Yoga combines physical, mental, and spiritual practices through mediums such as breath control, meditation, and bodily postures. Yoga originated in ancient India, and it is widely known and practiced for good health and relaxation.
There are many benefits to practicing yoga. It has been proven to relieve depression, increase flexibility, improve circulation and respiration, strengthen muscles and bones, promote weight loss, restore energy, decrease inflammation, and so much more.
That’s why yoga can benefit those suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis.
RELATED: Benefits of Yoga for Inflammation
What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease—a condition in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the joints. When the immune cells attack the joints, the tissue in the joints thickens, causing swelling, stiffness, and pain.
In the long run, rheumatoid arthritis can cause irreversible damage to the cartilage that covers and protects the ends of the bones, and then to the bones themselves. Left untreated, arthritis will only get worse over time, leading to more swelling, more pain, and often, joint deformity.
The most common joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis are in the hands, feet, knees, wrists, elbows, and ankles. The disease usually affects symmetrical body parts, meaning that if one hand is affected, the other is usually affected as well.
Rheumatoid arthritis is not an uncommon disease. About 1.5 million people in the United States have RA, and it affects three times as many women as it does men.
If you have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, you should know that there are natural ways to keep the disease under control. One such method is daily yoga to reduce symptoms and increase flexibility.
Yoga and Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease, meaning that it will often flare up during times of depression, stress, or anxiety. Yoga is an excellent stress management technique that can help to keep stress hormone levels low, thus RA flare-ups at bay. (1)
Studies show that yoga practitioners become more resilient to stressful conditions, reducing their risk of various diseases. (2)
Yoga improves flexibility, fighting the stiffness that rheumatoid arthritis brings. It also improves muscle strength, something that many people with RA lose over time.
Many studies support the practice of yoga for its physical and psychological benefits for people with rheumatoid arthritis. (3)(4)(5)
There are many different schools of yoga, and when it comes to RA, they are not all equally beneficial. When seeking yoga for RA, opt for Iyengar Yoga, Hatha Yoga, or Restorative Yoga.
Incorporate the following yoga moves into your daily routine for ongoing disease management.
8 Yoga Moves for Rheumatoid Arthritis
1. Easy Seated Pose
Focus on your breathing or practice meditation with a seated pose. Find a comfortable spot and sit cross-legged with your hands resting on your knees. Breathe in and out through your nose, or in through your nose and out through your mouth. Don’t try to control your breathing; just take note that you are breathing at that moment. Is your breath shallow and quick? Deep and slow? Notice how it may change over time.
2. Garland Pose
Stretch out your ankles, groin, back, and wrists with the garland pose.
Squat with your feet as close together as possible and separate your thighs slightly wider than your torso. Exhale and lean forward, pressing your elbows against your inner knees. Bring your palms together and push your knees into your elbows. Hold the pose for at least 30 seconds.
3. Half Lord of the Fishes Pose
For those suffering from stiffness in the spine due to RA, this pose can help to stretch and restore flexibility to the spine.
Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Bend your knees and put your feet flat on the floor, then slide your left foot under your right leg to the outside of your right hip. Lay the outside of your left leg on the floor. Bring your right foot over your left leg and stand it on the floor outside your left hip. Your right knee should point up toward the ceiling.
Exhale and twist toward your right thigh. Press your right hand against the floor behind your buttock, and place your left upper arm on the outside of your right thigh near the knee. Pull your thigh in toward your torso.
Press your right foot into the floor and lengthen your torso. Twist your torso by turning your head to the right. With every exhale, twist a little more. Hold the pose for at least 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
4. Bridge Pose
This versatile backbend opens up the chest and stretches the thighs, bringing maximum blood flow to the core, hips, groin, and thighs. It will also help to strengthen your ankles and shoulders.
Lie flat on your back on a mat. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor, heels as close to buttocks as possible.
Exhale, pressing your feet and arms to the floor, and push your tailbone upward, firming the buttocks, and lifting them off the floor. Keeping your thighs and feet parallel, clasp your hands under you, and extend your arms.
Your buttocks and thighs should be parallel with the floor with your knees directly above your heels. Lift your chin and chest firming your arms as you hold this pose for at least 30 seconds. Release in a slow, controlled way, rolling your spine down onto the floor.
5. Cat/Cow Flow
This gentle flow helps to restore flexibility and relieves pain in the spine.
Start in tabletop position with your knees directly below your hips and your wrists and elbows directly below your shoulders.
Exhale and round your spine toward the ceiling, keeping your shoulders and knees in position for Cat Pose. As you inhale, come back toward tabletop position, then lift your tailbone and your chest toward the ceiling, letting your belly sink toward the floor for Cow Pose. Repeat about 20 times.
6. Chair Pose
Improve balance, strengthen the arms and legs, and increase blood flow with this powerful pose.
Start in a standing position, feet together. Inhale and raise your arms up above your head, palms facing inward, or join the palms.
Exhale and bend your knees until your thighs are as close to parallel with the floor as possible. The knees will extend over the feet, and the torso will lean forward so that it forms a right angle with the thighs.
Keep your back straight and hold the pose for at least 30 seconds.
7. Tree Pose
This pose helps to strengthen the core and the muscles in and around the knees, calves, ankles, and feet. It challenges your balance and coordination but helps you follow through even after you finish doing it.
Stand with your feet together and palms together in front of your heart. Shift your weight to your right foot, slowly lifting your left foot off the floor. Place your left foot on the inside of your right calf with your knee pointing outward.
If you feel stable enough, clasp your left ankle and draw your foot up so that the sole of your left foot is against your inner right thigh. Hold the pose for at least 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
8. Legs-up-the-Wall Pose
This is a great pose for relieving inflammation in the hips, knees, ankles, and feet. It helps to get your lymphatic system moving and your blood flowing.
You’ll need a folded towel or blanket for support. Start with the blanket five to six inches away from the wall. Lie down and gently swing your legs up on the wall. Adjust the blanket under you so that it is providing support to your lower back. If you can’t straighten your legs in the beginning, keep them slightly bent. Rest your hands on your belly, on your chest, behind your head, or at your sides.
Breathe normally as you hold the pose for at least one minute, preferably for five minutes. Before getting up, slowly slide your feet off the wall and lie on your side for a few breaths. Using your hand to push yourself off the floor, come up into a seated position, and slowly stand.
The key to doing yoga for RA is to do what feels good. Stretching and inversion poses should induce sighs of relief—not cries of pain. Over time, these poses help to improve flexibility, balance, and posture in your daily life. Make sure to keep your doctor informed if you decide to try something new.
Keep it up, and you may find that yoga is the gift that keeps on giving to your body, mind, and spirit.