Will Yoga Help Your Arthritis?
Yes, yoga can help! The practice of yoga has been shown to reduce the pain of arthritis and increase the range of motion in arthritic joints while stretching and strengthening the muscles around the joints. It can also reduce pain-causing inflammation, and create better health overall.
I have a number of yoga students with varying degrees of arthritis, and they’ve all experienced more joint mobility and less pain when they regularly attend my classes, especially the slower-paced, gentler yoga classes. They also feel better overall.
If you’re planning on trying yoga to see if it can help you, find a class that fits your experience and health level, and talk to the teacher first. A good teacher can help you modify poses to safely bring your body into better alignment and with more ease. If you can’t find a good class in your area, I’ve listed a few good DVDs and books below to safely get you started.
How Yoga Helps Relieve Arthritis Symptoms
Increase Range of Motion, Stabilize Joints, Reduce Inflammation
It used to be that doctors advised people with arthritis not to exercise, thinking “If it hurts, don’t move it”. Now they are finding that inactivity makes it worse. Sedentary people experience more pain and joint degeneration than active people.
To keep joints and muscles healthy and strong, they must be used. When they’re not used, they become weaker and more unstable with more likely-hood of pain, injury, and debilitation. Regular gentle movement helps to maintain mobility and it reduces pain, as well as promoting the health of other systems of the body. People who exercise regularly have increased blood circulation which helps to reduce swelling and pain. Their immune system is also strengthened.
The practice of yoga is an excellent way to help people develop more mobility and range of motion in their joints along with stronger, more flexible muscles. This helps to keep the joints in good alignment, reducing the likely-hood of greater injury and pain. Poses can be adapted to be suitable for anyone in the right class setting. Not all yoga classes will be good for your arthritis; do some research to find a class that is suitable for you!
In the New York Times article, Advice on Practicing Yoga in Middle Age Dr. Loren Fishman, a rehabilitative medicine specialist (and long-time Iyengar yoga practitioner) referred to a mega-study about gentle exercise and arthritis. The study shows that gentle exercising, such as in some yoga classes, helps to release an anti-inflammatory protein that reduces the inflammation of osteoarthritis. He says that the “side-effects” of this also include decreasing the probability of Alzheimers, some cancers, and type 2 diabetes.
A Good DVD If You Can’t Find a Yoga Class
Peggy Cappy’s Yoga for the Rest of Us programs on PBS have been very popular for “regular” people who want to start a safe, gentle yoga program. A few of my Gentle Yoga students have used this DVD and have been happy that they can easily follow along.
Her Easy Yoga for Arthritis DVD has received very good ratings overall from users.
From the product description:
Everyone can do this gentle program. In this video Peggy shows how yoga can relieve stiffness, reduce pain and fatigue, and improve muscle and bone strength.
More Yoga for Arthritis DVD Recommendations
See Yoga for Arthritis DVDs for a few more suggestions. They show yoga poses and sequences that are gentle enough for most people.
All Yoga Poses Help Increase Range of Motion and Strength
When practiced correctly, all yoga poses help to keep the body stronger and more supple; increasing range of motion in the joints, while keeping the surrounding muscles strong and supportive. That doesn’t mean that all poses will be helpful for you right away — if you’re new to yoga, especially if you’re in pain from arthritic joints, you need to start slowly and gently.
The regular practice of yoga can bring relief from arthritis pain if the poses are done mindfully with good body alignment. Beginning Yoga classes and Gentle Yoga classes will teach you simpler poses first, to gradually and safely build up your strength, balance, and flexibility — all of these elements are beneficial for people with arthritis.
Standing poses are very good for helping to reduce arthritic pain in all joints, while developing the muscles around these joints to provide more stability. They’re especially helpful for increasing strength and flexibility in the hips and knees. Standing poses help to strengthen the buttocks, quadriceps and calves without wear and tear on the hips and knees as long as care is taken to keep proper alignment in the poses . Weak muscles can lead to unstable knees and hips, leading to more injury and pain. Synovial fluid in the joints is distributed more effectively when the joints are taken through their range of motion.
Iyengar Yoga teacher and author Suza Francina advises her students to sit on the floor every day in various cross-legged positions to create more mobility in the hips and the knees. If you avoid this because of discomfort, you will lose mobility. As the saying goes, “Use it or lose it!” If these poses are very painful or difficult for you, get help from a good teacher, or you might find suggestions in books or videos. Sitting up on a folded blanket (or two, three, or even more blankets), with extra support under the knees often helps.
Yoga Poses Can Be Modified and Supported
I know that some of you may be interested in trying yoga to see if it helps your arthritis, but then you look at pictures of poses and think, “Pfft, I can’t do those! Why would I even try?!”
In some styles of yoga such as Iyengar Yoga (which is what I teach), the teacher will help you modify and support poses as necessary so you can experience them in a healthy way for your own body. For instance, standing poses can be done against a wall or holding onto a chair or counter-top for extra support. Seated poses may work better for you if you sit up on extra height (blankets, or even a chair). A good yoga teacher can help you decide how to practice various poses for the best benefits to your own body. If you have mobility and joint pain issues, talk to the teacher first to see what classes would be better for you.
Find a Good Yoga Teacher
A good teacher can guide you in learning to practice yoga safely and intelligently to help your arthritis.
You’ll need to do some research to find a teacher who suits your needs. You might ask your doctors if they know of qualified yoga teachers who can help you. You can find lists of well-trained yoga teachers through the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the U.S. or through Yoga Alliance.
A compassionate and well-trained yoga teacher does not have to be a specialist in yoga for arthritis, but will still be able to help you learn to modify classic yoga postures to suit your own special needs.
You might consider taking a couple of private lessons first so that the teacher can work more closely with you and your particular needs. That way when you start a regular class (Gentle or Beginning Yoga), you’ll already have a sense of how much you can do, and what kinds of modifications you need to stay comfortable and safe within the yoga poses.
An article put out by Johns Hopkins includes good questions to ask when looking for a yoga teacher. (Check out the rest of the article too for more useful information!)
Getting the Most Out of Your Yoga Practice
Learn to Work Intelligently
Listen to your body as you practice to determine which poses, stretches, and movements feel most helpful, and which feel like they could lead to injury.
If a pose doesn’t feel right, don’t push through it, but work gently, and get help from your teacher.
Learn to know the difference between “good pain” and “bad pain”. There’s a difference between the discomfort of stretching muscles and moving stiff joints, and the pain of actions gone wrong — of movements that can cause injury. Sudden or severe pain is a warning to stop!
Avoid doing the poses and actions mechanically, but observe the response of your body and breath to the poses. Don’t hold your breath. A smooth, relaxed, easy breath helps to reduce pain and promotes relaxation.
Don’t overwork, but balance your active yoga practice with restorative (restful, supportive, nurturing) poses. You benefit from the active poses only if you’re well-rested.
Learn to use yoga props to support your body in more difficult poses, or for longer held poses. When the body is supported, its easier to stretch the muscles and safely move the joints through their range of motion, easier to bring the body into better alignment, and it conserves energy.
A Yoga For Arthritis Book Recommendation
You will get more out of your yoga practice if you can study regularly with a good teacher. But practicing at home is also strongly recommended! If you are fairly comfortable working on your own at home, this book will be a good guide for you.
This book gives a comprehensive overview on arthritis and how yoga can be used to alleviate symptoms. It’s thoroughly illustrated, with chapters focusing on each major joint. Poses are given for beginners and for more experienced practitioners, with instructions and guidelines for modifying poses as needed.
Be Patient, Don’t Give Up
Some people may notice improvement after a short time, but for others it may take longer. Be patient with yourself and give yourself time! Attend your yoga classes regularly and make time to do some gentle yoga stretching in between. Even though yoga won’t cure arthritis, it will make you feel much better overall if you keep at it in a gentle and intelligent way.