CHICAGO — Yoga guru Baron Baptiste says that when he was approached about developing a yoga program for multiple sclerosis patients, he grabbed the opportunity.
“It was kind of exciting to me to take my skills of teaching yoga and making the benefits of yoga available to people with MS, sculpting it to fit people in their condition,” Baptiste said during a demonstration of the program, called MyMS Yoga.
The longtime yoga instructor and best-selling author (“Journey into Power”) designed the program with Dr. Elliot Frohman, director of the Multiple Sclerosis Program & Multiple Sclerosis Clinic at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The MyMS Yoga program, launched earlier this year, is sponsored by pharmaceutical companies Biogen Idec and Elan Corp.
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease in which a person’s immune system eats away at the protective sheath that covers their nerves, according to the Mayo Clinic. That interferes with the communication between the brain and the rest of the body. Symptoms vary widely but can include numbness or weakness in limbs, partial or complete loss of vision, tingling or pain in parts of the body, tremors, fatigue or dizziness. There is no cure.
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MyMS Yoga takes traditional yoga and modifies it to take into account the balance, muscle stiffness and fatigue that patients can face.
“We’ve developed the program with (those issues) in mind and focused on making the program available for people with different levels of MS and different physical conditions,” Baptiste said, “(from) people in wheelchairs to people who (already) have fitness routines.”
The program is available on a DVD offered free at mymsyoga.com. It includes an introduction, three levels of workouts and a presentation by Frohman that focuses on Tysabri, an MS medication manufactured by Biogen and distributed by Elan. (Inserted with the DVD is a guide explaining Tysabri.)
The majority of those with MS are women between the ages of 20 and 40 — also a dominant demographic in yoga classes. The progression of the disease often forces people to give up traditional yoga because the classes can become “overwhelming,” Baptiste said. But MyMS Yoga lets people get back into their old routine.
“MS is very complex,” said Dr. Elizabeth Hartman, a neurologist and clinical multiple sclerosis fellow at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “When we treat MS, sometimes patients have symptoms that traditional medicine can’t help. And that’s a benefit of yoga.”
She says that patients notice improved balance, more energy and less fatigue.
“Another good thing, exercise doesn’t have side effects.”
In his demonstration, Baptiste conducted three sessions for more than 100 MS patients. He went through more than 45 minutes of poses, stretches and breathing exercises.
One of those on hand was Kendall Freeman of Carol Stream, Ill. A 24-year-old mother of two daughters, she first practiced yoga in high school. She was diagnosed with MS in 2004, and after the birth of her second daughter the disease progressed to the point that she was nearly immobile and unable to walk.
Medication and the MyMS Yoga program, she said, turned her life around. She’s now working full time and participates in all family activities. “I want people with MS to be able to exercise,” said Freeman, who serves as a volunteer spokeswoman for the program and appears in the DVD. “I can’t go to Jazzercize class. I have heat issues and I have balance issues. With (the program) you’re able to do modifications, so everybody can do it.”