One woman spoke of attending her first weekly class at NYC’s Integral Yoga Institute, coming in with fingers so misshapen and curled in on themselves that she couldn’t open her hands. She said it takes her at least an hour to get moving each morning.
Then she leapt up and onto a yoga mat to show us a sample of her routine!
First, she stretched out on her belly, placed her hands on the floor next to her shoulders, and slowly lifted into the low backbend, or Cobra pose. Then she carefully pushed back to bring her buttocks towards her heels into Child pose and stretched her arms forward, spreading her fingers wide, like a cat extending its claws.
She sat up and blushed as we applauded. She told us that she stretches like this every day and that it has changed her life.
Another woman shared that since beginning her practice, she no longer needs weekly shots to manage her rheumatoid arthritis. Twice a month is her new norm. She also described the terrible social isolation she once experienced due to the effects of RA. “I feel better now,” she said, “and more hopeful.” She benefits from a community of like-minded people who share the same challenges.
Arthritis Comes in Many Forms
More than 50 million Americans have arthritis of some kind. It’s an often misunderstood disorder, because it presents in such a wide variety of ways. It crosses age, gender and race barriers, but over 60% of sufferers are women.
Of the 100+ types of arthritis recognized today, two are most prevalent: osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The former is a wear-and-tear disease that affects specific joints, and while not reversible, its progress can be slowed with proper management. Due to aging Boomers, longer lifespans and large populations of sedentary and overweight individuals, we’re seeing a lot more OA diagnoses these days.
RA, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks itself and damages connective tissue. Its effects are not restricted to the joints. Gout, lupus and fibromyalgia are just a few of the many conditions related to RA. Most cases require some form of medical management.
How Yoga Affects Arthritis
Gentle yoga helps reduce joint friction by stimulating synovial fluid. Loaded with nutrients essential for joint health, this fluid keeps the joints gliding and lubricated. Additionally, yoga increases strength, flexibility and balance.
Perhaps the quintessence of yoga is its ability to enhance mind/body wholeness accompanied by measurable psychological benefits. The fact that yoga has been shown to decrease the stress hormone cortisol is significant because inflammation is at the heart of most degenerative diseases.
For those living with chronic disorders like arthritis, reducing stress is essential.
Yoga also fosters mindfulness and changes behavioral awareness “off the mat”. When people are more mindful, they tend to move through their lives with more consciousness. They may eat more mindfully. They may feel more capable as they improve physical strength. Their confidence may improve as their balance and range of motion increase. They often experience joy.
These factors all contribute to a greater sense of independence and freedom.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that Dr. Steffany Moonaz’s initial studies at Johns Hopkins show that, when it comes to OA and RA, yoga is unique in its ability to improve a person’s health-related quality of life.
Not Just Any Kind of Yoga Will Do
To ensure safety, arthritis sufferers should choose a gentle and condition-appropriate style of yoga to practice. Most suitable are Integral and Sivananda yoga. Both offer gentle Hatha classes, which include breathing, deep relaxation and meditation – all proven to benefit those with chronic conditions.
Ashtanga yoga (sometimes called “Power yoga”) and other styles that involve quick, powerful movements are apt to harm more than help. Speed and force often go together and can cause injury. Similarly, “hot yoga” styles such as Bikram are also a no-go for those with arthritis due to the inflammatory effects of high heat.
Because people in pain have negative associations with sensation, appropriate yoga practice can help them learn the difference between safe sensation and pain that is to be avoided.
Finding a Qualified Instructor
Dr. Moonaz, who created and leads the Yoga for Arthritis teacher training, emphasizes the importance of using yoga as a complementary modality. For instance, a patient prescribed physical therapy may be able to enroll in an appropriate yoga class when the PT order runs out.
When cooperation exists between allopathic and integrative medicine, everybody wins.
If you have arthritis and are new to yoga, check with your physician before pursuing a class. If your doctor is unfamiliar with the yoga research, consider sharing this article or the studies cited here.
Taking part in a yoga class specifically for students with arthritis is the ideal. One place to seek a qualified Yoga for Arthritis instructor is Dr. Moonaz’s directory, in which I’m honored to be included. If you opt for a general gentle yoga class, be sure to ask the instructor if they have training or experience in working with those with OA and RA. To state the obvious, you want one who does.
The Arthritis Foundation recently collaborated on a DVD with Dr. Moonaz: Arthritis-Friendly Yoga. Already having sold over 10,000 copies, it includes educational segments and step-by-step demonstrations for safe practice.
Additionally, The Arthritis Foundation has a wealth of material on their website, as well as local chapters in major cities across the US, which may be able to refer you to an appropriate class or teacher. Find the chapter closest to you here.
Image by Jasmine Kaloudis, via Flickr