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How I've Used Yoga to Improve My Ankylosing Spondylitis

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Richard Howard - Blogs
By Richard HowardMay 27, 2021

I like to be good at things I do, or at least believe that with work and practice that I could be good at something. So yoga was never something I was eager to try. But I was at a point with my ankylosing spondylitis where, due to side effects, I didn’t have any good medicinal options. It was imperative that I find something that could help my AS. I’m so grateful to my wife for nudging me toward yoga. She knew yoga would help and gently put up with my resistance to trying it.

Before trying yoga, my impression was that yoga was one of those "good for you" things like getting enough rest and drinking plenty of water. Things that sound good in theory but not worth my concerted effort. But now I was desperate to address some of my AS concerns. For AS, yoga checked off a lot of the boxes.

Goal

AS Reason

Yoga Potential

My Experience

Maintain/increase range of motion particularly along the spine and hips

Reduce effects of fusion

Check mark

Two check marks

Balance

Reduce/prevent falls that lead to fractures from brittle fusion

Check mark

Two check marks

Weight bearing

Address osteoarthritis in hips

Check mark

Two check marks

Functional flexibility

Promote ability to pick up something that I dropped to the floor

Check mark

Two check marks

Social interaction

Address isolation from chronic pain

Check mark (my wife practiced)

Two check marks

Improve sleep

Reduce difficulty falling asleep and also waking in pain at 3 a.m.

Check mark

Two check marks

Reduce pain

Reduce the chronic level and number and severity of acute flares

Potentially

Two check marks

Reduce inflammation

AS known to inflame the entire spine, gut, eyes, skin, heart, lungs, and nerves

Potentially

Two check marks

Fun

Increase likelihood to continue the activity

Doubtful

Two check marks

I remember my first yoga class. It was in a large room at the gym, I was in my early 30s, and there were people younger and several people well over twice my age. I was by far the least flexible person in the room. That class was a constant reminder of my limitations, that flexibility is something that I will never be good at. If I didn’t believe that it was good for my body or that I had other choices, I would have never returned to do something that I will never be good at. After all these years, I’m still the least flexible person in almost any yoga room. And while I sometimes enter the room with great resistance, I always leave the room feeling better. I call my Saturday practice “my weekly injection” because it is an essential part of my AS treatment. AS creeps back if I miss a Saturday class, and the positive effect of the practice will last for several days. 

Even though I’ve had a regular yoga practice for 26 years, and it has helped my AS immensely, practicing is difficult. Sometimes, the simplest movement, even breathing, is a struggle. If the teacher doesn’t know me, I’ll tell them, “I’m having a bad day from my arthritis, it may not look like it by my range of motion, but I’ve been practicing yoga for a long time and I know how to practice safely. I may not be able to stay up with class and I will try not to disturb others.” I’ll set up in the back corner and wait for class to start. Trying to breathe. I mentally scan my body, looking to draw comfort and strength from some part that doesn’t hurt. When the class starts, my movements and my world are small. At some point that is neither sudden nor gradual, there is a shift. I not only feel better physically, I feel more aligned with who I want to be. A person that is grateful, capable, and kind. My world is large.

I remember being part of an advance kula (group) of mostly yoga teachers that practiced monthly for about 2 1/2 hours. The teacher asked the class, “What is your shame pose?” To my shock, they all knew the feeling when doing a particular pose. My answer was different, “what isn’t a shame pose?” because literally every pose was a challenge and opportunity to feel shame. I literally require a warmup and props to lay still on the floor. Part of my yoga practice is mentally "staying on my mat," focusing on my practice and not how I may look to others or how beautiful the poses can be expressed by others. Over time, I learned that everyone has limits to their flexibility; mine were just easier to find. Lucky me. Everyone benefits from good alignment (posture), physical activity, and clarity of thought.

If you’re thinking of starting a yoga practice, I’d recommend private lessons from a yoga therapist or an alignment-based instructor (such as Iyengar or Anusara). Getting one-on-one guidance will shave years off the time it took me to learn how to modify asanas (poses) to accommodate your AS. Also it helps to surround yourself with support when adopting challenging but beneficial changes. I’m blessed to have a spouse and children that have been a constant source of encouragement and support on this journey.

Keeping up my yoga practice requires my constant faith that yoga will make a bad day better and make a good day great. I have plenty of personal evidence that I benefit from it -- my AS body and spirit feel better now than they did 3 decades ago -- and yet, all that doesn’t make it easy to walk into a yoga class. It just makes it worth the effort. 

Photo Credit: GibsonPictures/E+ via Getty Images

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About the Author
Richard Howard

Richard Howard has been living with ankylosing spondylitis since 1990. He is the chief mission advancement officer of the Spondylitis Association of America and co-lead of the Los Angeles education/support group. Howard serves on the board of directors of WalkASOne and the patient board of the COVID-19 Global Rheumatology Alliance. He enjoys yoga, gardening, reading, and time with his family. Find him on social media @RichAHoward.

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