Yoga is a spiritual, physical, and mental discipline developed over 5,000 years ago in India which involves exercise, relaxation, and healing. The first known work describing the practice was the Yoga Sutras, written over 2,000 years ago.1
What is the evidence for the effectiveness and safety of yoga in RA?
Although yoga is now widely practiced in the West, and often to address the health and well-being of persons living with chronic disease, there have been a limited number of randomized, controlled trials to evaluate its effectiveness in RA. Based on the available data, yoga seems possibly effective in reducing pain and inflammation from RA, and some research has indicated it may also help improve psychosocial symptoms as well. When practiced carefully and under proper supervision, yoga appears to be safe for patients with RA.2-4
In addition, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that yoga provides benefits in terms of general health, including reduction of stress and improvement of mood, increased breath volume, reduction of heart rate, and increased muscular strength, a benefit which may help to protect joints.2
Resources for starting yoga
If you are interested in trying yoga, talk to your doctor first to get his or her OK. Your doctor may know of a yoga instructor in your area who is experienced in teaching yoga to individuals with RA and who can make adaptations in postures and exercises to accommodate any physical limitation you may have.
Some examples of easy yoga postures for RA symptom relief
A number of asanas, or basic yoga postures, are useful for stretching and strengthening different parts of the body. The following simple postures will give you an introduction into yoga.
Cat and Cow
This yoga posture is designed to increase the flexibility of your spine and will help to deepen your breathing.
1. Start by assuming a position on your hands and knees on your exercise mat. If you have problems with your knees, you may place a folded blanket or towel beneath your knees for extra cushion. Your knees should be below your hips (not too wide apart) and your palms should be flat with your fingers pointing straight forward.
2. Start the motion at the tip of your spine (tailbone) and arch your back, lifting each vertebrae one at a time, towards the ceiling until your head drops below your shoulders. Bringing chin towards chest and core muscles toward spine, concave your torso. Conduct this fluid motion during a single exhalation.
3. Begin the next motion at the tip of your head. Moving down your spine (towards the tailbone), concave each vertebrae one at a time towards the floor, allowing your belly to hang relaxed. Conduct this fluid motion during a single inhalation.
4. Repeat the motions for a few more complete breathing cycles. Be very gentle and move slowly.
This yoga pose will provide a stretch for your entire back, including the muscles in your buttocks and upper arms. The Child’s Pose is a calming posture for most people, but be careful not to overextend yourself.
1. Start on your hands and knees on your exercise mat. If you have problems with your knees, you may place a folded blanket or towel beneath your knees for extra cushion. Lower your buttock towards your feet so that your legs are tucked under you. If it is more comfortable, you may spread your knees apart.
2. Now, lower your forehead onto the mat between your hands, letting your body fold over your legs.
3. Extend your arms out in front of you as far as they will go, with your palms on the mat. Alternately, you can place your arms along the side of your legs, with your palms facing up. Experiment to see which is most comfortable. A third option is to form a triangle-shaped pillow with your hands, touching the tips of your thumbs and index fingers, upon which to rest your head.
4. If possible, keep your buttocks in contact with your heels, with the top of your feet flat against the mat. However, some people may be unable to keep their buttocks from lifting into the air. If this happens, try making a taller pillow by stacking your two fists under your forehead.
5. Breathe deeply into the posture and count slowly to 10. Many people find this posture relaxing and remain in it for a longer period of time, using their breath to help them relax into the posture.
6. Slowly and gradually, return to a sitting position. Take time to allow your blood pressure to return to normal before getting up.
Check with your doctor before starting any exercise regimen.
Written by: Jonathan Simmons and Emily Downward | Last reviewed: April 2019.
Yoga. Natural Standard Monograph. 2012; 1-71.
Uhlig T. Tai Chi and yoga as complementary therapies in rheumatologic conditions. Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol 2012;26:387-98.
Akyuz G, Kenis-Coskun O. The efficacy of Tai Chi and yoga in rheumatoid arthritis and spondyloarthropathies: a narrative biomedical review. Rheumatology International. 2018 Mar;38(3):321-330. Abstract.
Greysen HM, Greysen SR, Lee KA, Hong OS, Katz P, Leutwyler H. A qualitative study exploring community yoga practice in adults with rheumatoid arthritis. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Jun 2017;23(6). Online ahead of print. http://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2016.0156. Abstract.