They might be in a wheelchair or a power chair. Maybe they walk with a cane.
It’s not that it doesn’t matter, but for the two hours they devote each week to yoga at MossRehab, people with multiple sclerosis (MS) can focus not on their limitations, but their potential. And they have greater potential than they might have realized, says Sherri Bittner, who leads what is called oMS Yoga, both at MossRehab’s main campus in Elkins Park, Pa. and MossRehab in Doylestown, Pa.
oMS Yoga combines yoga and meditation to help people better manage the symptoms of MS. Participants report many benefits including less anxiety, improved breathing and balance, and increased strength.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease affecting the central nervous system, damaging the myelin, a kind of protective sheath that shields nerve fibers. The symptoms can include fatigue, pain, weakness, dizziness, sexual dysfunction, emotional issues and other health concerns.
Bittner appreciates the course MS can take better than most. Her husband Gregg, who had built houses for a living, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000.
“When you go through yoga teacher training, you don’t think that this could be my student or that could be my student,” she says. “You don’t think it’s going to be the student you live with every day. My husband lives with MS, so I had been working with him.”
A Trip to Florida
The oMS Yoga program at MossRehab was the brainchild of Ryan Menard, DO, a resident physician in physical medicine and rehabilitation at MossRehab and Temple University Hospital. Dr. Menard became intrigued by the idea when an instructor from Florida who had been overseeing yoga classes for people with MS showed up at the yoga studio he had been attending since 2014.
Dr. Menard traveled to Florida to spend a few days with Cheryl Russell and Megan Weigel, the founders of oMS Yoga. He came back impressed—and determined to bring the benefits of yoga to MS patients at MossRehab.
“It was a calling,” he says, “something I was committed to.”
After returning from Florida, Dr. Menard called his friend Sherri Bittner.
“She is an incredible teacher with a heart of gold," he says. "I called her and asked if she would be interested in starting a class for MS individuals, and it went from there.”
Dr. Menard applied for an Einstein Healthcare Network Albert Einstein Society grant to help fund the program.
“Not only did we get the full grant,” he says, “but Allison Korman, AES Board member and founder of mycustomyogamat.com, offered to donate mats for the entire program. The stars were really aligning.”
The first class started in January 2016. The program runs in six-week intervals—six weeks on, two weeks off.
An average of 10 people with MS take each of the classes at Elkins Park, Dr. Menard says, though at times there have been as many as 18—and, he says, “we haven’t even advertised.”
The Doylestown class is a recent arrival and is still in the early phases of attracting students. Diane Menard, Dr. Menard’s mother, has been assisting at classes since day one and has been the main contact for the oMS Yoga program. “She is the glue that holds this program together. She makes everything run smoother and our students love her,” Dr. Menard says.
Improved Quality of Life
“There have been several randomized controlled trials studying the effects of yoga on individuals with multiple sclerosis”, Dr. Menard says, “with evidence strongly suggesting that yoga results in improvements in mood, balance, fatigue, and quality of life. It also appears to reduce pain, among multiple additional benefits.”
“It’s an all-round good thing,” he says. “It’s really about becoming more aware of your body and getting your mind off defining yourself by your condition. So much of yoga is focusing the mind and passing through perceived barriers. Body follows mind.”
Bittner concurs. Because MS can affect those who have it in a number of ways, some class participants perform their yoga exercises on a floor mat; while others remain in their wheelchairs or scooters.
“I work with all of them,” says Bittner. “We’ll set up a posture, and then we’ll modify it depending on whether you’re on a mat or in a power chair or wheelchair.”
Regardless, she says, “everyone has the potential of doing yoga. Everyone has the possibility of experiencing the benefits of yoga.”
And for people with MS, Bittner says, that’s vital. Yoga helps create body awareness, and succeeding in yoga helps boost self-esteem. “It’s so important for the people who are not as mobile to maintain their bodies to build and maintain health,” she says.
Bittner has seen physical improvements in many class participants, including one woman in a power chair who had little mobility from the waist down. Now she can lift her bottom off the seat of the chair—which Bittner sees as a triumph.
The meditative and relaxation components of yoga also help those in the class in ways beyond the physical. “It’s healing to them,” says Bittner. “They feel more balanced in their inner spirit.”
The MossRehab oMS Yoga class offers one additional advantage to attendees.
“The biggest benefit is community,” Bittner says. “They feel they’re part of something. Physical therapy can seem like work, but yoga feels like fun. They enjoy coming. They don’t want to leave the room when they’re finished.”For information on oMS Yoga at MossRehab, at either location, please call Diane Menard at 267-614-4291 or visit mossrehab.com/omsyoga.