotal reports but minimal research on yoga and sexual function. For general health, yoga may improve arthritis pain, reduce blood pressure, and promote weight loss. The effects of yoga on these conditions may secondarily benefit those with MS because these conditions may worsen disability and lower quality of life in those with MS.”
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Yoga has changed my life. I know that sounds overly dramatic but it’s true. I’ve been practicing it (sporadically) for 15 years, and the weeks I attend class I feel more balanced in my gait. I experience less fatigue and anxiety and I feel more at peace with myself and the world around me.
And this year I did my first plank! I know that sounds small but to me it’s the equivalent to winning an Oscar. It was an incredible moment.
All of this is why, while attending the recent Consortium of MS Center’s annual meeting, I was thrilled to speak to Megan Weigel, a superstar nurse practitioner and yoga instructor. Through her work Megan offers inspiration, education and empowerment to patients while also instilling a sense of hope and self-confidence.
Megan is an advanced registered nurse practitioner practicing neurologic nursing at Baptist Neurology in Jacksonville, Florida. Dr. Weigel received her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree with a focus on preventive healthcare in MS patients and is the new president of the International Organization of Multiple Sclerosis Nurses (IOMSN).
CC: Thanks for the pleasure of interviewing you, Megan. Why don’t you tell us how you got started in nursing and yoga.
MW: I was a sick kid and had to stay out of school a lot with illness so I decided that I wanted to be in medicine, but I didn’t know doing what. I thought I’d like to try physical therapy but I didn’t like it. So I interned in college, found out what a nurse practitioner was, and got my bachelor degree. Then I worked as a registered nurse in a hospital and went back to graduate school.
I’m a family practitioner by certification and interested in preventive healthcare and wellness. When I came to neurology I worked for a great nurse who said, “I think you’ll like working with people with multiple sclerosis because the disease affects your whole body.”
There’s so much teaching in MS and I love teaching.That’s how I came to where I am.
CC: And yoga?
MW: The yoga came after I went through a difficult personal time in 2010. I had a lot of loss and one of my healthcare practitioners told me I should try out this yoga studio. I did and I became involved with the yoga studio and took courses about empowerment, leadership and self-worth.
I was emotionally trying to figure out why you are the way you are and how that shows up in your life. It doesn’t sound like that belongs in yoga but in the style of yoga that I teach it’s a lot about empowerment and leadership.
I thought I had room in my schedule to take teacher training, but I only wanted to work with people with MS.
That year I met my friend Cheryl Russell who has MS, although I didn’t know it at the time. I met her at a National Multiple Sclerosis Society luncheon and Cheryl wanted to teach people with MS.
After a year Baron Baptiste came to do a master class in Jacksonville and Cheryl and I threw our mats next to each other and after class we said, “Hey, are we going to do this?”
Baron worked with people with MS and after class we told him we wanted to do this. We started it in 2012 and in 2014 we started OMS Yoga which is our 501c3. We have 3 classes in Jacksonville and 1 in Charleston and we’re going to have one in Philadelphia.
Our mission is to awaken, empower and inspire people living with MS.
My students are my patients, so I see them in the office and I examine them. Then they come to the studio and we do yoga and you can’t imagine what they’re able to do despite their neurological exam.
Then they form this incredible community for one another. They stay on top of each other; if someone misses class they find out if they’re okay. It’s incredible.
All of the classes are free for people living with MS. It’s amazing.
CC: Are your classes only gentle yoga?
MW: It’s definitely a combination of yoga types. In Jacksonville and Charleston it’s hot power yoga.
CC: Hot yoga? I always stayed away from that type since raising my body temperature is not desirable in MS.
MW: (Giggling) No. We cool the room down using Vinyasa or flow practice that’s similar to other yogas like Hatha. There’s an order for things that’s a lot do with Eastern philosophy. We gauge each class with Florida temperatures, so if it’s really hot outside we might do a restorative class. We do a short meditation (classes are 60 minutes) to let everyone’s bodies cool down, then we do some restorative yoga at the end of class.
We do teach a powerful class. Everybody does it at their own pace and we practice safely.
I know the students from a medical perspective so I can help, say Bob, since he needs assistance for his legs. As a yoga teacher I get to know what to do to elevate a person to do something they never thought they could do.
CC: How large are your classes and how can you offer them for free?
MW: We have 8 – 12 people in a class but sometimes 15 with one teacher and one assistant. Our teachers are volunteers right now. We hope to pay in the future. We do small fundraisers. We’re underwritten by local MS chapters but in Philadelphia we self-fund. We had a fundraiser in Jacksonville and raised enough money to start our Philly studio.
It’s busy and it’s great.
CC: It’s not easy to find the right yoga classes when you’re living with MS. I wish there were more studios like yours near me.
MW: One of the big problems is that there’s a lot of fear with yoga for people with adapted needs, so we need to speak to the fear. We spend a lot of time educating physicians and physical therapists that we’re trying to protect lower backs, let’s say, in people even if the teachers aren’t medical providers.
I think that the MS community is sometimes fearful, too. I know when I go to a new city and want to take a yoga class I’m nervous, wondering if people will like me, or can I do what they’re doing. Then I try to imagine having MS and going into a yoga studio for the first time.
So one of the things that we like to do is keeping the yoga in a studio rather than in a hospital or center because people like to be a part of a bigger community that has nothing to do with MS. When a new person sees wheelchairs and walkers and says, “You can do yoga?” That’s when they cross that big bridge.
It’s hard, I think, depending on where you are in the country, because there are yoga factories. We’re doing a poor job in the US touting the benefits of gentle yoga and deep stretch.
CC: The spiritual side of yoga is important too.
MW: When we asked our students after 6 weeks what the benefits were for them, most of them said, “Learning to breathe.”
Yoga can take back any form of anxiety. If you’re in a yoga pose you can slow down your breath. Then you can learn to bring that lesson outside of the classroom and into the world. When your breath is going fast you know how to handle your reaction to stress and anxiety. It’s huge.
CC: You can breathe through things. Plus the balance and energy you acquire is amazing. I did my first plank which felt incredible. People talk about how many planks they could do and I couldn’t do one. I felt badly about that. Now, because of yoga, I can!
MW: Yup. We try to encourage people to also come to meditation classes to get them involved. There are classes in the studio we partner with that offers meditation. We encourage our students to become a part of that community.
For me as a “doctorly” prepared nurse practitioner I consider myself a little bit of a hippie. I feel there is the caliber of scientific evidence that’s proving the benefits of yoga. It’s finally starting to get published and respected, to show up as something that Dr. Smith will no longer snicker at but will believe. I have colleagues emailing me about yoga, people I never would have believed would have been interested.
CC: Are you going for a certificate in Integrative Medicine?
MW: I start that in August. It’s part of Dr Weil’s Center for Integrative Medicine and it’s an online two-year program. I want to know what there is in integrative medicine so I can recommend what I learned.
It’s a great program, highly respected and it’s at a highly scientific level.
People are finally talking about metabolism and MS, and at ECTRIMS (European Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis) a young scientist looked at diets high in protein. There’s also been a lot of research about taking large amounts of omega 3’s that don’t seem to make a difference. We seem to be failing at some level about diet and MS. I think we’re missing something in our research.
CC: That’s what Dr. Allen Bowling said, that it basically goes back to what Michael Pollan wrote about eating more plant-based food.
MW: Exactly. I went to ECTRIMS 2016 where a Dr. Haghikia gave a presentation called “Impact of fatty acids on CNS autoimmunity and their therapeutic potential for multiple sclerosis.”
(NOTE: Dr. Haghikia’s findings “showed that while long chain fatty acids have a detrimental effect on MS disease course, short chain fatty acids, like propionate, ameliorate MS symptomatology in a mouse model of the disease by promoting the differentiation of Tregs (regulatory T cells) in the gut. (See more by clicking here.)
CC: Thank you, Megan, for all you do for the MS community. Your hard work is making a difference for all of us. Best of luck to you as president of IOMSN. Congratulations.
MW: Thanks, Cathy.
Video Credit: Thank you to MS World. Megan Weigel, President of the IOMSN, speaking with Dr. Daniel Kantor about the organization as well as the benefits of yoga in Multiple Sclerosis.