When I began this post a month ago (yes that’s right, a month ago), it’s title was “Heat, Cognition and Mindful Yoga.” It had been prompted by the reading of two articles. The first was the reprint of a blog post by Julie Stachowiak, PhD, entitled “Heat and Cognition” (original title “Hot Weather Can Impair Cognition in People with MS.”). It was contained in the Michigan Chapter, Summer 2013 edition of the MS Connection Newsletter and summarized findings from a 2012 study that found:
“cognitive functioning in people with MS was more affected by hot weather than cognitive functioning in people without MS. On cognitive testing, people with MS performed significantly better on cooler days than they did on warmer days, while people without MS performed the same regardless of the outside temperature.”
The second, Miraculous Practice, by Karen Macklin, came to me in a Yoga Journal e-newsletter and shared four stories of life transformed through yoga. One was the story of a 32-year-old woman who suffered a brain hemorrhage that effected her balance, memory, spacial relations and concentration.
She started taking a beginners’ Anusara Yoga class every day at the same studio, and found that the clear, mindful asana instruction improved her memory, spatial relations, focus, and sense of connectedness with her mind and body. But on a greater scale, she says, the daily practice showed her the value of acting deliberately. She learned that, on the mat, patience and focused intention translated into more precision in poses; off the mat, those qualities resulted in living in a more deeply satisfying way. “When you hold poses for a while, you have time to get where you want to be,” she says. “That’s how I feel about life now. If you are slow and mindful, you tend to be more focused on your goals and intentions.”
I have had my own MS-related cognitive problems and these articles got me to wondering, “What can yoga and mindfulness practices offer those dealing with MS-related cognition issues — heat-related or otherwise?”
I started reviewing books and articles on cognition and yoga, finding that most research dealt with healthy individuals, those with mental health problems (schizophrenia in particular), or those in the early stages of dementia. I did find a very interesting preliminary report from 2002 that had looked at yoga’s effect on MS-related cognition issues and fatigue. But, at the time had some difficulty finding the final report.
Setting the post aside, I attended an art fair where I got a bit overheated (even though we went in the morning and stayed for only an hour). The following day the room where I taught yoga got extremely warm. Between the two events I developed Legs of Lead (my legs feel as heavy as if they were made from the stuff) along with some fatigue. As these are my usual responses to being overheated, I sought the usual remedy: rest, limited activity and staying indoors with the A/C cranked.
But, my legs didn’t respond as usual. It took a week for me to realize this was an exacerbation/flare-up. I HATE what steroids do to me. I was still functioning, just more slowly. So, I didn’t rush to get in to see my neurologist. Thought I’d spend my downtime contacting the authors of the 2002 study mentioned above and tweaking this post. But every time I tried working on it, I found myself getting extremely frustrated. I just couldn’t pull my thoughts together.
Then a week ago the owner of the store where I teach most of my yoga classes called to ask some questions about changes I was making to the fall schedule. I found myself having difficulty processing what she was saying, as well as getting my answers corralled in my mind and onto my tongue. That was when I realized what a sense of humor the universe has: This flare-up involves not only my legs, but also some of my cognitive processes! So much for looking up old research. I’m going to be doing fieldwork!!
I’ve had cognitive problems before, but not for several years. And at the time I had not returned to yoga or even discovered mindfulness. So, now I am on a journey to discover how they can make a difference with these cognitive challenges. Thus far, the biggest benefit has been in using my breath to pause when I have trouble pulling my thoughts and/or words together. My breath keeps me from pushing/forcing (I have found pushing only makes things worse). But, I am sure there is more to learn. I will keep you posted.
Oh, and I did get the results of the 2002 study — well at least the abstract. There was no change in MS-related cognitive functioning, but a significant decrease in fatigue. So, maybe this fieldwork will be about coping instead of intervening. I’m game for that too.