Yoga has been utilized and touted for centuries as a way to maintain physical health and improve overall well-being.
While in some circles yoga is promoted as a lifestyle or fitness trend, for others it is an expression of religion.
Now, it’s been shown to be a beneficial practice for patients who live with rheumatoid arthritis.
A recent study published in The Journal of Rheumatology states that yoga is optimal for those with various forms of arthritis, including RA. The researchers say the exercise provides physical, mental, and emotional benefits.
This is especially noteworthy since statistics show that up to 44 percent of patients with arthritis do not participate in any form of exercise, while 80 percent aren’t active enough in general.
Part of this may stem from an antiquated notion that people with RA and other forms of arthritis should not exercise. However, this is an outdated theory that many modern-day rheumatologists warn against.
In a statement to the press, one of the authors of the study, Dr. Clifton O. Bingham III, said, “There’s kind of a myth that says if you have arthritis, the good thing to do is to rest your joints.”
Bingham, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the director of the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center, added, “I think the study is more evidence that, in fact, that’s not true.”
Stretching It Out
The eight-week study focused on 75 adults with rheumatoid arthritis who did not participate in any regular form of exercise.
Some of the participants never exercised at all while others did so minimally and sporadically.
Over the course of the eight weeks, participants took part in a special form of yoga that catered to those with arthritis and joint pain.
In the randomized trial, RA patients who practiced yoga at least three times a week showed a reduction in their pain levels as well as improvement in energy, mood, and overall physical health compared to the other group in the study who did not practice yoga.
According to Bingham, even five years out, many of the study participants still partake in yoga regularly.
“You can carefully and cautiously exercise and do activities,” said Bingham. “Yoga, in the way that we’ve done it, can be one of those.”
But, Bingham and the authors of the study added that while physical activity — especially yoga — is a good idea, new participants should exercise caution when starting on a yoga program, especially if they live with RA.
Yoga classes that are beginner-level and specially designed for people with arthritis, disabled folks, pregnant women, or seniors are a good, gentle place to start. You can also try to find an instructor who is knowledgeable about arthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis in particular.
Yoga in the Real World
Lindsey Grantz, owner of Yoga Digs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says “Having a regular yoga practice while suffering from rheumatoid arthritis can not only provide relief physically but also mentally.”
Grantz said that “Yoga, a program of breath, postures, and relaxation can help one maintain a healthy weight, get stronger, and experience that happy yoga glow. Stretching, strengthening, and reducing swollen joints are also positive benefits of a yoga practice which can make a big difference for an individual with RA.”
Many RA patients would concur.
Joanna Tucker, 28, of Houston, Texas, said yoga has brought some relief.
“I think my yoga helps with some of the stiffness from my RA,” Tucker said. “I've participated in yoga on and off since my diagnosis, and I always come back to this being one of the two best exercises (next to water exercise) for me. I would say for me, yoga is beneficial.”
Nicole Casper, of York, Pennsylvania, is 45 years old and lives with rheumatoid arthritis.
“I have been doing yoga for about eight to nine months,” Casper said. “It has helped with stiffness and flexibility. Also, I have been able to rebuild strength that I have lost since diagnosis. It also gives me a sense of overall well-being. Yoga is very beneficial for me.”
A self-taught yogi, Lindsey Theis, 33, of Manhattan, Kansas, also has RA and swears by yoga.
“I have used yoga for 17 years,” said Theis. “I learned the craft on my own. After diagnosis I continued my yoga and I credit this discipline with my range of movement. Even my damaged joints have more range of motion than the doctors expect.”
The Arthritis Foundation recommends yoga for patients with arthritis, but suggests that you do your homework to find the right yoga class for you.
It may be worth a try.
Bingham and Grantz agree that the intangible benefits of yoga are just as great as the physical ones.
“It really has been transformative for a lot of my patients,” said Bingham. “What [one patient] learned from the yoga experience was the philosophy of non-harming and the idea that where she is today is good enough.”
“Those types of things are very difficult to measure in terms of an outcome from a study, but we certainly saw them on a real one-on-one patient level,” he added.