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The RA Benefits of Yoga

In the 18 years since I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis/rheumatoid disease (RA/RD), I have tried numerous medications, over-the-counter aids, alternative therapies, diets, supplements, and exercises in an effort to decrease my symptoms. Some were initially helpful but lost efficacy over time, some made no difference at all or had too little impact to be worth the time/expense, and some actually made me feel worse. One of the few interventions I’ve tried that continually proves helpful and well worth the time and expense is yoga.

Various kinds of yoga for everyone

While the word “yoga” may conjure the image of a svelte person bending in a seemingly impossible position, yoga can be practiced at a wide range of ability levels. I have been in advanced classes where I glanced over and marveled at the optional poses some of my classmates were capable of performing. I have also been in very gentle classes where the focus was on breathwork, gentle stretches, and relaxation exercises. I’ve attended prenatal yoga classes where poses were adapted for our giant bellies. I even attended a seated yoga class for seniors with my grandmother, who at the age of 92 was able to follow along with the instructor.

Therefore, there truly is a class (or video) for everyone, and it’s important for someone with RA/RD to speak to the instructor about one’s physical ability and limitations before beginning a class to ensure it will be a good fit.

While yoga has benefits to offer those without chronic health issues, there are some specific ways yoga can help people living with RA/RD.

Relaxation

Over the two decades, I’ve lived with persistent RA/RD symptoms, I’ve been surprised to realize how profound an impact stress has on my disease activity level. The more stressed I am, the more pain, fatigue, and inflammation I experience. While our choices impact how much stress we regularly experience, it’s impossible to eliminate it altogether. Having a healthy way to relieve stress goes a long way in mitigating its negative consequences.

Every yoga class I’ve ever attended, even the intense, advanced ones, have incorporated breath work and whole body relaxation. There’s a reason people commonly say, “Take a deep breath” to someone who is upset; breathing deeply truly does help increase oxygen levels and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us calm down. When I engage in breathwork and deep relaxation exercises, I have a happy, peaceful, floating feeling.

Unlike some of the poses, the breath work and relaxation techniques used in yoga practice are easy to practice at home in the absence of an instructor.

Flexibility

One need not be able to do a backbend or sit cross-legged with their legs flush against the floor to receive the benefits of improved flexibility. When muscles are tight, they tug on joints and can increase pain. Yoga involves stretching and relaxation exercises that help one release muscle tension. My favorite yoga instructor says “it’s safe to let go” when we are deepening a stretch. When we allow our muscles to relax, they “let go” of their tight hold on our inflamed joints as well.

Muscle Strength

Just as having tight muscles tugging on joints can increase pain, muscle weakness can leave joints without support and increase strain and potential injury. Yoga improves muscle tone and strength, which in turn protects and supports our joints.

Improved Posture

It’s amazing how off our posture can be without even realizing it. RA/RD can make our posture even worse by limping or compensating for painful joints. Yoga includes a continual focus on posture, which increases awareness of how one carries their body. Good posture supports our joints by not putting undue strain on any particular part of the body. With proper alignment, the body is balanced and all parts work together.

Weight Loss

Yoga is exercise, and it can foster weight loss. Maintaining a healthy weight obviously has a number of health benefits for everyone, but for people with RA/RD it also lightens the load on painful, swollen joints.

For all these reasons, I’ve practiced yoga for nearly as long as I’ve been diagnosed with RA/RD, which is approaching two decades. Sometimes I practice yoga faithfully, and sometimes I neglect it for weeks, but I always come back to it for all the mental, emotional, and physical benefits it has to offer.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

  • AuntieRA
    9 months ago

    This makes me want to finally dive in so to speak and take yoga. I went to a class once where the instructor essentially indicated I should extend my legs further out in a particular pose because I have longer legs than other people, and when I did, it caused a problem that took weeks to heal. But, I realize that it only one class, so I will see what is available and give this another chance. Thank you!

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    9 months ago

    Hi AuntieRA,

    I can certainly understand why you got scared off of yoga! But like any profession, there are all different kinds of instructors. I do recommend getting there early and talking to the instructor before the session starts about your RA so that s/he is aware you may have some limitations. You could also talk to the instructor or the yoga center ahead of time to gauge if it will be a good match for you in terms of intensity.
    I’m glad you found the article helpful. If you end up giving yoga another try, I welcome you to update us on how it went!
    All the best,
    Tamara

  • jhundley2018
    11 months ago

    You are exactly right. It does seem to calm the entire body down including real numbers–like C-RP. I often fall asleep as I finish the tape. That is amazing. Hope it continues to help you. jh

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    10 months ago

    Hi jhundley2018,

    Sorry for the delay in a response (I was out of town and then resting up after the trip). Thanks for sharing. Sleep is a beautiful thing, and your description of yoga calming the entire body down is spot on. Thanks for your kind wishes, and I hope that yoga continues to help you as well.

    All the best,
    Tamara

  • KristinaT
    11 months ago

    Thanks for this. I can totally relate. I was diagnosed 7 years ago and didn’t believe I could do yoga until I tried. I firmly believe my 6+ years of yoga is what has helped me the most in my continuing journey with RA/RD.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    10 months ago

    Hey KristinaT,

    Sorry for the delay in a response (I was out of town and then resting up after being out of town). Thanks so much for your comment. I’m so glad that you found the article helpful and that you have found something (yoga!) that helps your body.

    Thanks so much for sharing,
    Tamara

  • farmchick
    11 months ago

    Oh, I just wanted to say that you are right on about the impacts of stress. We are caring for my mother-in-law who has Alzheimer’s, plus we are doing some care for her sister who also has Alzheimer’s. That and the fact that I am 72, a retired pastor, but have been “called back to action” recently due to. Pastor’s illness and not only am I preaching every Sunday, but doing some pastoral care and have done two memorial services in the last month and a half. Must admit I am feeling pretty overwhelmed.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    10 months ago

    Hey Farmchick,

    My goodness, that is a lot! Is your body holding up okay? Caring for two people with Alzheimer’s and returning to work at 72 while contending with RA is a very full plate. No wonder you feel overwhelmed. Please know that we are here any time you need to vent. I tend to be hard on myself, and when I come to this community I am reminded that I am actually doing a good job considering the challenges I face. If you ever need any validation, know that we are here and that we get it!

    Wishing you all the best during this stressful time,
    Tamara

  • farmchick
    11 months ago

    Tamara, do you have any recommendations about yoga videos? I just purchased Yoga for Dummies. My daughter who has been a yoga instructor looked at it and thought it was pretty good. Also, have you had any experience with Tai Chi? I am reasonably physically active (my husband and I have a commercial organic garden and I work in the garden and do all the deliveries – we deliver door to door). However, I know I should be doing some more intentional kinds of exercise and yoga and tai chi seem like a good place to start.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    10 months ago

    Hey Farmchick,

    My apologies for the delay in a response. I went on vacation with my family and then had to recover from vacation with my family. (We in this community all know how that goes!)

    Unfortunately I don’t have a yoga video to recommend. I have done some with other people, but I haven’t purchased one for myself. Sorry I can’t be of help with that! I also haven’t done Tai Chi, although this has been recommended to me by several people who know a lot about wellness. From what I’ve heard, it is a very gentle yet helpful practice. If you end up moving forward with Tai Chi, I’d love an update on whether you find it helpful.

    Thanks for your questions and for sharing with our community,
    Tamara

  • Lawrence 'rick' Phillips
    11 months ago

    I agree with all of those things. I just cannot seem to do it. I think I lack the essential coordination to not fall on my butt. Because watching me try is awful.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    11 months ago

    Hi Rick, I’m sure you’re not alone! Thanks for sharing so that all those who have had the same experience can know they’re not alone. All the best, Tamara

  • Lawrence 'rick' Phillips
    11 months ago

    People do seem to have a good laugh as i fall over and that is the best fun of all if one asks me. LOL

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