A Magazine Cover (I didn’t dream of…😕)

Experiencing being diagnosed with a critical illness at age 37 changed how I saw the world. If it’s grey and raining when I wake up and get out of bed I still think it’s a beautiful day because I woke up and can get out of bed. I don’t take that for granted.

Earlier this year I answered a Facebook post on the MS-UK site. They were advertising yoga and I’d replied something along the lines of how after being diagnosed 16 years a go with MS that I’d found yoga to be an absolute breakthrough in allowing me to ‘unlock’ my body and find more strength, mobility and balance physically along with a sense of peace through acceptance of my situation.

The editor of their ‘Pathways’ magazine used to be an editor at Natural Health Magazine and picked up on my story. I haven’t seen the printed magazine article but below are the questions I was asked and answered.

What were your first symptoms?

I remember going on holiday one summer in the mid 1990’s and having a numb body from the waist down. The sensation of swimming in the pool was very odd. It went after a few weeks and I didn’t think to go to a doctor. I was about 27 years old.

What happened from your first symptoms to diagnosis?

I had been getting numb feet and hands for years after that and generally feeling tired but put this down to the long shifts I was working, 12 hour day/night shifts commuting into London on top of that.

I was running on empty and stressed too. I took redundancy from work as the company were relocating and I had a baby boy at age 35.

Roll on to 2005 age 37 and I have a 2 year old child. I was trying to fix our house alarm and it went off, ringing in my ears. Next I couldn’t walk straight. I went out the front door but was all over the place, I ended up being 2 metres away from where I wanted to be, I couldn’t walk in a straight line.

It was disorienting and frightening. I had vertigo and couldn’t stop vomiting. My hands went numb, I found it hard to do anything involved with fine motor skills like doing buttons up.

How did you feel when you were diagnosed? What were the early days like?

I was in shock. It felt like a bereavement. A losing of the life I thought I was going to have, more children, a new career as I was due to start a graduate teacher training program which I gave up.

The MS consultant phoned me one evening as I was putting my son to bed, my husband was out. I still remember the look of bewilderment on my sons face as I continued putting him to bed after the phone call, tears streaming down my face. I hope nobody else hears like that.

I do remember spending that first year after diagnoses in bed a lot, sleeping. I was extremely fatigued but oddly for the first time, listened to my body and resting instead of pushing on (my son was still taking day naps which helped). Having the diagnosis meant I felt justified in taking the rest I needed. I had permission!

What happened next? What treatment/s have you tried?

I went into ‘helpless auto pilot’ mode. I thought the doctors know best surely ….this is what they do as a specialty. I took steroids originally and I went onto Beta Interferon and started injecting 3 times a week but every time I injected it took me 24hours to recover ….I felt worse. There was something in me that just didn’t feel right.

I started working part time at my sons pre school and then had time to start back a regular yoga practice. The feeling of strength, calm and increased energy that yoga gave me was heartening.

By 2010 I had taken myself off the medication and started doing yoga regularly and in 2014 I had qualified as a children’s yoga teacher, enjoying teaching the additional needs children in the pre school and in 2015 after a yoga retreat to India I took an 18 month 200hours yoga teacher training. I’ve been teaching 5 years now.

Have you tried any complementary therapies, diet or lifestyle changes, aside from drugs, and are there any you would recommend to people?

Yoga, of course. Yoga means to yoke or union, of the mind, body breath, spirit, EVERY thing is connected. ….so you tend to take your practice off your mat into your daily life. My coordination and balance improved, I gained strength and an overall sense of calm. Acceptance for me is the key.

I take vitamin D, B12, magnesium, omega 3.

If I feel an MS ‘hug’ on its way or legs getting numb, I’ll cut out wheat, dairy and sugar (inflammatory foods) until I’m back on track. (Oddly, pre diagnosis, I had been trying to conceive from the age of 30 and at 35 after seeing an acupuncturist who told me to cut out wheat, dairy and sugar fell pregnant within a month! My parasympathetic nervous system was a mess…so I always revert to a ‘clean’ diet when I need to.

Very recently I tried an FMD, fasting Mimicking Diet for 5 days. I was reading a book by Dr Valter Longo, The Longevity Diet. The FMD claims cellular clean up and renewal by autophagy. I felt so much energy after it and am going to look at doing something similar every season.

Hyperbaric Oxygen at the wonderful Milton Keynes MS Therapy Centre which oddly enough I wasn’t told about by my MS doctor. It worked fantastically on first diagnoses giving me so much needed extra energy. But I tried it again a few years ago and it didn’t have quite the same effect.

As stated I also cut out wheat, dairy and sugar whenever I’m feeling susceptible to a relapse as this seems to help with general inflammation in the body…and wake up to lemon and ginger, another great natural inflammatory food.

How have family and friends been since your diagnosis?

Absolutely fine. I’m not a big party type/ socialiser anyway. But love a walk with a picnic / wild swim with friends.

How is life different now to before and how do you make the most of it?

I was a real ‘Type A personality’ and driven to the point I think chronic stress was a normal part of my life. I went from being a bit of a people pleaser to being able to say no more.

Ironically, MS changed my life for the best. Having found the benefits of yoga so transformational on my health, after a yoga retreat to India, started yoga teacher training. I am now a yoga teacher, qualified 2014 for Children’s yoga and 2016 for adults.

How do you stay positive?

Try and move everyday. I found yoga, but walking, swimming, massage too to move the lymph.

 Be grateful. Grateful for all you do have, however small.

Eat well, listen to your body, heal your gut, eat healthy, make yourself a priority. Remember it’s ok to say no, it’s ok to cry, it’s ok to rest, it’s ok to slow down. Know your limitations but remember to keep moving. Be you. Do what makes you happy. One day at a time.

Do you have any tips or routines you find helpful you can share with readers? 

Get good quality sleep.

Eat non inflammatory foods. The gut and it’s working with autoimmune diseases seems pretty topical at the moment.

Join a yoga or exercise class, even if it’s online currently. Preferably a live class when allowed back or a Zoom type class where you can feel part of a group and the teacher can see you. If you don’t like it, try something else until you do. As humans, we are designed to move.

Try and get outdoors everyday too, if you can’t take a walk, sit in the sunshine, lie on the grass and look up at the clouds. Even in the winter I’ll lie with my legs up against a tree/wall for up to 20 minutes….so grounding and calming for the nervous system. I’m not really into social media by choice too…I find it too energy sapping. I like some really good positive groups that I follow but for me restricting use is essential for my well-being.

Looking back from the stage you are at now – what advice would you want to give to someone who has just been diagnosed with MS?

Please don’t panic. Check out the positive stories of MS, eg Dr Terry Wahls. Take responsibility for your wellness, find out what you can do to help yourself. Perhaps find a support group that is positive.

Most importantly, listen to your body. Take time to be still and feel what your body needs.

Anything else you’d like to add:

On a medical level, I’d like to see people supported in their lifestyle choice of managing the disease through lifestyle changes. I’d like to see the Doctors telling people what we could be doing to help ourselves. I’m sure there are some great consultants and MS nurses out there.

The NHS are saving £8000+ per year by not providing me disease modifying drugs but more importantly I’m managing the symptoms. But yoga classes, massages, acupuncture, hyperbaric oxygen aren’t free. If these could be provided on the NHS then I think we could be tackling MS from all sides.

I’m not anti medical intervention…If I felt I needed help and medication in the future I’d ask but there is so much we can be doing for ourselves. I’m coming up to 16 years diagnosed and feeling better than ever.

 On a personal level do not let MS define you. I don’t use the term “My MS” and don’t introduce it as part of me as people are quick to judge and discriminate. After qualifying as a yoga teacher I got offered a couple of jobs at gyms and I’m pretty sure if I’d put MS on the form I wouldn’t even have got through the door. I never took a day off sick because I manage the symptoms.

Some people like the ‘MS Warrior’ stance but for me ‘Acceptance’ is the key. I’m not fighting MS, I’m living and breathing it.

My symptoms are there to remind me, I am at dis-ease. So take a breath, take it easy, slow down, eat nutritious non inflammatory foods. Our bodies are designed to be in a natural homeostasis state and will respond to how we treat them, so treat them well.

Stay well, Karen🙏🏼

The power of yoga and nose breathing….

Our breathing and respiratory system is unique in that we are both a passenger and its pilot. We can leave it to our autonomic nervous system responsible for unconscious actions such as our heart beat and digestion or we can override and take over the rhythm of our breath consciously.

The health benefits of nose breathing include the sinuses releasing a huge boost of nitric oxide with the inhale back into the lungs and respiratory system. This nitric oxide is a molecule that plays an essential role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen to the cells. Immune function, weight, circulation and mood can be influenced by the amount of nitric oxide in the body.

When we breath slow and deep using the whole of the lungs our parasympathetic nervous system is activated and we come out of our fight / flight mode allowing the body to rest/ digest.

Yoga movements and breathing techniques increase both lung capacity and efficiency. When we move and stretch in yoga asana we can ..

a) change the dimensions of the rib cage, allowing the intercostal muscles of the ribs to be more free to allow for contraction and relaxation.

b) find mobility in the thoracic spine which moves subtly with each in and exhale.

c) open the pectoralis muscles allowing the shoulders to be more open. Tight pectoralis can create a compression in the front of the upper body, which can limit movement of the thoracic spine, the intercostals and the diaphragm.

d) find movement in the diaphragm, the major muscle of respiration…when breathing deeply imagine expanding out into the bottom two ribs letting the belly rise and fall with the breath. The vagus nerve descends through the diaphragm too and facia connects the diaphragm to the pericardium so when we’re breathing deeply we’re giving the heart a little massage too.

If we mouth breath, we are more likely to snore, have high blood pressure, insomnia and health problems such as diabetes. Today’s scientists are just catching up with what the yogi’s have been doing for thousands of years. Inhaling and exhaling slow deep breaths through the nose.

I’ve been reading a great book, Breath, The New Science of a lost Art by James Nestor and its incredible how much of our basic health is linked to quality of breath and nose breathing. Here is a fairly recent podcast interviewing James…”your breath as important as foods you eat”. Worth a listen if you have time.

For your further investigation and information.

Patrick McKeown of Oxygen Advantage is a driving force behind the Buteyko method (a controlled type of hypoventilation) breathing based on Light, Slow, Deep inhales extending time between inhalations and exhalations using mini breath holds to train the body to breathe in line with its metabolic needs. Buteyko breathing increases carbon dioxide which we need to open blood vessels and breathing through the nose increases nitric oxide which is a molecule that plays an essential role in increasing circulation. Athletes have benefited greatly from using Buteyko breathing but it is not fully supported by the NHS.

Wim Hof is another famous breath user and uses a controlled hyperventilation to increase oxygen levels in tissues that then flood the body with adrenaline. He famously uses cold therapy alongside this breathing technique. “You are inducing voluntary a short stress response which ultimately will lead to more resilience towards everyday stress, mentally and physiologically” – Wim Hof.

All agree with those ancient yogi’s, breathing through your nose is superior to mouth breathing and will have positive affects on your health. Namaste, 🙏🏼

Why I think yoga has helped me….The Power Of The Vagus Nerve…

For some time I have been teaching about and fascinated by the power and workings of The Vagus nerve, trying to unlock what it is with yoga that makes me feel so good and works …where medicine and drugs failed. (After being diagnosed with relapsing remitting Multiple Sclerosis.)

Dr Stephen Porges, the author of The Polyvagal Theory is the professor revolutionising our understanding of autonomic physiology since the 1990’s.

The tone of our vagus nerve is key to our health. So what is it? (Briefly)…

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system and regulates vital organs including helping to control heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. In addition, the vagus nerve is a major constituent of the inflammatory reflex—that controls innate immune responses and inflammation during pathogen invasion and tissue injury.

The vagus nerve has two branches, dorsal and ventral.

Normally the dorsal vegus nerve serves a very positive function. It helps the body move between arousal and relaxation. So when we tone the dorsal vagal nerve it puts us in that nice rest-digest state of feeling at ease and safety.

However, one branch of the dorsal vagus state is immobilisation when the dorsal vegus nerve can shut down the entire system and we go into freeze. It is thought that Fibromyalgia could have it’s roots in vagus nerve problems.

The ventral branch of the vagal Nerve affects body functioning above the diaphragm. This is the branch that serves the social engagement system and self soothes and calms the body’s regularly active state.

The last ten or twenty years study of the vagus nerve has revealed that the vagus nerve is a significant immune system regulator. Stress and anxiety can inflame the vagus nerve. Vagus nerve signals are being looked at for an ‘early warning system’ for inflammation in Multiple Sclerosis.

How Yoga helps Stimulate Good Vagal Tone

When I started practicing yoga, inflammation markers and acidity levels in my body were probably being calmed and coming down. Doing a better job at making me feel better and healed than the injected medication which made me feel worse.

Our bodies are amazing and sometimes just need a chance to be given the right conditions to heal. For me Yoga gives me greater Interoception and intuition allowing me to live a full life by tuning in and listening to my body.

Yoga and movement with breath (moving meditation) and conscious breath work activate good vagal tone. The vagus nerve passes through the vocal cords and the diaphragm and stimulated everytime we breath deeply. A moving asana yoga practice also helps to get back ‘into the body’ unlocking any freeze or shut down state.

Other ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

Singing, gargling, chanting or Bhramari (humming bee) breath will stimulate the vagus nerve passing through the neck as will laughter.

Wild swimming….or a cold shower or even a splash of ice cold water on the face will benefit. And enjoy being out in the cold weather ….all these cold exposures will help to improve vagal tone since the sympathetic nerve activity is reduced so that the parasympathetic Nervous System can take over to regulate the body.

Meditation allows a rest and relaxation response. By practicing meditation, the body strengthens the parasympathetic Nervous System.

Eat healthily for good gut health. Processed foods and high sugar diet disrupts the vagus nerve function.

Soooo…….Enjoy Life. Sing, hum, laugh, practice a movement, breath exercise such as yoga where we can tune in to our breath and calm and boost our immune system. And you will be optimising your vagal health. With Love 🙏🏼

Yoga, Interoception and Healing (and anniversaries!)

35 years a go my now husband and I went for our first weekend away together to Glastonbury. We were into Echo and The Bunnymen and it was 1985, when you could get tickets the week before. The last Glastonbury I went to was 1997, by then the corporates had already moved in but it was a great line up year to finish. I don’t recognise it on TV now.

Another anniversary this year for me was being diagnosed with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis 15 years ago, 2 years after my son was born. At first I listened to the experts and the doctors but found injecting myself 3 times a week with disease modifying drugs made me feel physically worse, worse than the MS.

These drugs were costing the NHS about £8000 a year. I started to realise ‘Big Pharma’ is an industry. I started back a regular practice of yoga and whilst meditating one day in the sun of the window felt instinctively that I was going to be alright but I had to start listening to my body, not hand over my autonomy to someone else.

I have been off all medication for 10 years now. Yoga is a way of life. The meaning of yoga is to ‘yoke’ , join or unite and by practicing yoga we become more conscious beings. Leading us to a more intuitive existence and a union between the body, mind and breath of the individual with the universal consciousness.

Ours bodies are amazing machines designed by nature and in every moment communicating to us what they need to stay in balance. We just have to be quiet enough to listen. When we practice yoga and connect our minds and spirits to the same intelligence of the nature around us we move into a deeper sense of interoception and intuition and can tap into the body’s innate healing response.

And that’s the wonder of yoga, it helps us to reconnect with ourselves and find those tools and resources already in us to help ourselves  and you can find them too.

We all come to yoga for different reasons, whether it’s to find a little peace, to heal, find some connection to something bigger or improve how I bodies move, yoga is the key.

The following statement is as relevant today as over 2000 years ago. “The natural healing force within each of us is the greatest force in getting well.” – Hippocrates 460BCE

The light in me acknowledges the light in you, Much  love, Karen

Love Our World….

This has been an unprecedented week for the nation, the world, humanity.

As we took our first steps online to a live streamed yoga class this week, what was very apparent, as we negotiate this turning point in history and as people retreat further inwards, was the need of contact and to connect.

Honouring the spring equinox, the earth continues it’s journey towards summer. We celebrate the ending of winter but also the beginning of waking up from  a deep slumber which is how I feel as humans, we are being shaken to our core, to awake. This spring more than ever, go outside, wake up to the stuff we’re not paying attention to.

Every breath in class this week we acknowledged gratitude and set our seeds of intention for the coming spring.

We have a deeper need more than ever to take time to align, ground and become centred.

Breath deep, stay healthy, stay happy, love deeply. Karen