About Garth McLean
Garth McLean is a Senior Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher (CIYT, Intermediate Senior III), a Certified Yoga Therapist with IAYT, and a Registered Yoga Teacher (E-RYT 500), and author of Yoga and Multiple Sclerosis: A Practical Guide for People with MS and Yoga Teachers. Since his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 1996, Garth has successfully managed his course of MS and a hectic schedule with a daily Iyengar Yoga practice. He offers weekly online classes for MS and Movement challenges, as well as general intermediate level classes, and workshops on Yoga and MS.
You call being diagnosed with MS “a blessing.” How so?
It seems odd to think that being diagnosed with a chronic, incurable condition such as MS would be a welcome piece of news, let alone a blessing. Leading a high stress, career driven lifestyle prior to my diagnosis, I suddenly began to progressively lose feeling and bodily function throughout my body, with no specific precipitating event. Thinking I might be dying, I seriously began to face my own mortality. Losing the ability to perform everyday tasks such as walking steadily, writing my name, controlling my bodily functions…things that we often take for granted … was devastating.
Upon learning of my diagnosis, a friend suggested that often in sickness we can find health. Luckily, in addition to the latest meds, my doctor recommended yoga as a possible physical discipline that I may wish to pursue in order to help manage the condition.
I felt like I’d been given a reprieve. A second chance.
As I discovered the healing power of yoga, I also discovered the scope of what yoga is, beyond asana practice. Beyond the physical aspect of stabilizing the body, which naturally captured my immediate attention, the effects of the practice were profound; emotionally, intellectually, psychologically and spiritually. Without getting all pollyanna, taking action to enhance my physical well being gave me some control over my destiny. The practice reduced my stress levels, anxiety and depression. I came to know self-compassion, the simple joy and gratitude of living.
I feel I have been further blessed to not only regain my health, but to share my journey with others who may struggle. I am blessed to be able to travel the world and to have studied with one of the greatest yoga masters, BKS Iyengar. I have forged lifelong friendships, that I would never have otherwise experienced. Perhaps more importantly, I have been able to connect with myself beyond the physical plane, to navigate stressful events and avoid going into a spin when facing adversity.
Rediscovering freedom when it has been taken away, underscores the value and potential of life. Perhaps the situation of our curtailed freedom and restrictions due to the pandemic has given us pause and may offer a parallel line of understanding.
How do you view the relationship between the trajectory of your condition and your practice of yoga?
The short answer: Everyday I walk that fine line between courage and caution. Courageous to take action to explore and challenge the limitations life may present, and cautious to respect what is going on with the body on any given day.
To further expand, as a neophyte in crisis, my primary focus with yoga began with the sole purpose of physical healing to regain feeling in my body and a sense of normalcy. Facing that task with rigorous honesty and the not so welcome understanding that my goal may not be realized, I was humbled and driven by fear, hope, faith and determination to fix my broken down body.
The practice, as guided by my teacher, provided me with the fundamental tools of asana I need to adopt, how, and when I need to adapt asanas to address symptoms I was experiencing.
With a baseline foundation on which to build, discovery in practice further encourages me to go deeper, push any perceived boundaries of limitation and learn more about the various limbs and the entire scope of what yoga can offer. The philosophy underscores and provides a further means to overcoming whatever obstacles are presented. Practicing compassion and friendliness to self and others, coupled with self study, awareness and discernment of what needs to be practiced and when, began to culture a more intuitive practice. Pranayama has become a regular staple in my practice as the other aspects of yoga came more and more into focus.
“Yoga” became an exploration beyond the physical and presents an ongoing opportunity to interrogate the more spiritual side of my existence. Drawing on that, regardless of what course my condition may take, I continue to be inspired to push the physical boundaries of limitation in asana and expand the horizon of possibility to keep polishing beyond being defined by my condition. Thankfully, my practice has become multi-dimensional and not simply about disease management.
When there is a desire to learn, not be attached to the results, and tangible results are realized, one’s faith in the subject is bolstered. This was further supported when I first met B.K.S. Iyengar whose advice was, “Everyday you must walk the fine line between courage and caution.”
His words remain a guiding principle for me to this day. A glimpse into this understanding, along with trial, error and experimentation to practice despite adversity, has all helped to refine and define my personal practice and teaching of others. The acceptance to arrive to myself with gratitude, and not some idea of who I am, on any given day and to go from there keeps me learning, inspired and exploring with courage, caution and happiness.
As BKS Iyengar later mentioned, “Why polish your old self? Polish your new self,” is another guiding principle.
I’m inspired by the ever-changing application of yogic practices driven by the needs of students and clients. In what ways is your work an art and a science?
The human form itself is an organic expression of aesthetic beauty and its inner workings and function are a scientific marvel. As we further explore and align the body through the conscious application of skill and actions inherent in yoga, the inward alignment of the body’s bones, muscle fibers, peripheral and motor nerves, has the potential to pervade the physical body. I have found it has proven to be profoundly effective not only physically, but physiologically, emotionally and intellectually through repeated experimentation and testing of hypotheses as to its efficacy.
When internal alignment is realized, with or without the use of props, it has the potential to permeate the entire body resulting in an outward expression of aesthetic beauty of extraordinary significance. Beyond the aesthetics of an aligned practice and presentation of asana, through the application of experimentation and exploration, the MRI results of my brain scans have actually shown a consistent reduction in the size and number of MS lesions on my brain.
It is my belief that if I can extend and effectively apply that experience based knowledge, the potential exists for similar results, albeit with varying degrees of transformation, for a wider swath of individuals.