Forty years ago, when I became interested in yoga and therapeutic exercise, I was assisting an elderly woman who was immobilized in her wheelchair with arthritis. Long before I understood the degree to which yoga can rehabilitate the body, I supported those unable to dress, bathe, or feed themselves independently because of the pain and stiffness of their joints. This helped me to understand the extreme suffering that can be inflicted by arthritis. At the time, people with joint pain and swelling were advised by doctors not to move! The thought was “If it hurts, do not move it.” We now know that inactivity is one of the worst responses for someone with arthritis.
Overview of Arthritis
The word arthritis means “joint inflammation.” Modern medicine recognizes more than a hundred varieties of conditions that cause a deterioration of joint structures. The common thread of these conditions is that they affect all joints – those nearly 150 ingeniously designed structures, located where two or more bones meet. Joint problems related to arthritis can include pain, stiffness, inflammation, and damage to the joints. Joint weakness, instability, and visible deformities may occur, depending on the location of the association involved.
Arthritis is classified into two main types. Rheumatoid arthritis, which is a chronic inflammatory disorder, resulting in stiffness in joints and muscles, joint erosion, and pain, and Osteoarthritis, which is a degenerative disorder that erodes the cartilage in the joints, resulting in friction of the bones. Osteoarthritis occurs frequently in overweight people or whose joints are painful due to extreme overuse.
Arthritis and Exercise
To stay healthy, muscles and joints must move and support weight or they will lose strength. This weakness, combined with joint swelling, will make the joints unstable. The joints in this condition are vulnerable to dislocation, increased injury, and pain. Thus, regular gentle movements help to reduce pain and maintain mobility. Physical movement promotes health in many systems of the body. It increases circulation, which reduces swelling and promotes the supply of oxygen and nutrients in the tissues. With immobilization, a deterioration cycle begins.
Because movement is crucial to so many physiological processes, the general health of the arthritic person tends to deteriorate without it. The normal functioning of the immune system decreases, infections and illness occur, and the person often becomes frustrated and depressed. This cycle is self-perpetuating. Doctors are increasingly advising regular and gentle exercises for people with arthritis because they cause muscles to vibrate and reduce joint stiffness. Yoga is a form of exercise ideal for this because its movements are fluid and adaptable. Yoga relaxes the muscles that have been tightened by inactivity, stress, and tension. In yoga, we progress gradually, beginning with simple tendencies and strengthening poses and advancing towards more difficult postures only as we become stronger and more flexible.
Practicing yoga can help improve breathing throughout the day. Calm and slow rhythmic breathing helps to release physical and emotional tension by inundating the body and the brain with oxygen. Regular daily practice of deep relaxation is restorative to each cell of the body.
The positive effects that yoga can have on mood and overall outlook are particularly important for people with arthritis. A yoga class offers positive support and the ability to connect with people who are health-minded and have experienced the benefits of yoga. Many studies emphasize the value of group support in coping with health problems such as arthritis.