Arthritis can leave a person in near-constant discomfort, not to mention despair. If your joints feel stiff, especially in the morning or after sitting around, you know what I mean. But herein lies the surprise remedy: move your bod, and your joints will feel better—plus you'll keep future arthritis at bay. Yoga is one tool that helps.
There are dozens of types of arthritis. The most common is osteoarthritis, which is mainly when the protective cartilage at joints wears down. That's the kind we'll talk about here. Injury, overuse of a joint, excessive stress on a joint, bone misalignment, poor biomechanics and runaway inflammation can cause osteoarthritis or make it worse. Genetics play a role too.
Joints, as you'd guess, exist where bones meet (we're talking about synovial joints in particular; there are other types of joints). They have several components, including cartilage, which is slippery and essentially “pads” the end of bones, and synovial fluid, which lubricates joints and helps them glide along each other. Synovial fluid also gets nutrients to your joints, which don't have their own direct blood supply. So if you don't move your joints, they don't get the noms noms they need—plus moving your joints stimulates production of synovial fluid.
Strength training, aerobic exercise and flexibility training are excellent for your joints. Yoga offers all three, though likely through different styles. Cross-training is best for your joints so that you stress them in varied ways and don't overload them. So yoga can help—but adding hiking and resistance exercises with stretch bands, for example, is even better. It's not all about exercise though: Diet—particularly eating foods that fight chronic inflammation—can help combat arthritis. Following are four keys for practicing yoga with arthritis
1. Know yourself
The extent and type of exercise you do (yoga and otherwise) depend on the severity and location of your arthritis, along with your overall health. That means all styles of yoga and all yoga poses are not good for arthritis across the board. For example, if you have moderate or severe arthritis in one or both knees, holding a common pose like Chair (Utkatasana) might cause more damage. That said, if you have mild arthritis in one or both knees, moving in and out of a gentler Chair (knees and hips flexed less) could help strengthen the muscles that support the knee's joints—a good idea.
2. Back off when it hurts
Exercise should not hurt joints or create a grinding sensation. Dial down what you're doing if you feel pain, and back out completely if your modification still hurts. Constructive exercise also should not lead to red, hot or swollen joints, signs of inflammation. You might notice these red flags as you exercise or the next day. Don't exercise when your joints are inflamed.
3. Be dynamic
Movement, which leads to dynamic joint compression, is better than being totally still, which leads to static joint compression, especially in weight-bearing yoga poses. This is because constantly holding a position creates a lot of pressure, which is especially bad for compromised joints. In contrast, when you move in and out of poses, your protective cartilage can absorb force more easily. You're also letting that nourishing synovial fluid move around.
4. Don't make things worse
Keep in mind that if you habitually do a yoga pose (or any movement or exercise) with incorrect biomechanics or if your bones are not aligned in a way that properly bears the pressure put on them you can create arthritis. Pay attention to how you feel in each pose and don't push things to the max.
As you can see, there's no one-size-fits-all yoga practice for arthritis. But gently taking joints through their ranges of motion is generally beneficial. Try the following flow!
Joint focus: neck, shoulders, wrists, fingers, spine, hips
Stand comfortably with a slight bend in your knees. Inhale as you lift your arms laterally then overhead. Wiggle your fingers. Exhale as you twist your torso to the right, releasing your arms to your thighs and looking over your right shoulder. Roll your wrists. Inhale as you twist your torso back to center and lift your arms overhead. Flick your fingers. Exhale as you twist your torso to the left, releasing your arms to your thighs and looking over your left shoulder. Flex then extend your wrists. Repeat several times.
Joint focus: neck, spine, knees
Release your hands to your front thighs and bend your knees more. Inhale as you reach your tailbone back and lift your head, arching your back and drawing your shoulders back and down. Exhale as you curl your tailbone under and bring your chin to your chest, rounding your back and taking some bend out of your knees. Repeat several times.
Reclined Hip Opener
Joint focus: hips, knees, ankles, toes
Lie down with your knees bent and the soles of your feet flat. Inhale as you straighten your right leg and lift it. Reach through your toes and spread them apart. Exhale as you grab behind your thigh with both hands, bending your knee and drawing it toward your chest. Press through your heel, flexing your ankle. Repeat several times, and then on an exhale cross your right thigh over the left thigh. Roll your right ankle several times then relax it. Rock your crossed legs from side to side several times. Coordinate these movements with your breath. Follow the sequence, leading with your left leg.
Journalist Mitra Malek, a former Yoga Journal editor, has taught yoga regularly since 2006, including to students with osteoarthritis—which she herself has in several fingers. Learn more at mitramalek.com.