Kirsten Snyder, left, Alexandra Cracknell, Kassandra Spoelder, Laurie McLean, Christa Domchek, Donna Hunter-Brohart and Simone Cummings moving through a sun salutation during a an adaptive yoga class at Collective Soul Space. Meaghan Richens/NNSL photo

On a Monday night in a beautifully decorated room in downtown Yellowknife, a group of eight women including a mother, a nurse and a manager of financial services were overcoming their physical disabilities through yoga.

The women were participating in an adaptive yoga class for people with a range of health issues, but most of them are living with multiple sclerosis (MS). They were learning many of the traditional poses including the cat-cow stretch, the forward fold and the seated twist. They used chairs for added safety and support.

The yogis said the weekly sessions at Collective Soul Space lessen the symptoms of MS like stiffness or fatigue and aid bodily functions like digestion. MS is a chronic and often disabling disease affecting the central nervous system. Living with it can be a challenge, but the group of Yellowknifers have been working to come to grips with the condition through yoga, and each other.

“MS is tricky and it’s not fun,” said Kassandra Spoelder, who was diagnosed in 2012. “Ninety per cent of the time it’s a dark, dark place, but even though the darkness brought us together I find that the light we have here has been really helpful, just in the journey of coming to terms and coping with the monster that is MS.”

Spoelder credits the sessions with improving her life.

“I love coming to yoga,” she said. “Even if I’m having a really bad day and I’m not in the mood to be around people, I force myself to come and by the end I’m really glad that I did. My body feels better and my mind feels better, like I’ve been able to get out of my own head and let that gross go.”

Laurie McLean, chairperson of the Yellowknife MS Society, has been living with the disease for over 20 years. When she first considered yoga, she thought “it was just for crunchy granola types and stuff like that.”

Despite her reservations, she gave it a try.

“I thought ‘this is great,'” said McLean. “I was starting to see and feel my body moving in ways I couldn’t move it before … a little bit more stretch there.”

She has also noticed differences in her classmates.

“I think it’s amazing to see how everybody has progressed over the years,” she said.
McLean and a number of other students have fans to cool them throughout their practice. They also adapt the sun salutation exercise to be much slower so they don’t overheat, which can be extremely fatiguing for people with MS.

“Instantly, beyond tired,” said McLean. “I would say drop dead tired.”

Kirsten Snyder performing a forward fold at the adaptive yoga class at Collective Soul Space. Meaghan Richens/NNSL photo

Instructor Christa Domchek has been teaching and developing the adaptive yoga class at Collective Soul Space since 2014. She has worked closely with McLean “who calls herself my guinea pig.”

“We have built this class together over the last five years. I have learned as much from them as they have from me,” she said. “Our bodies are amazing and they can heal themselves.”

Simone Cummings has been living with MS for about 20 years. She has been practicing at Collective Soul Space since the adaptive program started in 2014.

“It’s helped me with my balance,” she said. “It makes everything loose and strong. My problem is my legs. I don’t have very much balance and I find the movement helps, so when I start to trip I can kind of catch myself.”

Kristen Synder also lives with MS. She enjoys the non-judgmental atmosphere.

“We all fall over but nobody cares,” she said.

She said yoga has improved her core strength and the breathing techniques are helpful whenever she undergoes a lengthy session in an MRI machine.

“That’s definitely when yoga breathing comes in handy,” she said.

Alex Cracknell calls herself the “oddball of the group,” as she suffers from rheumatoid arthritis.

“I was a bit intimidated at first because I didn’t know if yoga was for me,” she said. “But we have a good group here. I like to think of it as 80 per cent yoga, 20 per cent support group.”

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