YOGA Classes

by Redmond O'Hanlon

Ataxia Ireland was recently invited to publicise and send members to a Yoga course organised by Muscular Dystrophy Ireland.   The course is ongoing, and will probably be extended.

When I thought about Yoga in the past, I imagined being seated or prostrated on the floor, doing incredible contortionist exercises, like stretching one or both legs up behind my neck - I had visions of very challenging procedures for people in a state of total fitness!   Little did I realise that, in fact, yoga exercises can be carried out most effectively on a daily basis by physically-challenged people, including wheelchair users such as myself.  

 In my experience, by far the worst enemy of ataxia sufferers is facing up to and successfully combatting stress, which is exactly what this form of Yoga sets out to do.

I was delighted to join this particular Yoga course, which takes place at MDI (Muscular Dystrophy of Ireland) Headquarters in Chapelizod and lasts for 90 minutes every Wednesday.   The instructor is Cormac Lennon and he is very affable and charming, and immediately put us all in a state of relaxation before we commenced our first class.   He had previously given a Yoga class to a friend of mine, who highly recommended it.   He has also been interviewed in depth about his work by the Herald Newspaper. 

A lot of emphasis was placed on learning to breathe properly and we were taught the various techniques required to inhale and exhale fully and slowly through the nose.   We were shown that the upper chest area is totally different to the diaphragm, so we were trained to use the upper chest muscles, as opposed to the diaphragm, in a separate lesson.

I learned that the head weighs over a stone and how important it is to stretch and use the muscles of your neck and shoulders. You must practise turning your head, nodding from side to side, and up and down.   Other exercises included moving the arms, slapping the shoulders, and stretching your arms above your head, while simultaneously concentrating on slow, deep breathing.   It is very important to inhale and exhale fully at the right time.

At all times, we were told that it was only necessary to carry out the exercises which you yourself felt able to do, so there was never any pressure to make yourself uncomfortable, and no physical pain or distress was involved.   For those of us who were struggling with a particular movement, we were given alternative exercises which could achieve the same result.    I myself suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, so I am unable to stretch my arms fully above my head.   Instead, Cormac showed me how to hold my forehead in my hands, and then extend my elbows outwards.   In order to improve circulation in your upper arms, we were encouraged to slap ourselves on the shoulders.   Once again, I was unable to reach far enough to complete this manoeuvre, so my instructor kindly beat me up himself!  

After each 90- minute session, there was coffee and tea and biscuits kindly provided by Muscular Dystrophy Ireland.  

Overall, I found that Yoga is a totally relaxing method of reducing stress and even performing these basic gentle exercises, mainly involving the breathing techniques, posed a challenge for me to stay awake, so clearly, it works!  I learned that the word ‘Yoga’ is nothing to be afraid of and is, in fact, very beneficial to all those who suffer from any form of ataxia.  

The use of meditation is very useful in Yoga.  All of the students were encouraged to keep their eyes closed most of the time. We were then easily able to visualise, while breathing slowly, travelling throughout our bodies from our toes all the way up to the tip of our heads. There was a total blissful ignorance of what the person beside you was doing. There was a wonderful atmosphere in the room and nobody had any complexes about making loud noises while exhaling. The whole experience was conducive to being your own person fully at every moment and there was never any feeling of being better than any other individual, as everybody in the room had their own health demons of varying degrees to face and practicing Yoga went a long way towards eliminating stress in our everyday lives.

All participants in the Yoga class were given a CD, free of charge, featuring our instructor, Cormac, which runs for 38 minutes. I found it very useful to play it when I went to bed, as it helps one relax and sleep deeply afterwards. Initially it was difficult to stay awake for all of the CD, but, after using it frequently, one can overcome this problem. 

I would urge fellow members to join this Yoga course and you can contact MDI directly or ring the Ataxia Ireland office for further information.  I think everyone would find it helpful.

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