The Strong Medicine of Yoga

Half of the people who start a new exercise program will drop out before they hit the 6 week mark.  This statistic is particularly concerning for people suffering from the pain and immobility brought on with arthritis.  The less an arthritic joint is used, the more immobile it becomes.  The more immobile the joint becomes, the less it is used.  I had a very frustrating front row seat to this downward spiral as I watched my aunt’s world shrink to the periphery of her living room chair as the arthritis in her spine stole her physical freedom.  Yoga is strong medicine for people facing a future similar to my aunt’s.  In large part due to its holistic approach to improving not only the body but also the mind, practitioners tend to stay with their yoga practice over their lifetime.  It is this potential that gives yoga the greatest possibility for improving and preventing chronic disease.

When I started teaching yoga for seniors, I fully expected I would be working with people facing conditions similar to my aunt’s.  However, over my years of teaching, I’ve been surprised by the number of students in their 30s and 40s that have approached me after being diagnosed with arthritis.  Yoga, in general, is one stop shopping for people with chronic health issues such as arthritis.  A regular yoga practice offers patients an improved quality of life, increased strength, flexibility and balance, enhanced immune system, cardiovascular conditioning, emotional and mental steadiness.

There are four different styles of yoga that I have found particularly helpful in improving the state of affected joints, enabling patients to reduce and sometimes eliminate their dependence on drugs, often avoid surgery, and in general improve their outlook.  Where surgery is a medical necessity, these yoga styles offer a comprehensive recovery plan and a holistic approach to the prevention of future decline.  In addition many patients, in an unconscious reaction to arthritic pain, will start to hold their bodies in ways that create imbalance, muscle tension and compound future problems.  A yoga practice of any style enhances your awareness of how you sit, stand and move your body so that your joints are properly aligned and muscle strain is corrected.  Combining three or four of these styles can offer the greatest physical and emotional benefits.

B.K.S. Iyengar initially came to yoga because he suffered from numerous chronic ailments.  After studying yoga, and significantly improving his own health, Iyengar developed a self named style of practice that uses blocks, blankets, pillows and straps to modify poses.  The ample use of props, and the slower pace of an Iyengar practice, make this style very accessible for students with restricted mobility and limited flexibility.  Emphasis is placed on the very specific alignment of muscles and bones in each pose.  This is especially useful where misalignment, poor posture and damaging movement habits have exacerbated the erosion of the cartilage that cushions joints.

Gentle Vinyasa Yoga strings poses together so they flow from one to the other.  Vinyasa, meaning flow, offers continuous slow movement that is especially friendly to people who have a hard time keeping their minds still unless they are “doing” something.  Each pose can still be modified to accommodate individual students’ current abilities, and props are used occasionally.  Over time, the emphasis on breath work that comes from coordinating every movement with an inhale or an exhale strengthens mental concentration and lowers blood pressure.  Although there is less attention paid to the precise alignment of each pose, vinyasa offers the added benefit of cardiovascular work.

During times when you are particularly weakened, tired, stressed or run down Yin Yoga is a ideal restorative solution.  Yin Yoga is a Chinese style of practice in which poses are held for extended periods to invite a meditative state of mind and a deepening into the posture.  Yin Yoga’s long static stretches are particularly useful in lubricating, strengthening and lengthening connective tissue, ligaments and tendons.  Also, because a pose can be held for as much as 20 minutes, the physical and mental emphasis of Yin is on releasing and relaxing.

The fourth modality that I’ve found effective when working with arthritis is Chair Yoga.  While not typically classified as a specific style of practice, chair yoga can be mixed into any of the other styles, or done on its own.  Almost any pose can be modified and approached from a seated position. This is less intimidating for beginning students who worry about being asked to turn themselves into a pretzel.  Chair yoga classes are growing in popularity in gyms, mixing a social ingredient into the yoga experience.

Unlike western medicine, yoga does not assume a lack of pain means you are healthy.  Yogis define health by looking at the condition, and interaction, of every system in the body including circulation, digestion, respiration, and muscular/skeletal.  In addition, yoga focuses a great deal on the condition of the mind and how the mind directly impacts the health of the body.  I do not believe, however, that yoga is a substitute for all that western medicine has to offer.  What I have seen is that yoga is a very effective collaborator with traditional medical regimens. For example, the breath work and mental focus practiced in yoga reduces anxiety, nervousness, and stress.  This in turn decreases many patients’ dependence on medications normally prescribed for these conditions.  Smaller doses of medicine equates to a lower incidence of side effects, which in turn improves physical and mental health.

While yoga, as a physical venue offers tremendous benefits to arthritic joints, the most dramatic value that I’ve witnessed in my students lies in the psychological areas of the practice.  By taking an active role in the improvement of their condition, arthritis patients gain a sense of control, confidence and empowerment.  Depression subsides as pain subsides and, because they feel less like victims, I often see dramatic and quick improvements to these people’s outlook toward the future.  With these results it is not difficult for yogis to commit to a consistent practice that lasts, and enhances, a lifetime.

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