Yoga for Rheumatoid Arthritis: How a Yoga Practice Can Help Treat Symptoms and Reduce Disease Activity

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Up to 14 million people around the world have rheumatoid arthritis according to the World Health Organization’s 2021 report. More than 1.36 million adults in the U.S. suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic autoimmune disease that can cause chronic pain, inflammation, and joint damage. While there is no cure for RA, there are treatments available that can help reduce symptoms and improve quality of life. Medical treatments include anti-inflammatory drugs, Corticosteroids, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), and biologic response modifiers.

In addition to medical therapy for this progressive autoimmune disease, there are several complementary therapies, and yoga is one of them. Yoga has been shown to be an effective way to manage RA symptoms and reduce disease activity. In this article, we will discuss how yoga can help treat RA and improve your quality of life.

What is yoga?

The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word, which means to “yoke” or “bind.” Yoga is a 6000-year-old practice that combines physical postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), and meditation or relaxation. There are many different types of yoga, but all forms share the same goal: to unite the mind, body, and spirit.

Yoga has helped those young and old, healthy and sick, to connect with their innermost selves and experience a sense of peace and well-being. For those living with rheumatoid arthritis, yoga can be an effective way to manage symptoms and improve their quality of life.

You may have seen yoga classes offered at your local gym or community center. But you don’t need to go to a class to reap the benefits of yoga. You can do yoga at home with a Zoom session or online course, or find a local instructor who can teach you in person.

How does yoga help treat RA?

There are many ways that yoga can help people living with RA. Yoga helps to reduce stress and anxiety, which are common in people with this disease. It also strengthens the body, improves flexibility, and increases joint mobility. In addition, yoga promotes relaxation and mindfulness, which can be beneficial for those living with chronic pain.

A recent study published in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, eight weeks of intensive yoga practice significantly decreases the severity of physical and psychological symptoms in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

How can yoga help treat rheumatoid arthritis?

There are several ways that yoga can help improve symptoms and reduce disease activity in people with RA. Some of these include:

  • improving flexibility and range of motion
  • reducing pain and inflammation
  • improving joint function
  • promoting better sleep
  • reducing depression
  • improving walking speed
  • increasing energy levels
  • increasing ability to complete physical tasks at work and home

As a rheumatoid arthritis sufferer and a practicing yoga instructor, I can attest to how yoga slows down the progression of the disease and keeps my joints more conducive to movement on and off the mat. Fatigue was one of the hardest RA symptoms I needed to address early on and my morning yoga practice has helped! I have also seen yoga help other RA sufferers that I instruct manage their condition too.

When I was first diagnosed, I knew something was a little off for a few years before official diagnoses but assumed it was simply due to aging. Tender and swollen joints (especially fingers and toes), pains, and exhaustion are all signs of rheumatoid arthritis. My yoga practice assisted me in getting out of bed and finishing my day after I’d reduced the sickness and inflammation from within my body with the help of my Rheumatologist, as well as this advice and encouragement.

There are a few things to consider before starting a yoga practice if you have rheumatoid arthritis:

  • Talk with your Rheumatologist about which poses and what type of yoga practice might be appropriate for you and whether there are any contraindications.
  • Seek a yoga school or studio that has expertise in rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Start slowly and listen to your body. Your body needs different things each day and pushing yourself too hard can aggravate your RA symptoms.
  • Modify poses as needed. You don’t have to do a pose the way it is traditionally taught. Remember child’s pose is the best posture when you need to take a break for a few moments.
  • Be patient with yourself. It may take some time before you see results from your yoga practice.

The benefits of yoga for everyone are numerous, especially you with RA.

  1. Yoga can help improve flexibility, joint mobility, and strength.
  2. It also helps to reduce inflammation, pain, and fatigue.
  3. In addition, yoga can help you manage your stress levels, which is important when you live with a chronic illness like RA.

There are many different types of yoga so find the one that best suits your needs. Hatha yoga is a good place to start if you are new to yoga. As an individual living with Rheumatoid Arthritis myself the slower pace, longer holding times in postures and an emphasis on proper body alignment and placement has been extremely beneficial to me both physically and mentally.

Don’t let this progressive illness prevent you from trying new things, and keep in mind that the greatest thing a person with RA can do is continue to participate in daily movement-type activities.

This blog was created by Jennifer Smeddy, M.Ed., RYT 500 who has been practicing yoga for over twenty-five years and was formally diagnosed with RA in 2021. She believes that her passion lies in helping others develop strong personal practices and creating space to be happy and healthy. Jennifer is someone who enjoys hiking, reading and spending time with her family. She is currently the director and a lead instructor at LeadingYoga.com teaching online yoga classes and yoga teacher training certification coursework.

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