As I walk down the hallway, and then up the three flights of stairs to my art studio with my bike slung over my shoulder, I'm struck by how un-difficult it is. I'm struck by a sensation that is, in a flash, unfamiliar to me. It's a feeling that, like all feelings, you forget about until you feel it. But this time it's different: instead of a feeling I want to escape from, it's one I just want to be in for a few moments. The feeling is that of strength.
With MS, physical strength can be one of the first things to change. Exacerbations leave us fatigued, unmotivated to move, fearful that we might make things worse and, most of all, doubtful in our own capabilities.
The gateway to my own very recent increase in strength, I believe, is Yoga.
I can remember when I was first diagnosed with MS, so raw and shaken, so unsure of the future and of my place in it, still recovering from vertigo and optic neuritis, at which point I enrolled in a yoga class in my hometown. It was a very intimate and inviting space, and the teacher, who was trained in Kripalu yoga, was warm and soft and patient. I remember maybe the first or second class, the ten of us went around and said our names and why we were taking yoga. This was 2001, and there wasn't even a dedicated yoga studio in town. Holding back tears, I said that I was there because I had MS and I heard that yoga was good for MS. Everyone was supportive and caring.
For the next twelve years I tried all sorts of yoga here and there, but never with a daily practice. I tried Iyengar, which is the most highly recommended style for MS patients, a handful of times. The classes were large and though the teachers were top-notch, I never really felt like I belonged there. Now I know why: the way to feel as though you belong somewhere is to make it a habit, to be there as much as you can, to engage with the people you talk to. It's just like the regulars at the coffee shop I worked at after my diagnosis: I knew them because of repetition, not because they had some special quality that no one else did.
I think this sense of connection–between people, between me and my body, between my body and my mind–is a huge factor of success in both dealing with MS and in dealing with life.
For months I've been working through a major stint of depression, in conjunction with a huge amount of confusion about where to go in my career. I realized I'd not been heeding the advice of the career and self help books I've been consuming – I was taking on work for the money instead of doing something because it resonated with me and because I wanted to do it. I was stressed out, pushing too hard, trying to keep up, and quite frankly unable to make decisions. It all came to a head on a busy street in the middle of Manhattan one day. After days of weeping and not sleeping, I turned down two well paying jobs in my field, not knowing what I would do instead, but saying no anyway. Putting that whole experience in so few words almost trivializes the actual difficulty and stress that the experience caused, but that's another story.
Almost immediately after that happened, I saw an offer in my inbox for a great deal at yoga studio I used to go to. It was a beautiful space, with beautiful people, challenging teachers, and interesting classes. But it would have required me to take a 45 minute subway ride each way, and I knew it would be the kind of thing where I'd have a hard time going. So instead, I found a yoga studio I could walk to in my neighborhood and signed up for a 3-month membership.
I started going every day.
I tried most of the classes they offered, except for the hot yoga classes because I have heard many times that heat can exacerbate MS symptoms.
After about a month, I found the classes and teachers that resonated with me the most, and went regularly. It's so much about practice, in fact I think that's really the main thing. And I've thought to myself many times "hey, that's not so bad for someone with MS." But my goal after realizing that I've now cultivated some real, true physical strength is to drop the "for someone with MS" part.
It's true that having MS is a part of me. When going about my daily life, there can be an underlying "I have MS, so…" thought in the back of my head. But I'm not trying to push that thought out as a type of denial. I'm just becoming better friends with the part of me that's not my MS.
Starting a yoga or any other exercise routine requires an investment: a bit of money and a good amount of time. But really, what could be more important than investing in your own health so that you can live your life well? It's not a luxury; it's a necessity.