How to Practice Yoga with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Sara Nash Health Guide
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    After a long and arduous winter, Spring is finally making its way into the world around me. This time of year always makes me feel better.  I feel more awake, more energized and more myself, even when my RA rears its head here and there. The sun has decided not to be a complete stranger, and the change to daylight savings time has spared a few more hours of light for me to enjoy at the end of the day.

    This morning, I woke up bright and early – at least bright and early for me lately – and in time to make it to my yoga class for the first time in awhile.  After the sludge of winter, it felt great to wake up with some energy and the sun streaming through my window, so I got out of bed and headed out.  The class felt great, and I walked home afterward feeling very pleased with myself for starting my day off on such a good note.

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    Not only do I find it easier to motivate myself to practice yoga more often in the Spring, but I also find that my practice feels reinvigorated as I’m drawn to doing poses that encourage my body to open up and stretch. In celebration of the new season ahead, I wanted to share a couple of my favorite Springtime asanas with you all here.

    (Note: talk over any new exercise programs with your doctor before you begin to make sure it's right for you).

    Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
    One of the great things about Tree pose is that it can be easily modified for many different abilities and levels.  Tree pose is great for working on balance, posture and strength in your legs, as well as encouraging your chest to open up.

    How to practice the pose:
    Start by standing with your feet together or hip-distance apart and your toes pointed forward.  Engage your legs actively so that you feel the bottoms of your feet pressing down into the floor beneath you, and at the same time, reach the crown of your head up towards the ceiling so that your body becomes long.  Make sure you aren’t sticking out your ribs, stomach or your bum, though! Keep your focus in front of you at eye level.

    Place your hands on your hips and begin to transfer your weight onto your left foot. Next, bend your right leg and lift your right knee straight up in front of you so that it is about even with your right hip.  Extend your right arm and hold onto your right knee.  Slowly, begin to take the right knee out towards the side, making sure to stop when you notice your hips aren’t pointing straight-forward anymore- it’s important to keep both hips facing forward.  From here, place the right sole of your foot against the inside of your left leg either above the knee, and you can use your right hand to help, or below the knee.  You never want to place your foot on your knee (be kind to your joints!).  

    Bring both hands to your chest with your palms together and gently press them into one another.  Encourage your shoulders to relax down, and think about the front of your sternum, or breast bone, lifting up slightly.  Remember to keep breathing as you practice the pose and keep pressing down in your left foot.  Try holding it for three to five breaths, then slowly lower the right leg and place it back on the floor and lower your arms.  Take a breath, and then repeat on the other side.

  • A few tips and variations:
    · If balance is as elusive for you as it can be for me, practice this pose within arms-length of a wall so that you can use the wall as needed.

    · Breathing is the most important thing you can do in this pose, so if you are finding yourself really tense, take a deep breath- who cares if you fall?

    · There are no prizes given out for having your foot up high on your leg.  Practicing the pose with your foot at your ankle and working on the other elements of the pose counts just as much.

    If you want to take the pose further, you can extend your arms overhead in a V shape to encourage the chest to open up more.

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    ·       If standing isn’t an option, do the pose lying down on your back! You may want to place a pillow, block or blanket underneath the bent knee to support that leg and to help keep both your hips facing up towards the ceiling. Make sure to keep your ‘standing’ leg just as engaged as if you were standing up, with your foot flexed.

    Supta Baddha Konasana (reclining bound angle pose, or Goddess pose)
    This is one of my all-time favorites.  If you are feeling run down, depressed, or just want to pamper yourself a little, this might become one of your favorites, too. Yogis believe this pose helps support the immune system and calm the nervous system.

    You can practice this pose without props, but to truly feel relaxed and supported in this pose, gather several blankets, yoga blocks if you have them, pillows or rolled towels to help you in this pose.

    How to practice the pose:
    Begin by sitting down on your bum with your legs in front of you. Place a firm pillow or folded blanket length-wise behind you with one end touching your sacrum, or lower back.  At the other end of this blanket, place another folded blanket or pillow- this will be used to support your head. Together, the two pillows/blankets should form a T shape.

    Turn to face forward again then bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet together.  Slide your heels towards your pelvis a few inches, making sure you don’t feel any strain in the inner thighs or hips. With your hands on either side of your left thigh, rotate your left inner thigh up towards the ceiling to help open up the hip further.  Repeat this action with the right thigh. If you have two yoga blocks, take them, or take two rolled up blankets or even sofa pillows, and place one under each knee/outer thigh to support the weight of your legs.  Make sure your legs feel completely supported so that your inner thighs, hips and groin can relax. Do not try to press your knees down to the floor. Now, before you recline, you may want to have a blanket handy to place over you to keep you warm since it is recommended to stay in this pose for several minutes.

    Then, making sure the blanket or pillow behind you is touching the base of your spine, slowly recline.  Adjust the other blanket or pillow behind your head so that your neck and head are supported.  You don’t want your chin to be sticking up in the air, so if you need to add another pillow underneath your head to encourage the chin down towards your neck, do so.

  • Then, make sure you are snug and completely supported, close your eyes, and soften into the support of the blanket underneath your spine.  Let your arms be heavy at your side with the palms facing up, and let your breath help open up your chest.  Stay here, focusing gently on your breath for 5, 10 or even 15-30 mins (as long as it is comfortable!)

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    A few tips and variations:

    · Props can be your friends in this pose. If you do not feel completely supported, try using more!

    · If you experience pain, strain or discomfort in your lower back, use additional blankets under your spine so that you are not reclining as much, just remember to make sure your head and neck remain equally supported. Alternatively, you can also practice this without any blankets or pillows under your back, head or neck, but make sure to always place props under your knees.

    · If this pose aggravates your hips or if having your knees bent is not possible, just keep your legs straight out in front of you.  You may want to place a blanket over your hips and upper thighs as this can help your legs relax in the pose.

    Then, think about Spring, and relax!

    Sara is the author of the blog The Single Gal’s Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis and is a certified yoga instructor.

Published On: April 07, 2010