Yoga That’s Right for You
Pick the yoga practice that’s best for your joints.
Looking for a way to feel better that doesn’t involve popping another pill? Try yoga.
Yoga, a blend of physical exercise and mental relaxation or meditation techniques, dates back more than 5,000 years to ancient India. Today, people around the world practice any of more than 100 different styles of yoga on a regular basis. Among them are many people with arthritis, who find yoga is easy on their joints, relieves their symptoms and promotes relaxation.
Yoga is ideal for people with arthritis, says Sharon Kolasinski, MD, a professor of clinical medicine and rheumatology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, because it offers a form of daily physical activity but poses little risk of injury to delicate joints. “Yoga is definitely one option for patients with arthritis, but it also has benefits in the mind/body area. Yoga helps you relax and helps with stress reduction,” says Dr. Kolasinski.
Scientists are just beginning to examine yoga’s physical and mental benefits. A number of recent studies, including some conducted by Dr. Kolasinski, show that regular yoga practice can reduce pain and improve function in people with arthritis. With its gentle stretches and weight-bearing resistance moves, yoga can help build muscle strength and improve balance and posture.
Among other evidence: Yoga reduced disability and eased swollen joints and pain without causing adverse effects in thousands of study participants, according to a review of clinical trials conducted between 1980 and 2010. The study, funded in part by the Arthritis Foundation, was published in Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America.
“Most importantly, we found that yoga does not exacerbate disease symptoms for persons with arthritis. With proper instruction, it is a safe way for people to stay active and mindful, both of which are associated with a variety of health benefits,” says lead author Steffany Moonaz, PhD, a health behaviorist and yoga research consultant in Baltimore, Md., and founder of Yoga for Arthritis.
Here’s the scoop on a variety of types – and whether they’re safe for you.
Viniyoga is typically practiced in private, one-on-one sessions with a yoga instructor who modifies various yoga poses to match your skill level, health status and fitness goals.
OK with arthritis? Yes, with a qualified instructor. Look for someone who has experience with arthritis and/or other joint conditions.
Keep in mind: “Because Viniyoga poses are highly adapted, they may appear quite different than they would in other yoga traditions,” says Moonaz.
The goal of restorative yoga is to relax, rest and restore. Poses, which are held for between five and 15 minutes at a time, are done using lots of props, such as ropes and foam blocks. “So the body is completely supported and minimal or no muscular effort is necessary to maintain the posture,” says Moonaz.
Okay with arthritis? Yes.
Keep in mind: Unlike almost all other forms of yoga, Restorative yoga doesn’t build physical fitness – but it’s particularly beneficial for individuals with arthritis who are seeking to relieve stress as a way to reduce disease activity, notes Moonaz.
As its name suggests, power yoga is a vigorous and fast-paced practice that modifies poses from various practices, such as Ashtanga and Bikram, and provides a cardio workout in addition to strengthening and stretching.
OK with arthritis? Not typically.
Keep in mind: Says Moonaz, “Very fit individuals with mild arthritis might be OK with power yoga, but most instructors will gear classes toward a very active population who is aiming to get an intense workout.”
With Vinyasa yoga, a series of poses is done in a row; each pose transitions into the next.
OK with arthritis? In some cases.
Keep in mind: “Many Vinyasa classes are complex and involve a lot of weight-bearing through the hands. Look for ‘Gentle Vinyasa,’ which tends to be slower and are less likely to require you to support your body weight through your hands,” advises Jane Foody, a New York City-based physical therapist and certified yoga instructor who works with individuals who have arthritis. Adds Moonaz, “Unless you have very mild arthritis, I wouldn’t recommend Viyasa unless it’s a private lesson or a small class with a well qualified instructor who can take the time to offer proper individualized instruction.”
Ashtanga is a type of vigorous yoga that involves moving quickly between poses.
OK with arthritis? No.
Keep in mind: “Ashtanga probably moves too quickly to be safe for this population, unless it is taught at a very basic level and significantly modified for people with arthritis,” says Moonaz.
With chair yoga, gentle yoga poses are primarily performed while seated. A small but growing number of yoga centers and senior centers offer chair yoga, which includes relaxation exercises and yoga moves while seated in a chair or wheelchair, and many yoga instructors are able and willing to modify regular poses for people with limited mobility. Classes sometimes include a few standing poses where participants use their chairs as props to help stabilize them as they stretch.
OK with arthritis? Yes.
Keep in mind: Chair yoga is ideal for seniors and those with limited mobility, says Foody. Listen to your body and communicate with your teacher if anything feels uncomfortable, adds Moonaz. “If done correctly, modified yoga brings the same physical, mental and spiritual health benefits as regular yoga – helping to prevent muscle loss, improve joint stability and diminish pain and stiffness,” says Moonaz. Begin chair yoga moves seated in an armless chair with feet firmly on the floor, legs hip-width apart and back straight. As with all exercises, ask your doctor if it’s OK for you to add these exercises to your routine and stop if you feel any pain.
A blanket term for poses commonly identified with yoga, Hatha involves balancing and stretching in seated, standing and prone positions. Usually performed slowly, it concentrates on strengthening and reducing stress.
OK with arthritis? In some cases.
Keep in mind: Because class intensity varies widely, “It’s always best to ask the instructor what the class involves,” says Foody.
Props such as blocks and ropes are used to ease into poses without causing strain or injury with Iyengar yoga.
OK with arthritis? Yes.
Keep in mind: “Iyengar is well suited for people with arthritis because there is a lot of attention to individual alignment and limitations,” says Moonaz. “A beginner level class is recommended so that you have the time and attention to properly adapt poses to your needs.”
Key tip: Once you’ve found a class that’s right for you, start slow, do only what feels comfortable, and if you feel any joint pain during a pose, stop doing it.
Try Yoga at Home
Face-to-face yoga instruction is invaluable when you’re starting out. But you can start at home, too, with a yoga DVD. Choose one that includes modified poses and step-by-step instructions, such as Easing Into Yoga with registered yoga instructor Linda Howard. The program is designed for those who are new to yoga, who want to learn at their own pace, or who live with illness or injury. It’s important to wear flexible, comfortable clothing that allows you to move into the various poses with ease. There’s no special footwear required – most people practice yoga barefoot.
If you have arthritis, it’s important to find a yoga instructor who understands your physical limitations and can modify poses for you if necessary. “Your instructor should know you have arthritis, and help you with using props, or if you need assistance with a block, pillow or strap” to help you move into the various poses, Dr. Kolasinski notes. “You should not overdo it, and always be mindful of the fact that you have arthritis.”
Shirley Archer and Linda Richards also contributed to this story.