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Adaptive Movement for Improved Wellbeing

Sarah S. Brindle, PhD, RYT 200 and Janice Kim, OTRL, ATP, ROT

Many people with MS struggle with negative feelings about their bodies and experience a decrease in the mind-body connection. This can be related to physical weakness, numbness, fatigue, and the general physical unpredictability that often comes with MS. A lack of connection to the body can also occur when people come in contact with multiple health care providers and end up feeling like their bodies are no longer their own, but are subject to constant scrutiny, even if that scrutiny is well-intentioned.

Activities that promote mind-body integration can help people regain a sense of wholeness and wellbeing--and can also promote awareness of body sensation that can help with management of MS. If people are more aware of their bodies, they can potentially manage their symptoms better. Adaptive yoga and dance are two movement activities that can help you achieve this goal.

Adaptive Yoga

Yoga is an ancient practice that originated in India several thousand years ago. The general overarching goal of yoga is alleviating suffering. In our Western culture, the emphasis in yoga practice has been mainly on physical movements (called “asana”), but the traditional practice of yoga actually has three integrated components that incorporate yoga concepts: breathing exercises, meditation, and physical movement.

In recent years, medical researchers have found that practicing yoga can be associated with improvements in blood glucose, cholesterol, fatigue, anxiety, depression, overall stress, chronic pain, and general quality of life. Yoga is therefore now being incorporated in many VA settings as part of the VA’s Whole Health Initiative, focused on self-healing mechanisms within the whole person.

Adaptive yoga was created to accommodate people who might not feel comfortable in a traditional yoga class, including people with physical, cognitive, or psychological issues that might make a traditional class more challenging. Adaptive yoga teachers use many strategies to make yoga accessible, including teaching the inner experience of a pose (rather than just how it looks on the outside), using various props (like chairs, blankets, yoga blocks, or sandbags) to make poses comfortable or more stable, and using “disability-friendly” meditations. Teachers providing instructions for a home yoga routine may also suggest poses that can be done in bed, rather than on a mat on the floor.

Most adaptive yoga classes also focus on incorporating the whole body, rather than just parts of the body that have full sensation or movement. This allows for more mind-body integration and a focus on increasing body awareness. Participating in an adaptive yoga class can also provide a beneficial social component in learning yoga concepts along with other people who experience similar challenges with their mobility.

Dance as a Whole Body Workout

Dance can also be used as a rehabilitation therapy. Research shows that dance may help people with physical, cognitive, or psychological impairments. Specific benefits of dance include improvements in quality of life, self-esteem, coping with disease, balance, and mobility.

Dancing at its most basic level is a whole body exercise to the rhythm of music, which means that any movement to any type of music may be beneficial. Dance as part of rehabilitation therapy usually includes exercises that are modified to meet each individual’s needs (for instance, dancing in a chair vs. standing), encourages active participation, and challenges the physical body as well as the mind (for instance, following a series of dance moves). A therapeutic dance class may involve structured dance exercises in time to music or may be less structured, with “freestyle” periods where people can find their own enjoyable movement. The music adds to the experience as it can be motivational and inspire an upbeat mood. For many people, music itself is very stimulating, so with the right music, they are more interested in trying a challenging dance exercise or moving their bodies for a longer period of time. This also makes dance therapy enjoyable and a fun social experience if shared with fellow Veterans in a group class.

Some forms of dancing are better than others for preserving and improving mental sharpness, as in partner dancing. Studies have shown that it requires a lot of quick decision-making, as the dance partners must continuously interpret the signals of each other. Partner dancing also enhances relationships, social connectedness, and a sense of belonging. The inclusion of accessible dance-related activity into one’s daily life through classes or parties means having a fun way to connect with people that is not only healthful physically, but meaningful mentally.

Finding Adaptive Yoga and Dance

  1. Talk to your treatment team! There may be existing adaptive yoga or dance offered at your VA. Yoga is often offered through the Primary Care Service in the VA. If your treatment team isn’t sure of local options, they can contact their VA Whole Health coordinator. Also, talk with your rehab therapists about incorporating music and dance into your existing therapies.
  2. Find ways to incorporate music and dance into your daily life. Moving your body along with enjoyable music - even sitting at the kitchen table with your morning coffee - can improve your wellbeing.
  3. Explore the Whole Health website for other resources for Veterans on yoga and meditation.
  4. Find local adaptive yoga teachers outside the VA through or by contacting local yoga studios about instructors who have experience working with people with MS or other physical disabilities. Don’t be afraid to ask!

The bottom line is that enjoyable movement of your body can be beneficial psychologically and physically. Find your own way to reconnect with your body!

Disclaimer: Links are provided as a convenience and for informational purposes only. They do not constitute an endorsement or an approval by MSCoE of any of the products, services, or opinions of the organization. MSCoE bears no responsibility for the accuracy, legality, or content of the external site or for that of subsequent links. Contact the external site for answers to questions regarding its content.