Lower back pain, buttock pain, extreme exhaustion, stiffness after inactivity, pain that doesn’t ease with rest, difficulty breathing deeply … all these are symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis, also known as radiographic axial spondyloarthritis. Because this form of arthritis typically starts in teenage years, it’s not easily diagnosed and sometimes dismissed as “growing pains”. It’s more common in men, which can make it even harder for women to receive the right diagnosis. Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a chronic condition for which there’s no cure at the moment. Therefore, managing AS is all the more important: the right medication can relieve the pain and control the symptoms. Also the right exercise and a healthy lifestyle are crucial. This blog about yoga for ankylosing spondylitis and axial spondyloarthritis discusses how yoga can help with the physical symptoms as well as the emotional stress associated with this chronic condition.
Ankylosing spondylitis is an inflammatory immune disease which usually starts slowly and early in life, under the age of 30. It causes pain and stiffness due to the inflammation of the spinal joints, ligaments and sacroiliac joints. The pain and fatigue during flare-ups can be extreme. Over time, the inflammation can make the whole spine rigid and cause some parts to fuse, hence the risk of developing an exacerbated hunched upper back (kyphosis). As mentioned before, the right medication and exercise can relieve many of the symptoms.
Yoga for ankylosing spondylitis and axial spondyloarthritis
Yoga and yoga therapy can work wonders to help relieve the stiffness and the pain associated with AS. With its emphasis on alignment and flexibility, yoga promotes spinal mobility and good posture. Through postural work and back bending movements, it can help prevent spinal rigidity and kyphosis. Yoga further strengthens the core muscles, so they can support the spine more efficiently. Twenty to sixty percent of people with AS also have low bone density (osteoporosis). Again, yoga can be very helpful to build and maintain bone, as explained in this article: https://beneyoga.co.uk/osteoporosis-how-yoga-prevents-or-reverses-bone-loss/.
Yoga’s benefits reach even further. Firstly, yoga facilitates deeper breathing. The yoga movements, combined with breathing practices, encourage a freer movement of the rib cage, thoracic spine, back and chest muscles. Secondly, the calming effect of yoga is instrumental in reducing the stress and anxiety that can accompany living with chronic pain.
If you think yoga is not for you, or you feel intimidated joining a group class, individual yoga therapy sessions may be the answer. Yoga therapy tends to be gentler and slower paced, and completely adapted to your symptoms on the day. You may want to choose yoga therapy to:
-Work at your own pace, especially when you experience a flare-up and feel stiffer and more exhausted.
-Become familiar with yoga if you are worried about joining a group class.
-Help with changing symptoms and other health needs.
-Help if your condition is advanced and the exercise you take is best careful and controlled.
Yoga therapy adapts yoga postures, movements and breathing practices to your particular needs. To discuss if yoga therapy could be for you, book a free consultation call. I’m looking forward to meeting you, hearing about your symptoms and explaining if and how yoga therapy could help. You can connect with me here: https://beneyoga.co.uk/consultation/.
Some practices to start with:
The following are gentle movements and positions that can help mobilise the spine and improve posture. They’ll also suggest how you can work with the breath, so every movement coordinates with the breath. I hope these practices give you a flavour of the many wonderful benefits of yoga and yoga therapy.
Just a cautionary note: normally, yoga shouldn’t hurt. With arthritic conditions, however, you may have to persist despite some discomfort. Carefully monitor how the movements make you feel during and after a yoga practice: mild pain can be normal when you have AS, but stop when the pain is severe.
This stretch for the spine can be done anywhere and is a lovely release for the whole spine, as well as a good stretch for the back of the legs.
Place one foot about a foot-length away from the wall and the other a comfortable step behind.
Square the hips forward.
Stretch the hands up and place the fingertips on the wall, quite high.
Shift the weight of the hips to the back foot, making sure the lower back feels nice and long.
Stay in the stretch for up to 5 breaths.
Repeat with the other leg.
Cat & cow
These two positions are often alternated to move the spine in flexion and extension. Together with other gentle spinal movements, they help to keep the spine mobile.
On all fours, inhale and lift the collarbones and sternum to move into the “cow pose”. The spine arches downward.
Bring the shoulders away from the ears and the shoulder blades down towards the waist.
Keep looking forward and down to avoid crunching the back of the neck.
Exhale and bring the navel up towards the spine for the cat pose.
Arch the back upward like an angry cat and allow the head to hang down.
Alternate between cow and cat and repeat both 5-7x.
This position is a passive stretch for the upper back. As such, it can help correct a hunched posture. If it feels comfortable, it can also be soothing to rest in this pose for a few minutes.
Lie on your abdomen with your hands under the forehead.
Rest the whole front of the body on the floor and observe your breath for a few minutes.
Allow the body to relax a little more with every exhalation.
Another lovely way to move the spine, start by lying on your back with the legs bent and feet on the floor.
Place the feet and legs next to each other.
Exhale and move the knees to one side, as far as comfortable. The soles of the feet will come off the floor but keep the sides of the feet together.
Inhale and move the knees back to the centre.
Exhale the knees to the other side.
The positions above are only a start. There are many others that need to be taught with more instructions and supervision to practise them correctly. If you’re ready to expand your repertoire, it’s easy to schedule a few sessions, online or in person: https://beneyoga.co.uk/contact-for-yoga-classes-in-chiswick/.
The ability to breathe deeply and freely is very important for our general wellbeing. This doesn’t mean that we have to breathe in more deeply all the time, nor does it mean that we only focus on abdominal breathing. With a skilled teacher, you can learn to breathe freely with the whole trunk, so the abdomen is involved, but also the rib cage in three dimensions. To learn more about abdominal breathing, have a look at this blog: https://beneyoga.co.uk/releasing-the-diaphragm-for-better-health-and-vitality/, or contact me to discuss how yoga therapy can improve and free your breathing.
It may be confusing to start yoga by yourself, without the guidance of a teacher. If you are interested in yoga for ankylosing spondylitis and axial spondyloarthritis, just five private sessions could give you a thorough basis to continue your own practice. Contact me here to schedule a free consultation call or to book your first session: https://beneyoga.co.uk/consultation/.