Arthritis means joint inflammation. While people of any age, even babies, can have or develop arthritis, its prevalence increases with age. It used to be that medical professionals told people with arthritis to rest and save their joints. Over time that advice has changed. Joints that are unused, tend to stiffen. Unused muscles become atrophied.
Osteoarthritis is often called ‘wear and tear’ arthritis, and is generally related to aging. It tends to occur in larger joints such as the hip, knee or shoulder. Cartilage wears away, exposing bones, which then rub on one another and this can permanently damage the joint. Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto immune disease, affecting multiple joints on both sides of the body. Usually the affected joints are smaller joints, such as the fingers, wrists, feet, and toes.
Whether you have Osteoarthritis or Rheumatoid arthritis, yoga provides a gentle strengthening and flexibility regimen that can not only ease pain but also depression, fatigue, and stress, as well as support one’s attention regulation, memory, and relaxation. (Carson, Krocoff, p. 36).
Yoga is a moving meditation: it combines the physical activity of the asana practice, with breath work and mindfulness. The poses build strength and flexibility. Breathing as you move into and out of poses very simply fuels joints and muscles with oxygen on the inhale, and releases toxins on the exhale. The mindfulness—developed by focusing on the breath—helps the individual with arthritis to stay present, to focus on the here and now, and to learn more about her/his own body and how movement affects that body. Staying present is what eases depression, rather than allowing your thoughts to be pulled into the past or the future.
As with any physical activity, it is important to know your limitations and have medical consent. Finding a yoga instructor with knowledge of arthritis and how to modify a yoga program would be beneficial. The wonderful thing about yoga is that it can be modified to fit the personal needs of most individuals.
If you have either Osteo- or Rheumatoid Arthritis, consider the following points when building your practice:
- Ease into the activity of yoga: start slow and see how it feels. Starting with breath work and gentle stretching helps to familiarize the body with movement.
- Always warm up your joints at the beginning of your practice. If a joint is red and swollen—a sign of active inflammation—exercising could lead to further damage.
- Modify poses as required. You can turn poses upside down to reduce stress on joints. For example, if child’s pose places too much pressure on the knees, lie on your back, using the same leg posture and support the thighs with your arms. Downward Dog can be done pressing your hands into a wall, thereby easing pressure on wrists. You can also use props such as chairs, blankets, blocks, and straps to ease stress on joints and make a pose accessible.
- Focus on strengthening the muscles that support your affected joints—tune up those shock absorbers!
- Relaxation supports ease. Finding the quietness and relaxation of Savasana at the end of your practice will help to integrate the completion of your physical activity with your mindful breathing, bringing ease to your body and your mind.
Reference: Carson, Kimberly & Krucoff, Carol. 2007. Relax into Yoga. New Harbinger Publications. Oakland, California.