How Yoga Can Support Joint Pain & Arthritis
What do you visualise when you think of yoga? It’s easy to be put off by people standing on their heads and contorted into impossible-looking positions, but in reality, this isn’t an accurate representation of what practising yoga is really like. Yoga is all about slowly improving your balance and strength whilst listening to your body and going at your own pace.
Having arthritis can make you more sedentary because you want to avoid pain, but this can create a spiral where you feel more pain because your muscles are weaker and your endurance is lower, which in turn makes you less likely to do exercise. Yoga can be a gentle and accessible way to strengthen your muscles, improve your mobility and flexibility and help with stress and mental wellbeing.
If you’re interested in trying yoga to help you better support your joints, you probably have some questions. We spoke to Alice Chadwick, a freelance Yoga teacher, to get the answers.
What Is Yoga?
“Yoga is an ancient Indian practice that combines physical postures (asana), breathing and philosophy. Iyengar yoga includes many different types of postures; standing and sitting poses, twists, backbends and so on. The postures help to build flexibility, balance and strength, as well as boosting mental and physical well-being. More advanced students may also work with breath and meditation.”
How Can Yoga Help Joint Pain?
“With its emphasis on good posture and correct alignment, Iyengar yoga relieves many of the stresses and strains put on our bodies by bad posture and modern living – those hours spent hunched over in front of a screen. Bad posture, standing or sitting with a slouch, or with the weight slumped over one hip, can put intense pressure on the joints, which over time can lead to painful complications. Yoga addresses posture and works to strengthen the muscles of the back and limbs to support the joints in good alignment. When going into a standing pose, for example, attention is paid to the precise position and rotation of the foot, knee and hip in relation to each other. When the bones are carefully placed in this way, and the weight is evenly balanced, there is less strain on the joints. Yoga teaches us how to ‘pull’ the bones into their correct position in the joints, slowly building strength in the muscles. Over time, this stabilises the joints and reduces risk of injury.”
How Does Yoga Help Joint Health?
“The gentle movements of yoga promote flexibility in the joints and can alleviate stiffness and aching. With its great variety of postures, yoga leads the body through its full range of potential movements – all the joints get to move in many different directions, maintaining their elasticity and suppleness. There is also a sense in which yoga ‘makes space’ in the joints (through good posture and by strengthening surrounding muscles), which helps to prevent bones rubbing painfully together and allows synovial fluid to flow properly, lubricating the joint.
Yoga is also an excellent way to maintain and even build bone density, helping to reduce fractures in the joints. Many yoga postures are gently weight-bearing (in standing postures, for example, the weight of the body is carried on the legs and pelvis), exerting mild pressure on the bones without harming the joints. It is this weight-bearing pressure that triggers the body’s bone-growth response and strengthens the skeleton.”
Is yoga better than other types of exercise?
“Unlike walking and running, yoga uses the arms as well as the legs to bear weight (for example in a wrist balance or handstand), and is therefore well-rounded in its benefits, strengthening the wrists, shoulders and upper back, as well as the feet, ankles, knees, pelvis and lower spine. Research has suggested that when holding yoga postures, extending the arms out to the sides in a standing posture, for example, the body’s bone-building mechanism is triggered after just ten to twelve seconds.
Hormonal changes can also result in painful, creaky joints, with many women reporting stiffness, aches and cramps, especially during menopause. This is because declining oestrogen levels lead to a loss of muscle and bone strength, and to a decline in collagen which makes up connective tissue between muscles and bones. As a result, joints can become swollen and painful. There are yoga postures that address hormonal imbalance: backbends, for example, stimulate the adrenal glands which play an important role in the supply of oestrogen after the ovaries' production of this hormone declines.”
Is Yoga Hard?
“Yes and no! Some yoga sequences are strongly aerobic, but Iyengar yoga is a gradual method; a qualified teacher will assess what each student needs and teach accordingly, gradually introducing harder poses and different ways of working as the student progresses. There should always be a balance in a class between poses which challenge and those which bring quietness and respite. Iyengar yoga classes always end with Savasana, a period of deep relaxation, so that students leave feeling refreshed and re-energised. There are also many different levels and types of class available, including gentle, restorative classes and therapeutic classes which focus on pain relief.”
What are some simple yoga poses that can help with arthritis?
People who already suffer from advanced joint pain or osteoporosis should consult their doctor and a senior yoga therapy teacher before practising.
It is important to move smoothly and harmoniously when doing any yoga posture, without jerking the joints or body.
Alice has provided us with a list of accessible yoga poses to help with pain in various parts of your body.
Viparita Karani (legs-up-the-wall pose) is great for the knees. All the weight is taken off the leg joints, while the pelvis and lower back are supported evenly on the floor and the legs rest against the wall. This pose can help with swelling in the knee joints and is very restful for the whole system.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (dog pose); all the standing poses, including dog pose, work to lengthen the spine evenly and stretch out the shoulders. Good for mild back pain.
Simple twists, such a Marichyasana 1 or chair twist, relieve back pain. Keep the pelvis even, lift the back, roll the shoulders back and then gently turn the abdomen and chest.
Supta Padangustasana 2 is great for lower back pain, especially with a belt and support, so that the back can release. Keep the pelvis level, the legs straight and the spine long. Draw the thigh bones back into the hip joints.
All the arm/shoulder movements in yoga help reduce tightness in the shoulders. Urdhva Baddhanguiliasana (arms up, fingers interlocked) and Paschima Baddha Hastasana (arms behind, holding the elbows) are shown below.
Trikonasana (triangle pose) and Upavista Konasana (seated with legs apart) will build strength, flexibility and good alignment in the hip joint. For stronger pain in the hip, Viparita Karani (legs-up-the-wall pose) will bring relief.
Have you ever tried yoga for arthritis pain? What’s your favourite yoga position? Let us know on Facebook!