Forty years ago, when I first became interested in מורת יוגה and therapeutic exercise, I was assisting an older woman who was immobilized in her wheelchair by arthritis. Long before I understood the degree to which yoga can rehabilitate the body, I was helping people who were unable to dress, bathe or feed themselves independently due to the pain and stiffness in their joints. This has helped me understand the extreme suffering that can be inflicted by arthritis.
Back then, people with joint pain and swelling were advised by doctors not to move! The thinking was “If it hurts, don’t move it.” We now know that inactivity is one of the worst responses for someone with arthritis.
Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in this country, limiting everyday activities for millions of people. Drugs, surgeries, and steroids can alleviate some of the discomforts, but study after study has shown that exercise is most beneficial to most forms of arthritis, specifically low-impact, flexibility-enhancing exercises such as yoga.
Osteoarthritis, a painful and often debilitating condition caused by decades of wear and tear on the joints, is considered to be one the side effects of living longer. By the time we reach age sixty-five, X-rays for at last a third of us will show some signs of osteoarthritis, the most common of a group of diseases collectively referred to as arthritis.
Arthritis is so common in our culture that most people consider the pain and discomfort it brings to be a normal part of aging. Arthritis makes normal activities increasingly painful and difficult and diminishes or destroys the quality of life.
The word arthritis means “joint inflammation.” Modern medicine recognizes more than a hundred varieties of conditions that produce deterioration in joint structures. The common thread among these conditions is that they all affect the joints-those nearly 150 ingeniously designed structures located where two or more bones come together.
Arthritis-related joint problems may include pain, stiffness, inflammation and damage to joints. Joint weakness, instability and visible deformities may occur, depending on the location of the joint involved.
Arthritis is classified into two main types. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder, resulting in stiffness in the joints and muscles, joint erosion and pain. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disorder that erodes the cartilage in joints, which leads to bones rubbing together. Osteoarthritis frequently occurs in people who are overweight or whose joints are painful from extreme overuse.
In spite of the prevalence of arthritis, be careful not to jump to the conclusion that your achy joints are necessarily due to it. Overuse and injuries can also result in tendonitis, bursitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and other fairly common conditions that are unrelated to arthritis.
To remain healthy, muscles and joints must move and bear weight or they will lose strength. This weakness, coupled with joint swelling, will make the joints unstable. Joints in this condition are vulnerable to dislocation, increased injury and pain. Thus, regular gentle movement helps to reduce pain and to maintain mobility.
Physical movement promotes health in many systems of the body. It increases circulation, which in turn reduces swelling and promotes delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the tissues. With immobilization, a cycle of deterioration begins.
Because movement is crucial to so many physiological processes, the arthritic person’s overall health tends to deteriorate without it. The normal functioning of the immune system declines, infections and illnesses occur, and the person often becomes frustrated and depressed. This cycle is self-perpetuating.
When someone comes to me with arthritis, I teach them how to practice yoga safely with the support of yoga props. For those who are new to yoga, the term “yoga props,” simply refers to any object, such as a wall, a sturdy table or a chair, a folded blanket, a firm pillow, a strap or other item that makes practicing yoga safer and easier. Yoga props are especially helpful for older beginners who may have balance problems and are coping with common health issues such as arthritis and osteoporosis.
In addition to common household objects that can be used as yoga props, there are professional yoga props such as a sturdy wooden bar known as the “yoga horse,” yoga wall ropes, yoga bolsters in many shapes and sizes, yoga straps, special yoga chairs, yoga blocks, firm yoga blankets and more elaborate props like yoga backbenders that give people with arthritis and other common health conditions new hope and confidence.
Physicians are increasingly advising regular gentle exercise for people with arthritis because it tones muscles and reduces stiffness in joints. Yoga is an ideal form of exercise for this because its movements are fluid and adaptable. Yoga loosens muscles that have been tightened by inactivity, stress and tension. In yoga we progress gradually, beginning with simple stretches and strengthening poses and advancing to more difficult postures only as we become stronger and more flexible.