The TYA has always held that Yoga is open to all regardless of their ability or disability. It is estimated by the MS Society that 130,000 people in the UK are currently living with MS and MS is one of the most common causes of disability in younger adults. It affects people in different ways and to different degrees, some people are less affected by MS whereas in others it can have a devastating effect and about 15% are wheelchair users. If someone has MS the most important thing they can do it to keep moving and it is now well established that regular, moderate exercise is important for maintaining good health for people with MS.
Although I have taught people with other health conditions I have particularly focussed on teaching Yoga to people with Multiple Sclerosis and have been teaching these classes for over 20 years for the Berkshire MS Therapy Centre, a charity based in Reading. The Centre aims to improve the health of people living with MS, to keep people as active as possible, to improve mental health and to reduce loneliness.
Since the start of the pandemic the MS Therapy Centre has been closed most of the time and at the request of the Centre I moved my classes online. Demand for these classes has greatly increased and has gone from one class a week to four and last year 59 people came to these classes. Those with MS find going out of their own home difficult to manage and doing it from their own homes much more accessible.
Yoga is widely recommended for people with MS and all the classes I teach are specifically designed with the challenges of MS in mind and are a combination of movement, strengthening and stretching. It is focus and awareness that makes it Yoga and Swami Ambikananda tells the beautiful story of her first Yoga class with her Guru, Swami Venkatesananda, and in that class she spent the entire class taking one sip of water. She encourages us to adapt our classes to meet the needs of those people we are teaching and to teach safe and creative classes.
My classes include people who can stand and get down onto the floor as well as those confined to a wheelchair or sitting in a chair. I try to keep the classes accessible to everyone regardless of their level of disability.
Wheelchair users find that their core stability muscles become weak and I work at strengthening the core muscles. There is no such thing as an ‘MS class’, every class is different depending on the needs of the people in the class. Living through the pandemic is particularly hard for people with MS, there are fewer opportunities to exercise and move and people can become more isolated. The classes are uplifting and I am in awe of the way people transcend their physical limitations. People coming to my classes are very committed to their health and many come to two or more of my classes and people join the classes from all over England and Wales and now even from Portugal.
A Win for Yoga
It was a complete surprise to learn that more than 20 students who come to my online classes had nominated me for the ‘Berkshire Lockdown Physical Activity Heroes’ award and I’m grateful to Get Berkshire Active for selecting me as one of the winners.
Dominic who nominated me for the award wrote:
“I am a full-time wheelchair user due to multiple sclerosis. When lockdown began, one of the things that concerned me was how to stay in good physical condition. With the pools and Berkshire MS Therapy Centre closed, my normal set of activities, swimming and face-to-face physiotherapy, were terminated. Once Uddhava Samman offered online, seated Yoga classes I quickly joined. They have enabled me to maintain my upper body flexibility and much improve my core strength and stability. The latter is something that is easily lost once one starts to use a wheelchair. Uddhava has made a very valuable contribution to my physical health and my mental wellbeing during the long months during which the pandemic has been running. He maintains an eternally cheerful and welcoming demeanour that encourages participants to join together.”
It is wonderful to know that people coming to my MS classes are finding them beneficial and this award will encourage me to further expand my work in this area. I also hope that more teachers will be inspired to teach classes for people with disabilities and other health conditions. This work is very rewarding and there is huge potential in this area. Online teaching has now provided the opportunity to reach a larger group of people with disabilities, including people in wheelchairs who might no longer be able to drive, and there are no geographical limits, classes can be accessed by people from across the country and beyond.
To quote Joyce who comes to one of my chair-based classes
“When this pandemic started nearly a year ago I was very worried how I was going to get the exercise in that I need. I found out that my MS therapy Centre was offering wheelchair Yoga classes on Zoom. I have always wanted to try out Yoga but was never sure how it would work sitting in a wheelchair. Since last July I have been doing Uddhava’s classes and I feel they have made a real difference both to my physical and mental well-being. When your legs don't work upper body strength is crucial and these exercises have really helped with that. Meeting other people in a similar position also helps a lot in this time when we can’t meet anybody. To keep my body moving in a way that I didn't think was sometimes possible is great. Uddhava is always trying to make the exercises suitable for everybody, he is very open to constructive criticism and it is a joy to do his class every Monday morning. Without them I think the last several months would have been very different.”
A thank you
Thank you to all those students who nominated me. I’m really grateful to the TYA and the Philo Trust for the grant that enabled me to give these classes.
Thanks to Jeanine and Joyce for letting me use their photos.