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Iyengar yoga helped this man cope with multiple sclerosis. Now he teaches others how to deal with the disorder through yoga

HONG KONG — As an aspiring actor in his mid-30s auditioning for roles in Hollywood, Mr Garth McLean was no stranger to adversity. But he could not imagine the challenge that lay ahead.

The profound impact of Iyengar yoga on Garth McLean's life inspired him to help others.

The profound impact of Iyengar yoga on Garth McLean's life inspired him to help others.

HONG KONG — As an aspiring actor in his mid-30s auditioning for roles in Hollywood, Mr Garth McLean was no stranger to adversity. But he could not imagine the challenge that lay ahead.

In the midst of producing a play, he felt a tingling numbness in his right arm. He put it down to a pinched nerve from an earlier gym session, but it soon travelled to his left arm, and within a month his entire body felt numb.

"I was numb from head to toe and was unable to even button my jeans or hold a pen," recalls Mr McLean.

After a battery of tests in a hospital, while he was lying in bed awaiting the results, he thought, 'What if I can't feel my body for the rest of my life'?"

He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the central nervous system, leaving scarring on the myelin sheath — the nerves' protective coating.

Messages from the brain are unable to effectively reach the rest of the body, resulting in loss of balance and coordination, limb numbness, chronic leg pain, problems with speech, vision and bladder control, severe fatigue and depression.

"I freaked out," says Mr McLean. "My doctor explained that multiple sclerosis had no effective cure and had to be managed with medication. He suggested swimming to keep the body cool and yoga to manage the stress."

Mr George Dovas is headteacher at the Iyengar Yoga Centre of Hong Kong, and has been using Mr McLean's guidelines to work with students with multiple sclerosis in the city.

"Iyengar yoga is particularly helpful for people with multiple sclerosis because of the use of props and a focus on alignment. The props enable a person to position the body in a way that they may not be able to on their own, and together with proper sequencing of the postures helps stimulate the nervous system, reduce fatigue and provide deep rest," says the 46-year-old.

Mr McLean elaborates: "If we align the body in asanas (poses) correctly, the muscle and nerve fibres are nourished and begin to work again, and the body is given a chance to heal itself.

"Iyengar taught that yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured. I have found that to be true."

Mr McLean has what is called relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, characterised by periods of remission, followed by relapses.

In 2001, he lost his eyesight for 11 weeks. Two months later, he lost feeling from his navel down. Fearing the condition was progressing, he managed the relapses with temporary medication and through yoga.

Once he recovered, he committed to a daily yoga practice instead of taking immunosuppressant medications. He has been in remission since 2001 and medication-free for 17 years.

The profound impact of Iyengar yoga on McLean's life inspired him to help others.

"I wanted to help people fight the sense of despondency that I had felt. I felt it was my dharma, my duty," says Mr McLean, who trained for three years and became a certified Iyengar yoga teacher in 2001.

He travelled to Pune, India, to meet Iyengar in 2000, and has been returning every year since to study and practice yoga. "I was excited and apprehensive to meet the great yoga master," he says.

"When I told Mr Iyengar about my journey, he replied, 'Every day you must walk that fine line between courage and caution.' His words continue to guide me in my daily practice."

Every morning, Mr McLean summons the courage to take action and is cautious, respecting how his body is feeling.

He finds inversions — the upside-down poses — helpful, and practises them for at least 30 minutes daily. He also includes standing poses, forward bends and arm balances.

In 2011, Mr McLean co-founded Iyengar Yoga Therapeutics, a non-profit based in Los Angeles to help people maintain their health through yoga.

In 2016 he wrote, produced and acted in a one-man play, titled Looking for Lightning, about his journey with yoga and multiple sclerosis, which premiered in Los Angeles and which he performed at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the UK.

Mr McLean has just published his first book, Yoga and Multiple Sclerosis — A Practical Guide for People with MS and Yoga Teachers, to help others with multiple sclerosis, and as a tribute to his guru. It is due out this month. SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

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Yoga multiple sclerosis exercise fitness lifestyle health

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