I Have Multiple Sclerosis and I Teach Yoga

There is still too little room for the disabled or less-than-perfect in the yoga community. We talk about bodies and acceptance, but what we are usually talking about is healthy bodies -- or bodies that can be turned into healthy bodies.
Publish date:
January 9, 2012
disability, yoga, M

Disclaimer: I always strongly encourage all students to tell their teachers that they have any medical condition. Always. It’s important for a teacher to know this if they are going to teach you. I will also encourage any student to do their research: If you have a chronic illness, disability or a major injury, look for a teacher in your area that specializes in yoga for people with disabilities. Read bios, call around, and ask your doctor, nurse or physical therapist for a referral. It’s my opinion that while you could get lucky just showing up at a class, the best way to find someone who will understand what you need and who will meet your needs is to find someone who specializes in dealing with disability and/ or chronic illness.

When I was finally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I took to yoga with abandon. I had been losing so much physical ability: the ability to walk without assistance, the ability to write, the ability to think clearly, the ability to drive. I needed something to help me regain my sense of balance and coordination, but more than that, I needed something to help me reclaim my sense of physical ability; I needed to regain the sense that my body belonged to me.

Between my new medications and yoga, things did begin to improve -- and quickly. My hands started working again, my headaches became more manageable, my balance came back, the seizures stopped. I eventually gave up my cane and took up running again.

I started teaching my body to do things it had never done before, like inversions and arm balances; I went from barely mobile to doing things that were pretty amazing in the course of a few years, and I finally started feeling like I lived in my own skin.

I turned into a yoga freak, one of those women with carefully perfect posture, checking the alignment of my sacrum in IKEA, adjusting the distance between my ribs and my hips during conversations with friends. I eventually signed up for teacher training in a local yoga studio, because that’s the next logical step in any obsession: you pass it on.

That’s too flippant, actually. To get real for just a minute:

Yoga changed my relationship with my body. Before I started a regular practice, I was completely disconnected: I hated my body. I’d gone from being an athlete to feeling trapped in a body that no longer responded to me. I had rejected my traitor body until yoga and good medical care began to give me back some sense of control.

I decided I wanted to become an instructor -- to bring this possibility to everyone, to all bodies, to unique bodies, to bodies that work and move and are formed in unusual ways like mine. I wanted and still want to bring us all home into our bodies: I want to help people reclaim their homes. I want to give this to others, because it changed me.

Part of my training was to travel to other studios and take classes as observations. When I went to a new studio, they’d hand me the form that asks about any previous joint injuries, recent surgeries or long- term diseases. I’d write “multiple sclerosis” on the forms, which was the right thing to do, but it changed things.

As soon as people learned I had MS, they started telling me what I couldn’t do: I couldn’t do shoulder stand because I had some muscle spasticity that caused a small tremor in my legs, I couldn’t do ustrasana because I have migraines, I couldn’t withstand a vigorous practice because creating any heat in the body would “trigger symptoms.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong. You won’t catch me in a Bikram class, because that’s actually a bad fit for most MS patients, but otherwise, I can do all of those things with my neurologist’s full approval. The man wants me training for a half- marathon; he’s not worried about my yoga practice.

In more than one location, I was discouraged from becoming a teacher at all, because I might not be able to teach advanced poses.

“After all,” one instructor told me, “you can only teach what you can do yourself, and with your condition, even if you could do them now, you’ll lose the ability.” I bit back meeting her at her level: I see you’re not qualified to teach basic civility, then, and I went home and performed metta for her, instead.

It shouldn’t have been a shock that people acted differently toward me when they learned I’m disabled. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I’ll tell you: It was like being punched in the chest each time. I feel like an ass telling this story because it exposes the depth of my own privilege at the time; Oh, no, people treated me like shit because I’m disabled!

Yoga is a fitness- oriented industry in the United States. In retrospect, I displayed naïveté of the most humiliating sort.

We talk about bodies and acceptance, but what we are usually talking about is healthy bodies -- or bodies that can be turned into healthy bodies. When presented with bodies that look or work differently, many teachers are out of their depth and they screw it up. While I understand that from a technical position those bodies require more skill and creativity to teach, those bodies still require our services.

There is still too little room for the disabled or less-than-perfect in the yoga community. While there are special classes for the injured and the elderly (Gentle Yoga), and the pregnant (Prenatal Yoga), if you have a long- term injury or disability, you’re frequently shit out of luck.

There’s a tiny amount of room for people in wheelchairs in Chair Yoga, if you can find it, but many of those classes are Gentle Yoga classes in disguise, with a definite skew toward the lower levels. Where is Level 2/3 Chair Yoga?

For the rest of us, there’s always Yoga Therapy, but that isn’t available everywhere, can get expensive, and isn’t the same as dropping into a class on a Sunday afternoon.

When I go to a new studio, I don’t write “MS” on forms anymore. In studios that don’t know I have MS, no one coddles me; I’m challenged and taught. I am sometimes told I have a beautiful practice. The first time I heard this outside of my usual studio I almost cried; my regular teacher had spent so much time baby-talking to me about my “condition” that I was convinced I was just a pity case in my teacher-training class.

After several years in one place, I now take classes at a studio that has never heard about my MS. I still take one class a week at my old studio, because I teach there and the owner insists on it so that she can “see teachers’ practices.” My real joy lies in classes with the disabled and disability-friendly teachers in my community. A few of these teachers know about me, and we’ve talked about what it means to be body workers in a community that seems to ignore the existence of our bodies.

I still haven’t told my favorite teacher about my MS, despite the fact that he’s disabled, too. The prospect of rejection and expected belittlement is so ingrained that I can’t identify myself as disabled out of the fear that he might pigeonhole me. Oh, you’re having trouble with bakasana today, your MS must be acting up, poor girl, and then I will have no choice but to HATE HIM FOREVER.

So this is where I’m left -- keeping secrets, avoiding tank tops in class so no one can see the marks from my shots. I don’t feel I have the energy to make this my fight, but I can’t say this is acceptable, either. I’m exhausted enough by normal day-to-day stuff -- bills, raising a teenager, running a business. Do I want to start having arguments with yogis about disability awareness?

I don’t feel that the onus of responsibility should fall on the disabled or on the chronically ill, but I end up thinking we might not have any choice: I don’t know who else will be motivated to teach basic disability awareness, if it isn’t us.

If yoga is meant for everyone -- and it is -- we need to make it as accessible for everyone as possible: the able-bodied and the disabled, the large and the small (that’s a whole other article for a different day), the young and the old. We need to make a change, yogis. Are you listening?