Yoga may be the last thing on the mind of someone suffering from painful joints and inflammation, but it may turn out to be a very beneficial therapy to ease arthritis symptoms.
Yoga is an ancient practice using a system of postures and breath controls, which aim to achieve the perfect union of body, mind and spirit. Yoga can be customized to help with a wide range of specific conditions, including chronic pain conditions such as arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and migraines. The practice of yoga can also benefit common problems like depression, insomnia, menstrual difficulties, stress and anxiety.
Devotees of yoga also attribute the practice to maintaining overall well-being and as contributing to longevity. “Fundamentally, it really is something that if dedicated to, can lengthen your years on this earth. It maintains a supple body, decreases the chances of the onset of dementia and stimulates the internal and external organs,” according to Maitee Rossoukhi, a certified Hatha yoga instructor and yoga enthusiast for over six years. “Yoga helps you to focus on the mind and body, and gives you an outlet that allows the body to become less tense.”
Arthritis patients often gain greater mobility of the joints, relief from pain and a reduction in inflammation by practicing yoga. Rossoukhi, who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at four years old, has not had a flare up of symptoms for 11 years, and attributes this to a healthy physical lifestyle that combines a good diet with yoga practice. She explains that arthritis patients suffer from a lack of moisture in the connective tissues, and yoga poses help to increase the fluid to the joints and muscles. “There is a yoga pose you can do for any kind of pain and the idea is that by bringing attention to the painful area, you’re bringing movement and fluid to it also.”
Yoga poses can be tailored for different joints; for example, a common arthritic problem is swelling of the fingers and knuckle joints. In this case, if the condition is not too severe and the person suffers mild to moderate pain, a series of poses can be worked on that lengthen and spread the fingers. Hand stretches also create energy flow to the area that eventually moves to the fingers. “The heat is really good to the joints. Yoga creates a person’s own heat by breathing and moving,” said Rossoukhi.
People who suffer from arthritic hips may also find relief in particular yoga poses. “Depending on the severity of the pain, any pose that you can do that will relieve pain in the hips is designed to open the hips. These poses bring movement, fluid and mobility to the hip flexors. Now, this is a problem for everybody, not just arthritis sufferers, just because we walk on our feet. In arthritis, or if you’ve had a hip replacement, the hip flexors are usually locked up. What you’re trying to do in the posture is rotate and allow the hip flexors to expand and become lubricated, “ explained Roussoukhi.
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Rossoukhi acknowledges that people who are in pain are often skeptical about attempting yoga classes. She emphasizes that it is important to tell the yoga teacher about any condition or problems that you have, as yoga postures are very adaptable to different abilities. Additionally, depending on the extent of an injury or the severity of pain, there are many ways that you can use props to assist someone. Props such as blankets, pillows, belts or blocks allow the person to get the benefits of a pose without straining the body or the joints.
It is also important to educate yourself about the different styles of yoga that are widely available. “Someone who has chronic arthritis pain would not take an ashtanga class where you are moving the whole time and incorporating things that could be more stressful on a delicate body.”
Rossoukhi recommends a gentle yoga class specifically geared to people with chronic pain. She also reassures people who are still unsure whether yoga is for them that the only way to make their condition worse is “if you are not honest about the condition of your body. Let the instructor know what feels good and what doesn’t. It’s your responsibility to know your own physical limits.”
The benefits of yoga are more than anecdotal. Studies abound that directly attribute regular yoga practice to physical and mental benefits and symptomatic relief of arthritis. According to the authors of a 1994 study published in the British Journal of Rheumatology, 20 patients with rheumatoid arthritis, some with symptoms of considerable severity, participated in a yoga program. Left hand grip strength improved significantly and all patients who completed the course expressed the desire to continue after the study.
More recently, two small studies published in February this year in the journal Rheumatic Diseases Clinics of North America found that yoga helps with the pain associated with osteoarthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome. Another study at Stanford University showed that yoga was an effective complementary treatment for musculoskeletal diseases like osteoarthritis, and researchers in the Roosevelt University Stress Institute in Chicago found that yoga stretches reduced physical stress while increasing physical relaxation.
Relaxation may be the one of the most important benefits of yoga, says Rossoukhi.“It’s important because if you sit down and try to relax, often you think about the shopping, the kids and soccer practice. Yoga gives you an outlet, whether it’s five minutes or an hour, to just center yourself and as a result, your body becomes less tense, more open. When you stop paying attention to the things you think you should be doing it gives the body an opportunity to just relax.”
And this relaxation may hold the key to achieving better health and overcoming painful conditions such as arthritis. According to Howard Kent, director of the UK charity Yoga for Health Foundation, if stress can cause disease then “peace and calm can cause health.”