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Increase Mobility, Brighten Your Outlook with Yoga

Cleveland Clinic Arthritis Advisor, March 2004.

Did you think yoga was just for flexible young people? It’s actually one of the best forms of exercise for people with arthritis. Yoga lengthens muscles, reducing pain and dependence on medication, and also greatly decreases stress and depression. “What makes yoga unique is that it takes every joint through its full range of motion,” says Suza Francina, RYT (registered yoga therapist), who is certified in the Iyengar yoga style, which emphasizes proper form and alignment. “Other forms of exercise don’t work the entire body. But yoga moves your body in all directions.”

Francina, who specializes in working with people over 50, explains that improving posture and body alignment is critical for someone with arthritis. People tend to stretch from their more flexible areas and rely on better-developed muscles for strength. This makes some muscles work harder than others, creating an imbalance in alignment. In yoga the goal is to restore alignment by stretching muscles equally.

Francina emphasizes that people with arthritis need to work slowly and precisely to achieve a rehabilitative effect. Her students, many in their 80s, build up carefully to more difficult poses. “I start them with simple movements lying down—for example, stretching one leg straight up with a strap over the sole of the foot. I line up the joints so the hips, knees, and ankles are all in a straight line. If they can’t get down on the floor, they start in a chair.” Soon, they’re doing standing poses. Props, such as the strap or a wall, are important for supporting the body in correct alignment and enabling people to stay in a pose longer.

Expand range of motion

Yoga movements involve passive stretching. “Moving slowly, you take a joint just to the point of pain. Repeating this action over time removes stiffness and increases range of motion,” says Francina.

Properly aligned movements develop strength and flexibility, both essential for people with arthritis. The stronger and more flexible your muscles are, the more impact they can absorb without straining the joints. And taking your joints through their full range of motion lubricates them; you can feel the increased circulation to the joint after doing the pose. In this way, yoga prevents joints from becoming unstable without straining them.

Improve bone quality

Yoga also improves bone quality by stimulating bones. It applies your own body weight systematically to bones in your feet, legs, hands, wrists, arms, upper body, even your head. The amount of weight applied increases incrementally as you grow stronger. Thus the movements rehabilitate you, instead of causing injury, explains Francina.

Improve balance

“Yoga emphasizes standing on your own two feet,” Francina notes. As well as improving body mechanics, the postures make feet stronger and more flexible, counteracting the tendency for the toes to stiffen as you age. Balance and coordination improve, helping prevent falls. And if you do fall, your muscles are better able to control and absorb the impact, reducing the chance of injury. “A student of mine who’s 93 had a fall, but she’s resilient and didn’t hurt herself at all,” says Francina.

Breathe freely, reduce stress

Yoga emphasizes smooth, peaceful, rhythmic breathing through the nose. Instead of holding the breath, you learn to breathe into a stretch. Meanwhile, as your posture improves, your chest opens so you can breathe more freely. Deep breathing soothes the nervous system, reducing pain and diminishing stress.

In this way, yoga breaks the vicious cycle in which people stop moving because of pain, then lose more mobility because they’re not moving. “Pain gets worse when you hold your breath,” notes Francina. Breathing properly reduces pain, so you can stay active.

A new outlook

Faced with pain and decreased mobility, people with arthritis often grow depressed and anxious. But once your pain decreases and you stop feeling unsteady on your feet, your confidence improves. When people discover that they can rehabilitate their own bodies and regain their earlier ease of movement, they feel newly empowered. “My students are doing things they thought they could never do again: climbing stairs, cooking, opening jars—all those daily tasks,” Francina says.

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