Yoga and Arthritis

Understanding joints

The adult human body contains 206 bones and approximately 300 joints, where two bones meet. Joints provide structural and mechanical support. Most joints are synovial joints, including knees and knuckles. Synovial joints allow for movement and are susceptible to arthritis.

Examples of synovial joints

  • Gliding joints, including those between the eight wrist carpals. They are found where bones meet as flat surfaces and allow bones to glide past one another in any direction.
  • Hinge joints, including the elbow and knee. They limit movement in one direction so the angle between bones can increase or decrease at the joint. This limited motion at hinge joints provides strength and reinforcement from the bones, muscles, and ligaments that make up the joint.
  • Ball and socket joints have the fullest range of motion and allow the joints to move in a full circle and rotate around their axis. They are found only in the hip and shoulder. This free range of motion make them more susceptible to dislocation.
  • Saddle joints, such as the one found in the thumb. Saddle joints allow a more limited circular movement than ball and socket joints.
Morning desert stretch

Soft and connective tissues

  • Cartilage covers the surface of a bone at a joint. Cartilage reduces friction and serves as a shock absorber.
  • Synovial membrane creates a capsule at the joint and secretes a lubricant – synovial fluid. A healthy knee has less than one teaspoon!
  • Ligaments connect bones; they are tough, elastic bands surrounding the joint to give support and limit the joint’s movement.
  • Tendons connect muscles to bones and control movement.
  • Bursas are fluid-filled sacs between bones, ligaments, or other nearby structures and help cushion friction in a joint.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is a chronic condition causing joint pain or joint disease, often leading to stiffness, numbness, tingling, inflammation, and motor loss in the affected joints. Causes may include loss of cartilage, lack of fluid, autoimmunity, inflammation, infection or a combination of issues. Arthritis is one of the most common joint disorders affecting more than 54 million U.S. adults, including 50% of adults over 65.

There are many types of arthritis. Common types include:


Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative joint disease, most often associated with aging. Excess weight can result in OA in knees, ankles and feet. An injury to a joint is another risk factor. Knees are the most affected joints. OA is also common in hands, feet, spine and hips.

Arthritis “hot spots”
Illustration by Laura Kraft

Cartilage relies upon synovial fluid to transport nutrients and waste in and out of the area. The more joints bend and move, the more fluid circulates through them, increasing the ability for even greater movement. As people move less with age and/or injury, joints lose synovial fluid circulation. This has a “snowball effect” in deterioration at the joint. As cartilage loses its elasticity and becomes stiff, it is easier to damage. Damaged cartilage leads to damaged tendons and ligaments. As a result, bones rub together and cause inflammation resulting in pain, swelling and stiffness.

Common symptoms

•Joint Pain
• Stiffness
• Restricted movements in the joints
• Swelling or inflammation
• Warmth or redness of the skin over the joint

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. It is a disorder in which the immune system attacks the joints. It is considered chronic and inflammatory. This can lead to substantial loss of mobility due to pain and joint destruction. The body starts attacking its own parts unknowingly.

Gout Arthritis

Gout Arthritis (GA) is caused suddenly as a severe attack, usually either in the big toe or any joint. This is a metabolic disorder that results from crystals of uric acid depositing in joint tissues, causing attacks of inflammation.

Psoriatic arthritis

Psoriatic Arthritis (PA) affects some people who have psoriasis — a condition that features red patches of skin topped with silvery scales. Most people develop psoriasis first and are later diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, but the joint problems can sometimes begin before skin patches appear.

Learn more about arthritis on the Arthritis Association web site.

Benefits of Practicing Yoga

Many people suffering from arthritis begin to limit movement, yet most arthritic joints benefit from regular, low-impact exercise. Yoga practiced with pranayama and meditation is an excellent option. Yoga is gentle and enjoyable enough to practice regularly, even for those with chronic pain. Yoga builds muscle strength, joint flexibility and balance. Range of motion improves. Yoga also helps manage pain, balance energy and improve physical, mental and emotional well-being. Recent studies have supported the benefits of a regular Yoga practice to ease the pain of arthritis and increase movement. Arthritis restricts movement; Yoga increases range of motion.

Yoga for Arthritis

  • Focus on your breath.
  • Warm up joints at the beginning and end of each practice (dasha chalana or ten churnings). These can be practiced seated or standing:
    • Neck
    • Shoulders
    • Wrists and fingers
    • Hips
    • Ankles and toes
  • Stay longer in poses, giving yourself ample time to fully experience the pose without going too far – never to the point of pain.
  • Find what works for you. Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center suggested poses include:
    • Mountain
    • Cobra
    • Side Angle Pose
    • Stork
    • Gentle Seated Twist
  • Viniyoga is an excellent option for practioners with arthritis. This style of Yoga allows students to practice at their own rate, moving with their breath. Adaptations are offered by the teacher to ensure a safe practice for each student.
  • Include a period of rest. Savasana not only supports joints but calms the mind and deepens the breath at the close of practice.
Side Angle Pose

Yoga is about clearing away whatever is in us that prevents our living in the most full and whole way. With yoga, we become aware of how and where we are restricted — in body, mind, and heart — and how gradually to open and release these blockages. As these blockages are cleared, our energy is freed. We start to feel more harmonious, more at one with ourselves. Our lives begin to flow — or we begin to flow more in our lives.

~ Cybele Tomlinson