Yoga, a blend of physical exercise and mental relaxation or meditation techniques, dates back more than 5,000 years to ancient India. Today, people around the world practice any of more than 100 different styles of yoga on a regular basis. Among them are many people with arthritis, who find yoga is easy on their joints, relieves their symptoms and promotes relaxation.

The word yoga comes from Sanskrit (an Indian language) words meaning “to join” or “yoke together,” a nod to the idea that your mind and body are linked when practicing it. Yoga typically involves moving through a series of physical poses, often going from one to another in a flowing motion, as well as breathing and relaxation techniques. According to the American Yoga Association, this combination of exercise, breathing and meditation promotes better physical and mental health.

Yoga and Arthritis

Yoga is ideal for people with arthritis, says Sharon Kolasinski, MD, a professor of clinical medicine and rheumatology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, because it offers a form of daily physical activity but poses little risk of injury to delicate joints. “Yoga is definitely one option for patients with arthritis, but it also has benefits in the mind/body area. Yoga helps you relax and helps with stress reduction,” says Dr. Kolasinski.

Scientists are just beginning to examine yoga’s physical and mental benefits. A number of recent studies, including some conducted by Dr. Kolasinski, show that regular yoga practice can reduce pain and improve function in people with arthritis. With its gentle stretches and weight-bearing resistance moves, yoga can help build muscle strength and improve balance and posture.

If you have arthritis, it’s important to find a yoga instructor who understands your physical limitations and can modify poses for you if necessary. “Your instructor should know you have arthritis, and help you with using props, or if you need assistance with a block, pillow or strap” to help you move into the various poses, Dr. Kolasinski notes. “You should not overdo it, and always be mindful of the fact that you have arthritis.”

Most people practice yoga in a class setting, either at a gym, community center or yoga studio, led by a trained instructor. However, you can practice yoga at home on your own, using a DVD, book, tape or printed pose instructions. It’s important to wear flexible, comfortable clothing that allows you to move into the various poses with ease. There’s no special footwear required – most people practice yoga barefoot.