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Those with severe illness such as MS get relief with this mind-body practice
Meeting Eric Small, shaking his hand and looking into his eyes, one would never know he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about 50 years ago.
Photographs in his yoga studio show him in complex poses, the kind that take years of study to perfect.
Small's almost lifelong dedication to yoga has given him the stamina, strength and confidence, he says, to live medication-free.
Now in his early 70s, he has symptoms of relapsing-remitting MS, including loss of vision, fatigue and occasional numbness. But he's also able to sustain a daily two-hour practice in addition to teaching -- most notably others with MS, even some who must use wheelchairs.
This yoga niche, called therapeutic yoga, is not limited to people with MS. Such therapy incorporates poses (asanas), breathing (pranayama) and meditation techniques to improve quality of life and manage symptoms of various diseases, chronic conditions and illnesses -- including asthma, back pain, fibromyalgia, depression and cancer.
Although conventional exercise -- walking, bicycling -- is recommended for many people with health problems, yoga goes a step further, its proponents say. The mind-body connection that yoga can create serves to heal the mind and spirit as well as the body.
In India, the roots of therapeutic yoga go back thousands of years, but the mainstream medical community in the United States has been slow to embrace it, considering the practice as little more than good exercise. Now researchers have studied its effects on carpal tunnel syndrome, asthma and heart disease, and health professionals have incorporated it into medical programs that offer other alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and massage therapy.
A study in 1998 showed that yoga, more than conventional treatment, helped reduce pain and improve hand strength for people with carpal tunnel syndrome. That same year, yoga was shown to be effective in improving the quality of life for people with asthma.
A study in the June issue of the journal Neurology showed that MS patients who practiced yoga for six months had significantly less fatigue than those who didn't practice it. Current studies are evaluating yoga's effectiveness in treating symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression and breast cancer.
Most yoga therapists and some physicians believe the benefits of yoga are in its ability to decrease stress, battle fatigue, and increase flexibility and muscle strength. But some believers claim that therapeutic yoga, sometimes done in conjunction with other alternative therapies, can actually cure diseases and conditions.
Although Small needs no convincing of therapeutic yoga's positive effects, he stops short of seeing it as more. "I don't ever proclaim that this is a cure," he says. He urges students to confer with their doctors before deciding to stop medications.
The six-month study on yoga's effect on MS patients' fatigue was done by doctors at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland last year. Co-author Dr. Dennis Bourdette says yoga was chosen because of its acceptance among MS patients; a survey of Oregonians with MS showed that 30 percent practiced yoga and 60 percent of those found it beneficial. The study also attempted to evaluate yoga's effect on cognitive function. No improvements were seen.
Bourdette believes more research is needed to determine whether yoga has therapeutic benefits: "Do I think that yoga as an isolated therapy for cancer is going to be curative? No. But I do see that it could be used for serious ailments as complementary therapy in addition to whatever the doctors have to offer in terms of medication."
As contributing medical editor for Yoga Journal magazine, Dr. Timothy McCall finds himself in the dual role of cheerleader for therapeutic yoga and skeptic about some claims.
"I firmly believe that yoga is strong medicine, but it's slow medicine," he says. "If you stick with it for years, it can be absolutely transformational. A skilled yoga teacher can look at someone with back pain and see how the failure in the way they use the muscles on the outside of their calf contributes to it."
Yet he's critical of yoga teachers and therapists who make what he believes are unsubstantiated claims.
Says McCall, "There are teachers who see that what they do works and are trying to legitimize it by coming up with scientific-sounding language to explain it."
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