In the 18 years since I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis/rheumatoid disease (RA/RD), I have tried numerous medications, over-the-counter aids, alternative therapies, diets, supplements, and exercises in an effort to decrease my symptoms. Some were initially helpful but lost efficacy over time, some made no difference at all or had too little impact to be worth the time/expense, and some actually made me feel worse. One of the few interventions I’ve tried that continually proves helpful and well worth the time and expense is yoga.
Various kinds of yoga for everyone
While the word “yoga” may conjure the image of a svelte person bending in a seemingly impossible position, yoga can be practiced at a wide range of ability levels. I have been in advanced classes where I glanced over and marveled at the optional poses some of my classmates were capable of performing. I have also been in very gentle classes where the focus was on breathwork, gentle stretches, and relaxation exercises. I’ve attended prenatal yoga classes where poses were adapted for our giant bellies. I even attended a seated yoga class for seniors with my grandmother, who at the age of 92 was able to follow along with the instructor.
Therefore, there truly is a class (or video) for everyone, and it’s important for someone with RA/RD to speak to the instructor about one’s physical ability and limitations before beginning a class to ensure it will be a good fit.
While yoga has benefits to offer those without chronic health issues, there are some specific ways yoga can help people living with RA/RD.
Over the two decades, I’ve lived with persistent RA/RD symptoms, I’ve been surprised to realize how profound an impact stress has on my disease activity level. The more stressed I am, the more pain, fatigue, and inflammation I experience. While our choices impact how much stress we regularly experience, it’s impossible to eliminate it altogether. Having a healthy way to relieve stress goes a long way in mitigating its negative consequences.
Every yoga class I’ve ever attended, even the intense, advanced ones, have incorporated breath work and whole body relaxation. There’s a reason people commonly say, “Take a deep breath” to someone who is upset; breathing deeply truly does help increase oxygen levels and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us calm down. When I engage in breathwork and deep relaxation exercises, I have a happy, peaceful, floating feeling.
Unlike some of the poses, the breath work and relaxation techniques used in yoga practice are easy to practice at home in the absence of an instructor.
One need not be able to do a backbend or sit cross-legged with their legs flush against the floor to receive the benefits of improved flexibility. When muscles are tight, they tug on joints and can increase pain. Yoga involves stretching and relaxation exercises that help one release muscle tension. My favorite yoga instructor says “it’s safe to let go” when we are deepening a stretch. When we allow our muscles to relax, they “let go” of their tight hold on our inflamed joints as well.
Just as having tight muscles tugging on joints can increase pain, muscle weakness can leave joints without support and increase strain and potential injury. Yoga improves muscle tone and strength, which in turn protects and supports our joints.
It’s amazing how off our posture can be without even realizing it. RA/RD can make our posture even worse by limping or compensating for painful joints. Yoga includes a continual focus on posture, which increases awareness of how one carries their body. Good posture supports our joints by not putting undue strain on any particular part of the body. With proper alignment, the body is balanced and all parts work together.
Yoga is exercise, and it can foster weight loss. Maintaining a healthy weight obviously has a number of health benefits for everyone, but for people with RA/RD it also lightens the load on painful, swollen joints.
For all these reasons, I’ve practiced yoga for nearly as long as I’ve been diagnosed with RA/RD, which is approaching two decades. Sometimes I practice yoga faithfully, and sometimes I neglect it for weeks, but I always come back to it for all the mental, emotional, and physical benefits it has to offer.