Arthritis and Yoga


Photo by Bryony Jade Throup

This may be old news for a lot of you. But this will also be news to many of you. I have suffered with arthritis on and off for most of my life. I was diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA) in my right knee when I was a child, but it disappeared after while.


When I was about 14/15 I started getting intense pain and swelling in my left knee, and after several tests, scans it was clear that it was JIA. I'm not 100% knowledgeable on the medical side of this, but from what I have gathered, the arthritis never went away. It was more that I wasn't suffering with it at the time. From what I remember, I had pain every now and again but never anything major, and I do remember going to regular appointments for check ups whilst growing up.


However, after my 18th birthday, it all changed. As I was no longer classed as a juvenile, it meant the problems I was having could no longer be classed as Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis. I was still having regular check ups with the Rheumatologist, but rather than being in the children's ward, I was in the adult ward (ooh, so grown up). I also wasn't really given a diagnosis as it hadn't progressed to Rheumatoid or Osteoporosis, but obviously is wan't JIA anymore so I've since been in this weird limbo zone...



Anyway, why I am talking about this?


Well, my journey with Yoga started when I was 15 and had my big flare up.

I went to a particularly sporty boarding school that was keen on hockey, netball and cross country. I was not. I was much happier scurried away in the art room. So when my knee flared up, it was a bizarre blessing in disguise. I no longer had to do all the grim sports that I hated, and ended up being the 'timer girl' for a while (I secretly loved it, I used to sit on the bench and read until the stopwatch needed me. If I knew they didn't need me, I would sit in the art room all afternoon.)


But then, one of the sports teachers encouraged me to try Yoga. There was a class specifically for Sixth Formers, and they said it would be good for me; low impact, relaxed and also would still keep me mobile. To be honest, I didn't really think much of it at the time. I liked the class, but also just thought it was a load of stretching and folding. I had no idea that this class would lead me into my passion (funny how the universe works.)


Yoga has been amazing for my knee. A few years ago I had some severe muscle wastage from where I had been avoiding putting any sort of pressure on me leg. This meant my leg was really weak, but also that the knee joint was very vulnerable as there was little muscle supporting it. Yoga meant I could slowly start to build the muscle back up in a safe, and gentle way that wasn't going to be too strong or cause pain.

But does Yoga actually help arthritis?


There has been several scientific studies recently that indicate many benefits for practicing Yoga with arthritis. It massively helps to improve joint mobility and flexibility, as well helping strengthen the muscles surrounding the affected joints. It has also been shown in studies to reduce pain in joints, this helps with the psychological effects of pain and arthritis massively.


Sharon Kolasinski, MD, a professor of clinical medicine and a rheumatologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia studied the effects of yoga on people with osteoarthritis (OA) in the knee joint. She found that 90-minutes of modified Iyengar yoga classes once a week for eight weeks showed a significant reduction in pain as well as improvements in mobility and in joint stiffness.


The poses were modified to accommodate specific needs, particularly those with OA, and the emphasis and use of props in Iyengar yoga allows participants to use chairs, blocks or other aids to help them balance during poses.


“Yoga is definitely one option for people with arthritis. Not only for the exercise benefits, but it’s also beneficial in the mind/body area, promoting relaxation and stress reduction,” says Dr. Kolasinksi. [Source]


Now, Yoga has not been a miracle cure by far, but it has helped me a lot. I am so much more aware of my body, my muscles and my joints. I am conscious about how I move and why, and whether I am helping my body or harming it. It has given me the ability to find strength and mobility in a way that I wasn't sure was possible. And through the physical aspects of Yoga, I have found the spiritual and mental side utterly life changing.


Personally for me, it all depends on the day. Some days I forget I even have a joint condition and I have no pain / swelling / stiffness and therefore sometimes I can go deeper in my practice. However, sometimes I can't sleep because of pain, and sometimes I struggle to teach. I also find that doing lots of movement can both aggravate, and calm down the joint all at the same time. So, to be perfectly honest, I have found that the easiest path for me is to take each day as it presents itself.


There are poses that I might never be able to do, I'm looking at you Padmasana. But, I have also (in time) come to accept that that's okay. That Yoga isn't about 'doing every pose', it's about the journey there, and I'm having a bloody great time on this journey.