Once upon a time I was diagnosed as having symptoms of arthritis in the big toe of my left foot. It was a bit stiff, but didn’t give me much of a problem. However, aged 36, I was a little concerned, as I had also developed another condition in the same foot called a Morton’s Neuroma. Sounding somewhat grand, this is a nerve channel inflammation, most commonly in between the 3rd and 4th metatarsal, as was mine. To add insult to two injuries, I was also suffering from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Like buses, they all seemed to arrive at once, although I hardly felt spoilt for choice.
The CTS symptoms were the most troublesome, becoming so bad that I could hardly drive a car for fear my hands would seize up. So I went under the knife. Surgery - at least temporarily - made life manageable.
Around the same time I had introduced myself to yoga, learning a relatively gentle routine at home with a Leah Bracknell video. Plucking up the courage to do something a little more dynamic, I went to my first Ashtanga class at the Yorkshire Yoga Centre in Knaresborough, and woke the following day feeling as though my whole body was arthritic.
However, my practise became regular, and I became more proficient and started going to David Swenson workshops. Becoming more engrossed in the yogic way of doing things, I also learned a little about nutrition and my diet improved.
It is well-known that yoga can improve the physical well-being of those suffering from even the most progressive of conditions. With particular reference to arthritis, regular practice can help reduce joint pain, improve joint flexibility and function, as well as lower stress and tension. There is much documented evidence of this, such as Professor Sharon Kolasinski’s (University of Pennsylvania) studies on the effect of yoga on knee osteoarthritis, references in holistic and ayurvedic medicine, as well as articles in the popular press, including the Daily Mail!
In the UK, about 1.5m per annum people visit their GP about osteoarthritis (which mainly affects the knees, hips, spine and hands), while just under half that number consult about rheumatoid arthritis (common in hands, feet and wrists). These conditions, as well as CTS and Morton’s Neuroma are, according to Dr Ray Strand, in his bestselling but somewhat convolutedly named book “What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know About Nutritional Medicine May Be Killing You”, caused by the same thing: oxidative stress. Simplistically, oxidative stress is inflammation in various forms, promoted by an extreme imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants. Wherever imbalances are most severe in our bodies, the more likely it is that a condition will develop in those parts unless we dilute the concentration of free radicals with adequate amounts of antioxidants (which ‘sponge up’ and neutralise them). Thus, if the oxidative stress is in the wrists, CTS may develop; in the spine, multiple sclerosis; in the brain, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s; in the joints, arthritis, etc......... Dr Strand and many others now believe that every degenerative disease is caused by oxidative stress, and that these conditions occur as a direct result of poor diet, our environment and stressful lifestyles.
Can yoga practice reduce inflammation?
In 2010 researcher Janice Kiecolt-Glaser (Ohio State University) found in a study of 50 healthy (experienced and novice) females practicing basic Hatha yoga postures that the more experienced practitioners showed lower levels of inflammation-causing proteins in their blood. The women who were new to yoga had higher amounts in their blood. The study found that the experienced yoga practitioners had less physiological reactions to stressors. All reported improved mood after yoga. “By reducing negative mood, you can also reduce pain,” Ms Kiecolt-Glaser said.
Further research includes an 8 week University of Pennsylvania study (1994) which showed improved hand pain, tenderness and finger range of motion in the participants suffering from hand osteoarthritis, a common condition that can impair daily activities like dressing, driving a car or cooking; a 2009 Dubai Bone and Joint Center (Dubai) Rheumatoid Arthritis study which found that more than half the participants in a yoga program reported significant improvements in disease activity; and a 2014 Indian study of a week-long, intensive yoga program’s effects on 64 men and women with Rheumatoid Arthritis in which all participants showed reduced rheumatoid factor levels and, in some participants, improved hand grip strength.
Researcher Subhadra Evans (University of California) , after a small study of the effects of six weeks of asana practice on a group of women with rheumatoid arthritis, was impressed by the immediate, positive impact on people with a serious chronic disease. “I was surprised by how strong those results were,” she says. “They all said that day-to-day levels of pain hadn’t changed, but their relationship to the pain had changed. They were able to get through daily activities much more effectively, and had much more energy. I think if we had had them do yoga longer, we may have seen more significant changes in pain and other symptoms.”
What is clear though is that asana practice alone will ‘help’, but not produce the results that a holistic approach to promoting physical and mental health will bring.
Dr Ray Strand and Diet
The body is an incredible machine. Given what it needs, it repairs itself effectively. Ideally, the body needs up to 50 vitamins, minerals and other dietary essentials on a daily basis, but even if we eat 100% organically we cannot achieve the optimum levels needed because our foods do not contain the nutrients they used to. So, in addition to a healthy diet, we need to supplement. I have taken everything Dr Strand recommends in his book for the last few years. The list is too extensive to include here, but what is remarkable is that, previously prone to regular inflammation for as long as I can remember, my body appears to be free of it.
Of course, genetics play a part too – someone who smokes and drinks too much might live a healthy and sedentary life to 103, whilst another who runs marathons and eats, drinks and breathes purity itself may contract lung cancer at 35 – but the rule for most of us is the same. Since the second world war, more than 60,000 new chemicals have been introduced into our every day Western lives, even our most organic food contain traces of herbicides, pesticides and other pollutants, and the likelihood of passing away due to old age has drastically reduced in recent decades, so the need to find natural ways to combat these poisons is even greater than before. Our aim should not merely be for a long life, but for a long, healthy life. Too many of us spend our final years in pain and misery.
After a recent knee operation (to repair a meniscus tear - an old sports injury) the consultant told me I had “the joints of an eighteen year-old”. The recuperation period was half the usual time, upon which I immediately had an argument with Henry, a vacuum cleaner, who tripped me up and broke my ankle. Those who are squeamish, look away - the consultant was able this time to remark on his surprise that my ligaments were so strong that they pulled the bone apart, leaving the ligaments themselves intact. Another unusual occurrence, and I repaired within 6 weeks without the need for a whopping great hop-along pot on my busted peg.
The most important development from this change in lifestyle and immersion into the world of yoga is the fact that, 12 years later, no further symptoms of arthritis have developed, Mr Morton’s Neuroma has faded into memory, and, apart from the odd tingle now and again, CTS has virtually disappeared.
Yoga’s Many Benefits
Many people turn to yoga as a way to exercise gently, to reduce tension, improve joint flexibility, build muscle strength and improve balance as part of an overall healthy regimen that may also include cardiovascular exercises like walking or swimming. In addition, yoga offers a form of exercise that is enjoyable enough to do regularly. Stretching will eventually see an improved range of motion.
On days when you’re experiencing a painful arthritis flare, continuing to do some type of physical activity like yoga, if possible, can help you maintain joint flexibility.
Arthritis cannot be cured, and even the best medications and medical care can only help so much.
The general rule for anyone, including those with arthritis is that if it hurts, stop. Generally I tell all my students “some discomfort is ok, but never allow yourself to feel pain”. It is important to be gentle with your practice, especially at first. If you do not experience any pain after a few days, you can decide to gradually increase the intensity of the poses.