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How to Start Yoga With Arthritis

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Updated July 24, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Arthritis Basics

Arthritis is a general term that describes inflammation of the joints, which can manifest as variable amounts of pain, stiffness, and swelling. There are many kinds of arthritis, of which the two most common types are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

In osteoarthritis, the joints are deteriorating due to use over time; this type of arthritis is common in the elderly and those who perform repetitive tasks. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the body's own immune system attacks the membranes that line the joints. It can affect people of any age. Although the causes, severity, and treatments vary greatly, all types of arthritis have one thing in common: there is no cure, so patients must find ways of living with their conditions.

Most arthritic joints benefit from regular, low-impact exercise, which can decrease pain and improve mobility. Yoga is an ideal choice as it is non-competitive and emphasizes working with your body as it presents itself on any given day without judgement. Yoga can also provide coping techniques, such as breathing exercises and stress reduction, which may help those with chronic illnesses manage pain and depression.

How to Start Yoga When You Have Arthritis

The first thing you should do is meet with your doctor to make sure that yoga is compatible with your condition, since arthritis can affect any joint with variable intensity. Dr. Steffany Moonaz, who researched yoga for arthritis for her doctoral work at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, advises against starting with a yoga video.

"If at all possible, seek out a private lesson with a yoga therapist (or Yoga for Arthritis specialist) who can offer an individualized program for your specific needs and limitations," Dr. Moonaz recommends. If this is not an option, a gentle class for beginners is a good place to start. Call around to different yoga studios in your area ahead of time, describe your arthritis, and ask for information about their teachers. There are so many different styles of yoga and types of teacher-training programs that yoga teachers' expertise varies greatly. You need to find a teacher who is knowledgeable enough to offer you modifications when necessary. Senior centers that offer yoga are another place to investigate, since osteoarthritis is more common in the elderly.

Dr. Moonaz also suggests that prenatal yoga classes are an additional option since they are gentle, will be sensitive to joint problems, and offer individualized attention. If you plan to try a class for seniors or a prenatal class, but are neither elderly nor pregnant, be sure to contact the teacher ahead of time to make sure he or she feels comfortable having you in class. Most teachers will likely be amenable when you explain your rationale for wanting to attend. If you have never done yoga before, review my advice on how to start doing yoga. Though you will need to be more selective in your choice of classes, there is information there about basic poses, equipment, and etiquette that will help you feel more comfortable as you begin.

Recommended Styles

If you cannot find a teacher with arthritis experience, do not despair. The following styles of yoga emphasize rehabilitation and adaptation, and they train their teachers to work with a variety of physical limitations. When you get into class, remember that yoga is all about listening to your own body. A good teacher will not expect you to do anything that doesn't feel right. Go slowly and give yourself permission to stop any pose or movement that causes pain.
  • Chair yoga makes yoga accessible to people who cannot stand for long periods or come down to the mat.
  • Water yoga is a wonderful for people with joint pain. Check your local YMCA or community pool.
  • Viniyoga is intended to be adaptive, tailoring a practice that is appropriate to each individual's physical condition, even within a group practice setting.
  • Iyengar yoga pioneered the use of props to support the body in finding comfort in poses while maintaining good alignment. Iyengar teachers are very well trained in anatomy and pose modification.
  • Anusara offers a good option for those with more mobility who want to do a more active practice. Taking inspiration from Iyengar methods, Anusara teachers are highly trained in alignment and adaptation.
  • Integral, Kripalu and Sivananda are all gentle practices that are appropriate for beginning students and will allow you to do things at your own pace.
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