Yoga for Arthritis

The Arthritis Foundation says that Osteoarthritis (OA), also called osteoarthroses or degenerative joint disease, is the most common type of arthritis. OA is a chronic condition characterized by the breakdown of the joint’s cartilage. The breakdown of cartilage causes the bones to rub against each other, causing stiffness, pain and loss of movement in the joint. Arthritis is not a modern problem, it has been around since at least 4500 BC, but it affects thousands in the modern world. The Center of Disease Control in the United States has reported that arthritic conditions are the leading cause of disability. Annually in the United States, 9,500 people die as a result of arthritis. Additionally, 750,000 people will be hospitalized every year, and 8 million people will suffer some kind of physical limitations due to the disease. There is a long list of contributing factors to the problem of arthritis. Everything from age, heredity, previous injury, diet, weight, some intense sports, illness and infection contribute to or cause arthritis. Though it is a complex set of factors, they can be addressed simply with yoga.

Yoga has become a mainstream method of dealing with arthritic pain. Johns Hopkins Medical center, for example, tells patients, “Physical activity is an essential part of the effective treatment of osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), according to treatment guidelines published by the American College of Rheumatology. In persons with arthritis, exercise is safe and does not exacerbate pain or worsen disease. In fact, exercise may play a key role in promoting joint health, since those who do not exercise often suffer more joint discomfort than those who do. The health and psychological benefits of exercise are widely recognized. . .including an increase in muscle strength, physical energy, and endurance. The psychological benefits of exercise such as stress reduction, fewer depressive symptoms, improved coping and well-being and enhanced immune functioning also contribute to greater overall health.”

As with any other physical ailment or disease, some guidelines should be heeded when practicing yoga. Ignore the advice of your former coach, personal trainer, or best friend. ‘No pain, no gain’ is a thing of the past. All yoga asana practiced by arthritis sufferers should be small and comfortable. No asana should cause hyper-extension or extreme rotation of certain joints such as the neck and hips, respectively. If you go to far too fast in an asana, you will feel pain or discomfort, if you listen to your body and go slowly, you will instead begin to increase the health of the joints and muscles surrounding them as well as increase life-force or prana to the affected areas. Always follow stretching and balancing with one set of muscles by asana, which counterbalance their use. For example, if stretching the hamstrings deeply in Pashimotanasana (forward fold), then follow with an asana such as Virasana (hero’s pose – either reclined or seated using blocks if necessary for support of the knees and pelvis) to stretch the quadricepts and iliotibial bands (IT bands).

There are thousands of reported cases now, of yoga helping arthritis sufferers being completely freed from the pain associated with the disease. This happens, in part, due to the increased use of joints and muscles utilized in asana practice, but also due to the more abstruse practices of yoga. At a study in Harvard, doctors found that certain genes protect us from disorders such as pain, infertility, high blood pressure and even rheumatoid arthritis. These genes can actually be switched on with the ‘the relaxation effect’, a phenomenon that could be just as powerful as any medical drug but without the side-effects. “We found that a range of disease-fighting genes were active in the relaxation practitioners that were not active in the control group,” explains Dr Herbert Benson, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who led the research.

Doctors like Herbert Benson are learning through clinical trials and university studies that the body and mind are not separate entities to be dealt with compartmentally. Yogic science has taught this premise for ages. The modern yogi, B.K.S. Iyengar tells us, “Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” In the past, western medicine only cured the symptoms of a disease, but not the root cause of a disease. But yogic science teaches us to understand the aetiology and the causitory disturbance in the emotions, which grow into a disease.

In yogic science, the energy body is also taken into account. Just like the respiratory system or nervous system is studied by western medicine, the chakra system is studied in yoga. The heart chakra is the primary energy vortex located along the spinal column (called Sushumna in Sanskrit) associated to the energy of compassion and love for self and others. The emotions associated to the Anahata (heart) Chakra have great relevance to the disease of arthritis. The physical relationship of the Self is expressed in the emotions we carry deep within us.

It is possible that arthritis is caused by deep-seated resentment about not being loved, feeling abandoned or treated wrongly. Arthritis is a physical manifestation of clogged energy in the chakra system. Once feelings of resentment are released (a form of Samskara, or an energetic pattern) and feelings of being unworthy of love are changed, the energetic body also changes and the disease will diminish. In yogic science, there are not just physical tools to help aid in the management of the pain of arthritis, but a psychological and emotional component that must be dealt with in order to rid the body of the energy pattern that is causing the disease on the deepest levels. Since arthritis is an inflammatory disease of the joints, it resembles the deep anger we may feel toward others or self. This must be forgiven as part of the healing process.

If 750,000 people in the US alone are hospitalized every year due to the disease of arthritis, then it makes sense to look at the teachings of yoga for a solution. Although asana is helpful, meditation (i.e. the relaxation response) and emotional clarity achieved through introspection should be obtained in order to help facilitate greater health and possibly the eradication of this troubling attack on the joints of the body and the heart of the soul.

Christina Sarich

Hochberg MC, Altman RD, Brandt KD, Clark BM, Dieppe PA, Griffin MR et al. Guidelines for the medical management of osteoarthritis. Part II. Osteoarthritis of the knee.American College of Rheumatology. Arthritis Rheum 1995; 38(11):1541-1546.

My mom suffers from crippling arthritis. She wouldn’t dare think of trying yoga out of fear of intensifying the pain and stiffness. This information is very informative: something concrete I can arm myself with when making the recommendation to her. Thank you.

I hope your mom takes it to heart. There are yoga practices where one can do yoga sitting in a chair, so many out there designed for the elderly or infirm. Research them carefully, and I wish your mom the best.

I have arthritis as well, though not debilitating (as of yet) and have definitely noticed yoga helping with the pain and even the flexibility.