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Gyrotonic Movement as Treatment for Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple Sclerosis is a chronic disease of the central nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. It is thought to be an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the myelin sheath that surrounds and protects the nerve cells. This demyelination distorts or interrupts the transmission of nerve signals traveling between the brain and spinal cord. There are four main types of MS, but the experience of the disease varies greatly from person to person, with some experiencing mild, occasional problems and others with severe, progressive disability. The range of possible symptoms include problems with vision, coordination, balance, speech, fatigue, memory, concentration, tremors, numbness, paralysis, blindness among others. It is more common in women of child-bearing age and in northern latitudes, like the Pacific Northwest. Treatment for MS includes pharmaceuticals to effectively modify the disease course and treat exacerbations, along with treatment of symptoms through rehabilitative programs (i.e. physical and occupational therapy). Some patients also find relief from “complementary and alternative medicine” including nutrition, exercise, acupuncture and stress management.
In college, I had the privilege of conducting a case study on the affects of exercise on the physical symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis. Under the supervision of Dr. Robert McMurray at UNC-Chapel Hill’s department of exercise science, I taught exercises and measured progress for four weeks to a subject with MS and a control subject of similar age, body type and fitness level. The exercises were specifically chosen for their potential affect on physical symptoms of MS. The final results were promising, showing improvement in perceived levels of coordination, stability, and gait fluidity, increased energy, decreased stress, and measurable gains in flexibility, torso strength and balance, likely leading to decreased spasticity and risk of secondary injury. At the start of the study, the control subject measured far better in all of these areas, but by the end, while both saw gains in these areas, the subject with MS had improved more and had closed the gap considerably.
At the time of the study, I had not yet been introduced to Gyrotonic exercise, but from my current vantage point as a trainer, I surmise that it would lead to even more profound improvements in pathophysiological and neurological symptoms. Dr. Justine Bernard, DPT and master Gyrotonic trainer, states that for neurological conditions, like MS, Gyrotonic movement helps people regain strength, improves range of motion, movement patterns and coordination, and increases neuromuscular control. I think bladder problems may also be helped due both to stimulation of the organs and gains in pelvic floor strength through the key principle of “narrowing the pelvis”. Fatigue, a large problem in MS, may be lessened through enhanced blood and oxygen circulation and promotion of the flow of energy through the body. In addition to musculoskeletal benefits, the focus on gentle, rhythmic spinal motion in this system seems anecdotally to link directly to the central and peripheral nervous systems, affecting all of the biological functions of the body. I think it’s reasonable to theorize that Gyrotonic movement may lead to profound benefits in nervous system functioning. Can movement perhaps lubricate and strengthen the transmission of signals between nerve cells, reversing some of the damage of MS? That would be fascinating research.
Psychologically speaking, there is a strong correlation between MS and depression. Given that the nervous system links to the hormones and emotions, might Gyrotonic movement decrease depression in those with MS? Many people with MS also have a disorder known as “anticipation of disability”, which leads them to act below their physical ability and potential, leading to a host of unnecessary secondary problems. Can Gyrotonic exercises lessen this disorder similarly to how it may affect depression? This system helps people move in ways they may have previously deemed impossible, thus expanding their perceived and real abilities. This can lead to a feeling of being capable and more in control of one’s body, a priceless benefit during the difficult and often precarious-feeling progression of illness. This profound affect can also help others with many different illnesses and/or disabilities.
The creator of the GYROTONIC EXPANSION SYSTEM®, Juliu Horvath, believes that the body has many self-healing capabilities, and his system is designed to, among other things, stimulate the body to heal itself. Exercise has been shown in numerous studies to benefit people with MS; Gyrotonic movement provides many of the same benefits as other exercise but also has the potential to heal in even more profound ways. It seems that people with MS may be helped through this system with a large range of symptoms that they would normally have to see many rehabilitative and alternative medicine practitioners to address. Conclusive research needs to be done, however, it seems promising that by choosing Gyrotonic exercise, people with Multiple Sclerosis may be able to benefit greatly while simplifying their treatment plans. What a relief that would be for people dealing with what must be an overwhelming and stressful diagnosis!
Reaction, Response, and the Body
I’ve been thinking about the difference between being reactive or responsive and how it relates to the body. The dictionary does not differentiate these words much, however, upon searching online there does seem to be a popular take on the two. Namely, that to react is to be driven by external influences while to respond is to see the external but to choose to act (or not act) based on inner consideration. The former leaves us powerless, pummeled around by circumstances, often leading to stress. The latter gives us full access to our inner wisdom and the ability to maintain our sense of equilibrium whether or not we can control what’s going on outside us.
The two approaches feel very different in my body. When being reactive, my neck and shoulders tense, breathing shallows, speech feels tight yet my words fly out too quickly, and my chest either puffs out in defense or caves in for protection. From working closely with others and observing their bodies/movement, I would guess that other’s experiences are similar. In contrast, responsiveness comes from deep within the core of my body, the ‘seed center’ in the GYROTONIC EXPANSION SYSTEM®. There is a softening down the front of my body, from the brow to the pelvis, where I feel strength and comfort in a three dimensional manner. I feel a connection to my gut quite literally and also figuratively, as I’m able to act from a place of intuition. There is a gentle sense of contrast out the crown of my head , corresponding to maintaining full access to my intellect. My response is inevitably genuine and equilibrium is maintained. There is an elegance and dignity in mind and body.
You may notice that the latter description sounds like what you’ve been taught physically in Gyrotonic® movement. All movements start from your center, accessed three dimensionally through either ‘narrowing’ or ‘floating’ the pelvis, depending on the exercise series. While the strength emanates from the center, there is a simultaneous, gentle reach outward to access your self in its entirety and to balance the flow of energy in both directions. This practice leads to this responsive physical state, allowing the mind to follow the wisdom of the body. Eventually, through consciousness and practice, responsiveness can be strengthened so it is available at all times. While being great for stress relief, I think Gyrotonic movement actually has the potential to change your set point for stress. By responding versus reacting to your world, less stress builds up in your body in the first place.
Yes, this sounds idealistic and, no, I’m not sure many of us can ever be completely free of reactivity. However, given the inhuman pace of our society, I think we all owe it to ourselves (and our relationships) to create this deep, true space within ourselves from which to respond…it’s a lot safer than the risk of short-circuiting we take as we ping around through reactivity. After all, we are not pinball machines. The cool thing is that just by showing up and practicing you’re on the way towards this ideal. Even if you just need a good workout and the idea of ‘seed center’ is limited to getting strong abs, the wisdom of your body is slowly affecting your mind and your approach to things outside of the studio. And on days when you have more focus and want to go deeper, the many layers of this work are inviting you to dive on in…