Profile: Yoga for MS a "Small" Task

Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.

Eric Small may have the worst misnomer of a name imaginable. Standing more than six foot tall, at the age of 79, he walks with the easy, effortlessly stride and proud bearing of a king. As he takes the few steps up to the podium to give an address to the yoga teachers and yoga therapists assembled for the SYTAR yoga therapy conference in Los Angeles, only a very slight wobbling of his legs reveals his age.

If we didn't already know, no one in the 800+ audience would have ever guessed that Eric Small is 79 years-old.

Nor that he has suffered from MS for more than 59 years.

Eric may not be a king, but he is a legend. Diagnosed with MS in his early twenties, he early on realized that doctors didn't have enough to offer him and decided to take matters in his own hands.

He traveled to India, to study with Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar, the prominent Indian yoga teacher often credited with bringing yoga to the West. Iyengar taught him how to target a yoga practice as therapy for MS, and Small began to see huge progress in his condition.

On his return to the U.S., Small decided to take on the tremendous task of offering yoga as therapy to other people with MS. Over the next six decades, he created a network of yoga for MS centers providing yoga teaching services specifically targeted to people with MS.

Eric still spends several hours a day practicing yoga in the morning before he starts his day. The doctors predicted he wouldn't live to see 40. Now, 50 years later, he is in better condition in his early 70's than many 40 year olds! Although Small does occasionally experience symptoms of relapsing-remitting MS, including loss of vision, fatigue and occasional numbness, he is nonetheless able to sustain a daily two-hour yoga practice for MS-in addition to teaching classes.

With the support of the Southern California Chapter of the MS Society, the Eric Small Yoga Program has, for the past many years, served hundreds of clients at 13 different sites and is part of the regular program offered for the Southern California Chapter of the MS Society.

After his address, Eric gets a deafening applause, as people spontaneously jump to their feet. He has galvanized the entire audience, not so much with his words, as with his example. Eric is a living, walking example of how much choice we have in how the aging process unfolds, and, in some cases at least, even in how serious chronic disease plays out in our lives.