“I look at my RA as a gift, not as a curse.”

Joseph Encina
Chapter 1
Living in a Bubble

I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) at the age of 8. I had actually been through some physical therapy while I was very young because I was born with my feet turned in a little, but it wasn’t until seven years old that I realized I had a joint issue, too.

My earliest memory of feeling like I wasn’t “normal” was getting my knee drained at the hospital because it was so swollen. I started to understand that if I ran or played too much, I would hurt myself. I had to go back to the doctor so often to drain my knee that they put me on medication to reduce inflammation and pain.

I was so young at the time, and because of the pain, I wasn’t able to get as involved in playtime or sports. Growing up in Texas, a lot of young boys played sports during their teenage years, and I wasn’t allowed to. Once I got my diagnosis of RA, it felt like I was being put in a bubble, those around me saying, “Don’t let him do too much.” On the one hand I was a normal kid, but at the same time I was in so much pain I couldn’t even sit with my knees folded.

But now? I’m in my 30s, and I’m a yoga teacher. It took a lot for me to get here.

Chapter 2
Push Through the Pain

Navigating RA treatment as a teenager was very intense. The arthritis was mostly in my knees, but as I got older it moved up into my arms. A lot of my treatment was allopathic—I hadn’t discovered yoga yet.

The treatments I was getting weren’t really meant to prevent or fix my issues—it was more about covering the symptoms and making me feel better. There was a lot of physical therapy and draining sessions for my knee, but when it came to medication, I was prescribed different types of steroids, anti-inflammatories, and painkillers.

Eventually, the medication I was on to help my condition spiraled into taking more prescription drugs and becoming more disabled than I originally was when first diagnosed.

When I was 13—the summer before starting high school—I had a heart attack. It was diagnosed as angina of the pulmonary artery, and it was a side effect of the arthritis medication I was on. By then I had already suffered stomach ulcers, getting my stomach pumped, and even arthroscopic knee surgery.

My high school years became some of my darkest times because I was always a little bit in pain and drugged up. I remember being depressed because I couldn’t do much physically or socially, and I was always looking for a way to fix myself. I worked 30 hours a week, in and out of school, and everything made me feel like I had to grow up really fast.

I was forced to become more mindful and mature early on—as just a teenager, I realized that we’re only given one body in this life. I realized I could have died following my heart attack, so I later adopted a new perspective of being grateful to be alive regardless of the pain I was going through.

Then, after I graduated and found my yoga practice at 18, everything changed.

Chapter 3
From Student to Teacher

After having to grow up very independently because of my RA, I wasn’t really sure what direction I was going in as an adult. I knew I was looking for a more spiritual path in life.

I decided to take a world religions class in college, and I remember getting really excited about Eastern philosophy: Buddhism, Daoism, and yoga. It seemed so different from what I grew up with, and I was just looking for answers to be happy after feeling weighed down for so long.

One day, my friend recommended I come to yoga class. Accepting that simple invitation from a friend led to a major change in my life. It was like a rebirth that helped lead me to where I am now.

I knew right away I was going to be a yoga teacher. It was such a quick transition after that first yoga class. I was young, excited, and addicted to the new sense of community and positive lifestyle.

In those first few years, I was practicing every day. I was changing my diet—eating healthy, organic foods for the first time in my life. With this huge lifestyle shift, everything began to feel better because I was focusing on my health. I was so committed after two years that I went to training and became an instructor.

After teaching in the United States for three years, I was fortunate enough to be invited to teach yoga in India. The first hot yoga school was opening in Mumbai, and for 11 months I was able to fully immerse myself in the culture. That time shifted my view of yoga from just a type of American fitness to more of a way of life—how to live every moment while being present and grateful.

Yoga became more than just a physical workout for me. It was my spiritual path.

That said, yoga didn’t fix everything—it didn’t completely get rid of my RA or heart issues. Over my 15-year yoga career, I’ve had a few surgeries and health crises. However, yoga did help me to accept the conditions I was born with or given in life, and that’s what has allowed me to transform. Yoga has helped me manage my habits and keep myself in the best health possible.

Chapter 4
No More Running Away

In the 15 years that I’ve been practicing yoga, my support system has been a community that hasn't been my blood family. My relationship with my parents was complicated, so a lot of support came from different yoga teachers, each of whom were involved in a different chapter in my life. They’ve become mentors or “parents” who have really supported my healing.

Growing up without a support system, I focused on taking care of myself and doing what was necessary to survive with RA. It’s meant a lot to have students and teachers see me work day-to-day through my journey, but also who have allowed me to join their journey as well.

Now my life with RA is one of realistically accepting it. Before, I would try to run away from it and used medications and treatments to do that. In my 20s, I wanted to transform my RA into this crazy addictive yoga lifestyle. Now, I’m just living with it. It’s not something you can run away from or change—you just learn to manage it.

My RA has become the condition that I rule, not the one that rules me. It’s the thing that drives me to wake up in the morning, bike around New York City, teach yoga, and help others.

To someone who is newly diagnosed with RA, I would say that this condition is not a good thing, but it has done some really great things in my life. It’s made me more aware of my lifestyle, gifts, and career, and how I can heal myself through those things. I would tell them that any adversity, even if it’s RA, gives you something at the end of it.

RA brings a life of struggle, but out of that struggle, you’ll gain so much more compassion and understanding of the pain of those around you. The most beautiful part of having RA has been being able to turn from a victim state of livelihood to a state of, “How can I help others?”