Features March 2004 Issue

Increase Mobility, Brighten Your Outlook With Yoga

How to ease joint pain, improve balance, reduce stress, increase bone quality, and lift your spirits while you’re at it.

Yoga is far from being just for the young and flexible. 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, R.Y.T., director of the Ojai Yoga Center in Ojai, Calif. “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, which helps remove stiffness in the leg and keeps the head of the thigh bone seated properly in the hip socket. I line up the joints so the hips, knees, and ankles are aligned. Someone who has unusual difficulty getting up and down from the floor can start by sitting in a chair or lying on a firm bed.” With the support of a chair and a wall, even people with balance problems can practice vital weight-bearing standing poses. Such props are important for supporting the body in correct alignment and enabling you to maintain a pose longer.

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

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.

Increase bone quality
Yoga also improves bone quality by stimulating your 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, says Francina, the movements rehabilitate you, instead of causing injury.

Improve balance
"Yoga emphasizes standing on your own two feet,” Francina notes. As well as improving body mechanics, the postures make your feet stronger and more flexible, counteracting the tendency for the toes to stiffen as you age. Balance and coordination improve, helping to prevent falls. And if you do fall, your muscles are better able to control and absorb the impact, reducing the chance of injury.

Breathe freely, reduce stress
Yoga emphasizes smooth, rhythmic breathing through the nose. Instead of holding your 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.

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 bodies and regain ease of movement, they feel newly empowered. “My students do things they thought they could never do again—climbing stairs, opening jars, all those daily tasks,” Francina says.

Choosing a teacher
Look for a teacher who practices a yoga style that emphasizes precision and alignment, uses props, and is slow-paced. Aerobic “power yoga” classes are not what you want. Ideally, the teacher should have experience working with arthritis patients; he or she should at least understand your limitations and be willing to work with you as an individual.

Before you start, consult your doctor. Then suggest that the teacher speak to your doctor. It’s best if they can work together. At the least, the teacher should know how to contact your doctor. Consider beginning with a private lesson or in a small, specialized class.

“People come in with a cane or a walker, and they seem headed for a wheelchair,” Francina says. “But with yoga, they learn to stand solidly on their feet. The body is capable of tremendous rehabilitation—if the spirit will come along.”