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Powerful Movements

Yoga therapy helps arthritis


Arthritis affects millions of people. Yoga therapy offers a gentle way to combat pain, and increase flexibility and muscle strength in arthritis sufferers.

There is an old saying about how we forget to appreciate our health until we lose it. The fine print in that adage should make a note about appreciating our mobility, too.

When Kim Scarrow was 19 years old, she developed sharp nerve pain in her gluteus area that never went away. Dull, achy lower back pains made sleeping difficult, and she used painkillers to get by. “I couldn’t sit down to study in university,” she remembers. “I had to lie on the ground (on my stomach) with a pillow.”

Search for pain relief

Battling the pain, Scarrow sought the help of doctors and physiotherapists, but was left without a diagnosis. She even consulted a surgeon regarding spinal fusion. Then she tried a yoga class and found a therapy that could help alleviate her symptoms.

“When I went to my first hot yoga class, I walked in limping and walked out straight,” she notes. “Yoga saved my life on an emotional level as well as a physical one.”

Once she discovered that hot yoga could help manage the pain, Scarrow maintained a regular Moksha yoga practice. Eventually, Scarrow was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a type of arthritis causing inflammation in the spine.

While she does still need some medication, her yoga practice enables her to live a relatively normal life. Today, Scarrow runs her own Moksha yoga studio and has partnered with The Power of Movement (see below) to raise funds for arthritis research.

Facts about arthritis

Scarrow’s story isn’t as rare as you might think. Myths and misconceptions about arthritis abound, but the biggest is probably the idea that arthritis is just age-related aches and pains. Actually, the term arthritis includes about 100 diseases and conditions, some of which can strike before the age of 16. More than 4 million Canadians aged 15 and over have some form of arthritis (two-thirds of whom are women), but the average age of onset is between 41 and 50. According to the Canadian Arthritis Network, osteoarthritis is the most common form, affecting one in 10 adult Canadians.

“Arthritis is invisible to many,” says Dr. Jane Aubin, scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Musculoskeletal Health and Arthritis (CIHR-IMHA). “Arthritis has a very high socio-economic burden in Canada, but most people are not aware of its complexity or the pain and suffering of those who live with it.”

Isolation factor

“Isolation is the worst part of arthritis,” explains Scarrow. “Although public perception doesn’t consider it to be life threatening, arthritis can actually deteriorate your organs, nervous system, and soft tissue. You feel like a burden because people don’t understand, and you isolate yourself because you don’t want to be that burden.”

Not only is pain cited as a reason for limiting social activities among people with arthritis, but it is also the most commonly mentioned barrier to sufficient exercise. Pain-related fear of movement is certainly understandable, but the right exercises can actually be very therapeutic for people living with arthritis; they can help reduce pain and elevate mood.

Exercise to the rescue

Exercise is especially important for arthritis patients, who often have decreased muscle strength, range of motion, and physical endurance due to the tendency to remain sedentary to avoid pain.

“Parents of children with arthritis are often told that prolonged rest is good for arthritis and arthritic joints,” notes Dr. Brian Feldman, senior scientist and head of the Division of Rheumatology at the Hospital for Sick Children. “We believe that physical activity and exercise are much better for arthritis than too much rest. Studies are ongoing, but basically exercise seems to improve physical function. Moderate exercise is safe for children with arthritis, but intensity and duration should be limited by symptoms.”

Anecdotal evidence about the effectiveness of yoga, tai chi, and similar forms of exercise for arthritis symptoms is growing daily, but scientific research is catching up. “Canada is a leader in arthritis research,” explains Aubin. “There is a lot of exciting research being done and many new studies to help those with arthritis now and, hopefully, prevent it in the future.”

Iyengar yoga, particularly, has been found to reduce disability and pain in people with chronic low back pain. It is still undecided whether or not hot yoga (which is performed in a specially heated room) should be practised by people with rheumatoid (or inflammatory) arthritis, but many patients do swear by it.

When deciding to start a yoga practice, don’t be afraid to talk to the teacher or studio owner first. They may not advertise a “yoga for arthritis” class, but they can help you choose the right class, poses, and adaptations to suit your symptoms and needs. Beginner classes in any type of yoga will ease you into building strength and flexibility, so you don’t have to be naturally flexible to start.

Above all, Scarrow urges other arthritis patients to give alternative therapies an honest try.
“Be open-minded and try new things,” she advises. “Don’t hate your body. Don’t hate your disease. Don’t hate your pain. Instead, nurture your body. Take care of it. It’s a mental switch that you just have to make.”

The Power of Movement

When yoga instructor Dorna Chee was hospitalized with lupus, she turned to yoga breathing exercises to help her through it. She phoned the Arthritis and Autoimmune Research Centre, and with the help of Erin Moraghan, The Power of Movement yoga fundraiser was born.

In 2005, it began with one yoga session; today, it is a nationwide fundraising event that introduces new people to yoga and brings people together to fight arthritis. On February 27, 2011, yoga “mega sessions” will take place across the country. Participants collect pledges, much in the same way as they would for a charity walk, and the sessions are designed to be suitable for every body. For details and to register, visit



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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD