Yoga and Arthritis – Some Facts and Some Testimonies – by Ashley Boynes

I have taken traditional yoga classes, read up on chair yoga, and am about to embark upon the adventure of bikram hot yoga, and so I wanted to first do some research and find out how beneficial yoga really is for arthritis.

Of course, the first step for me  – and for any of you considering trying it out – is to ask your doctor about it. I consulted with my rheumatologist years ago who agreed that yoga would be a good exercise option for me. Additionally, I emailed the instructor of the course to explain my health conditions, and to make sure that I would be “healthy enough” to participate. I was given the “all clear” and so I’m bracing myself for starting classes next week.

What I’ve found through my research is a resounding “YES!” — Arthritis patients CAN, and dare I say should, do yoga. Like tai chi which the Arthritis Foundation offers and encourages, yoga is not only healthy for the body but also for the mind and spirit.

So, let’s learn more about the art of yoga!

According to the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center, “Holistic (or mind-body integrating) movement practices with origins in eastern philosophy and culture are receiving a great deal of attention recently. For many adults, yoga, t’ai chi, qi gong, and various dance forms are joining the treadmill and exercise bike as way to safely and effectively increase physical activity. Having arthritis should not prevent individuals from trying these alternatives to traditional exercise. However, for many people, yoga, in particular may bring to mind pretzel-like poses requiring considerable strength and balance. In reality, beginner yoga classes provide simple, gentle movements that gradually build strength, balance, and flexibility – all elements that may be especially beneficial for people with arthritis.”

Yoga can be beneficial because it increases flexibility, strengthens/lengthens/and tones muscles, frees the mind, calms the spirit, strengthens the spine, straightens the back, promotes good posture, and promotes a healthful lifestyle of overall wellness. Like many other forms of exercise and physical activity, yoga can increase muscle strength, improve flexibility, enhance respiratory endurance and cardiovascular health, and promote balance, Another huge bonus is that it can have a positive effect mentally and emotionally, releasing stress and bringing in “good” energy.

But, while most will acknowledge that it is a healthy practice for the general population, is it “good” for those of us with arthritis?

Like any exercise, activity, or treatment, what’s good for one person may not be good for the next. Some may claim to be “healed” of RA, Lupus, or Fibromyalgia through practices like Yoga. For others, it won’t work, or, it may potentially be harmful or cause injury. That is why it is important to consult your doctor and/or physical therapist before trying. If you decide to move forward and try, you should take it slow, work closely with the instructor, and try not to get discouraged too easily. If you notice more harm than benefit being done to your body, then, by all means, stop. However, you may find that with a little extra effort and initial struggle, it may be well worth it in the end!

In fact, there’s a good chance that it will. I am not a doctor nor a medical expert, but, many who are have done extensive research on the subject, and I can share their findings with you. Over 75 scientific trials have been published on yoga in major mainstream medical journals! These studies have shown that yoga is a safe and effective way to increase physical activity and also has important psychological benefits due to its meditative nature. There has also been arthritis-specific research done. Exercise in general is well-known to be beneficial to all arthritis patients. According to Johns Hopkins,  “physical activity is an essential part of the effective treatment of osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), according to treatment guidelines published by the American College of RheumatologyIn persons with arthritis, exercise is safe and does not exacerbate pain or worsen disease. In fact, exercise may play a key role in promoting joint health, since those who do not exercise often suffer more joint discomfort than those who do. The health and psychological benefits of exercise are widely recognized.”

A handful of scientific studies have been conducted on persons with OA and RA practicing yoga, and there are several underway as we speak. Early studies have shown promising results with improvement in joint health, physical functioning, and mental/emotional well-being of patients with arthritis who regularly do yoga. Perhaps most importantly, they show that yoga has an important positive effect on quality of life. According to the American College of Rheumatology, “people with arthritis may also enjoy yoga more than traditional forms of exercise, and exercise enjoyment is an important predictor of adherence. This is particularly important considering that, on average, 50% of sedentary individuals will drop out of exercise within 6 months.”

A sedentary lifestyle is a way of life for many living with arthritis, but not necessarily the best way. In fact, those with sedentary lifestyles tend to become more overweight, and being overweight is bad for arthritis. It puts more weight on the joints, causing more strain and, subsequently, more pain. Being inactive also increases stiffness, which can increase pain and decrease range of motion. It’s a catch-22 because most people with arthritis have too much fatigue and pain to exercise, and yet, exercise is one of the leading ways to reduce pain and increase energy — and this is one of the very hardest conundrums about living with these kinds of conditions. This is why a gentler and even relaxing form of exercise such as yoga may be the best bet – you’ll still see results but it is an activity that you may very well be able to adapt to.

 Some yoga studios will offer beginner-level courses or hatha yoga classes specifically for those with arthritis. If it is something you are interested in, you may want to look into it. I am going to try “hot yoga” which is “supposed” to boost the immune system and really increase flexibility – we’ll see! If jumping into one of these forms of yoga seems too intimidating for you, you may just want to start off by simply stretching – yes, stretching – on your own. You can stretch at home. You can stretch at work. You can even flex and stretch muscles in bed. Just get the muscles moving and blood flowing! Next, you may want to graduate to chair yoga. According to Dr. Howie Shareff of YouCallThisYoga.org, “Chair yoga nips back and neck pain in the bud!” He says, “Chair yoga is a process where you develop a keener sense of your body in its usual environment. Since so much of life is spent seated, let’s make the chair an ally!” His vision is for those who are wheelchair-bound or face other physical ailments such as arthritis to be able to still do this gentle form of mat-based and chair-based yoga….on your own terms.

According to the Arthritis Foundation’s Arthritis Today Magazine, “A small but growing number of yoga centers and senior centers offer chair yoga, which includes relaxation exercises and yoga moves while seated in a chair or wheelchair, and many yoga instructors are able and willing to modify regular poses for people with limited mobility. Classes sometimes include a few standing poses where participants use their chairs as props to help stabilize them as they stretch.”

“If done correctly, modified yoga brings the same physical, mental and spiritual health benefits as regular yoga – helping to prevent muscle loss, improve joint stability and diminish pain and stiffness,” says Steffany Haaz, a research associate and certified movement analyst with Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center in Baltimore, Maryland.

Since the Arthritis Foundation also recommends tai-chi, another form of yoga to look into is Tai Chi Yoga. “Tai Chi Yoga is a healing and meditative art form derived from blending principles of the two disciplines of Tai Chi and Hatha Yoga.” The combination focuses on mindfulness, meditation, and strengthening the core from within.

In the February 2002 copy of “The Yoga Journal,” one gentleman shared his testimonial about how Bikram Hot Yoga personally changed his life.  He writes, “I had extensive pain in my feet, hands, knees, wrists and shoulders.  I wasn’t able to walk down stairs, bend to sit on a chair or stand on my tiptoes and walk like a ballerina.  The pain was incredible!  Overwhelming and very frightening. In addition to the pain I developed large nodules on my wrists and in my fingers.  The 3rd to 5th toes on my right foot were showing the beginning of deformation in x-rays and the same was showing in my hands.  As you can imagine this created an initial ‘balance’ problem in the yoga class.  A problem that I overcame in time.  You, too, may experience some challenge with the balancing postures because of your gait but you will be able to adjust and balance sooner than you think. Because my body was so quickly crumbling I had to take action.  After much exploration in the alternative healing field I found Bikram Yoga.  Prior to Bikram I practiced Power Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga which I personally could no longer do because of the impact it put on my already damaged wrists.  Bikram Yoga did not subject me to that danger yet still offered the aerobics I was looking for. I will be honest. I want to tell you that I have not cured my RA.  It has, however, mostly gone into remission.  I am also still taking medications but the dosage of each has greatly been reduced since the Bikram Yoga and one day I hope to be medicine-free.  The Bikram Yoga acts as a pill.  If I am taking it daily I feel good.  If I “fall off the Bikram wagon” for a bit…I feel pain once again.  I encourage you to just TRY and remember that you must accept the challenge or difficulty of any situation in order to become powerful in it. Time in the Bikram Yoga Class will most likely be your friend.  There will be some difficult days but I am confident that there will be a longer, healthier life ahead if you can just keep the faith and TRY.”  A longer version of his personal story is available in this back issue of The Yoga Journal.

I like what he said - “you must accept the challenge or difficulty of any situation in order to become powerful in it.” Whether this is trying yoga or some other new exercise, or accepting the difficult feats we are dealt in every day life, this is something for us all to remember – healthy or not!

Have any of you had experience with yoga, good or bad? All of our experiences are different, and so I’d love to hear from you! Please, leave a comment and share! I will tell you that I myself have had good experiences with yoga. Of course, I cannot do all of the poses with my arthritis, but, I always feel great after squeezing in a yoga session even if it is only a 10-or-20 minute one instead of the recommended 60-90 minutes. It is one exercise that I know I can do in at least some form. To me, that’s what is great about it – there are many variations and forms, and it is something that we can do at home, on our own time, or, with a class if we’d like. So many options! If you are interested, consult your doctors and, once you try it out, let me know how you do — I’ll do the same!

Stay well,

Ashley Boynes

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One thought on “Yoga and Arthritis – Some Facts and Some Testimonies – by Ashley Boynes

  1. I have been wanting to do yoga, but I don’t know how. I would like to buy a cd or something. Maybe find it online? I really just need to get the ambition. Something I really am lacking these days.
    My weightloss councilor doesn’t understand my pain or exhaustion. But, she thinks she does. IDK. I will try to get to it… as soon as I get some energy!!

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