How to Make Yoga More Rheumatoid Arthritis-Friendly

Yes, you can do yoga…just add props!

Health Monitor Staff

Lara Ferreira, a certified yoga instructor with three children, was diagnosed with RA in 1988. Through trial and error, she found medication that helped ease her pain, and she also switched to a healthier diet and started doing yoga.

Now, Lara’s helping other people with arthritis discover the benefits of yoga for relieving joint pain and improving mobility. And she makes it easy by adding props—simple aids like a strap or chair. “People shouldn’t feel any pain while doing these poses,” she says.

Forward bend: strengthen your legs

  • Stand with feet hip-width apart and place a yoga block in front of your toes. Bend your knees, keeping the knees over the middle of the feet.
  • Hinge forward from your hips; place your hands on the block. Let your head relax forward and straighten your knees, if possible. If you can't get your hands down onto the block, use the seat of a chair, instead.
  • Slowly roll up to standing, one vertebra at a time, with your head coming up last.

Triangle pose: build strong hips

  • Stand with your back to a wall, your chair at your right side. Step your left foot a comfortable stride away from the chair. Turn your right leg so that both the foot and the knee face the chair.
  • Bring your right hand down, resting your palm or fist on the seat of the chair. Reach toward the ceiling with your left hand.
  • Inhale and use your top hand to pull yourself up to standing and step your feet back together. Repeat on the left.

Standing twists: increase spine flexibility 

  • Stand with your right side a few inches from a wall, facing the seat of a chair. Place your right foot on the seat, and rest your hands on the wall, about shoulder-height.
  • As you inhale, try to lift your ribs up off your hips, making the spine as long as possible. As you exhale, gradually walk your hands along the wall to your right.
  • Your face should be in line with your chest. Or, if it doesn’t bother your neck, look gently toward your right shoulder.
  • Come out of the pose slowly by walking your hands back along the wall to the left. Repeat on left side.

Cow face arms: relieve upper body tension

  • Sit on a chair, toward the front of the seat so that your feet rest solidly on the floor.
  • Hold a yoga strap in your right hand and reach that hand as high as you can, straight up in the air. Keep your shoulder and elbow where they are as you bend the elbow, reaching your right hand down your back.
  • Bring your left hand behind your back from below. Grasp the strap in your left hand, as close as you can get to the right hand.
  • Press your head into your right arm as you open your chest. To come out, slowly release your arms, rest a moment and repeat on the other side.

Big toe: relieve lower-back tension

  • Place a yoga strap around your right foot.
  • Lie on your back and reach the right foot to the ceiling, with your leg as straight as possible. Your left leg can be bent, with your knee up, or for more challenge, straight on the floor.
  • Look at your toes and try to point them toward you as you breathe deeply.
  • Switch feet with your strap and repeat on the other side.

Relaxation pose: drift into relaxation

  • Set an alarm for 10 minutes.
  • Lie on your back. To take pressure off the lower back, place a rolled blanket or pillow under your thighs or knees. To release tension in the neck, place a folded blanket under your head.
  • Rest your arms out to the sides. If your elbows don’t straighten, place a blanket under each forearm for support.
  • Close your eyes and mentally scan your entire body, searching for tension. Begin with your legs: Tense the muscles as you breathe in, creating as much tightness as possible. As you exhale, release all the tension, allowing it to “melt” into the floor.
  • Repeat this process for your whole body, even your head (clench your jaw and scrunch your face).
  • Take a moment to lie on the floor. Let your limbs feel heavy and enjoy the peaceful feeling.

Bonus: Tips for a pain-free workout 

  • Always warm up first. Gently move your body around to warm up your muscles and lubricate your joints before starting.
  • Come out of poses slowly. Most injuries in yoga happen when people “snap” out of poses quickly.
  • Say “No!” to painful poses. If you feel pain, especially in the joints, slowly and immediately come out of the pose.
  • Breathe through your nose. Keep your eyes open and your mouth closed while breathing deeply and evenly.
  • Count your breaths while in a pose. See if you can stay in a pose for three cycles of inhaling/exhaling. Too easy? Try five.
April 2013