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Yoga for Rheumatoid Arthritis: Your Guide

Posted on March 25, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Diane M. Horowitz, M.D.
Article written by
Sarah Winfrey

Some people living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) find that practicing yoga is an enjoyable way to stay active. Physical activity such as yoga has a variety of wellness benefits for people with RA. It can help support overall mental well-being and better quality of life, and decrease stiffness, pain, and inflammation.

Yoga unites physical poses with breathing exercises (known as pranayama) and mindfulness to promote strength and feelings of acceptabce and peace, while helping to manage RA symptoms. Always talk to your rheumatologist or another health care provider before starting a new exercise program. Your doctor will be able to advise you of any precautions you should take before, during, and after exercise.

The Benefits of Yoga for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Research on yoga for rheumatoid arthritis suggests that yoga is beneficial for people with RA. Many myRAteam members agree. One member wrote, “Yoga is a tremendous help with RA.”

Some research has suggested that yoga may help people with RA move better, lower their inflammation markers, and experience fewer symptoms of depression. Yoga may even help people diagnosed with RA more successfully regulate their immune systems. This is an important finding, as rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that occurs due to an overactive immune response.

Research has found that joint swelling and pain decrease with yoga practice, as well. Many myRAteam members have shared that they were doing yoga to reduce pain.

Experts also believe that yoga may help people with RA change their relationship with their pain. Even when yoga doesn’t reduce RA pain, it can help some people have more energy, allowing them to get through their days more effectively. This effect of yoga can be empowering and elevate mental health — especially for those experiencing an RA flare-up.

The positive effects of yoga for RA may also include gaining and maintaining muscle strength, range of motion, and alignment — all of which are necessary for everyday activities like sitting, standing, changing positions, and even going to the bathroom. The benefits of yoga as exercise may help some people avoid or manage the limited mobility that can come along after a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.

Yoga may not benefit everyone with RA. It is not a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, and it is not guaranteed to improve your particular symptoms. Your rheumatologist can help you decide whether yoga is right for you.

Tips for Practicing Yoga Safely With RA

If you plan on practicing yoga with RA, be sure to take steps to do so safely and to find the right type of yoga that works for you.

Talk To Your Rheumatologist First

Before you begin any kind of exercise regimen, talk to your doctor. Be sure to let them know about any symptoms you have and medications that you are taking or considering taking. Your doctor may be able to recommend yoga studios, practitioners, and asanas (yoga poses) that could be particularly helpful for managing rheumatoid arthritis.

Only start yoga after your rheumatologist or health care professional has given you the go-ahead. Starting an exercise regimen against your doctor’s medical advice may worsen your symptoms or have other negative effects.

Find a Yoga Teacher Who Understands RA

Talk to your doctor about finding a yoga instructor or yoga therapist who works with people diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. These practitioners will have experience modifying movements or making adaptations so that they work for your body and needs. If you can’t find someone to work with in-person in your area, yoga videos for people with RA might help you develop your practice.

Find the Right Type of Yoga

There are many different styles of yoga, including Iyengar yoga, yin yoga, hatha yoga, and more. Each one is slightly different, and you’ll want to find the one that works best for you.

One myRAteam member said, “See if you can find yin yoga. It’s not as intense and has pillows as part of the class. It focuses more on relaxing the body and very light stretching without any pretzel moves.”

Another member explained, “More than 100 different styles of yoga exist, and some are safer than others. Viniyoga, Iyengar yoga, and chair yoga are reasonable choices. It's best to avoid Ashtanga yoga, Bikram yoga, and power yoga when you have rheumatoid arthritis.”

Adaptive yoga, in particular, may be a good fit for some people with RA. Adaptive yoga modifies the practice to make it accessible for everyone, regardless of their current physical abilities.

Many myRAteam members also like chair yoga, which involves practicing yoga poses and breathing techniques while seated. As one member wrote, “At times, I do yoga on the chair and it's very helpful.”

Know Your Limits

Some people diagnosed with RA find that yoga causes them discomfort. As one member wrote, “My rheumatologist said yoga should be good for me, but my knees disagree.”

Discomfort doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t do yoga, but it does mean that you should plan ahead and know how much discomfort is too much. In general, stretching should not cause pain. Note that discomfort is different from pain. It’s OK if you experience some muscle fatigue while doing yoga, but you should stop if you experience joint pain. This may mean avoiding certain poses or certain types of yoga. You should also stop if you feel your RA symptoms worsen.

Some people may not be ready to do yoga just yet. One member explained, “I couldn’t do yoga if I tried right now.” If this is how you feel, talk to your doctor about ways to control your RA better so you can begin physical activity.

Practice Regular Joint Care

You may benefit from yoga but experience lingering discomfort afterward. If this is the case, try adding in some joint care before, during, and after your yoga practice.

Heat Therapy

Apply heat for about 20 minutes before you begin your yoga practice. Heat can help relax your muscles and get your joints ready to do yoga.

Warm-Ups

Make sure you warm up before starting yoga. Even if you can start strong in yoga class, you may not want to. Move gently for the first five to 10 minutes, or incorporate gentle exercises and stretches to increase your range of motion beforehand.

Ice Therapy

If certain areas of your body tend to hurt after yoga, icing them for up to 20 minutes afterward can help prevent swelling.

Get Support Today

On myRAteam, you’ll have access to the social network for people living with RA and their loved ones. Here, more than 146,000 members come together to share advice and stories of life with RA.

What do you want to know about yoga for RA? Start the conversation in the comments below or by posting on myRAteam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Diane M. Horowitz, M.D. is an internal medicine and rheumatology specialist. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Sarah Winfrey is a writer at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here.

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