Yoga for Rheumatoid Arthritis: 8 Tips from an Instructor with Arthritis
By Christa Fairbrother, Special to Everyday Health
As a person living with arthritis and a certified Yoga for Arthritis instructor, I understand the physical and emotional challenges that accompany rheumatic disease. I know firsthand that regular visits to a rheumatologist and taking all your medications is not always enough to ease pain and improve overall health.
Because of my personal and professional insights, I believe completely in the power of yoga to improve the quality of your life.
The key is finding a way to make yoga work for you and for your body. Whether you have a regular yoga practice, have had a bad experience with yoga, or haven’t ever tried yoga (or haven’t tried in decades), consider approaching yoga with these 8 specific tips for people with rheumatoid arthritis in mind.
1. Look for a Certified Yoga for Arthritis Instructor
Don’t go to any old class. Yoga for Arthritis strives to offer a program that combines the healing and restorative power of yoga with modifications designed to work for people living with arthritis. What’s more, instructors are taught the basics about common rheumatic disorders and how to help people who are experiencing symptoms. Find a specialized studio or teacher near you by going to arthritis.yoga; you can find registered teachers through Yoga Alliance.
2. Start with a Class that Fits Your Needs, Not Just Your Schedule
Everyone living with a chronic autoimmune disease such as RA knows that each day is its own challenge. Fortunately, most facilities offer a variety of options and class times. Those who are new to yoga should start with the gentler, restorative forms of yoga. Look for “Beginner” or “Gentle/Restorative Yoga” classes at YMCAs, health clubs, community or senior centers. Do not make the mistake of trying to force yourself to take a particular class because it works for your schedule. You may progress and be ready for a wider range of classes quickly; change will occur based on the culmination and consistency of the practice.
3. Embrace Props
Yoga for Arthritis instructors use simple modifications and adaptations to make yoga accessible to people with varying levels of strength, fitness, and flexibility.
Take advantage of the extra help and support! You may learn to love the straps and blocks that help you safely try relaxing poses and feel-good stretches. I tell all newcomers not to expect to get through the class without additional equipment. Ask your instructor for recommendations in advance, including whether supportive items like chairs, bolsters, as well as yoga straps, blocks and blankets will be available for use during class.
Regardless of the modifications, you can still experience the benefits of yoga, including those described in a review published in February 2011 in Rheumatic Diseases of North America: a reduction in symptoms such as tender/swollen joints, pain and disability.
4. Mind Your Knees and Wrists
Despite its healing powers, yoga is a weight-bearing exercise that can be hard on joints if modifications are not made. Those with knee pain may want to use a chair or wall to help bear the brunt of the weight. If you experience wrist or hand pain, leaning on your forearms (rather than your hands) helps reduce pressure on the wrist, fingers, as well as parts of the hand. Consider aqua yoga, a wonderful modality for reducing load to the joints, especially if getting down to the floor is no longer an option for you.
5. Consider Long-Term and Immediate Benefits
Yoga is about listening to your body and doing what is best for you in the moment. Remember that, over time, the continued effort and practice offer cumulative benefits, whether or not you are able to hold a pose as long as you’d like on a particular day. There’s a difference between pain and discomfort; distinguishing between the two is one of the pain management skills yoga helps you build. If you’re in pain, especially in a joint, you need to back off immediately. If you’re uncomfortable, can you ponder that for one breath before acting? Being a little sore and uncomfortable the day after class is normal when the activity is new; if you’re sore longer than 24 hours, you overdid it. Learning to listen to a wide spectrum of body sensations will help you make good choices in the moment.
6. Forget Typical Exercise Standards
Yoga can be as long or as short as you want. Sometimes a 10-minute meditation session is all that is possible. Over time, even a brief break can be enough to develop mindfulness and to help you learn to listen to your body on a deeper level.
Stop or slow down when necessary. In a group class, it is appropriate and acceptable for you to pause and take a break. If stopping makes you feel self-conscious, sit along the side of the class where you’ll be less visible than the front. Always remember it’s your practice. You’re not there to impress other people and neither is anyone else. The only person you’re accountable to is you.
7. Talk to Your Doctor
While a study published in the Journal of Rheumatology in July 2015 suggests that yoga classes may help sedentary people living with arthritis safety increase physical activity while improving mental and physical health, it’s still important to consult your doctor. Before you start this, or any new exercise plan, seek out advice from your rheumatologist. Then, pass on this information to your instructor.
8. Seek Out a Buddy
Planning to meet a friend for a class may be a good way ensure you make it to the studio. (Knowing that someone is waiting for you is an incredible motivator!) Plus, a friend may help you feel more comfortable if you are intimidated by the thought of going alone to a new class or studio. Ask around at your next support group session; someone may be interested in attending a class with you. Or seek online support. CreakyJoints is a fabulous resource for finding online and in-person support groups.
Connecting with other people can enhance the yoga experience. While they may cost more, live classes are better than videos. Compared to a video or DVD class, meeting a friend at class and practicing with other people is energizing and more likely to keep you on track for your goals. Plus, a qualified instructor may help you tailor your practice to suit your individual symptoms and doctor’s recommendations.
Use your resources to educate yourself on the variety of complementary treatment options, to share experiences, and to find additional support for your chronic illness. Learning to live with an autoimmune disease is about finding the methods that best fit your lifestyle, personality, and day-to-day experiences.
Christa Fairbrother is a certified instructor in and the program director for Yoga for Arthritis in Gulfport, Florida. She is a registered yoga teacher, certified in aqua yoga, and specializes in yoga instruction for those dealing with chronic health concerns. In 2015, after being diagnosed with mixed connective tissue disease (arthritis and lupus for her), Fairbrother devoted herself to being an advocate for yoga for people living with chronic pain.
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