Better sleep cycles. Improved digestion. Increased muscle strength. Enhanced cardio and circulatory health. Fewer injuries. The benefits of yoga have been touted for thousands of years. But it’s only recently that scientific studies have substantiated these claims.
Now, the findings of one McGill University researcher indicate that yoga can help us manage arthritic pain. Dr. Susan Bartlett, an associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine and an adjunct associate professor at the John Hopkins School of Medicine, has been investigating the safety and efficacy of yoga for people suffering from arthritis.
“Arthritis is the most common cause of disability, striking one in five adults in Canada, most of whom are under the age of 65,” says Dr. Bartlett. “Even though we often think of arthritis as a consequence of aging, it is not inevitable. By actively managing their arthritis, individuals can live with less pain, fewer social and physical limitations, and less stress, worry and irritability.”
Although previous studies had led some health professionals to think that yoga was not appropriate for arthritis sufferers, because of fears it could stress vulnerable joints, Bartlett and her team decided to focus their investigations on yoga, because it combines physical activity with stress management, and teaches participants to listen to their body and respect their limitations.
In addition to finding no safety-related issues related to practising yoga, the study – the largest randomized control trial among patients suffering from the two most common forms of arthritis – reported both physical and mental benefits for participants, who were randomly assigned to an eight-week yoga session.
The study concluded that when practiced under the supervision of a qualified teacher who is familiar with the needs of people with arthritis, yoga is a safe and effective activity. In fact, study participants who did yoga reported a 20% reported an improvement in physical health, reduced pain, and a boost in energy and feelings of peace and happiness. What’s more, when researchers looked at the data nine months later, these improvements were still evident.
“Individuals with arthritis need to keep moving, to be active and involved in life to remain healthy, happy and fulfilled. But to maintain an exercise routine, you need to find something that is safe, effective and something that you enjoy,” Dr. Bartlett adds.
If you suffer from arthritis, here are some things to keep in mind before taking up yoga:
- Speak with your doctor, who will be able to advise what you should and shouldn’t do with joints that may already be damaged by arthritis.
- Seek out a gentle or beginner-level hatha yoga class taught by a well-qualified and experienced yoga teacher. Don’t learn yoga at home, using a video.
- Before your first class, talk with the instructor and outline any concerns or limitations your doctor mentioned.
- If you are new to yoga, avoid yoga classes labelled as power, ashtanga, bikram, hot or kundalini.
- Listen to your body. You will have good days and bad days. Take a gentle approach. If a posture hurts, don’t do it that day. Sometimes there is mild discomfort in the beginning, but ask your teacher how to add props or modifications for some of the poses.