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How Does Yoga Help Arthritis?

Updated on May 24, 2016

Yoga Eases the Pain of Arthritis Sufferers

Yoga can relieve arthritis pain by creating more mobility in the joints and increasing flexibility while stretching and strengthening the muscles around the joints. It may also help to prevent or minimize the erosion of cartilage that causes joint pain and swelling in arthritis.

I have a number of yoga students with varying degrees of arthritis, and they've all experienced that their joints are more mobile and hurt less when they regularly attend my classes. They also feel better overall.

If you're interested in practicing yoga as a way to ease your own arthritis symptoms, a good teacher can help you modify poses as necessary, to bring your body into better alignment and with more ease. If you can't find a teacher, I've listed some good DVDs and books later on this page to safely get you started.

Warrior Pose can help arthritis
Warrior Pose can help arthritis | Source

How Yoga Helps Relieve Arthritis Symptoms

Relieve Pain While Increasing Range of Motion

It used to be that doctors advised people with arthritis not to exercise, thinking "If it hurts, don't move it". Now people are finding that inactivity makes it worse. With sedentary people, even more degeneration and pain of the joints occur. To keep joints and muscles healthy and strong, they must be used. When they're not used, they become weaker and more unstable with more likely-hood of injury and more pain and debilitation. Regular gentle movement helps to maintain mobility and it reduces pain, as well as promoting the health of other systems of the body. With regular exercise there's increased blood circulation which helps to reduce swelling and pain, and it improves the functioning of the immune system.

Recently (May 2013), rehabilitative medicine specialist Dr. Loren Fishman referred to a mega-study about gentle exercise and arthritis in one of his Advice on Practicing Yoga in Middle Age Q & A articles. The study shows that gentle exercising, such as in some yoga classes, helps to release an anti-inflammatory protein that reduces the inflammation of osteoarthritis. He says that the "side-effects" of this also include decreasing the probability of Alzheimers, some cancers, and type 2 diabetes.

The practice of yoga is an excellent way to help people develop more mobility and range of motion in their joints along with developing stronger and more pliant muscles. This helps to keep the joints in good alignment, reducing the likely-hood of greater injury and pain. Poses can be adapted for almost anyone. Not all yoga classes will be appropriate for arthritis sufferers -- do some research to find a class that is suitable for you!

Do you have arthritis? Have you tried yoga to ease your arthritis?

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I Recommend This DVD

Easy Yoga For Arthritis by Peggy Cappy

Peggy Cappy's Yoga for the Rest of Us programs on PBS have been very popular for "regular" people who want to start a safe, gentle yoga program. A few of my Gentle Yoga students have used this DVD and have been happy that they can easily follow along.

Her Easy Yoga for Arthritis DVD has received very good ratings overall from users.

Yoga for the Rest of Us: Easy Yoga for Arthritis
Yoga for the Rest of Us: Easy Yoga for Arthritis
From the product description: Everyone can do this gentle program. In this video Peggy shows how yoga can relieve stiffness, reduce pain and fatigue, and improve muscle and bone strength.

A Very Brief Example of Peggy Cappy's DVD


Arthritis and Its Causes

The word "arthritis" means "joint inflammation" -- the Greek "arthron" means "joint", and the Latin "itis" means "inflammation.

Arthritis is a term that covers many different medical conditions that affect the joints, and is the main cause of disability in older people.

With arthritis, something goes wrong with the joint, depending on the form of this ailment -- it could be that the cartilage is wearing away, a lack of synovial fluid, or it may be an autoimmune disorder, or a combination of factors. Joint injuries may also eventually lead to arthritis.

The most common forms are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis happens as the cartilage, which acts as a shock absorber, wears away in some areas. Tendons and ligaments then become stretched, causing pain. Eventually the bones may rub against each other causing even more pain. It's more prevalent in people who are overweight, or in extreme overuse of the joint. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder -- the synovial membrane is attacked, which results in swelling and pain. This kind of arthritis can lead to deformity.

In any of the different types of arthritis, joints may be stiff, painful, and swollen; reducing mobility and range of motion. There's no cure for arthritis, but there are ways to minimize its effects.

Wikimedia diagram of generalized joint, Creative Commons license by madhero88 with a couple added labels.

Sit cross-legged for hip and knee flexibility
Sit cross-legged for hip and knee flexibility | Source

Poses That Help

All yoga poses help to keep the body stronger and more supple; increasing range of motion in the joints, while keeping the surrounding muscles strong and supportive if they are practiced correctly. That doesn't mean that all poses will be helpful for you right away -- if you're new to yoga, especially if you're in pain from arthritic joints, you need to start slowly and gently. The regular practice of yoga can bring relief from arthritis pain if the poses are done mindfully with good body alignment. Beginning Yoga classes and Gentle Yoga classes will teach you simpler poses first, to gradually and safely build up your strength, balance, and flexibility -- all of these elements are beneficial for people with arthritis.

Standing poses are very good for helping to alleviate arthritic pain in all joints, while developing the muscles around these joints to provide more stability. They're especially helpful for increasing strength and flexibility in the hips and knees. Standing poses help to strengthen the buttocks, quadriceps and calves without wear and tear on the hips and knees as long as care is taken to keep proper alignment in the poses . Weak muscles can lead to unstable knees and hips, leading to more injury and pain. Synovial fluid in the joints is distributed more effectively when the joints are taken through their range of motion.

Iyengar Yoga teacher and author, Suza Francina advises her students to sit on the floor every day in various cross-legged positions, to create more mobility in the hips and the knees. If you avoid this because of discomfort, you will lose mobility. As the saying goes, "Use it or lose it!" If these poses are very painful or difficult for you, get help from a good teacher, or you might find suggestions in books or videos. Sitting up on a folded blanket or two, with extra support under the knees often helps.

All of the poses pictured on this article are helpful for people with arthritis; however you may need to modify them or do them with support. The standing poses can be done against a wall or holding onto a chair or counter-top for extra support. A good yoga teacher can help you decide the best way to practice various poses for the best benefits to your own body.

Photo from iStockPhoto

Yoga for arthritis - tree pose
Yoga for arthritis - tree pose

Find a Good Yoga Teacher

A good yoga teacher can guide you in learning poses to alleviate your arthritis symptoms.

You'll need to do some research to find a teacher who suits your needs. You might ask your doctors if they know of qualified yoga teachers to help you. You can find lists of well-trained yoga teachers through the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the U.S. or through Yoga Alliance. A good, well-trained yoga teacher does not have to be a specialist in yoga for arthritis, but will still be able to help you learn to modify classic yoga postures to suit your own special needs.

You might consider taking a couple of private lessons first, so that the teacher can work more closely with you and your particular needs. That way when you start a regular class (Gentle or Beginning Yoga), you'll already have a sense of how much you can do, and what kinds of modifications you need to stay comfortable and safe within the yoga poses.

A good article put out by Johns Hopkins includes good questions to ask when looking for a yoga teacher. (Check out the rest of the article too for more useful information!)

Photo from iStockPhoto

Downward facing dog
Downward facing dog | Source

Getting the Most Out of Your Yoga Class or Practice

Work Intelligently to Help Your Arthritis

Listen to your body as you practice to determine which poses, stretches, and movements are most helpful, and which feel like they might be injurious.

If a pose doesn't feel right, don't push through it, but work gently, and get help from your teacher.

Learn to know the difference between "good pain" and "bad pain". There's a difference between the discomfort of stretching muscles and moving stiff joints through their range of motion, and the pain of actions gone wrong -- of movements that can cause injury. Sudden or severe pain is a warning to stop!

Avoid doing the poses and actions mechanically, but observe the response of your body and breath to the poses. Don't hold your breath. A smooth, relaxed, easy breath helps to reduce pain and promotes relaxation.

Don't overwork, but balance your active yoga practice with restorative (restful, supportive, nurturing) poses. You benefit from the active poses only if you're well-rested.

Learn to use yoga props to support your body in more difficult poses, or for longer held poses. When the body is supported, its easier to stretch the muscles and safely move the joints through their range of motion, easier to bring the body into better alignment, and it conserves energy.

I Recommend This Book

Yoga for Arthritis: The Complete Guide by Loren Fishman and Ellen Saltonstall

Yoga teacher and author Suza Francina calls this book "The best book on yoga for effectively treating arthritis!" This book gives a comprehensive overview on arthritis and how yoga can be used to alleviate symptoms. It's thoroughly illustrated, with chapters focusing on each major joint. Poses are given for beginners and for more experienced practitioners, with instructions and guidelines for modifying poses as needed.

The product description says this book is a comprehensive, user-friendly medical yoga program designed for management and prevention of arthritis

"In this comprehensive and thoroughly illustrated guide, Loren Fishman and Ellen Saltonstall help readers understand arthritis and give a spectrum of exercises for beginners and experts. Broken down into chapters focusing on each major joint, there are 100 classical yoga poses and numerous imaginative and physiologically sound adapted poses, all with step-by-step instructions and easy-to-follow photo demonstrations. The authors welcome readers into the philosophy and principles of yoga and show how to use yoga to find lasting relief from arthritis. 400+ illustrations."

Another Good Book to Consider - The New Yoga For Healthy Aging by Suza Francina

Iyengar Yoga teacher, Suza Francina, is my favorite author for books on Yoga and Aging.

This guide is written with baby-boomers in mind, and it includes good photos and clear instructions for poses, including the use of props and modified poses. Readers are taken step-by-step through a number of poses that can prevent or lessen many age-related ailments, including arthritis.


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