Arthritis is common but not well understood. It is not a single disease but a way of referring to joint pain or joint disease. There are more than 100 different versions of arthritis and related conditions. People of all ages suffer from this malady, and it is the leading cause of disability in America. According to the Arthritis Foundation, more than 50 million adults and 300,000 children have some type of arthritis. It is most common among women and occurs more frequently as people get older.
Common symptoms include joint swelling, pain, stiffness and decreased range of motion. Symptoms may come and go or stay the same for years. They can be mild, moderate or severe but may progress or get worse over time. Severe arthritis can result in chronic pain and an inability to do daily activities. It can cause permanent joint changes which may be visible, such as knobby finger joints, but often the damage can only be seen on an X-ray. Some types of arthritis also affect the heart, eyes, lungs, kidneys and skin as well as the joints.
Yoga is a set of practices with origins in ancient India. The word yoga comes from a Sanskrit work meaning “to yoke” or “to unite.” It focuses on unifying the mind, body, and spirit, and fostering a greater feeling connection between the individual and his/her surroundings. Its main goal is helping individuals realize balance. Beyond this, yoga has several secondary goals, such as improving physical health and enhancing mental well-being and emotional strength.
In addition, yoga is associated with increased mental energy as well as positive feelings (such as alertness and enthusiasm), fewer negative feelings (reduced excitability, anxiety, aggressiveness) and sleep issues. In summary, yoga is associated with a wide range of physical and psychological benefits that may be especially helpful for persons living with a chronic illness such as arthritis.
As with any physical activity, it is important to take proper precautions such as checking to see that a doctor hasn’t placed any limitations or restrictions on an arthritis patient. If a medical professional has specific concerns, get them in writing and give this information to the yoga instructor. A qualified yoga teacher generally starts a beginner with a gentle, therapeutic class. It is important that the class is led by an instructor who can guide one through safe and healthy poses.
Wear comfortable clothing that allows for full movement of the body. If it is too loose, the instructor will be less able to guide proper alignment but it should also not be restrictive. Clothing specially designed for yoga is available, but unnecessary. Yoga is traditionally practiced barefoot, though it may be possible to wear socks at the start of class, until the body warms up. Mats are used in modern yoga practice to provide cushioning and prevent slipping. Some studios supply mats for general use.
The general rule for arthritis patient is that if it hurts, stop. The old adage of “no pain, no gain” does not apply to yoga. When doing certain poses, arthritis patients should keep them relatively small and be aware not to hyper-extend the neck, keeping the head in line with the rest of the spine. For those with arthritis of the hip, be cautious when doing “hip openers” or poses with extreme external rotation of the hips.
Generally, there will be pain if one is going too far with a pose, but sometimes the effects are not felt until the next day. It is important to start slowly and expand the practice as the body dictates.