Inflammation can be caused by a variety of environmental and dietary factors, and in many cases is simply one of the body’s many ways of fighting off illness and infection. Chronic inflammation, however, is a more serious issue and can cause a multitude of long-term negative effects on the body. One of the most common chronic inflammation ailments is Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that causes intense inflammation and has a wide range of debilitating effects on the body physically, mentally and emotionally. Symptoms of the illness often start as redness, pain and swelling in the small joints of the hands and feet. Over time the inflammation can spread,  leading to decreased mobility, deformed joints, and intense pain. As if those symptoms weren’t bad enough, there is also a high rate of comorbid depression (depression that occurs in conjunction with another illness) that happens in people with RA. However, there is hope for the condition in the form of a consistent yoga practice, says a new study published in the journal Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience. 

The study focused on 72 patients divided into a practice and control group. Blood samples to test for inflammatory markers and a Beck Depression Inventory Scale were administered before, during and after the study. During the intensive eight week session, the practice group engaged in yoga for two hours per day, five days per week. Both groups continued to take their prescribed medications throughout the trial.

Results were very promising, showing a rapid reduction in both symptoms of depression and pain in the yoga group. Although the study could be strengthened by doing a three or six-week follow-up to evaluate the consistency of yoga practice and rate of symptoms, it is nonetheless an important contribution to a growing scientific body of literature focused on the benefits of yoga and meditation as a powerful mind-body intervention in the treatment of physical and psychological ailments. 

Blood samples were collected pre and post-intervention for this study to investigate how a yoga practice affects the systemic biomarkers of inflammation, cellular aging, and oxidative stress in RA. “Our results provide evidence that yoga positively modifies the pathobiology of autoimmunity at cellular and molecular levels by targeting mind-body communications,” explains lead investigator, Rima Dada, MD, Ph.D. “Further research is needed for the exploration of possible mechanisms underlying the cumulative effect of yoga on multiple pathways at a cellular level. Yoga facilitates the mind’s capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms mediated through a variety of downstream pathways and bring about natural immunological tolerance.”

Like many autoimmune disorders, the causes of RA are not entirely known, although it differs from the more common Osteoarthritis in a number of important ways. Osteoarthritis is a condition whereby the synovial fluid that surrounds and cushions the joints is depleted, causing the bones to rub together. For most people, some form of Osteoarthritis is inevitable with age. In contrast, RA is an inflammatory condition that causes the body’s immune system to attack the synovial fluid that surrounds the joints. It is assumed that genetics, environmental pollutants, and bacterial or viral infections are the most likely factors in developing RA, with women being more prone to the illness than men. 

Yoga’s holistic focus on the interplay of mind/body health, and its adaptability (poses can be modified as needed with props and supports) makes it an ideal therapeutic form of exercise. In the well-known book Yoga as Medicine, Marian Garfinkel, a student of BKS Iyengar and a longtime researcher on the effects of yoga on various arthritic conditions, discusses some of the most beneficial poses for those with RA. She highlights the importance of starting with gentle, restorative poses like supported Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Cobbler’s Pose) as a way to reduce pain, lessen feelings of depression and generally ease people into the practice. From there it is advised to slowly explore other poses, paying attention to pain thresholds and easing off as needed. And, as always, making adequate time for meditation and pranayama, in addition to the asanas, will lead to a well-balanced practice that can shift to meet the needs of each person’s body on any given day.

YogaBasics Advice on Yoga for RA

Use our Whole Body Tonic sequence as a base for a Rheumatoid Arthritis yoga practice or use the following posture lists that open and strengthen the affected joints: Yoga Poses for Knee Pain, Yoga Poses for Hip Pain, Yoga Poses for Back Pain.

With Rheumatoid Arthritis include appropriate inversions to increase circulation of the lymphatic system and balance the immune system. Focus on a cooling and balancing yoga practice using more floor postures and Dirga, Shtiali, and Sitcari pranayamas.

Yoga is contraindicated in acute flare-ups of pain, swelling, or inflammation of the joints. Avoid yoga poses that torque or put excess or direct pressure on the joints.