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Yoga – The Antidote to Arthritis and a Key to Healthy Aging
Forty years ago, when I first became interested in yoga and therapeutic exercise, I was helping an elderly woman who was confined to her wheelchair by arthritis. Before I realized the extent to which yoga could rehabilitate the body, I was helping people who were unable to dress, bathe, or feed themselves independently due to pain and stiffness in their joints. It has helped me to understand the extreme suffering of arthritis.
Back then, people with joint pain and swelling were advised by doctors not to move! “If it hurts, don’t move” was the thinking. We now know that inactivity is the worst reaction for a person with arthritis.
As Lauren Fishman, MD, points out in her book, Yoga for arthritis“Arthritis restricts movement, yoga increases range of motion—the two were made for each other.”
Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in this country, limiting daily activities for millions of people. Medications, surgery, and steroids can relieve some discomfort, but study after study has shown that exercise for arthritis, especially low-impact, flexibility-building exercises such as yoga poses, is most beneficial.
Osteoarthritis, a painful and often painful condition caused by wear and tear on the joints, is considered a side effect of living longer. By the time we reach age sixty-five, one-third of us will have an X-ray showing some signs of osteoarthritis, the most common of the group of diseases known collectively as rheumatoid arthritis.
According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rheumatoid arthritis affects over seven million (or one in three) American adults in its many forms.
Arthritis is so common in our culture that most people consider the pain and discomfort that occurs as a normal part of aging. Arthritis makes normal activities increasingly painful and difficult and reduces or destroys quality of life.
An Overview of Rheumatoid Arthritis
The word arthritis means “joint inflammation”. Modern medicine recognizes more than a hundred types of conditions that cause damage to joint structures. The common thread among these conditions is that they all affect the joints—which are about 150 intricately designed structures where two or more bones meet.
Arthritis-related joint problems can include pain, stiffness, inflammation, and joint damage. Joint weakness, instability, and visual deformity may occur, depending on the location of the joint.
Arthritis is classified into two main types. Arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder, which causes stiffness, joint erosion and pain in the joints and muscles. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disorder that destroys the cartilage in the joints, causing the bones to rub together. Osteoarthritis is more common in people who are overweight or who have joint pain from overuse.
Despite the prevalence of joint pain, be careful not to jump to the conclusion that your joints are hurting. Overuse and injuries can also lead to tendonitis, bursitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other common conditions not related to arthritis.
Arthritis and exercise
To stay healthy, muscles and joints need to move and bear weight or they will lose strength. Because of this weakness, swelling in the joint will destabilize the joint. Joints in this condition are vulnerable to dislocation, injury and pain. Thus, regular gentle movement helps reduce pain and maintain mobility.
Physical activity promotes health in many body systems. It increases blood circulation, which reduces swelling and promotes the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the tissues. With stability, the cycle of deterioration begins.
Since movement is important for many bodily processes, the overall health of a person with arthritis suffers without it. Normal immune function declines, infections and illnesses occur, and individuals often become depressed and depressed. This cycle is self-perpetuating.
When someone comes to me with arthritis, I teach them how to practice yoga safely with the help of yoga props. For those new to yoga, the term “yoga props” simply refers to any object, such as a wall, a sturdy table or chair, a rolled-up blanket, a firm pillow, a strap, or other objects used in yoga practice. Safer and easier. Yoga props are especially helpful for older beginners who may have balance issues and are dealing with common health issues such as arthritis and osteoporosis. Apart from common household items used as yoga props, there are professional yoga props such as a sturdy wooden bar known as a “yoga horse”, yoga wall ropes, yoga bolsters in many shapes and sizes, yoga straps, special yoga chairs, yoga blocks, firm yoga blankets. And more elaborate props like yoga backbenders that give new hope and confidence to people with arthritis and other common health conditions.
Doctors are increasingly recommending regular gentle exercise for people with arthritis because it tones muscles and reduces joint stiffness. Yoga is an ideal form of exercise for this because its movements are fluid and adaptive. Yoga loosens muscles that are tight due to inactivity, stress and tension. In yoga we progress slowly, starting with simple stretches and strengthening poses and progressing to more difficult asanas as we become stronger and more flexible.
If necessary, you can start with light movements by sitting on a chair or lying on the floor. You can gradually add weight-bearing standing postures with support from a wall, counter or table, wall ropes, chairs, blocks, and other props.
Weight-bearing yoga standing poses are key poses for safely increasing range of motion in all joints, as well as increasing strength and flexibility.
It is important to note that weak muscles are considered a risk factor for osteoarthritis. Be especially aware of weakness in the quadriceps, the large thigh muscles: The weaker the quadriceps, the greater the risk of developing osteoarthritis in the knee. Standing yoga is valuable for strengthening the quads without putting wear and tear on the hip and knee joints.
Practicing yoga helps improve breathing throughout the day. Calm, slow, rhythmic breathing helps to release physical and emotional stress by filling the body and brain with oxygen. A regular, daily practice of deep relaxation restores every cell in the body.
I encourage those of you with arthritis to seek the help of an experienced teacher who can help you learn the difference between good pain and bad pain and make yoga a part of your daily life.
Yoga can have a positive effect on mood and overall outlook, which is especially important for someone with arthritis. A yoga class offers positive support and an opportunity to connect with health-minded people who have experienced the benefits of yoga. Many studies emphasize the value of group support in coping with health challenges such as arthritis.
With arthritis, as with any injury or disease, listen to your body to prevent injury and determine which movements are most healing. Take a class with an instructor who knows about joint pain. If you are new to yoga, I recommend a few private lessons, if possible, or start in a small group class with individualized instruction, where you can practice at your own pace.
Guidelines for practicing yoga in class and at home
1. Respect the pain. All yoga students, but especially those with arthritis, must learn the difference between the beneficial feeling of muscle stretch and the pain that signals harm. Learn to differentiate between the normal discomfort of moving a stiff joint through a range of motion and the pain caused by destructive movement or excessive demand on the joint. Sudden or severe pain is a warning sign. Continuing the activity after such a warning may cause joint damage.
In general, if pain and discomfort persist more than two hours after a yoga session, ask a knowledgeable teacher to check your alignment and help you improve the pose. Try moving more slowly, practice more regularly, and experiment with how long you stay in a pose. “How long should I stay in the pose?” There is no definitive answer to this perennial question. Stay long enough that a healthy change has occurred but not so long that your body stiffens from being in the position for too long.
2. Balance work and rest. Balance activities and relaxation apply to yoga as well as other daily activities. Do not exercise until you are exhausted. Stop before you get tired! Weak, tired muscles set the stage for joint instability and injury. Balance your active yoga session with yoga’s deeply relaxing restorative poses. Restorative poses are passive poses that help your internal healing process work. If you are tired, practice restorative poses first. If you’re comfortable, you’ll benefit more from active, more challenging poses.
3. Practice with focus and awareness (pay attention to how you feel) and breathe properly. Avoid mechanical repetition and counting while exercising. Notice the flow of your breath and your body’s response to a particular pose or exercise. Without fully expanding your lungs, enough oxygen cannot be supplied to the muscles you are exercising. Holding your breath while stretching provides relief. Smooth, calm, rhythmic breathing through the nose reduces pain and tension and promotes a sense of deep relaxation after a yoga session. Learn to know what your body is telling you.
4. Learn to use yoga props. People with arthritis may already be very stiff by the time they start yoga. The use of props helps improve circulation and breathing capacity. By supporting the body in yoga postures, props allow muscles to stretch in a passive, non-strenuous way. Props help conserve energy and allow people to practice more difficult poses without hurting themselves or overexerting themselves.
Yoga for Arthritic Hips and Knees
The most commonly affected areas of arthritis are the hips, knees and hands. As movement decreases, the muscles and soft tissues around the hip shorten, causing additional wear and tear on the gliding surface. If a person sits more in an effort to reduce pain, the bones and cartilage receive less weight-bearing stimulation. Bone spurs may also develop to limit movement.
Lack of exercise also weakens the thigh and calf muscles. Their strength provides stability and support to the knee. When the soft tissues in the joint swell, this causes compression and further narrows the joint space.
Standing poses are important for stretching and building supportive strength in the hips, buttocks, and thighs. Moving the head of the femur in the hip socket helps distribute synovial fluid, thus lubricating the joint and all points of contact.
The same standing poses recommended for hips are also important for knee rehabilitation. They create more space in the knee joint for synovial fluid circulation and develop thigh and calf muscle strength for better support.
Sit on the floor every day!
I encourage all of my students, especially those with osteoarthritis of the knees, to sit on the floor every day, with different legs and other bent knee positions, as part of their daily routine. This helps ensure that you don’t lose the ability to sit comfortably on the floor. Sitting with legs loosely crossed is a simple, natural position that helps relieve stiffness in the hips and knees. Sit on one or more folded blankets, a sturdy bolster, a large dictionary, or other elevation to help you sit comfortably on the floor with your back straight. Avoiding sitting on the floor will stiffen your hips and knees over time.
Warning: If the knees are painful, try raising the hips so that your pelvis is higher than the knees, and place a folded blanket or yoga blocks under the knees. A knowledgeable yoga teacher can help you adjust your props to make sitting on the floor easier and more comfortable. Gradually increase the time you sit and make sure to cross your legs the opposite way (front leg).
Precautions: Don’t strain your knees by trying to sit prematurely in a more advanced, bent-knee position like the classic lotus pose. Forcing your body into any position can cause serious injury. If you experience pain, stop and consult a knowledgeable instructor.
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