“Body is my first Prop” , The doyen of Hatha Yoga, Yogacharya B K S Iyengar famously said. While the sentence is complete in itself, what Guruji as he is fondly remembered meant was that The Body is the first prop to reach the soul that resides within. He separately emphasized that just like you keep the temple or any place of worship clean, it is your duty to keep the body clean while your soul resides in it. Guruji’s Yoga is famously known as the Iyengar Yoga Tradition today;
A branch of Hatha Yoga, The Iyengar Yoga tradition focuses on alignment and precision of the body. In a practice that spanned over 70 years, Guruji engineered a number of “props” to help students who had limitations to their body or suffered from various chronic ailments to enable them into certain Hatha Yoga postures. As he said, Yoga teaches you to cure what cannot be endured and endure what cannot be cured, He helped scores of patients through Yoga to cope or cure their disease. The Iyengar Yoga tradition is still practiced in its true form at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune,India. The Institute has created capable teachers across the world who keep imparting the Light of Yoga to millions of students across the globe.
The Iyengar Yoga tradition helps patients suffering from chronic diseases with Hatha Yoga postures to cope with their pain.
While following a few accounts via the @YogicDesire Instagram channel, I came across Mellany Porraz, a student of the Iyengar Yoga tradition. As we connected more, I learnt that Mellany has been successfully managing Multiple Sclerosis, A chronic disease that affects the immune system for the past 10-12 years with a healthy lifestyle and Yoga. I bring to you a short interview with Mellany for the readers to emphasize that health , wellness and Yoga can help you cope and overcome the problems of body and mind. Happy reading !
Mellany has been managing Multiple Sclerosis for the past 10-12 years with a healthy lifestyle including diet, exercise and Yoga
To give the readers a short background, Multiple Sclerosis is a chronic, unpredictable autoimmune disease affecting approximately 400,000 people in the United States and 2.5 million people worldwide. Multiple Sclerosis is a central nervous system (CNS) disease (brain, spinal cord, optic nerves) which causes the body to attack the healthy tissue surrounding the nerves (myelin sheath). There is no cure for MS, only treatments to delay the progression of the disease, reduce inflammation and/or the number of lesions in the CNS, and reduce the frequency and severity of MS attacks. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society cites four types of MS: Clinically Isolated Syndrome; Relapsing Remitting; Primary Progressive and Secondary Progressive. Symptoms of the disease vary in type and severity depending on the individual, but the most common symptoms include, overwhelming fatigue, visual disturbances, difficulty with mobility and altered sensations.
YogicDesire: At what age were you diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?
Mellany: I was diagnosed with the Relapsing Remitting form of MS at the age of 30. I am now 42. MS is a disease that most often strikes people between the ages of 20 and 50. The Relapsing Remitting form of the disease is characterized by symptom flare ups, or attacks followed by a time of recovery with few or no symptoms, called remission.
YogicDesire: How did you find out about Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?
Mellany: I was not very familiar with MS prior to my diagnosis. I knew it was a disease that could affect walking and immediately pictured myself as someone who would lose the ability to walk and end up in a wheelchair. Following my diagnosis, I read everything I could that related to MS, autoimmune disease, and brain health. I had no idea what I was up against, but wanted to arm myself with as much knowledge as possible.
YogicDesire: What were the first symptoms that surfaced?
Mellany: In January of 2004 I started to experience tingling and numbing sensations in my right foot and leg. I developed weakness in that leg and began walking with a foot drop, which is the inability or difficulty in lifting the front part of the foot causing the foot to drop as you walk. These symptoms continued for several months. My physician at the time minimized my symptoms, thought it was stress related and referred me to a counselor rather than neurological testing. Desperate to know the cause and to find symptom relief, I spent several months and a lot of money on Chiropractic care which provided minimal relief. With symptoms persisting I returned to my doctor who then ordered the appropriate tests (evoked potential testing, lumbar puncture, MRI). The result was a diagnosis of MS. By December of 2004 these initial symptoms subsided, my illness had gone into remission.In the spring of 2005 I experienced first-hand the devastating effects of this disease.
My diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis was not immediate. While the symptoms were classified as related to stress initially, it took several months and advanced diagnostic tests including MRI to clearly diagnose Multiple Sclerosis
In a matter of days I found myself unable to walk without assistance and having difficulty seeing, hearing, speaking and swallowing. Parts of my body were completely numb, while other parts were afflicted with constant pin-prick tingling sensations. I also experienced a compressing sensation around my abdomen as if someone were squeezing me (this is referred to as the “MS hug”, or “girdle band”). I had vertigo and felt ill every time I sat up and also had constant ringing in my ears.
There was no part of my body that was left untouched by this relapse. From head to toe I felt tormented, trapped and no longer had control of my body. MS had taken over. In a matter of days I went from being an active young woman working full time, attending graduate school, taking care of my family, to being someone who had to rely on others to care for me. I felt hopeless, helpless, desperate for relief and wondered how anyone could possibly endure life in such a state. But I was able to, with support from my family, friends, physicians, and a fighting spirit.
In a matter of days I went from being an active young woman working full time, attending graduate school, taking care of my family, to being someone who had to rely on others to care for me.
After several sometimes agonizing months my symptoms eventually subsided. My recovery was slow and measured. I would set a daily goal, one day walking with assistance out the front door, the next day down the driveway. As my symptoms eased and went into remission, I was able to return to running and the following spring ran a 15.5 mile race to raise funds for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. This was the longest distance I had ever run. I also added a marathon in 2007 and a triathlon in 2010 to my list of accomplishments. Despite my increased physical health I have had two bouts of Optic Neuritis (inflammation to the optic nerve very common in MS) and as a result have vision issues affecting both eyes. I also experience the “MS hug” sensation around my abdomen on a fairly consistent basis and have a slight tremor affecting my head that is not noticeable to others and tends to worsen with stress or lack of sleep.
With careful goal setting and a will to get better, I was able to return to running and ran a 15.5 mile race. I also added a Marathon in 2007 and a triathlon in 2010. Despite increased physical health, I do have vision issues affecting both eyes besides other symptoms.
YogicDesire: What was the first line of treatment?
Mellany: After my diagnosis, I was prescribed Rebif, an Immunological Agent which was one of four FDA approved inject-able medications at the time used to treat the Relapsing Remitting form of MS. Due to medication side effects, over the past 12 years I have been on three different FDA approved prescription medications. I am currently taking Tecfidera, which is one of the most recent oral therapies available by prescription to treat the Relapsing Remitting form of MS. I also want to note that over the past 12 years I have managed this disease through healthy lifestyle choices. I adhere to a plant-based nutrition plan, avoid processed foods, engage in exercise/physical activity and through yoga am learning how to better manage stress. Prior to my diagnosis I was vegetarian, but ate a lot of processed foods as opposed to whole foods. I was not disciplined in terms of exercise/physical activity and did not make this part of my daily routine.
I have been able to manage this disease through healthy lifestyle choices including a plant based nutrition plan, avoidance of processed foods, engaging in exercise/physical activity and Yoga to better manage stress. An overall discipline, which lacked prior to my diagnosis towards exercise / physical activity has helped me stabilize my disease
I cannot provide proof that these lifestyle choices have impacted this disease, but I can tell you that over the course of the past 12 years my yearly MRI’s have shown more disease stability than progression and in the words of my doctor “keep doing what you are doing.”
YogicDesire: Did the line of treatment change much until you discovered yoga?
Mellany: The line of treatment for me has not changed much. I have gone through periods of time over the past 12 years choosing not to take medications due to the side effects experienced. I continue to manage the disease holistically, using nutrition, physical activity and stress management. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this! The National Multiple Sclerosis Society also recognizes the importance of health and wellness and provides helpful suggestions on their website. Interestingly, I no longer run, but instead prefer walking and yoga as my primary forms of physical activity. Brisk walking provides the cardiovascular benefits, while yoga provides the many other physical, emotional and spiritual benefits.
YogicDesire: How did you discover Iyengar Yoga?
Mellany: My oldest daughter, who practiced yoga encouraged me to try it. Being a long distance runner who did minimal stretching I knew I could benefit from yoga so I decided to give it a try. I started practicing at home using YouTube videos. After a few months of this, I decided I was ready to try a yoga class. Having several yoga options in my community I shopped around and tried a few different styles. I knew that finding the right method and the right teacher was important so I continued my search. I researched online and found a local Iyengar Yoga studio.
Interestingly, I no longer run.Brisk walking provides the cardiovascular benefits, while yoga provides the many other physical, emotional and spiritual benefits
Iyengar Yoga appealed to me because it was alignment based and I thought it would be especially helpful because I was new to yoga. I attended one class at the Iyengar Yoga Center of Grand Rapids with teacher Jennifer Beaumont and knew this was the style and teacher for me. The attention to detail, care and direction provided to the class and each student was like nothing I had experienced before in other classes/methods. Jennifer also inquired as to any health conditions I may have had, and since, has provided direction and education in how the Iyengar method of yoga can help me manage my MS. I have been practicing consistently since September 2015 and attend weekly classes at the center.
It is important to note that Jennifer has been a student of Manouso Manos since 2002. Manouso is one of only two Iyengar Yoga Teachers in the world who holds an Advanced Senior certification granted by B.K.S. Iyengar. I am humbled by and grateful for the knowledge and teaching that has been given to me by Jennifer through this teaching lineage.
YogicDesire: What do you learn from Iyengar Yoga?
Mellany: There is so much to learn in this method of yoga. I have years of learning ahead, as I have just scratched the surface of what this method has to offer. Because of my MS I have to practice wisely. I have to avoid the strenuous effort often times exhibited by new students in their effort to make progress. My focus has to be on releasing tension and effort so the nerves and brain can be quieted. The reasons we begin yoga are often different than the reasons we continue yoga. I began yoga in order to gain more flexibility not knowing that I would embrace and embark on a path that would impact all facets of my life. The practice of asana (poses) has enabled me to have a healthier relationship with my body and ultimately my whole self. I am learning to let go of thought patterns and behaviors that no longer serve me and to embrace and trust a new way through yoga.
I began Yoga to gain more flexibility not knowing that I would embrace and embark on a path that would impact all facets of my life. The Asana practice has enabled me to have a healthier relationship with my body and my whole self.
I am learning how to go inward, to let go of tension in the body and the mind. Although this has not been an easy task and I still struggle, I trust the process and dedicate myself to the practice knowing that along the way, I will be a better person because of it. Through Jennifer’s teaching I have also developed a safe asana practice tailored to my specific health needs.
YogicDesire: How long do you practice Iyengar Yoga each day?
Mellany: I try to practice 60-90 minutes 6 days per week. At this time I am attending a weekly level II or Gentle Restorative class at the yoga center.
YogicDesire: How has Iyengar Yoga helped you manage Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?
Mellany: The Iyengar Method of yoga has helped me better manage my stress level which is very important in managing MS. It has taught me how to slow down, how to relax deeply, and how to quiet the mind. The practice of asana has also changed my body, resulting in increased flexibility, strength, openness throughout the body and a range of motion that I did not have before.
The practice of Iyengar Yoga has taught me to slow down, relax deeply besides changing my body for the better. My eye had been impaired by optic neuritis before the practice of Yoga. My doctor recently confirmed that the vision had improved significantly. This has been extremely encouraging.
Since beginning this method of yoga in September of 2015 I have also experienced a significant improvement in the vision of my right eye which was recently confirmed through an eye exam. The vision in this eye used to be 20/40, but it’s now 20/25. This eye had been impaired since 2013 due to optic neuritis and I was informed that it more than likely would not improve, but it did. This was very encouraging and I believe that my yoga practice has made the difference.
YogicDesire: How have you come to accept Multiple Sclerosis (MS) as part of your life and move ahead with it?
Mellany: I give myself no choice but to accept this condition as a part of my life and to move forward despite it. I have a responsibility to myself and others to do everything I can to maintain my health. It is a way of life for me, I know no other way. As a volunteer for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society I co-facilitate wellness classes and help others with MS live in wellness. This disease is unpredictable and we have to arm ourselves with the knowledge and tools to treat it holistically.
I give myself no choice but to accept this condition as a part of my life and to move forward despite it
I do not take my health for granted and realize that I am very fortunate to be able to engage in activities of my choosing and to be fully mobile with minimal symptom interference. Many others are not so fortunate. If I were to tell you that I put MS in a box and that it “has its place” that would be a lie. MS is the primary motivating force behind almost all the decisions I make. I don’t know how it could be any other way. Where there is health, there is hope!
YogicDesire: What would your suggestion be to others with the same condition from a Yogic perspective? How could yoga help them?
Mellany: While I am not an expert on yoga and/or MS I can only speak from my experience and the knowledge I have gained over the last 12 years. Yoga is not a cure for MS, there is no cure. My suggestion would be a holistic management approach meaning nutritional management, medication management, stress management, physical activity/exercise, and getting outside on a regular basis with safe exposure to sunlight. It is important to work with your medical providers on an appropriate plan that is tailored to your specific situation. In regards to yoga, the method of Iyengar Yoga with a certified teacher can be beneficial in many ways, some of which I have already discussed. I would like to refer to the work done by Garth McLean on the subject of Iyengar Yoga in managing MS.
It is important to work with your medical providers on an appropriate plan that is tailored to your specific situation
It is important to note that there are asanas that are heating and stimulating to the nervous system, others that are cooling, relaxing and quieting and ways of practicing the asanas with supports that help rest and relax the nerves, and other ways of practicing that could be aggravating to the nerves. Correct practice is essential. A slight rise in body temperature can bring about symptoms so it’s important to learn and practice this method under a certified Iyengar Yoga instructor who can offer proper instruction.
YogicDesire: Thank You for your time Mellany !
Mellany: It’s been a pleasure.
Note: Mellany Porraz can be reached out on her Instagram channel here – @mporraz