Yoga poses for muscular dystrophy

If you suffer from one of the many forms of muscular dystrophy, you may feel that your lack of mobility or flexibility would make yoga a major challenge, if not impossible.

The level of disability caused by muscular dystrophy can vary greatly: some people may have very little disability, while others have limited mobility and need a walker or wheelchair to get around.

The good news is that people on both sides of the spectrum can practice yoga, according to Judi Baryoga program manager at Cleveland Clinic Wellness and Preventive Medicine in Ohio, who holds Individual Yoga Therapist Certification (C-IAYT) from the International Association of Yoga Therapists and is certified by Yoga Alliance, the largest non-profit yoga association in the world that certifies teachers and schools.

While some aspects of yoga are physical, it’s not just a practice for very athletic or flexible people, Bar says. “As long as someone can breathe, they can do yoga; they can experience mindfulness and breathing and often improve their range of motion,” she says.

“The mental and overall benefits of yoga come from the different aspects of yoga which are breathing, meditation and relaxation, and postures. You put those three things together, and it can be a really good mix,” says Bar.

Is yoga safe for people with muscular dystrophy?

If you’re considering trying yoga, it’s important to first talk to your doctor about which specific moves are right for you, as well as which ones you should avoid.

“The most helpful piece of advice I can give someone with muscular dystrophy when it comes to exercise is ‘If it hurts, don’t,'” says Lauren Elman, MDdirector of the Muscular Dystrophy Association clinic at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

“Anything painful really goes beyond what is necessary or recommended,” she says. The general rule for neuromuscular diseases is that any muscle that does not have an anti-gravity force should not be exercised, Dr. Elman explains, referring to the force of moving a muscle against the force of gravity.

“In a general course, the instructor may not know your specific type of muscular dystrophy or the progression of your disease. It’s best to seek out an experienced yoga teacher or trained yoga therapist to help people adapt different poses and understand cause and effect, so they don’t hurt,” says Bar.

One of your healthcare providers or an Internet search can help you find a yoga class suitable for people with your condition or find a yoga therapist for one-on-one instruction, she says. Even if you can’t find a class suitable for people with muscular dystrophy, a class described as “adaptable” or “accessible” might work, as might a chair yoga class. Another possible option is classes designed for people with arthritis, multiple sclerosis, or another medical condition.

“When you find the right yoga to suit your needs and abilities, there are so many benefits on so many levels. These include not only physical benefits, but also mental and emotional ones,” says Bar.

Breathing exercises connect body and mind

Yoga is an indoor and outdoor experience, according to Bar. “The outer part is moving the limbs, stretching and focusing on balance, and the inner part is the mind which helps move the body and focus the thoughts,” she says. Breathing can make that connection between these two aspects, Bar says.

“One of the many benefits of focusing on the breath is that it can be very calming,” says Bar.

“And while it may seem simple, standing still and breathing can be very complicated because we are a society that likes to multitask.”

In a guided breathing exercise, the teacher might ask participants to inhale four counts, then exhale four counts, Bar explains. “There’s a focus that happens with this, and the mind calms as each person focuses on counting or listening to their breath,” she says.

A small study in Brazil, published in 2014 in Brazil Lung Journal, examined the effectiveness and safety of yoga breathing exercises in Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the most common form of muscular dystrophy in children. Although nearly two-thirds of the participants either gave up or couldn’t perform the exercises, those who completed the study saw improvements in their lung function.

Yoga Styles and Poses for People with Muscular Dystrophy

Regardless of a person’s physical abilities, it’s essential that yoga be presented in an uplifting way, Bar says. “Find out what you can do and work with what you have that day; with patience and practice, yoga can help improve quality of life,” she says.

Chair yoga can be a great way to practice yoga for someone who uses a walker or wheelchair to get around, Bar says. “You get blood flowing and improve circulation just by rolling our shoulders or moving our arms up and down,” she says.

There are many different yoga styles and poses that might work for people with muscular dystrophy, Bar says. A set of poses that you can do in or out of a chair are called the six actions, or six positions, of the spine. Briefly, these actions are:

  • lean forward
  • lean back
  • Lean to the left
  • Lean to the right
  • Turn left
  • Turn right

“Some or all of these movements may be accessible to someone with muscular dystrophy, even if they use a wheelchair full time,” says Bar. If you have scoliosis or any other muscular dystrophy-related spine problem, you’ll want to talk to your doctor and a yoga therapist about what’s safe to do.

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Forward and backward bends, or cat-cow pose