Throughout my time living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), yoga has always been a haven for me. I discovered yoga and meditation when I was 12 through a teen magazine article, and I was hooked. Research suggests that yoga can help people with various types of arthritis reduce joint pain, improve joint flexibility and function, and lower stress and tension for better sleep. And it’s true. Yoga has not only helped me manage my RA symptoms better, but, on some days, it’s been my source of peace. Here are some of my favorite poses and tips on how you, too, can use yoga for RA.
- Vrksasana (Tree pose): This pose challenges my lack of balance and coordination but always reinforces my ability to persevere once I’m through.
- Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge pose): This pose is a staple in physical therapy as well as many yoga practices. It’s a versatile pose for building up strength in the back and legs.
- Mrtasana or Savasana (Corpse pose): Even when I wasn’t doing well, I would always try to incorporate breath work and meditation into my day as a way to manage pain. When I experience this, Corpse pose is my go-to. While you might be familiar with this pose as the final one in your practice, it can be done on its own. It simply involves lying down with intention and resting. Corpse pose can be incredibly beneficial for the days when your body isn’t in the right shape for higher-intensity work.
Recently, I was so unwell that my rheumatologist advised me against doing any yoga at all. It was hard, but I stuck with Mrtasana until I was healthy enough to return to my practice.
When I got back to it, I had to focus on rebuilding strength and wasn’t able to simply leap into poses I was used to doing. It got me thinking about all the different ways of doing yoga. What are some other ways yoga can help those of us with unpredictable conditions like autoimmune arthritis?
Julie Cerrone, a yoga instructor with psoriatic arthritis, says she was inspired to teach yoga because of how effective it has been in managing her psoriatic arthritis. She says it’s important to think beyond the poses to gain the most benefit from a yoga practice.
“Pose-wise, it’s hard to just give certain postures because honestly connecting with and moving with your breath is the most impactful thing on arthritis. It helps us tap into our nervous system, which promotes relaxation in our body, and allows our body to switch out of fight or flight mode, for however brief of period.”
Julie suggests chair yoga, especially on days when you’re struggling with mobility. Aim for any pose that “brings you the most relaxation and allows you to focus on your breath,” she adds.
And when you’re able to do more, Julie recommends the following poses that can really help relieve arthritic pain.
- Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall pose): “This pose is so beneficial because it helps get your inflammation moving and stimulates your lymphatic system,” says Julie. “You get a change of perspective with your feet elevated above your heart and can flush blood into new areas of your body where it may have been stagnate before.”
- Reclined Supine Twist pose: “Twists help energize our body and get our digestive systems working,” says Julie. “Energy is something that we can lack with arthritis, and this posture definitely helps promote a general sense of energy and health!”
- Sun Breath pose: Julie says you can reap the benefits of this pose sitting or standing. Sun salutation is a favorite of hers, too, as long as mobility allows. “It’s a full-body workout!”
“[Make] sure you listen to your body and honor that. Some days you may be able to do some physical postures, while others you’ll need to do more gentle poses. And that’s fine! The purpose of yoga is to listen to our bodies and become in tune with ourselves,” Julie says.
If you’ve never done yoga or are still a beginner, you might be a little intimidated. The good news is that anyone can do yoga, no matter what experience level. Whether you’re like me and need a day just to lay still on the ground and rest, or whether you love a new challenge, you can do yoga. G. Bernard Wandel is a yoga instructor from Washington, D.C., whose mother lives with RA. He sees yoga as a great addition to the pain management toolbox and recommends a step-by-step process to ease into a lifelong practice.
Step 1: Relax. This helps to bring you into deeper parasympathetic nervous system response, which lets your body prepare to restore and recover from stressful events.
Step 2: Try simple breathing practices, which not only help bring one into PNS dominance, but could also help manage pain. Breath in slowly and fully from your nose, and then exhale from the nose and repeat.
Step 3: Once you understand your own physical capability, develop a gentle and targeted movement program to help improve physical function and promote a sense of overall well-being. Try different poses in a natural flow, and see what feels good for you without forcing it.
Step 4: Create a long-term practice plan with your favorite poses to maintain consistency. Practice at the same time every day, or as often as you’re able. Once you fall into a routine, it will become more natural.
G. Bernard also says it’s important to keep your doctor informed and keyed in on what your exercise regimen includes to avoid harming yourself. Working with a yoga instructor or physical therapist initially can be incredibly beneficial, as well. Always consult your doctor before starting any new routine. When done regularly, yoga can help you live a better life with RA, like it has done for me.
Kirsten Schultz is a writer from Wisconsin who challenges sexual and gender norms. Through her work as a chronic illness and disability activist, she has a reputation for tearing down barriers while mindfully causing constructive trouble. Kirsten recently founded Chronic Sex, which openly discusses how illness and disability affect our relationships with ourselves and others, including — you guessed it — sex! You can learn more about Kirsten and Chronic Sex at chronicsex.org.