Integral Yoga teacher Larissa Nusser talks about her being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), how Yoga plays such a large role in her life, and how she manages stress and other challenges while living with MS.
The Beginning of the Journey…
You are never the same after you hear something like “You have MS.” It was January of 2000 and it all started with tingling in my feet. I noticed one day as I sat down to dinner with my family, that there was this sensation that my feet had fallen asleep. I found that funny because I had just sat down and logically there really was no way that could have happened. I, like many people with similar symptoms, called on a chiropractor who proceeded to tell me that my back was fine and that I should see my general practitioner. I promptly made an appointment because the sensation was traveling up my legs and hovering around my knees. As days passed it was getting hard to walk because I couldn’t feel my feet and it was quite painful. My doctor recommended some testing which included blood work and an MRI. I asked what he was looking for and that was the first I had heard of MS. He said that it could be a number of things, MS being one of them. As the tests carried on so did the symptoms. Fatigue, pain, the tingling went to my belly button where the MS hug settled in.
When I found out that I had MS, I started a disease modifying therapy. I knew the MS Society said to find a treatment, get on it, and stick with it (for me it was Copaxone), so I made that commitment and still take it today. For me, it is an essential part of my overall sense of wellbeing. I also thought that this could not be all I can do so I started to search for complimentary therapies. Complimentary is different than alternative because it is not instead of, it is in addition to.
That is when I found Yoga. A friend said, “Try Yoga, there was a study done that says it helps with fatigue.” That made me start to think about it. There were two little voices in my head: one saying you can’t do that and the other saying just go try. I was so scared. I felt so defeated because I couldn’t walk, I had lost my job, I needed to rely on others for help and that was probably the hardest part. Emotionally I was worse off than I was physically. I had no idea how to move forward. I was stuck in the I can’t do it phase. I wanted things to be different; I was angry and sad that my life was never going to be the same. Then my first Yoga class happened. Wow.
In my that first class, my teacher, Denise, said a few things that I still carry with me today. First, she said honor your body—wow that was big! I had never heard that before. I thought what does that mean? How do we do that? I learned that we can become aware, aware of ourselves, body and mind. And that those two things need to be honored, and respected. Then she said Yoga is not a competition. Well, thank goodness because I wasn’t winning anything that day. With no competition there is no destination, only the journey. My sense was that this was going to be a long journey. And then we started to breathe, real conscious breathing. For the first time in my life I was present and it felt great. Breathing in and out. Amazing. I could do it. I became hyper aware of all things around me. All my senses were alive, and that feeling of being alive was addicting. It was exhilarating and magical. Then during deep relaxation, it happened that day, I heard it, felt it, and somewhere inside knew it, this thing called Yoga was going to change my life with MS. I could do this; I held the cards on how I was going to live with this. I owned it and made the decision to live with purpose and grace and love. And in that, life with MS was going to be okay whatever that looked like.
Looking back now I can say that my life is not the same, it is so much fuller, richer and vibrant. I try to be present. I also changed my diet and started to be more mindful of what I was eating. I kept a journal of foods and how they made me feel after I ate them, if had more or less energy, if they hurt my stomach, if I felt heavy or if they had an emotional effect on me. I had already known that dairy and I do not get along so that was the first thing to go. Then slowly red meat, and that made a difference, then all meat and I found that I had more energy and felt much lighter. Eating healthier and doing Yoga changed my body, it transformed. I lost a few pounds and felt myself get stronger and steadier day by day. As my body changed so did my mind.
Yoga gave me, above all, hope. And that is what I needed. A non-judgmental, non-attachment to outcome: hope. Like a light in the tunnel. When diagnosed with MS, I lost hope, I lost myself, who I was as I had identified myself with all things external. If I couldn’t work, then who would I be, if I couldn’t walk I was disabled. It wasn’t until Yoga that I realized I am not those things, I am who I am from the inside, from my heart not my head. I started to pay attention to my body. I started to pay attention to my mind and the thoughts. I learned that your thoughts become your words and your words become your actions. So if we want things to be different then it must start with how we think. Yoga is a practice, something to be nurtured and worked on, with no destination only the journey. Of course, Yoga helped me move more easily, made me feel more flexible in body and mind. It took away a lot of the pain. My muscle spasms decreased I felt less fatigue, stronger and more balanced. It took some time but I also learned about patience, patience with myself and others. I like to say big change happens in small increments over time.
Yoga has helped me be the strong person I am today. Every day. One day at a time. Learning to trust myself, learning to be patient, learning to allow and to be grateful. Yoga also made me breathe. Breathing is something we can take for granted. It is the practice of becoming present. And Yoga taught me that if we are present, we will see that everything is okay right here now. I think this is also something that we can all do. Even when we are physically unable to walk or run or move we can still breathe. I now feel that by slowing down long enough to breathe we open our minds to all the possibilities around us. Opportunities are presented to us all the time, it is our choice whether we choose to take them. Yoga has helped me slow down to be able to see these and has given me the courage to take them and run with them.
Becoming an Integral Yoga Teacher…
Integral Yoga and the Integral Yoga Teacher Training I attended in 2005 provided me with an incredible foundation. Not only in the physical form but in the emotional and spiritual sense. It taught me to quiet my mind, it taught me to allow things to evolve, it taught me non-attachment, it taught me non-harm, I learned about the philosophy of Yoga which resonated so deeply within me that there was no turning back from this path. It made me feel empowered because it was something I could do at a time where I felt helpless and was in a place that I thought there was no way out. I learned to meditate and quiet my mind so I could become a part of everything. I learned to be grateful for everything, every lesson, every person, everything. And in that gratitude I found what had been missing in my life, happiness. My belief now is that Gratitude brings Happiness and Happiness leads to Transformation. Gratitude + Happiness = Transformation.
MS and Yoga Therapy…
I have always thought that Yoga should be a part of MS Therapy. I have taught Yoga for MS for many, many years using Integral Yoga as a foundation, even going to the point of creating DVDs. I feel like Yoga has the ability to change the way people think and feel about themselves and that is the first step to healing, physical, spiritual or emotional healing. Of course, in addition to that it may help to relieve some symptoms like muscle spasms, fatigue, and weakness. It teaches balance in many different forms. Mind and body. So the overall effect of Yoga has an amazingly positive outcome both mentally and physically.
Twenty Years Later…
I cannot imagine my life without Yoga. It has brought me to where I am today. Almost 20 years later, I have grown in countless ways, spiritually and physically. I was thankful for the lesson of being alone in my disease, of being slowed down long enough to take a hard look at myself, for having a very uncomfortable experience to realize who I really am. Gratitude can be overwhelming sometimes. And is usually the reason I cry now. If not for Yoga I do not know where I would be. If not for Integral Yoga I don’t know if I would have stuck with it but the teachings and the incredible foundation they provided made me feel safe. It made me feel empowered and never judged. And my teacher Denise, I will be forever grateful for her and our journey together.
About the Author:
Larissa Nusser is passionate about mental and physical health and wellness. She encourages others with MS through her many speaking engagements across the country. She has had the honor of being the starting-line speaker at the NMSS Staten Island MS Walk. In addition, Larissa has spoken for MS Australia for “Kiss Goodbye to MS,” a month dedicated to raising funds for vital MS research and services for people living with the disease.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that attacks the body’s own immune system and destroys the myelin sheath that insulates neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Disruption of communication between the brain and other parts of the body prevent normal passage of sensations and control messages, leading to the symptoms of MS. Symptoms of MS may be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or severe, such as paralysis or loss of vision. Approximately half of all people with MS experience cognitive impairments, such as difficulties with concentration, attention, memory and poor judgment, but at first such symptoms are usually mild and frequently overlooked. Depression is another common feature of MS. Relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), a relapsing form of multiple sclerosis, is the most common type of MS. A person with RRMS experiences attacks (also called relapses or exacerbations) of worsening neurological functioning, followed by periods of remission in which partial or complete recovery occurs.