HealthCentral Tries It: Modified Yoga for RA

Patient Expert
Emil DeAndries

As a pitcher, I spent my career prioritizing being limber and flexible. Coaches and trainers often recommended incorporating yoga into my workout. Even some of my favorite baseball players growing up preached its perks. I never got around to it as a ballplayer, though. I stubbornly stuck with weight lifting and running.

Now, having had rheumatoid arthritis (RA) for eight years, I’ve been recommended yoga many times as a means of coping with the symptoms. People love the low-impact exercise and the peace of mind it provides. Still, I’ve always found ways out of trying it, possibly because in the back of my mind I doubted all its alleged virtues.

Recently, I gave it a go. I knew that was the only way to find out for myself. Of course, there are different variations of yoga and its practice can affect people differently. This assessment of yoga and its utility for rheumatoid arthritis patients is based on my experience, solely.

Pain

Many people appreciate the low-impact exercise yoga provides. For the most part, a session is comprised of balancing yourself in different positions with controlled breathing, which after a while, can work up a good sweat and relax you.

Issues arise, however, if the poses you hold put weight on a joint that has been compromised by RA. This was the case for me, as one of the joints impacted by my RA is my wrist. Putting weight on my wrist, such as in the pushup position, is very painful, and unfortunately, the central position of yoga (at least in this session) was downward dog. Thankfully, I was able to do a modified downward dog on my elbows, as shown in the picture. But I was left feeling that people whose RA affects their wrists, knees, or ankles, might find yoga to be painful at times.

Emil Tries It: Yoga for RA-Emil DeAndries2
Emil DeAndreis. Caption: Doing warrior pose, which is a great way to build strength in your legs and core while also improving balance and focus.

Language and clarity

Take it from me: If you’re attempting yoga for the first time, brush up on some of the lingo. If you don’t, you might end up like me, always a few steps behind, looking at others around you whispering: “What does that mean, and what in the world is that?”

The instructor said things like: “Now I want you stand in a triangle and work your way into a half moon.” As well as: “Really feel your chest go on top of your ankles and your hips rotating over your thighs.”

She might as well have been speaking Martian. I was standing there tied into a pretzel, trying to envision what she was telling me to do, and wondering if it was humanly possible. But most everyone else was able to keep up with the flow of the class.

I understand how disruptive it would have been if the teacher stopped and demonstrated everything. The class would’ve taken forever, and many of the veterans to whom yoga is essential would have left feeling quite unrelaxed. So to fully focus on breathing and balance, one ought to familiarize him/herself with some of the basic positions and terms of yoga before going to an instructor-led class. This will enable you to reap the benefits of yoga in full.

Emil Tries It: Yoga for RA-Emil DeAndries3
Emil DeAndreis. Caption: The triangle pose challenged my flexibility and leg strength with minimal taxation on the joints. I never thought I could work up a sweat while standing still until doing yoga.

Ultimately relaxing

A family member has claimed that yoga was essential in putting his rheumatoid arthritis in remission for the last 20 years. When I hear testimonials like this, I can’t help but feel hopeful. After trying yoga, however, I don’t feel this will be the case for me. I am glad I tried it, and will certainly try it again (I rarely think experiencing something one time is enough to judge it). But I will have to continue to work to understand the positions so that I can modify them to accommodate my wrist. It’s also important to note that there is no scientific evidence that yoga brings about RA remission.

After class, lying on the mat, I did find myself feeling relaxed. I felt the endorphins one typically has after strenuous exercise. It was clear to me that yoga is a challenging form of exercise and also a great mental practice. After my experience, I feel yoga could be a positive way to exercise and benefit your mental health. As always, before trying any exercise for the first time, discuss your approach with your doctor.

See more helpful articles:

The Benefits of Yoga for RA Patients

My First Spin Class With RA

Keeping Mobile: Physical Therapy and RA