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Yoga for Arthritis

What is Arthritis?

Arthritis is the swelling and tenderness of joints, and can occur in different parts of the body.  Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling are common signs of the development of arthritis. Arthritis is an overarching term used to categorize many diseases linked with inflammation of the joints. Typically, arthritis develops and worsens with age. The best way to treat it is to manage symptoms and improve quality of life. The knee joint is the most common place this can develop. However, it could occur in other joints as well. 

How does Arthritis start 

Lifestyle and stress are the main causes of this condition. Standing for long hours adds pressure on the knees, and other joints. Excess strain on the joints is where it begins. It could start as joint pain that you categorize as random or a cracking sound that you assume is just because of some stiffness. But prolonged signs of this, over a period of years, will lead to arthritis. It could also be your immune system working against you that causes the condition to start. It starts to affect walking, standing and even sitting positions. It might also start with a little bit of pain but lead to redness and swelling. 

Some amount of careful, slow, controlled movement is extremely important even in our day-to-day lives. This helps manage symptoms like pain, lack of flexibility and mobility, and improves blood circulation. Regular Yoga asanas with breath coordination can be an important practice to manage arthritis, at least early arthritis. An experienced yoga teacher will be able to take you through the right asanas and approach to the asanas that will help improve the condition. Yoga for seniors with arthritis is also extremely beneficial. Even slow movements can help manage the condition and pain. 

Types of Arthritis 

The most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis causes cartilage (a hard slippery tissue that covers the ends of bones where they form a joint) to break down. Rheumatoid arthritis is a type where the immune system attacks the joints, beginning with the lining of joints.

Other types of arthritis include: 

  1. Ankylosing spondylitis
  2. Gout
  3. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis
  4. Psoriatic arthritis
  5. Reactive arthritis
  6. Septic arthritis
  7. Thumb arthritis

Symptoms 

All signs and symptoms involve the joints. Common symptoms include pain, swelling, redness, stiffness and a decreased range of motion. One might notice the joints have begun to lose their usual level of flexibility. Sometimes, if it’s the knees that are experiencing swelling, balance might start getting affected. When any of these symptoms appear for a prolonged period of time, it is best to get it checked out. 

Causes 

The two main types of arthritis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, can damage the joints in different ways.

Osteoarthritis 

Osteoarthritis involves wear-and-tear. Damage to a joint's cartilage, which provides a cushioning to the ends of the bones and allows nearly frictionless joint motion, can cause arthritis. When excess damage occurs, it can result in bone grinding directly on the bone. This causes immense pain and restricts movement. This type of wear-and-tear can occur over many years, or it can be hastened by an injury. 

Osteoarthritis also causes changes in the bones and deterioration of the connective tissues that attach muscle to bone and hold the joint together. If cartilage in a joint is severely damaged, the joint lining may become inflamed and swollen. 

Rheumatoid arthritis  

In this type the body's immune system attacks the lining of the joint capsule, a tough membrane that encloses all the joint parts. This lining, called synovial membrane, becomes inflamed and swollen. Over a period of time, it can destroy cartilage and bone within the joint.

How Does Yoga Help Manage Arthritis?

You might often ask, is yoga good for arthritis? If you’re experiencing pain, how can you make certain movements or do asanas? People with arthritis often struggle to do any form of regular exercise due to excess pain or swelling of joints. Even everyday activities like walking a short distance, standing for some time to cook, for example, can get impacted. Specific sequences and classes can be planned for yoga for rheumatoid arthritis, yoga for osteoarthritis and yoga for joint pain by an experienced teacher. 

Yoga is one of the best alternatives where one can not only reduce joint pain, improve joint flexibility, mobility and balance, but also lower stress, tension and irritation that often comes with chronic pain. It also helps one sleep better, another issue that often arises with chronic pain.  

Sharon Kolansinski, MD, a professor of clinical medicine and a rheumatologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said yoga can also help a person with arthritis build muscle strength and improve balance. Yoga also helps you build immunity, another factor that plays a role in arthritis. Practices like breathwork or Pranayama are most beneficial in building immunity. 

Studies conducted at the John Hopkins Arthritis Center have shown yoga may help sedentary individuals with arthritis safely increase physical activity, and improve physical and psychological health. A study conducted on yoga for rheumatic diseases found regular yoga practice can increase muscle strength and endurance, proprioception, and balance, with emphasis on movement through a full range of motion to increase flexibility and mobility. 

Thus, yoga, when practiced regularly and under the guidance of an experienced teacher can provide immense relief to those suffering with arthritis, and also play an integral role in preventing the disease from developing or worsening. Let’s look at some of the main practices useful for arthritis. 

Yoga Poses for Arthritis 

While movement might be difficult or painful, practicing asanas in a slow, controlled manner will be useful for arthritis. These yogic movements will help increase the blood circulation in the joints and limbs, improve mobility and flexibility, and strengthen the muscles. Loren Fishman, a physician at Columbia University specializing in rehabilitation medicine and the co-author of the book ‘Yoga for Arthritis’, says, “Yoga’s extreme range of motion sends fluid into the obscure corners and crevices of each joint.”

Maintaining asanas for long is not always advisable. It is best for a practitioner to maintain an asana only for as long as is comfortable. This varies based on the extent of pain, swelling, mobility and function of the joints. A teacher will be able to guide best on how long one should hold the posture. It’s also important to strengthen the muscles around the joint. For example, if you have arthritis in the knee, strengthening the hip flexors and calf muscles is important as there is a tendency to put less weight on the knee and more on the hip or ankle. Balancing asanas are also extremely beneficial as they provide stability. 

Some of the recommended asanas include strengthening poses like the warrior series - Virabhadrasana-1,  Virabhadrasana-2, Extended side angle pose (Parsvakonasana) and Triangle pose (Trikonasana). Balancing postures which improve stability include the Tree Pose (Vrikshasana), and Nataraja Asana (Dancers pose). Other helpful poses which strengthen the arms, legs and back are cat-cow stretch (Marjari asana), cobra pose (Bhujangasana) and bridge pose (Setu Bandhasana). If the pain is intense, then simple movements that involve the joints are recommended. Movements such as ankle and knee rotations, hip rotations, and arm and shoulder movements are useful. Restorative poses like corpse pose (Savasana), crocodile pose (Makarasana) and child’s pose (Balasana) relax the mind and body, repair tissues and cells, and relieve stress. Savasana is also a great way to reduce the element of Vata (an Ayurvedic composition in our bodies), the air element. Vata is known to aggravate joint pain and create imbalances in the body if it is in excess.

Extended side angle pose or Parsvakonasana
Tree Pose or Vrikshasana

Using Props for Support 

Arthritis is one of those conditions where props are recommended. Very often if one is already suffering from pain or instability, the usage of props is helpful. Keeping a chair close by so you can hold onto it while practicing strengthening and balancing poses helps. Resting your leg, head, back or arms on a cushion during poses like Savasana and Balasana will provide a deeper sense of relaxation. Sometimes, keeping props close by will also give the practitioner confidence that there is support near them if they need it, especially if the practice is via an online class. 

Breathing Exercises for Arthritis 

Simple Pranayama which relaxes the mind and body, relieves stress and balances the system is recommended. Deep breathing, alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shodhana), humming bee breathing (Brahmari), ocean breathing (Ujjayi) are all very effective for Arthritis patients. Pranayama improves breathing patterns, blood circulation and lung efficiency. The practice is useful in lowering cortisol levels, and promotes slow, mindful breathing. The awareness that is built is useful in managing how our mind reacts to pain. We are more aware of when the pain is stressing us out, often unnecessarily, and if we are holding unwanted tension anywhere in the body.

 

Meditation and Yoga Nidra for Arthritis 

Similarly, meditation helps us improve mindfulness. It has a deep effect on the mind and body, reduces cortisol levels and quientens the mind. It promotes focus, balance and calmness, helping us stay relaxed and sleep better. Yoga Nidra, the process of guided relaxation works on the subconscious mind, and is thus, one of the most important practices for someone dealing with chronic pain. Through this practice, our mind learns to let go, shift focus from the pain area to a better health, and makes us stronger. The practice serves as an impactful relaxation and helps calm the nervous system, muscles, and subsequently, the mind and body. Practicing under the guidance of a teacher is even more beneficial. 

Ayurveda deep tissue massages 

The ancient science of Ayurveda brings a multitude of remedies for arthritis. Here, we’re highlighting the impact of deep tissue massages which are done with medicated oils and are very effective. It involves the application of heat (moderate and bearable with heat bags or hot packs). Massages make the joint movements easier and act as a lubricant for the joints. This lubrication of joints improves the inflamed area, and the degenerative nature of arthritis can be curbed over a period of time. 

Ayurveda perspective on diet and lifestyle 

Ayurveda also provides us with insights into improving our diet and lifestyle, two main causes of several disorders and diseases. Today, we’ve moved away from what’s natural and nature itself, into fact-paced stressful lives that are impacting health in several ways. Correcting our lifestyle, and following what suits us (based on our prominent dosha or body composition) goes a long way towards helping us manage arthritis. There is also understanding that Vata, the air element, when constantly in excess, induces joint pain. Thus, following a diet that maintains a balance in the body, and strengthens the digestive system is key. 

Concluding thoughts 

Slow down, take a breath and give yourself a break. When in pain, don’t ignore it. Take the time to practice self-care. Even 2-3 hours of yoga in a week will go a long way in helping you manage symptoms or prevent anything from developing. Yoga is a natural method but requires regular practice. Its effect on your physical, emotional and mental well-being is so immense that you won’t need any other interventions after some time. If it’s difficult initially, our teachers are there to help you. Adapt variations, go slow, take your time and gradually you’ll begin to see the difference in your joints. 

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Yoga for Arthritis
Shvasa Editorial Team

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