At age 63, Charles Zuccarini had never set foot in a yoga studio. He had certainly never considered trying yoga to help with symptoms of primary progressive multiple sclerosis (PPMS), with which he was diagnosed in 2002. However, about four years ago, he found himself at a yoga class.

"A friend who was big into yoga convinced me to try it. I was skeptical because I didn't see how yoga could help my MS," Zuccarini says. "But I went in a skeptic and left a believer."

Zuccarini attended a class at Yoga Moves MS, a Michigan nonprofit organization founded by the yoga instructor Mindy Eisenberg. The adaptive yoga classes Eisenberg teaches are focused on helping those with MS and other neurological diseases.

Eisenberg says yoga has the potential to lessen several physical symptoms of MS and may contribute to improved strength, flexibility, posture, balance, focus, circulation, digestion, elimination, and pelvic floor health and to decreased tension, fatigue, and spasticity.

Zuccarini can attest to this. He experiences numbness, tingling, and swelling on the entire right side of his body and walks with a limp. "After I go to class, I feel better. I can walk better, am more flexible, and it helps me with my balance," he says.

The Origins of Yoga Moves MS

Eisenberg had been practicing yoga for 10 years when she decided to become trained as a yoga instructor. After she completed her training, in 2005, her son's nursery school teacher, who has multiple sclerosis, asked if she would speak at her MS support group, which met at a local neurologist's office. Having had a mother who lived with primary progressive MS, Eisenberg embraced the opportunity.

"When my mom was living with MS there wasn't a lot of support. People didn't know about the condition, there weren't any drugs or therapies. The belief was that exercise could do you harm, and my mom was told not to move," Eisenberg says. "All her muscles deteriorated, her bones curved into a fetal position, and she lived in a wheelchair and in bed. Now the belief is ‘move it or lose it,’ and that's where yoga is so beautiful, because anyone can do it."

During the first support group sessions, Eisenberg helped participants perform yoga in chairs and guided them through standing work based on their abilities. They requested that she hold a weekly class. She agreed, and from there her classes grew.

A Comprehensive Yoga Program Evolves

"The program wasn't my sole creation. I developed it together with my students. We put our creative juices together. We would try different ways of using the yoga poses to move with different challenges, and the more we did it, the more we came up with," says Eisenberg.

Today, the original class still meets once a week at Eisenberg's synagogue, and as more classes developed, she created Yoga Moves MS, which now offers a total of seven classes to about 90 students throughout various locations in southeastern Michigan.

Eisenberg charges $20 per class but asks students to pay what they can; she covers the balance with money she raises through fund-raising and donations. To keep up with the increase in students, Eisenberg brought on more yoga teachers and trained them in adaptive approaches.

Different Moves for Different Abilities

"Since the levels of physical abilities vary, we have two to four teachers in each class. This is helpful because you can have one teacher focused on one or more students who might need different direction than the others," Eisenberg says.

This is what Lori Flowers, 47, who's been attending Eisenberg's classes for seven years, says she appreciates most about Yoga Moves MS. Flowers was diagnosed with relapsing remitting MS in 1996 and experiences numbness, weakness, and pain.

She says yoga strengthens her body overall, improves her balance, and also helps ease her pain. Her favorite part of Eisenberg's class is that it allows her to stay within her limits.

"They won't push me, and they’re sensitive to each of our energy levels and how we're feeling each session," Flowers says. "I know I'm in a safe place and don’t have to worry about overworking my body."

Mindfulness Practice

A big part of Eisenberg's classes is mindfulness. "Being mindful has a way of bringing you into the present, so for those with MS who don't know what they'll wake up to or what the next day or month might bring, mindfulness can reduce anxiety and pain during everyday life challenges," says Eisenberg.

She adds that while the poses in yoga are important, breathing techniques that enhance the mind-body connection are most helpful to her students.

Flowers agrees. "When I get in a stressful situation, the breathing I learned in yoga helps to calm me down. I love to put my feet up against the wall for 15 to 20 minutes and just breathe. Even though I'm not exerting energy, this is so energizing," she says.

Empowerment, Connection, and Hope

In addition to making students' bodies feel better, Eisenberg says yoga provides empowerment, a means for self-care and hope. "It's something positive you can do for yourself," she says.

Her classes also provide the power of connection. "Anytime a new person attends class, I have the other students introduce themselves by saying their name and one word to describe the class or what it does for them. Very often they use the word 'family,' because our classes really do turn into a family," notes Eisenberg.

The emotional support surprised Flowers at first. When she was first diagnosed with MS, she didn’t join a support group because she was afraid of facing stories about what she may be confronted with.

"Everything is so scary with MS. You don’t know if you'll be able to walk today or get out of bed tomorrow. But I've had enough time with MS to be able to go into this class and not be scared," Flowers says. "Having the support of people who are in the same situation or who understand what it's like to be fatigued or in pain is such a gift."

Flowers wants to share what she's learned with others. She is undergoing training to become a yoga instructor. "After that, I'll train with Mindy for the adaptive approach to help others with MS," she says.

Zuccarini reaps mental benefits too. "Yoga gives me a peacefulness. The camaraderie in class can't be replaced. There's nothing like doing something good for your body and at the same time connecting with others. We share stories of our MS, doctors, and more," he says.

Making Adaptive Yoga Available Beyond the Classroom

In 2015, Eisenberg published the book Adaptive Yoga Moves Any Body, which she dedicated to her mother. The book includes pictures of 90 yoga poses and different adaptations of those poses, with descriptions of their benefits.

"Since many of my students have cognitive issues, they would tell me they don't remember what they did in class and didn’t know what to do at home," says Eisenberg.

Her book is a guide for her students and others with neurological impairments to perform the poses on their own. Some of the adaptations address what to do if you can't get out of bed or if your legs are spastic. Others are poses for long car rides or when you're standing in the kitchen waiting for dinner to cook, sitting at a desk, or trying to get to sleep.

Along with her book, four videos are available for sale on Eisenberg's website, YogaMovesMS.org. Eisenberg is currently working on more videos to accompany the sequences in the book.