For people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the thought of twisting and contorting your joints and muscles may sound downright dreadful.
But before you brush off downward dog for good, consider this: When done correctly, a modified, low-impact form of yoga is safe for people with RA. And it’s good for your mind, too. Studies have found that yoga has many therapeutic benefits. UCLA researchers found that women ages 21 to 34 with RA were happier, more energetic and reported feeling healthier overall after just six weeks of Iyengar yoga, a low-impact style of yoga that incorporates props such as belts and blocks. In addition, recent research published in the Journal of Pain found that, when used as a supplementary treatment combined with medication, yoga has moderate effects on pain in conditions such as RA.
“The most important thing to consider is the type of yoga class you’re signing up for,” says Melissa West, PhD, a yoga instructor in Toronto and founder of Namaste Yoga. “The wrong class could lead to further inflammation of your joints [or injury].”
7 steps to finding an RA-friendly yoga class
First and foremost, tell your rheumatologist that you’d like to try yoga, and find out if you have any specific risks or limitations. Then follow these steps:
- Seek out special classes. Find a yoga studio or gym in your area that offers classes specialized for people with RA, suggests West. If they’re not available, a number of yoga teachers have posted specialized instruction videos online—so pull out the computer and your yoga mat and take a class in your own living room.
- Embrace the beginner in you. No specialized classes nearby? Stick to a beginner’s yoga practice or a gentle class like Iyengar—just be sure to inform your instructor of your health condition.
- Don’t be too daring. Skip advanced classes like vinyasa yoga, which tend to be more vigorous and fast-paced and could increase inflammation. According to the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center, the general rule is this: If the pose hurts, stop. The organization also recommends that you take care not to overextend the neck when doing backbends and to be cautious of hip-opening poses (such as the pigeon pose and extended wide angle pose) if RA affects your hips.
- Take a deep breath. When we’re in pain, we tend to breathe more shallowly, West explains. Deepening your breath—a key to most yoga practices—allows oxygen to reach the inflamed areas of your body and can help release tension.
- Increase your range of motion. People with poor flexibility can benefit from yoga as many poses increase the range of motion in your joints. West explains that this can ease inflammation and help reduce stiffness.
- Strengthen and lengthen. Yoga for RA can also strengthen and lengthen the muscles around the joints. Building muscle provides support for the joints, while lengthening the muscles and soft tissues creates more space in the joints.
- Modify, modify, modify! Just because you have rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t mean your yoga practice has to be boring—it simply means you should modify the poses. Take the bridge pose, for example: “Instead of just pushing your bum up in the air, it’s very beneficial for people with arthritis to move up and down,” says West. “This motion lubricates your joints.”
If you’re experiencing an RA flare, double-check with your rheumatologist that your yoga practice is safe, and be extra mindful to avoid any poses that simply don’t feel good. And remember: The breathing and meditation aspects of yoga can be just as beneficial as twisting yourself into a pretzel.