Are you fed up with the back pain and misery of osteoarthritis, a painful degenerative joint disease? Regular yoga practice can help. Here are 7 easy exercises to improve mood and mobility, build strength and stability and increase circulation for osteoarthritis sufferers.
What do yoga and osteoarthritis have in common?
Osteoarthritis is an age-old, degenerative joint disease that takes a toll on your physical and emotional health. Yoga is an ancient therapy that can restore both. Recently, science has begun to connect the dots between the two.
A 2008 randomized, controlled study revealed that dozens of women eased their chronic low-back pain by participating in a one-week intensive yoga program to help osteoarthritis. "By its very nature, yoga is good for arthritis because it relieves the disease's major disability” reduced range of motion “without causing further trauma to joints," explains Loren Fishman, M.D.
- Builds strength, which provides greater stability to joints.
- Improves posture, which minimizes joint trauma caused by misalignment.
- Increases the circulation of synovial fluid, which nourishes and protects joints.
- Promotes a confident attitude, and reduces anxiety and irritability.
"The key is practicing regularly," says Ellen Saltonstall, a New York City yoga teacher and co-author of Yoga for Arthritis, who also has arthritis in both hands, one foot and lower back.
The best part is you can do yoga on your own whenever you have time. To help osteoarthritis, aim to complete at least one pose each day, she suggests. If that’s too ambitious, make it every other day. Before starting, consult your doctor and an experienced yoga teacher to learn the right alignment.
Here are 7 easy yoga exercises for low-back pain adapted from Yoga for Arthritis by Fishman and Saltonstall. (Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton.) During each pose, breathe slowly through your nose.
1. Wall Dog
Purpose: To extend the spine and stretch the chest and hamstring muscles.
Tips: Retract shoulder blades firmly into the back. Keep knees bent if you’re stiff.
- Place your hands on the wall at eye level with your index fingers pointing up, arms shoulder-width apart and elbows straight.
- Place your feet hip-width apart and parallel.
- Straighten your arms and move your chest a little toward the wall. Keep your elbows straight and pull your shoulder blades in toward your spine. Your chest will move a little toward the wall and shoulders will move back.
- Bend forward through your trunk until there is one long diagonal line from hands to hips, stepping back as needed.
- Raise your sitting bones and separate them, which will make an arch in your lower back. Lift your buttocks toward the ceiling, creating an arch in your lower back.
- Draw in your belly and lengthen the tailbone.
- After several breaths, return to standing as you inhale and step toward the wall.
2. Bridge Pose
Purpose: To strengthen the back and open the chest and shoulders, extending the spinal range.
Props: A yoga mat and a blanket.
Tips: Relax your neck, throat, and jaw as you breathe. Avoid squeezing the buttocks.
- Lie on your back with the tops of your shoulders on the top edge of the folded blanket and your head on the mat. Bend your knees, place your feet hip-width apart, parallel, and about 6 to 8 inches from your hips.
- Place arms alongside your body, palms facing up.
- Inhale. Curl your sitting bones down to the floor and apart, creating an arch in your lower back and ensuring that the pelvis stays wide.
- Exhale. Raise your hands until your elbows are bent 90°. Point fingers up.
- Lift hips, spine and chest as you inhale, then roll each shoulder under so that your weight rests on the tops of shoulders.
- Point knees forward.
- Contract the buttocks, firmly lengthening them away from your waist without squeezing tightly.
- Exhale as you come down.
3. Leg Stretch with Belt
Purpose: To stretch hamstrings and major muscles of the back and improve spinal and pelvic alignment.
Props: Yoga mat, belt and a blanket.
Tips: Keep the pelvis steady as the leg changes position. Relax your neck, face and shoulders.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat. Arrange the blanket so that the lower edge supports the small of your back, with your buttocks on the floor.
- As you inhale, move your sitting bones down to the floor and apart, which will arch your lower back.
- Contract abdomen in and lengthen your tailbone toward your heels without flattening the lower back.
- Raise your right leg and hook a belt around the foot. Hold one end of the belt with each hand.
- Gradually straighten the leg, firming the muscles on all sides and elevating your heel.
- If your right leg stretches to 90°, straighten the left leg till flat on the floor for more challenge.
- Extend through both legs fully, even if it means backing off with your right leg. (Note: The goal is not to force the right leg or foot toward your head.)
- Return to lying flat with both legs stretched out, then repeat with the left leg up.
4. Standing Lunge with a Chair
Purpose: Stretches the hips, chest, back, strengthens the quadriceps and promotes balance.
Props: A yoga mat and a chair.
Tips: Set the pelvis carefully, squarely facing the back of the chair, and keep it that way as you perform the pose. Do not let the back leg droop. Align the front knee with the second toe.
- Stand facing the back of your chair.
- As you step the left foot back, bend the right knee until the right shin is vertical.
- Lean forward toward the chair and fully stretch your back leg, firming the muscles from foot to hip.
- Retaining the forward lean, lengthen your tailbone down and draw the lower belly in to stabilize your pelvis.
- Bring your torso upright and retract shoulders back until they are just above your hips.
- Let go of the chair when ready, and stretch arms up parallel to ears. Breathe fully and confidently as you maintain this pose.
5. Mountain Pose with Arms Up, Hands Clasped
Purpose: Establishes well-aligned posture and provides a full stretch of the shoulders, arms and hands.
Tips: Try to maintain a vertical plumb line through your whole body, from ankles to knees to hips to shoulders to ears.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and parallel, legs straight, arms at your sides.
- Balance the weight as evenly as you can between the four corners of your feet: the inner heel, the mound of the big toe, the little toe mound and the outer heel.
- Firm your leg muscles and bring the tops of your thighs back until they are over your ankles.
- Inhale and lift your arms out to the side and up to your ears.
- Interlace your fingers and turn the palms up.
- Extend strongly and equally down in to the earth and up to the sky.
- Straighten elbows as much as possible.
6. Wide Wall Squat
Purpose: To stretch and strengthen the hips and legs.
Prop: A wall.
Tips: Keep your knees facing out over your toes.
- Stand with your back to the wall, legs turned out 45° to the side.
- Inhale and lift your spine.
- Bend your knees until thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Place your hands over the tops of your thighs, near the hips, with your fingers pointing outward.
- Press down with your hands, allowing you to lift your spine up more and curl your tailbone down. You can lean slightly forward if that feels right. Hold for a few breaths.
7. Arms Clasped Behind
Purpose: To strengthen and stretch the shoulders, to improve posture and joint stability.
Tips: Don’t lock your elbows.
- Stand tall, feet parallel and hip-width apart, with hands clasped behind you.
- Strongly pull your upper arms back, rotate them outward, and push outward against the resistance of your hand clasp.
- If your ribs go forward or your back arches a lot, pull back through your waistline to restrain the movement.
- Hold the pose for a few breaths.
By Kate Hanley