Yoga For Arthritis
I live right next to Boulder, Colorado – a place where extreme physical fitness is basically the norm. Running, rock climbing, and cycling are everyday activities around here, even at our mile high attitude. In addition to these more extreme sports, a huge percentage of the population also practices yoga. There’s a yoga studio on almost every corner, and I almost never leave the house without seeing someone carrying a yoga mat.
While I know that yoga is meant to be a gentle form of exercise that can also reduce stress, I must admit that I personally find it sort of intimidating – especially considering that I live with rheumatoid arthritis. Could my sore joints really get into that pretzel-like pose? Could I truly balance on one achy foot? Would my wrists actually be able to hold my body weight? And I’m guessing I’m not the only person with RA who has had these concerns!
That’s why I wanted to share what I learned from a recent conversation with Christa Fairbrother, who is the Program Director for an organization called Yoga for Arthritis. The organization was created by Dr. Steffany Moonaz, who spent eight years at Johns Hopkins University helping to develop and evaluate a yoga program specifically for individuals living with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. The organization now works to bring yoga to people with arthritis in communities around the country, as well as to educate yoga teachers and yoga therapists about the unique needs of people living with arthritis.
What exactly is yoga?
With origins in ancient India, the practice of yoga focuses on unifying the mind, body, and spirit, and fostering a greater feeling of connection between an individual and their surroundings. While yoga has spiritual roots, it can also be practiced for its physical health benefits. Over 75 scientific trials have been published about yoga in major medical journals, and these studies have shown that yoga is a safe and effective way to increase physical activity that also has important psychological benefits due to its meditative nature. Yoga can increase muscle strength, improve flexibility, and promote balance, as well as reducing stress and anxiety.
Can people with RA practice yoga?
We all know that exercising with RA can sometimes be easier said than done, but we’ve also been told that physical activity is an essential part of effective treatment. Exercise can help people with RA maintain muscle strength, promote joint health, and increase energy and endurance – which, in turn, can help reduce pain and fatigue. There are also psychological benefits to exercise that have a positive impact on overall health.
While there have only been a handful of scientific studies conducted on the benefits of yoga specifically for RA, early studies have shown promising results with some improvement in joint health, physical functioning, and mental/emotional well-being. This means, when combined with a program of good medical care, yoga may provide important physical and psychological health benefits for patients living with RA. Ms. Fairbrother herself lives with mixed connective tissue disease, which shares overlapping symptoms with RA. She believes her lifelong yoga practice has really contributed to her overall health. “I attribute 90% of my lack of pain to yoga,” Ms. Fairbrother told me, “so I really love helping people with arthritis find better tools.”
If I want to try yoga, how should I get started?
While yoga can be a safe and effective form of physical activity for people with RA, before getting started it is important to talk with your doctor and find out if there are any limitations or restrictions you should observe. If your doctor has specific instructions, it may help to have your doctor write them down so you can easily share the information with your yoga instructor.
If you’ve never done yoga before, it’s probably best to start with a beginner’s class led by a qualified instructor who can help you make adjustments to the poses to accommodate your RA. If possible, it would be helpful to find a yoga instructor who has experience with clients who have arthritis. Yoga for Arthritis actually maintains a geographic list of yoga instructors who have attended intensive trainings specifically about yoga and arthritis.
If there isn’t a certified yoga for arthritis instructor in your area, try to find an instructor who is at least familiar with what RA is and how it might affect your body. It may also help to arrive to your first class a few minutes early to give yourself time to talk to your instructor about RA and any limitations your doctor may have given you. Or, if you can’t find a good class in your area (or you can’t afford one), Yoga for Arthritis also offers an arthritis-friendly yoga DVD created in partnership with the Arthritis Foundation.
So if – like me – you’ve felt reluctant to give yoga a try, maybe it’s time to reconsider!