Rheumatic diseases are notorious for causing pain. It seems there is a vicious cycle where pain limits the ability to exercise, which can cause other issues like poor posture, and then it circles back to more pain. Patients also deal with pain caused by the long-term consequence of wear-and-tear arthritis. Fortunately, there are some things that we can do to prevent and treat pain caused by arthritis, and practicing yoga is one way to do that.

Benefits of Yoga

The benefits of yoga in treating arthritis and related conditions have been studied for years and proven beneficial. One of the first notable changes with yoga is an increase in flexibility and balance. This increased flexibility may improve body aches and joint pains by decreasing the tension in your joints, muscles, and tissues, and increases in core strength help improve your posture to break the cycle of pain mentioned earlier.

In addition to the physical benefits, yoga reduces stress and anxiety when you incorporate breathing exercises and meditation. There is an increase in body awareness that helps you focus on mental clarity and calmness. While practicing yoga may not rid you entirely of pain, the resulting improvements in mood may help you cope in a better way.

Is Yoga Right for Me?

Almost anyone can practice yoga. In fact, because of the enjoyable nature of yoga, people with arthritis are more likely to stick to a yoga routine than to a traditional exercise routine. Before starting yoga, speak with your rheumatologist and/or primary care provider to discuss the exercise and whether it is right for you. If you have had a joint replacement, please also speak with your orthopedic surgeon to clarify limitations and what exercises are not recommended after joint replacements.

When starting a yoga regimen, consider initial practice under direct supervision of a qualified instructor who is aware of your potential limitations and can provide appropriate suggestions to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. Remember, this does not need to be an intense process. There may be joint deformities or pains that limit your ability to do some of the exercises, but the beauty of yoga is that it is adaptable. The key is to do what you are able to do, and improvise when a pose doesn’t seem possible. Using props to help get into poses (as is done in Iyengar yoga, which is recommended for people with arthritis) and modifying poses to suit your needs will make it a more positive experience. A qualified instructor should understand your limitations.

The different styles of yoga recommended for those with rheumatic diseases include meditation, anatomically-based yoga (Anusara) with intensive training to focus on specific locations of pain, chair or gentle yoga focusing on slower gentle poses, and breathing exercises.

Another style of yoga that is helpful is restorative yoga. This style includes resting poses that use props to allow for muscle release and relaxation. It may be beneficial during flares or periods where fatigue limits the ability to do any stretching exercises. Using a chair, pillow, or block can help with finding a comfortable position that allows you to feel the stretch.

What to Avoid in Yoga

Generally speaking, yoga has some great benefits. However, there are certain types of yoga that I recommend avoiding when you have a rheumatic disease. Yoga that involves high heat for prolonged periods of time may worsen fatigue. Also avoid yoga that is intensive and fast-paced or requires poses that need to be held for long periods of time. Be cognizant of how you feel and avoid what doesn’t suit you.  Remember, this is meant to be an enjoyable and beneficial experience, not a chore that causes pain.

Finally, yoga is meant to be fun. It is a popular option for physical activity, and with growing evidence showing the safety and benefits of yoga in rheumatic diseases like arthritis, why not try it? While practicing yoga will not cure you, it can greatly reduce your stress and frustration and improve your physical symptoms, flexibility, mobility, and overall well being. The first step is to commit to healthy lifestyle change.

With time, the practice of yoga can safely be integrated as a daily part of your healthy and active lifestyle.

By Vaneet Sandhu, MD