After last week’s solstice we are well into the chilly winter season that means feeling regularly stiff and sore for some of us. If you suffer from arthritis - whether mild or severe, seasonal or chronic - I’ve got a few tips here on ways that yoga can help you improve or manage your condition in healthy, supportive ways.
What is arthritis?
There are almost as many types of arthritis and related diseases, as there are yoga poses and ways to practice. This is lucky because that means that within all the many options there will be something that’s suitable for you!
Characterised broadly as an inflammatory response, predominantly of joints that causes pain, Arthritis sufferers can present with a wide range of symptoms from isolated pain, swelling and reduction of movement in one joint, to much broader loss of mobility, wider organ and nervous system involvement, and debilitating loss of physical function.
What is yoga?
Yoga is an ancient science that blends movement, breathing and mental concentration and contemplation exercises into a powerful self-care practice.
How can yoga help arthritis sufferers?
Physically, the practice of yoga postures (asana) can help build strength, develop balance and improve flexibility when applied safely. Gentle exercise that doesn’t inflame joints or aggravate pain has been shown to help improve joint health and prevent worsening symptoms that result from a sedentary lifestyle in people with arthritis.
Psychologically, the breathing (pranayama) and mindfulness (meditation) aspects of yoga can have hugely beneficial impacts in helping cultivate a positive mindset, managing pain, improving immunity and reducing feelings of stress and frustration that can be helpful for people managing a chronic condition like arthritis.
Move your body, change your life!
Even when restricted, movement is so important to our overall physical and psychological health. Arthritis sufferers, regardless of the extent or severity of their condition, can benefit greatly from incorporating some of yoga’s movement techniques into their regular wellness routine.
Despite what you may think, not all yoga requires you to turn your body into a bendy pretzel, or being able to touch your toes! There are plenty of ways a physical yoga practice can be adapted to your individual needs so that you can stretch, strengthen and relax in ways that are comfortable and accessible to your specific condition.
If you’re suffering from arthritis and looking to begin yoga, you can practice gentle variations in each of the families of poses - forward bends, backbends, twists, balances, standing, sitting and lying – within the bounds of your pain tolerance and range of movement. Incorporating supportive tools such as blocks, straps, blankets, cushions and chairs are an excellent way to help modify and assist your practice.
Where do I start?
- Talk to your doctor first. If there are any specific movements they recommend you avoid, have them write them down so you can pass them on to your yoga teacher.
- Find a qualified teacher who you can talk to about your specific needs (pick me!). Individual sessions are an ideal place to start if you’re new to yoga. I’m available on Wednesday afternoons for private yoga consultations where I’ll create a program tailored specifically to you.
- If you prefer a group session, choose a beginner’s yoga class, a chair-based yoga class or a slower, prop-supported practice where you can begin learning what feels right for you.
- Always listen to your body’s signals and never push yourself into pain.
Breathe yourself to freedom
The way we breathe can change our body chemistry and how our brains and nervous system function. The beauty of a moving practice of yoga is that it is usually paired with the deep, controlled breathing. For arthritis sufferers, even if you’re very movement limited, breathing is a powerful self care practice you can do anytime, anywhere to help create a state of calm and relaxation…or even increased energy if you feel like it too!
Through breath we can create states of calm or states of anxiety. Learning to know what your breathing patterns are and creating for you and finding new ways to produce peace and balance through focussed breathing can help you transform your state of mind, manage feelings of anxiety or overwhelm and cultivate states of calm and relaxation - by choice when ever you want to.
Where do I start?
- Deep belly breaths are the fastest way to calm your nervous system. They help switch off our stress ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response that’s triggered in times of stress and help bring your back to a calm, healing, restful state of body and mind.
- You can bring your attention to your breath anytime, driving your car, sitting or standing at work, or lying down in bed! Ideally you have good posture and an even, neutral spine.
- First start to notice the quality of your breath; is it deep or shallow, fast or slow, laboured or easy?
- Then on an exhale squeeze out as much air out as possible, including squeezing your belly and ribs down tight. Try to hold your breath out for one or two counts is you can.
- As you inhale let your low belly relax and fully stretch out, followed by letting your ribs fully expand up and out.
- Take another slow, deep exhale for the count of at least four. Continue making your inhale and exhale equal length, repeat for as long as you feel comfortable.
- Return to normal breath and notice how you feel.
- Be mindful to stop if breathing exercises make you feel anxious, dizzy or nauseas.
Cultivate a positive mindset
Some people call mediation the ‘art of attention’. Mindfulness meditation helps provide a pathway for creating a new relationship with your self by paying attention to where your feelings and thoughts begin, how you get caught up in them and whether, in fact, your thoughts are really true, or just bad habits you’ve become used to repeating and eventually believing.
Learning to flex our attention muscle can lead to positive psychological benefits such as reducing symptoms of stress including - importantly for arthritis suffers; inflammation, reducing the incidence or severity of anxiety and depression, assisting with conditions including insomnia, and of specific interest to arthritis sufferers, helping change your relationship with pain.
Living with pain can be both physically and psychologically debilitating and practicing meditation has been shown to create measurable improvements in quality of life for arthritis sufferers.
Because pain science has found that the experience of pain is both physical and emotional, sometimes meditation can help where medication can’t by teaching you to become aware of your feelings, manage your emotions moment to moment, be compassionate towards yourself, practice acceptance and choose positive thought patterns that can help you create a more contented life with your condition.
Learning meditation is a wonderful way to start actively changing your mind, and therefore your relationship with yourself, and your condition.
Namaste and be wild, be wise, be well!