Researchers say regular yoga sessions can help relieve physical and emotional symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis.

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Some participants in the study did two-hour yoga sessions five days a week. Getty Images

Can eight weeks of intense yoga help alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis? Some experts think so.

A new study out of India says that yoga can be used as a complementary or adjunct therapy in auto-inflammatory forms of arthritis, particularly in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) with comorbid depression.

RA often is accompanied by psychological or emotional components. This new research, which was published in the journal Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, found that an 8-week regimen of intensive yoga eased both the physical and the mental-emotional symptoms of RA.

Dr. Rima Dada, a professor in the anatomy department at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi and lead author on the study, said she and her team of researchers wondered if a “yoga-based mind-body intervention” could ease symptoms of depression in RA as well as help achieve remission of the physical symptoms of this painful, chronic autoimmune disease.

The scientists looked at 72 patients and divided them into two separate groups.

While both groups stayed on disease-modifying RA drugs, one group did two hours of yoga, five times a week. The other did not.

The researchers looked mostly at the outcomes of depression and RA disease activity.

In the group who did the yoga, there were improved findings across the board.

“Yoga, a mind-body intervention, re-established immunological tolerance by aiding remission at molecular and cellular level along with significant reduction in depression,” Dada and her colleagues wrote.

“Our findings show measurable improvements for the patients in the test group, suggesting an immune-regulatory role of yoga practice in the treatment of RA,” they added.

“Yoga facilitates the mind’s capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms mediated through a variety of downstream pathways and bring about natural immunological tolerance,” Dada added.

She and her researchers noted that alternative or complementary practices such as yoga could be beneficial both on a physical and a psychosomatic level when used in conjunction with more traditional or standard treatments such as medications and drug therapy.

“I’m thrilled to see yoga being recognized as a legitimate therapeutic tool from the scientific community, but it doesn’t surprise me one bit,” Erin Motz, co-founder of Bad Yogi, told Healthline. “Yoga is adaptive enough that, when done gently and with proper alignment in mind, you can do it through every phase and stage of life. It’s a great way to cultivate a positive relationship with our bodies even with arthritis or injury when our view of our bodies is sometimes negative or resentful.”

Brooke Schad, a certified yoga teacher, shared the same sentiment, although she cautioned against yoga practitioners claiming that yoga treats any specific medical conditions, as it oftentimes falls out of their scope of practice.

Bob Richardson, PT, MEd, FAPTA, who has been in the physical therapy field for more than 50 years and worked with rheumatologists at various medical centers, also sees merit in yoga.

“In my experience, proper exercise and joint protection techniques are basic therapies and well recognized in the management of poly-arthritis/rheumatoid arthritis,” Richardson told Healthline. “Also, yoga and tai chi are examples of exercise forms that have been used in various cultures in the world. I would not classify such as mind/body, complementary, or adjunct therapies. I believe exercises are most effective as part of a multi-disciplinary treatment team and woven into a comprehensive treatment plan.”

Richardson cautioned that there were limitations to the research.

“I would think a period longer than eight weeks with a follow-up assessment at six months following admission would be telling,” he said. “Also, a third control group of traditional exercise and fitness training would be advisable as to the value and effectiveness of exercise in the management RA, compared to yoga, and to no exercise, while using disease altering drugs.”

Dr. Vaneet K. Sandhu, associate program director of rheumatology at Loma Linda University in California and director of clinical operations, rheumatology, at Riverside University Health System, said yoga is part of an evolving treatment system for this particular condition.

“Rheumatoid arthritis treatment has come a long way in the past 30 years,” Sandhu told Healthline. “We’ve gone from recommending bedrest until the end of days to new and coming therapies that have left severe deforming RA essentially a thing of the past. However, medical therapy is not the only effective treatment. Addressing all aspects of one’s life (from spiritual to emotional, social, and psychological) has shown in numerous studies to improve overall quality of life. In this study, demonstrating the benefits of yoga-based mind-body intervention is one such example of using complementary approaches to supplement medical treatment of RA effectively.”

Patients living with RA should talk to their doctors before beginning yoga, just as they would with starting any other therapy, be it medicinal or natural, pharmaceutical or holistic, alternative, or traditional.