Yoga's physical, mental benefits touted

Doug Gulasy
| Thursday, April 11, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

Don Ammon took up yoga 15 years ago as a way to combat the anxiety he felt as a result of his multiple sclerosis.

He didn't anticipate getting a physical benefit as well.

Ammon, who was diagnosed with MS in 1991 and said he “was limping around with an AFO (ankle-foot orthotic) by 1995,” no longer needs the brace.

He credits yoga.

“It's helped with focus and balance,” said Ammon, 49, of Monroeville. “I was able to strengthen the whole right side of my body. I'm more flexible, (and) I'm stronger now than I was then.”

Ammon said his last MS flare-up occurred in 2005, although he still deals with numbness in his hands and feet.

Dr. Betsy Blazek-O'Neill, medical director of the integrated medical program in Allegheny General alHospital, said Ammon's isn't an isolated case. She said yoga can benefit many people, no matter their age or condition.

“Studies have shown that yoga can help people with very specific disorders,” Blazek-O'Neill said. “You can do yoga exercises that help with carpal tunnel syndrome. It can be helpful for gastrointestinal disorders. It can be helpful for headaches (and) all kinds of stuff.

“But the way it does that is partly physical and partly mental and emotional.”

Ammon said yoga helped him mentally and physically. He said he developed a panic disorder because of the numbness and weakness on the right side of his body, and yoga's focus on balance and flexibility helped him improve in those areas, lessening his anxiety in the process.

“It didn't happen overnight — it's very gradual — but being able to control my body in small ways (by) working different muscles or controlling the breath, it gave me a sense of being in control again,” Ammon said. “Whereas with the MS, it was like a wild card. I didn't know what was going to happen.”

Now an instructor, Ammon said he sees people with cancer and other ailments taking yoga classes.

Blazek-O'Neill said yoga's mental and physical benefits are linked because many people carry stress in muscles such as their jaws and shoulders. Such muscles are relaxed in yoga, and the focus on breathing helps with anxiety, she said.

Such a strong emphasis on the mind is rare in fitness, Blazek-O'Neill said, although tai chi is another exercise with that focus.

“There's a mind-body aspect of yoga that I've never found in spinning class,” said Stacey Vespaziani, owner of South Hills Power Yoga in Dormont. “Maybe on a long run you might be able to cultivate something like that, or a hike in the woods.”

Dr. Kelley Anderson, a primary sports medicine physician for UPMC, said yoga is a good addition to bikers' and runners' training routines.

“It really helps with that variability in their exercising,” Anderson said. “It really helps with their core strength, with their balance and flexibility (and) it helps to prevent some of those overuse injuries.”

Anderson said yoga can help people with arthritis, though Blazek-O'Neill said that people with joint problems should consult their doctors before starting a yoga routine.

Blazek-O'Neill said yoga can be a good “gateway drug” for people to develop better health and wellness routines.

“They tend to start reading more things about how to eat healthier, and they start reading things about how to do more relaxation,” she said. “It often is something that will cause — or at least foster — a thought process where they start making other changes in their lifestyle, too.”

Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-8527 or

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