The Yoga of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Patient Expert

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In the year before my diagnosis, I signed up to become certified in restorative yoga and to study yoga therapy. At the time, I had been teaching yoga for about two years and had become increasingly interested in the therapeutic benefits of yoga. I was even part of a team of teachers who taught yoga to women with cancer at a yoga center in New York City and on annual retreats around the country. During these workshops and retreats, I had watched yoga transform women's lives and bodies as they struggled through chemo and surgeries, or celebrated another year of remission.

My focus then was on how I could become a better teacher and use yoga to help other people experiencing difficulties with their health. I finished the series of workshops in yoga therapy in April of 2007.   That August, I began experiencing my own health difficulties, first in the form of a swollen toe, which was quickly followed by full-blown rheumatoid arthritis symptoms all over.

At first, not realizing that something was truly wrong with my body, I tried to keep up with my regular yoga practice, but the golf ball lodged in my toe joint made most standing poses difficult. I switched from taking advanced level classes to intermediate, and then to basics. But when my shoulders and wrists became too swollen and painful to move, the only class I could manage to get through was a restorative class, where most of the poses involved lying down, supported by props, blankets and pillows in order to promote constructive rest. Eventually, as I waited in medical limbo for test results to come back, I quit taking class at all.   It was just too hard, physically and emotionally.   Instead, as I waited to hear from my doctor, I decided to end each day in a restorative pose at home to help give me peace of mind, give my poor body a break and create a space for myself to confront my feelings about whatever it was that was happening to me.

After my diagnosis, the yoga stopped completely - both teaching and practicing - amid a hurricane of doctor appointments, tests and medications. I no longer even had the energy to set myself up in a restorative pose at home, and I was so depressed and scared that the idea of laying quietly on my mat and contemplating all of the ugly shoes that were surely in my future had about as much appeal as cleaning my bathroom with my toothbrush.

I stuffed my yoga mat in the back of my closet, figuring my yoga days were probably over - or at least over in the way I had known them.

It stayed that way for a long time.   Then, my meds started working.   With the Enbrel in my system making my joints normal-sized and mobile again, I decided to pull my mat back out and see what I could manage to do.   And that is when I realized just how lucky I was that I had all of this yoga know-how on ways to modify and adapt different poses to meet different needs.   What a godsend those workshops in restorative yoga and yoga therapy had been! Fate is funny like that.

I started off slowly to build up my strength, and I stuck to a pretty basic, easy practice. I heeded the advice of my physical therapist, avoiding any poses that might make my joints more vulnerable and focused instead on finding a new practice that fit my new reality.   It was tough at times. Not just physically, but also emotionally.   Yoga is more than just a physical practice; while you are hanging out in different, often challenging poses, an awareness about what you are thinking and feeling in response to these different poses is created. I struggled not only with my warrior 1 pose, but also with my grief at not having the same practice and body I used to have.   Ironically, the more I was able to do, the more I mourned for all that I had lost. It felt so unfair that I had gone from being able to do complicated arm balances to hardly being able to put any weight on my wrists at all. I knew I should have felt grateful, but that's the thing about yoga; it makes you deal with what you do feel, not what you should.

Even now, my relationship with my yoga practice can be difficult.   Every time I pull out my mat and begin, I have to register how my body is feeling that day, not how it felt two years ago. Some days this doesn't trip me up very much, but other days are harder, and I've even found myself sitting on my mat having a good cry until I can let it go and move onto the next pose. Thankfully, I have also been able to notice how much strength and ability I've gotten back. Some of the poses I thought I had to kiss good-bye are now part of my new regular practice. And, as we all know, being able to feel strong, vital and healthy is some of the best medicine around.

Sara is also the author of the blog, The Single Gal's Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis.