Say Yes To The Om! Yoga Classes Aren’t A Stretch For MS Patients


“I can’t do that, I have MS.”

Those are the seven words Megan Weigel, DNP, ARNP-c, MSCN, typically hears when she initially suggests yoga classes to her patients with multiple sclerosis. Her response to their protests is simple: “Yes, you can.”

All it takes is the right kind of yoga class, according to Dr. Weigel, the co-founder of oMS Yoga, a non-profit organization dedicated to making yoga work for people with MS.

“We have props we can use to help you. We can bring the floor to you, we can bring the wall to you,” Dr. Weigel tells them. “And you don’t have to worry about being off balance because there’s a bolster there” to support you.

Megan Weigel

Image credit: oMS Yoga

Yoga classes specifically tailored for MS patients aren’t universally available, she said. Depending on ability level, though, there may be other appropriate yoga classes like chair yoga for senior citizens or cancer survivors. Health care providers should assess and advise MS patients regarding their ability to participate in any new exercise programs, Dr. Weigel cautioned. But if patients don’t have limitations and can tolerate heat, their options are pretty wide open, she said.

“Along with medicine, lifestyle advice, and physical therapy, yoga is one of the most beneficial tools I give to patients with MS,” she said. “It’s indispensable to living a healthy life.”

Researchers haven’t conclusively shown that yoga is beneficial for MS, but studies have suggested that it’s helpful in reducing fatigue and improving balance, mood, and urinary function. (PLoS One. 2014; 9(11): e112414; J Altern Complement Med. 2015 Nov 1; 21(11): 655–659.

The story of oMS Yoga began about 7 years ago, when Dr. Weigel met a fellow yoga instructor, Cheryl Russell, at a National MS Society luncheon. Ms. Russell has MS, and she feels yoga helped her with her symptoms and her anxiety related to her MS. The two women had a brainstorm: How about a yoga class for people with MS?

They decided to name their approach oMS – that’s the yoga chant “om” plus MS, pronounced ohh-m-S. They also embraced a type of yoga called Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga and found funding to start the program.

Now, their free oMS classes are offered to people with MS in Jacksonville, Fla., where Dr. Weigel is based, and in Philadelphia, where Ms. Russell resides. More classes are slated to start in fall 2018 in Delray Beach and St. Augustine, Fla.

In an interview, Ms. Weigel talked about the power of yoga to relieve isolation, improve health and promote stress-reducing mindfulness.

What are the classes like?

Our classes are 60 minutes with 4-12 people. You might look at a class and see one person who doesn’t appear to have MS, another person in a chair, and a person in a wheelchair who can only move their arms. We start with about 25 minutes of yoga practice that’s more powerful and involves a little bit more movement and cardio activity.

Blocks, bolsters and belts help people with MS get the most out of yoga depending on their ability. And we use visual-spatial tricks. A yoga pose may traditionally be done by standing, but if you use your imagination, you can do it against the wall or while lying on the ground. You just have to change the plane of your body.

What happens in the rest of the class after those first 25 minutes?

We’re heating up the body. People with MS don’t tolerate heat most of the time, so we like to have them relax and cool things down in the middle of class with 10-15 minutes of meditation. Then we finish the class with relaxation, stretching, and rejuvenation-type work.

What sorts of benefits do people with MS get from yoga?

They gain strength and flexibility, and relief of some psychological issues. Our clients tell us they have less pain the day after they do yoga.

How does yoga help people on a non-physical level?

One of the biggest issues in MS is its unpredictability, which causes a lot of anxiety and worry. Even if they have a normal exam and nothing has changed, they worry about whether they’ll wake up in the morning and be able to walk or see.
The mindfulness of yoga is really where the gold nugget lies. We like to say we give you something on the mat that you can take off the mat.

How does mindfulness work?

If you’re doing a pose that’s difficult, your heart beats faster and your mind wanders and your breath speeds up. We teach you how to breathe through that uncomfortable place. You begin to learn how to use that in different situations like during an MRI, while getting an infusion, or when you’re talking to your doctor about test results. We’ve also found that yoga creates a sense of community in people who have a disease that produces isolation.

How does yoga help people become less isolated?

Our folks may not get out at all because of mobility limitations. Or they just don’t feel like they’re part of anything. We put on as many as 4 classes a week, and some people go to all of them. They’re consistently there for one another. If one guy doesn’t show up, they’re on the phone asking “Are you OK?”

Is yoga inappropriate for some people with MS?

I honestly can’t think of anybody. Even if they’re having a bad day and feel weak and tired, they can at least come to class and lay down and breathe. We had a woman in our class whose disease progressed to the point where she could only move her head. She’d come with her support partner. We’d do breathing exercises with her. And we’d put her feet on blocks and bring her knees toward her hips so she’d feel more stable, more balanced and grounded in her wheelchair.

What should people do if they don’t want to engage in the spiritual aspect of yoga?

It’s fairly easy to find a class that’s not going to talk to you about that. We try to encourage all comers and not speak in language that would exclude people by making them uncomfortable. If you don’t want to om, you don’t have to om. But over the years, we’ve found that a lot more people om than used to. And a lot louder too.