For over a decade, I have been researching the effects of yoga for people with arthritis. As many people envision, this includes a lot of modifications, adjustments, and extensive use of props. We work with students to find versions of each asana that remain true to the essence of the pose, working within any movement limitations without creating pain or joint discomfort.
But when we teach yoga to people who have arthritis, we don’t strive for a magical asana sequence that will address arthritis in a particular body part.
Yoga is a holistic process. When we make the mistake of thinking about yoga as if it were physical therapy, we lose what makes yoga a unique therapeutic process. Instead, yoga can go hand-in-hand with modalities like PT, as complementary processes.
Researchers lose something when looking only at an asana sequence and its effect on the joints.
Instead, our job is to get the joint issues out of the way, through support, use of props, compassion and awareness, so that yoga can work its magic on the whole person- body, mind, and soul.
Just as yoga can improve overall physical fitness for healthy individuals, it can improve fitness for people with arthritis. But with this population, the stakes are even higher. Yoga can improve balance, which prevents dangerous falls. Yoga practice can enhance flexibility, which allows individuals to maintain mobility over time. Improved strength means greater joint stability. Improved strength means a reduction in the muscle loss that accompanies some forms of arthritis. Improved strength means an increased ability to participate in everyday activities that can be challenging as joints deteriorate.
But a yoga practice has the potential to bring much more to the lives of people with arthritis. Yoga allows those with a chronic, disabling disease to realize what their bodies CAN do. It fosters a connection to their bodies which may have been lost during years of disease progression and reduced activity. Yoga can teach students to be present in the moment, and to adjust to their bodies needs on a particular day, without judgment. Arthritis changes every day, and this skill serves our students every day, even if they don’t get on the mat.
Yoga also helps our students to relax and to be mindful. Having a chronic disease is stressful, and stress can exacerbate that disease. The relaxation and meditation practices of yoga can break the cycle of stress reactivity.
Yoga classes connect people with arthritis to others who are striving and thriving… people who are living a full and active life, whatever journey they have taken to arrive at that place.
And yoga changes other behaviors. When people start to feel connected, they want to do other things in the name of self-care. They eat healthier foods, go for a walk outside, make time for themselves, and some even make an effort to be more adherent with their medical care.
When we think about bringing the tools of yoga to the arthritis community, let’s be sure to look beyond the modification of asana as a goal. Our goal is to make the asanas possible, so the totality of yoga can come through to our students, safely and effectively.
Reprinted with permission from Dr. Steffany Moonaz.
Dr. Steffany Moonaz is a yoga therapist and researcher and serves as Assistant Director of Academic Research at the Maryland University of Integrative Health. Dr. Moonaz is working to bring yoga to people with arthritis in communities around the country, as well as educating yoga teachers and yoga therapists about the unique needs of this population. She currently leads Yoga for Arthritis teacher training programs nationwide and serves as a mentor for several emerging researchers who are working to study the effects of yoga for various health conditions.