Yoga for Arthritis: Guidelines and Cautions
If you have arthritis, yoga could be just what the doctor ordered. Have a seat and learn how yoga can help relieve pain and improve your flexibility.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Photo by Jim Jacobs
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The positive effects yoga can have on mood and overall outlook are especially important to someone with arthritis. A yoga class offers positive support and the opportunity to connect with people who are health-minded and have experienced the benefits of yoga. Numerous studies emphasize the value of group support in coping with health challenges such as arthritis.
With arthritis, as with any injury or disease, listen to your body with focused attention to avoid injury and determine which movements are most healing. Take classes with a teacher who is knowledgeable about arthritis. If you are new to yoga, I recommend a few private lessons, if possible, or start in a small group class with individualized instruction, where you can practice at your own pace.
Guidelines for Practicing Yoga in Class and at Home
1. Respect pain. All yoga students, but especially those with arthritis, must learn the difference between the beneficial feeling of muscles stretching and the pain that signals harm. Learn to distinguish between the normal discomfort of moving stiff joints through range of motion, and the pain caused by a destructive movement or an excessive demand on a joint. Sudden or severe pain is a warning. Continuing an activity after such a warning may cause joint damage.
In general, if pain and discomfort persists more than two hours after a yoga session, ask a knowledgeable teacher to check your alignment and help you modify the pose. Try moving more slowly, practicing more regularly and experiment with how long to stay in a pose. There is no set answer to the perennial question "How long should I stay in the pose?" Stay long enough so that a healthy change has been made but not so long that your body stiffens from staying in a position too long.
2. Balance work and rest. Balancing activity and rest applies to yoga as well as to other daily activities. Do not exercise to the point of fatigue. Stop before you are exhausted! Weakened, fatigued muscles set the stage for joint instability and injury. Balance your active yoga session with yoga's deeply relaxing restorative poses. Restorative poses are passive poses that help your internal healing processes to work. If you are fatigued, practice restorative poses first. You will benefit more from active, more challenging poses, if you are well rested. Find examples of restorative poses here »
3. Practice with awareness and breathe properly. Avoid mechanical repetitions and counting while exercising. Watch the flow of your breath and your body's response to a particular pose or exercise. Without fully expanding your lungs, the muscles you are exercising cannot be adequately supplied with oxygen. Holding your breath while stretching inhibits relaxation. Smooth, peaceful, rhythmic breathing through the nose reduces pain and tension and increases the feeling of deep relaxation that follows a yoga session. Learn to tune into what your body is telling you.
4. Learn to use yoga props. People with arthritis may already be quite stiff by the time they start yoga. The use of props helps improve blood circulation and breathing capacity. By supporting the body in a yoga posture, props allow the muscles to lengthen in a passive, non-strenuous way. Props help conserve energy and allow people to practice more strenuous poses without hurting or over exerting themselves. Learn more about using yoga props »
See Healthy Aging Master Pose: Downward Facing Dog for one of the best yoga positions to ease stiffness in the wrists and hands.
Yoga for Arthritic Hips and Knees
The areas most commonly affected by arthritis are the hips, knees and hands. With decreased movement, the muscles and soft tissues around the hip shorten, putting additional wear and tear on the gliding surfaces. If a person becomes more sedentary in an effort to minimize pain, bones and cartilage receive less weight-bearing stimulation. Bone spurs may even develop to further limit movement.
Lack of exercise also weakens the thigh and calf muscles. Their strength provides stability and support for the knee. When the soft tissues of the joint swell, this causes compression and reduces space in the joint even further.
Standing poses are crucial for stretching and building supportive strength in the hips, buttocks and thighs. Moving the head of the femur in the hip socket helps distribute synovial fluid, thus lubricating the joint and all points of contact.
The same standing poses recommended for hips are also critical for knee rehabilitation. They create more space in the knee joint for synovial fluid circulation and develop the strength of the thigh and calf muscles for better support.
Sit on the Floor Every Day!
I encourage all my students, especially those with osteoarthritis of the knees, to sit on the floor every day, in various cross-legged and other bent knee positions, as part of their daily life routine. This helps assure that you do not lose the ability to sit comfortably on the floor. Sitting with the legs crossed loosely, as illustrated, is a simple, natural position that helps remove stiffness in the hips and knees. To help you sit comfortably on the floor with your back straight, sit on one or more folded blankets, a firm bolster, large dictionary or other height, as illustrated. Avoiding sitting on the floor will only make your hips and knees stiffer with the passage of time.
Hint: If there is pain in the knees, try increasing the height under the buttock so that your pelvis is higher than the knees, and place folded blankets or yoga blocks under the knees. A knowledgeable yoga teacher can help you adjust your props so that sitting on the floor becomes easy and comfortable. Increase the length of time you sit gradually, and be sure to cross your legs the opposite way (opposite leg in front).
Caution: Do not strain your knees by attempting to sit prematurely in more advanced, bent-knee positions such as the classic Lotus Pose. Forcing your body into any position can result in serious injury. STOP if you feel pain, and consult a knowledgeable teacher.
-Suza Francina, RYT, is a Certified Iyengar yoga instructor and has taught yoga since 1972. She is the author of The New Yoga for People Over 50 and The New Yoga for Healthy Aging. To learn more, visit her website, suzafrancina.com.
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