Using Yoga to Live With and Treat Rheumatoid Arthritis

Sara Nash Health Guide
  • In the past, I’ve written about how yoga has helped me deal with rheumatoid arthritis and its nasty effects, but it wasn’t RA that first brought the therapeutic qualities of yoga to my attention.  Before the words ‘rheumatoid arthritis’ were ever a part of my vocabulary, I watched how yoga aided my mother’s recovery from her first bout with breast cancer nearly eight years ago.

    My mother was a fan of yoga and went to classes frequently before her diagnosis.  After her two lumpectomies and radiation therapy, her mobility was greatly reduced and her body changed. Yoga played a big part in bolstering her strength and helping her feel like her body was vital and capable once again.  When I finished my yoga teacher training a few years later, I knew that I wanted to explore how yoga could play a role in the management and recovery of serious illnesses like breast cancer. Unfortunately, I wasn’t really sure how to go about it.

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    Enter Tari Prinster. Through a partnership with the Libby Ross Foundation and Om Yoga Center in New York where I trained and practiced, Tari was pioneering a program to expand her Yoga for Breast Cancer classes by teaching other yoga teachers how yoga could be applied to meet and support the needs of women dealing with breast cancer.  I immediately signed up for the teacher training course and thus began my own journey using yoga as a tool for health.

    Tari was diagnosed with an aggressive form of stage two breast cancer in 2000 and underwent a total of four surgeries, plus chemo and radiation. She went from being a freshman in ‘Cancer Graduate School,’ as she calls it, to earning a Master’s Degree in a matter of months.  Tari was no stranger to yoga, having begun classes five years earlier when she hit 50 for, according to her, ‘all the wrong reasons- vanity took over.’

    But after her surgeries, with the range of motion in her upper body greatly reduced and her first chemo appointment staring her down, she realized there was more to yoga than meets the eye.  While she had initially been drawn to yoga in an effort to look better, her journey with cancer brought a new understanding of how yoga could also make her feel better.

    Before her first chemo session, Tari said she felt terrified and alone- something most of us with a serious illness can probably relate to, even if it isn’t cancer. She began to think she needed some help, and while her family and friends were there for her, it somehow didn’t quite cut it. She needed something else that she could do to help herself. Feeling panicked and stressed, she started using some very basic pranayama, or breathing exercises. After the first chemo session was over, she realized she wouldn’t be blown away by the chemo; her yoga practice could help her manage and control her anxiety through breathing techniques and meditation.  This, she says, is when she really discovered how yoga worked.

    As she continued her treatment, Tari completed her pranayama and meditation exercises before each course of chemo, and then afterwards, practiced asanas, or poses, she felt would aid in detoxing her body of the harsh chemicals and the cancer cells they were meant to kill. Compared to her ‘fellow cancer classmates,’ Tari noticed that she wasn’t suffering from as many of the chemo side effects.  It was at this point that she thought there might be something to this whole yoga thing, so she decided to explore it and figure out why yoga might be helping her through her treatments.

  • Soon, Tari was going to every class that touted the healing benefits of yoga she could manage and began to study up on how cancer and yoga worked. Slowly but surely, she began making small connections between the pranayama and asana practices and, as she describes it, what was happening on a cellular level and how that could possibly be beneficial.  Theories began to formulate, and Tari started to put together her own yoga program, focusing on the kinds of asanas and pranayama exercises that had been most beneficial to her, and ones she felt could help others deal with the side effects from breast cancer treatment.

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    Flash forward to 2010 and Tari is busy teaching yoga to breast cancer survivors, or thrivers, in Tari-speak, at OM Yoga Center and at retreats around the country.  She’s also busy teaching her theory and practice to other teachers who believe in yoga’s ability to restore and recuperate the human body and mind, and working on a book.

    Recently, I asked Tari what she believes is most beneficial about practicing yoga. She replied that its ability to address all the parts of being human- body, mind and spirit, make it an especially useful tool for those of us who are turning to it to deal with a health crisis. I couldn’t agree more.

    She also had some great words of advice for anyone who may be considering trying yoga for the first time as part of a treatment regimen.  In her words: ‘do not assume that all yoga is the same. Do not assume that yoga cannot be harmful.  Explore and be curious and find a person to teach you the yoga, not from a DVD, but a person whom you can relate to and who understands the condition and long-term side effects you may have.  Bring an understanding that it can be a little scary to start a yoga practice- cancer (or any illness) and yoga are both a little scary, but are both a journey. When you start down the path of cancer, there is no turning back to being normal again.  If that reoccurrence happens, having the tools of yoga to prepare you for that – the breathing and meditation- can be very helpful. Yoga is a journey- every time is different.’

    Tari’s words resonated with me, and while her advice comes from her experiences with cancer, I have found that it rings true in my own journey with rheumatoid arthritis. Many of the emotions we experience after a diagnosis or during a flare, including panic, anxiety, depression, and isolation, can create even more anxiety and stress for our bodies to cope with in addition to rheumatoid arthritis. Yoga is a tool that is available to help us manage the physical and emotional challenges of RA. Finding a community of others dealing with similar issues to practice with can help battle feelings that we are going through this struggle alone. But even if you can’t make it to a class, or if your range of motion or mobility won’t allow you to take a full class, pranayama and meditation are both important parts of yoga. There are a multitude of scientific studies coming out that support meditation as an effective tool for pain management, and the best part about meditation and pranayama is that both can be practiced lying in bed, sitting in a chair, or even standing in line at the grocery store or pharmacy.

  • This is the aspect of yoga that, in my opinion, makes it such a great tool for an illness like RA that has constant ups and downs.  One day, you might be able to manage a more physical practice that includes asanas- even a vigorous one, while the next day, you might find it challenging to even get out of bed.  To me, it’s comforting to know that even on my worst days, I can still do something therapeutic and good for me through simple breathing exercises and a little yogic awareness.

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    Read more of Sara’s writing at her blog, The Single Gal’s Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis.

    Tari Prinster (ERYT) is a cancer survivor and a yoga teacher. Tari started yoga at age 50. That was 16 years ago, now she considers herself an example that it is never too late to start change. Through yoga, she found not only a way to reduce pain, strengthen the immune system, feel younger and stay healthy, but also emotional guidance. Tari did the research to understand why and how this happens and wants to bring this knowledge and experience to others. She created a yoga program of weekly classes and three-day retreats. Her forthcoming book, The Yoga Prescription: Using Yoga to Reclaim Your Life During and After Cancer, is a practical guide demonstrating how and why yoga can help reduce and counteract the life-long risks, challenges and often ignored long-term side effects that result from cancer treatments.

Published On: October 13, 2010