I was rinsing my toddler’s favorite blue tumbler when I suspected something was happening inside my brain. Sunlight had caught the cup, and I noticed the top half was the same brilliant cobalt blue it had always been, but the bottom half was muted to gray. I set the cup down and looked around the room. The upper half of my field of vision was normal, but the bottom half was drained of color, like looking at a black-and-white photograph.
A neuro-ophthalmologist confirmed I had optic neuritis and gently shared that this was sometimes the first event in the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease that causes faulty communication between the body and brain. Within a year burning sensations in my limbs; intermittent loss of sensation in my face and feet; and bouts of spasticity followed. A suite of MRIs confirmed these symptoms were caused by multiple lesions running along the length of my spine and inside my brain.
I was 37. A partner. A parent. And an officially diagnosed MS patient. I was also a yoga teacher and student. I needed yoga more than ever to manage my symptoms and stress, but how could I practice when I couldn’t feel the mat beneath my feet?
My attempts at asana were depressing.
One day I unrolled my mat just to lay on it. Just as I had done thousands of times before on that very mat, I took a deep breath in and out. And then I took another. And another. I placed one hand on my belly and the other on my heart and felt my body fall and rise with my breath.
Tears came to my eyes as I realized, “I am practicing. This is yoga.”
In this piece, I share five specific ways the physical, mental, and emotional impact of MS has enriched my learning and teaching experience.
My hope is that it offers instructors and students struggling with practice-complicating conditions a little inspiration and a reminder of how deep yoga practice runs.
Five Things Having an MS Diagnosis Taught Me About Teaching & Practicing Yoga
Leaning into Yoga Philosophy: Creating Abundance with Asteya
For decades, the focus of my teaching and personal practice has been on yoga asana, the physicality of yoga. At the height of my worst relapse, the loss of sensation in my hands and feet made time on the mat a non-option. And so, I dove into yoga philosophy. I reopened my copy of Mark Stephens’ Teaching Yoga and settled in with his description of the yamas.
Of the five ethical principles of yoga philosophy, there was one I had always dismissed as obvious and, therefore, impractical. This time, it sang to me.
Asteya translates to “non-stealing” in Sanskrit and up until that moment I had always interpreted it literally. Of course, stealing is unethical. Next yama, please. This time, instead of viewing asteya as refraining from stealing something that isn’t yours, I embraced the spirit of asteya as refraining from stealing from what is yours. In other words, refraining from devaluing your current experience, whatever that may be.
How might we steal from ourselves in yoga practice?
We steal from ourselves when we push so far beyond our limits that we risk injury. We steal from ourselves with negative self-talk during practice. We steal from ourselves when we don’t realize how beautiful we are whether we are in Natarajasana (Dancer’s Pose) or curled up in the fetal position. These are just a few ways we rob ourselves of the dignity and potential of our current experience.
Now, I consciously bring asteya into the classroom. As we open class, I am sure to remind students that each time they unroll the mat, they are a new being. I remind them how they are an ever-changing flow of energy influenced by sleep quality, hydration, their current emotional and mental weather, and even the actual weather. I ask them to honor what is – and is not - there. I demonstrate all asanas with props first, and then I move on to offer prop-less variations.
These are examples of how I practice asteya in the way Stephens’ describes it. By ”creating ways for students to experience a sense of abundance in their practice while honoring what is not readily there”. The keyword here is “creating” and it’s the focus of the second way MS has enhanced my yoga journey.
Teacher Tip: Revisit the yamas. If one of these principles resonates with the current season of your life, explore how you might make it the central theme of a new class sequence.
Flowing a Mile in Somebody Else’s Barefeet
Living with MS has sparked a new level of creativity in my teaching and personal practice. Because several common poses were either newly uncomfortable or inaccessible to me, I had to slow down and re-immerse myself in the world of props and innovative flow design. Over time, I’ve gotten familiar with some of my most practice-impacting limits and how to work with them. I’ve never felt more prepared to help my students do the same.
I've found immense value in making a habit of “what if’ing” while I practice. I've posed questions such as, "What if I could not get off my back here?" or "What if I could not bear weight on my knees?" or “What if I got dizzy whenever my head was below my heart?” I've delved into practicing yoga in a chair on occasion, which I highly recommend.
These accessibility explorations have given me more confidence when a new student comes to class with injuries or conditions that may impact their experience on that mat. They have also reinforced the importance of empathy, adaptability, and inclusivity in teaching yoga asana.
Teacher Tip: Take the class sequence you have most recently designed and adapt it so that it can be performed using a folding chair.
Tapping into The Beauty of the Beginner Mindset
In many ways, MS has made me feel like a beginner in a twenty-year-long practice. I’d be lying if I said I love this.
Regardless of whether I have liked it or not, the experience has rekindled my understanding of what it’s like inside the beginner’s mind. The curiosity. The frustration. The doubt. The humility. The hope. It’s all there at my fingertips now, but it hasn’t always been. With the mental challenge of venturing into unfamiliar territory fresh in my mind once again, I do feel closer to the struggles of my beginner yoga students – and closer to their triumphs, too.
Teacher Tip: If you are an instructor with an injury or condition that impacts your practice, then you understand this. If it’s been a while since you’ve felt “new to yoga”, then I recommend giving yourself the opportunity to be new at something outside of the studio. Whether it’s a new physical activity, a new artistic endeavor, or even exploring a new language, getting reacquainted with not knowing what you’re doing is a way to honor the beginner’s experience and meet your new students where they are with palpable empathy.
Letting Go of Imposter Syndrome
After my diagnosis, I began to grapple with unrealistic teaching standards. I’m the instructor. I should be the strongest in the room. The most flexible in the room. The most graceful. This was an internal battle I hadn’t had to fight since I first began teaching.
It turns out, I never officially won that battle of insecurity back then. For decades, my ego had simply been sustained by continuing to get “better” at yoga. By becoming a more seasoned instructor. By good health. Knock me down a notch and my ego revealed it had been there all along just wearing a convincing disguise of capability. Now, it had me questioning whether I could or should continue to teach yoga at all. What did I have to offer anymore?
This was a question I asked myself over and over and finally, it was the word “offer” that turned the tide on this renewed struggle with imposter syndrome. If the best I had to offer my students as an instructor was that I, personally, was strong, flexible, and graceful, how was I really serving them in their practice?
What my students need from me is knowledge, an understanding of where they are at, patience, gentle guidance, and encouragement. I've recognized that the most profound quality I can bring into the classroom is compassion.
Teacher Tip: Prioritize being the most compassionate person in the room.
Reveling in Remission
For now, I am in a remission season of my relapse-remitting multiple sclerosis experience. It’s a wonderful place to be. But the teachings of this curious disease have been so raw and earnest, that they won’t ever be lost on me.
My journey with MS has reminded me how deep and wide yoga reaches both on and off the mat. And it has sharpened an important set of skills - gratitude, empathy, creativity, and compassion – with which to explore it.