After receiving a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, this Ohio-based athlete discovered that yoga helps keep his symptoms at bay and felt he had to share its healing power with others.
A former truck driver and avid runner, Chuck Burmeister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2001. Four years later, he was barely able to walk up the stairs of his house. Forced to go on disability, Burmeister tried everything from steroids to intramuscular injections—none of which helped (and some of which worsened his condition). He went from driven to depressed. Then, he read about research showing that yoga could help ease MS symptoms, which led him to order world-renowned teacher Rodney Yee’s beginner yoga video and start doing five minutes of yoga a day—all Burmeister could manage due to his severe fatigue. After three years of building a solid home practice with various yoga videos, Burmeister ventured forth to a studio in 2008, and then plunged immediately into teacher training. Since then, he’s studied with Yee, Doug Keller (a therapeutic yoga teacher), and his primary yoga teacher, Marcia Miller (a founder of the Columbus, Ohio–based Yoga on High studio), and completed his Urban Zen Integrative Therapy certification. Knowing firsthand what it’s like to live with a disability, “Yoga Chuck,” as his students call him, devotes himself to spreading yoga to the underserved in his Ohio community, from assisted-living facilities and his local YMCA to the Tiffin Developmental Center, a facility for those with developmental disabilities.
Yoga is one of the best tools for managing my MS without drugs. My symptoms—dropped leg [a temporary buckling at the knee], electric-shock sensations, spasms, and fatigue—go into remission as long as I practice consistently. Yoga helps me accept my present circumstances, have a calmer mind, and relinquish the need to push myself to extremes. I’m on a natural high during my morning practice and for several hours after, and the rest of my day flows smoothly with positive energy. It makes me feel like I’m in my 20s—I’m 51— and I can physically move like or better than most 20-year-olds.
What draws you to working with the elderly and those with limited abilities?
People who suffer from MS have a lot in common with the elderly, such as a limited range of movement. I believe you can rediscover the joy of your mobility at any age and under any circumstances. I enjoy teaching yoga to people who need it, like my students in their 90s, who are happy to be doing chair yoga with the other seniors and rediscovering their connection to others and to their own bodies. My personal mission boils down to keeping yoga down-to-earth, modifying the poses to be accessible for any ability, and welcoming everyone to my class with warmth, jokes, or even a hug. It broke my heart when one of my seniors asked me, “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had a hug?”
How do you set your students up for success?
Many students tell me that if they didn’t come to class once a week, they would never exercise. I tell them to pick one or two poses from class and practice these three days a week on their own. Typically, they notice the difference this little bit of movement makes and want more. It’s small steps like these that work.
In the Details with Chuck Burmeister
Burmeister shares a few more of his favorite things.
: Yoga as Therapy Volume Two: Applications, by Doug Keller, is an alignment treasure trove.
Pose : Supported Headstand is my daily pose for boosting my immune system.
Retreat: A cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains. The peacefulness of the landscape keeps me grounded.
Food: I consume over four gallons of honey a year, on multigrain bread, trail mix, and oatmeal.
Vitality booster: I swish 1 tablespoon of unrefined sesame-seed oil in my mouth for 20 minutes up to 4 times a day.
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