How can we help our students with arthritis? Arthritis causes pain and joint stiffness, decrease a positive mindset, and make it hard to function normally (mentally and physically). This condition takes the fun out of the day and discourages a person from participating in outdoor activities, such as swimming and biking. Even walking takes its toll on a person with Rheumatoid arthritis or a person with advanced stages of Osteoarthritis. Depending on the stage and type of arthritis, exercise can actually help to reduce those painful symptoms, and yoga provides a pleasurable alternative to strenuous exercise for people who suffer from arthritis.
How Hatha Yoga Helps Students with Arthritis
All yoga teachers should know that classes which have less flowing movement and hold postures longer are the best choices for students who are coping with arthritis. Yoga students with arthritis must have proper guidance when seeking a class that meets their specific needs. Yoga consists of breathing exercises, holding poses, meditation and other activities. A Restorative Hatha or Yin class gives a person complete freedom to perform the postures (asanas) without causing pain. People can modify yoga postures any way they want, to get the best possible alignment, and still gain the benefits. Yoga improves flexibility, enhances strength, balances muscle groups, boosts mental activity, improves physical energy, relieves stress, and improves one’s mood. Replacing constant pain, with positive feelings, is what separates physical yogic methodology from many fitness programs.
Performing yoga helps a person learn to relax and let go of tension in the body; as the tension goes, so too does the pain and the stiffness. For many people, Hatha yoga provides an effective solution for battling their arthritis symptoms. It builds confidence and boosts emotional well-being, as they master the poses and reduce their tension. Like regular exercise, yoga builds stronger bodies and improves overall health. It has a flexible nature and causes no adverse side effects. In fact, most people who try yoga, enjoy it and continue to do it for the rest of their lives.
Yoga’s breathing exercises (pranayama) relax the body; the poses reduce joint tenderness and swelling. Due to the fact that yoga centers the mind and grounds the body, it builds positive energy and a resistance to the daily stress that comes with suffering from arthritis. Stress worsens arthritis symptoms, but yoga provides an effective method for managing stress and dealing with the condition.
What Kind of Yoga Practice?
Yoga comes in many forms, from gentle to powerful styles. The typical class with Sun Salutations might not be the best choice. Students, who have never practiced yoga, should be guided toward something gentle. Most people, who come into classes looking for relief from arthritis, should be guided toward Yin or Restorative classes. They definitely do not belong in your Vinyasa classes. Let’s not paint everyone, who has arthritis, with the same brush. Each case is unique, but low friction in the joints is going to give one, who has arthritis, the best possible physical activity. The best classes for students with arthritis are Restorative, Yin, and Therapeutic sessions. The reason being: Holding postures releases negative energy and balances the body. Excess friction is going to worsen joint wear.
What is a Teacher to Do?
Firstly, instructors, who have been exclusively teaching young athletic students, are not usually the best choice for yoga students with arthritis. Who needs to be abused by a teacher who lacks the experience, patience, and knowledge to teach a person with any medical condition? If you are an instructor who has never worked with someone who has arthritis, please refer that person to a gentle teacher who has the qualifications and knows how to use props. The best thing yoga teachers can do for each other is give referrals. If I see a student who wants a kick in the pants, I will refer them to the teacher of their dreams. If you are a patient teacher, but lack the knowledge, the best thing to do is gain the experience through education, certification, training, or assisting for a Restorative, Yin, Chair, or Therapeutic yoga teacher.
What About Slow Flow?
Slow flow classes are a consideration, but they should be extremely slow and cleared by a student’s physician. Slow flow might help students who are in early stages of arthritis and have a lot of energy. However, each student, body, and case is unique. It is helpful for yoga students with arthritis to discuss their unique options for physical activity with their doctors. Now, let’s imagine all of your students with arthritis are medically cleared for a gentle and therapeutic slow-flow class. It would be wise to devote the closing of the asana session to holding yoga poses and cool down techniques. Always finish with a relaxation session and positive thoughts.
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Petersen AM, Pedersen BK. The anti-inflammatory effect of exercise. J Appl Physiol 2005;98:1154–62.
Raub JA. Psychophysiologic effects of Hatha Yoga on musculoskeletal and cardiopulmonary function: a literature review. J Altern Complement Med 2002;8:797–812.
American College of Rheumatology Subcommittee on Osteoarthritis Guidelines. Recommendations for the medical management of osteoarthritis of the hip and knee: 2000 update.
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