How to Do Yoga When You Have Arthritis

Arthritis is a general term that describes inflammation of the joints, which can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling. There are many kinds of arthritis but the two most common types are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

In osteoarthritis, the discomfort in the joints is due to deterioration from use over time; this type of arthritis is common in the elderly and those who perform repetitive tasks. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the body's own immune system attacks the membranes that line the joints. It can affect people of any age. Although the causes, severity, and treatments vary greatly, all types of arthritis are considered chronic so patients must find ways of living with their symptoms.

Woman doing a yoga pose with a chair

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The Benefits of Yoga for People With Arthritis

Most arthritic joints benefit from regular, low-impact exercise, which can decrease pain and improve mobility. Yoga is an ideal choice since in addition its physical benefits it emphasizes working with your body as it presents itself on any given day without judgment. Yoga also reduces stress, fosters mental calmness, and teaches students coping techniques, such as breathing exercises, which may help them manage pain and depression. A study published in The Journal of Rheumatology in April 2015 found that participants who did yoga over the course of eight weeks showed significant improvement in their pain levels, flexibility, and psychological health.

How to Start Doing Yoga When You Have Arthritis

The first thing you should do is meet with your healthcare provider to make sure that yoga is compatible with your condition since arthritis can affect joints in different ways. Dr. Steffany Moonaz, a trained yoga therapist and one of the authors of the above-mentioned study, advises beginners against trying to start a yoga practice on their own.

"If at all possible, seek out a private lesson with a yoga therapist who can offer an individualized program for your specific needs and limitations," Dr. Moonaz recommends. Moonaz's own organization, Yoga for Arthritis, is an excellent resource for finding specially trained teachers. If private classes are not an option, a gentle class for beginners is a good place to start. Call around to yoga studios in your area ahead of time, describe your arthritis, and ask for information about their teachers. There are so many different styles of yoga and types of teacher-training programs that yoga teachers' expertise varies greatly. You need to find a teacher who is knowledgeable enough to offer you modifications when necessary. Senior centers that offer yoga are another place to investigate since osteoarthritis is more common in the elderly.

Dr. Moonaz also suggests that prenatal yoga classes are another option since they are gentle, will be sensitive to joint problems, and offer individualized attention. If you plan to try a class for seniors or a prenatal class but are neither elderly nor pregnant, be sure to contact the teacher ahead of time to make sure he or she feels comfortable having you in class. Most teachers will be amenable when you explain your reasons for wanting to attend. If you have never done yoga before, review my advice on how to start doing yoga. Though you will need to be more selective in your choice of classes, there is information there about basic poses, equipment, and etiquette that will help you feel more comfortable as you begin.

What Kind of Yoga?

If you cannot find a teacher with arthritis experience, do not despair. The following styles of yoga emphasize rehabilitation and adaptation, and they train their teachers to work with a variety of physical limitations. When you get into the class, remember that yoga is all about listening to your own body. A good teacher will not expect you to do anything that doesn't feel right. Go slowly and give yourself permission to stop any pose or movement that causes pain.

  • Chair yoga makes yoga accessible to people who cannot stand for long periods or come down to the mat.
  • Water yoga is wonderful for people with joint pain. Check your local YMCA or community pool.
  • Viniyoga is intended to be adaptive, tailoring a practice that is appropriate to each individual's physical condition, even within a group practice setting.
  • Iyengar yoga pioneered the use of props to support the body in finding comfort in poses while maintaining good alignment. Iyengar teachers are very well trained in anatomy and pose modification.
  • Anusara is an option for people with more mobility who want to do a more active practice. Taking inspiration from Iyengar methods, Anusara teachers are highly trained in alignment and adaptation.
  • Integral, Kripalu and Sivananda are all gentle practices that are appropriate for beginning students and will allow you to do things at your own pace.
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  • Moonaz S H, Bingham III CO, Wissow L, Bartlett SJ. Yoga in Sedentary Adults with Arthritis: Effects of a Randomized Controlled Pragmatic Trial. The Journal of Rheumatology.2015;42(7):1194-1202.

By Ann Pizer
Ann Pizer is a writer and registered yoga instructor who teaches vinyasa/flow and prenatal yoga classes.