Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is an autoimmune disease that affects the spine and other larger joints such as the hips and shoulders, causing stiffness and pain. I've lived with it for 10 years myself now and I know first-hand how debilitating it can be. Fortunately, yoga can be extremely beneficial for those who suffer from this chronic condition. With regular practice, yoga can help to increase flexibility, strength, sleep quality, reduce stress levels, and promote body awareness - all key when it comes to managing AS. Let’s take a look at why yoga is so beneficial for those with ankylosing spondylitis.
Yoga for Increased Flexibility
Yoga focuses on slow movements that stretch and elongate the muscles. For someone living with ankylosing spondylitis, these gentle stretches can help to reduce stiffness in the joints and increase range of motion. If your AS symptoms have caused your spine to become more stiff in certain places due to inflammation, yoga poses such as cat-cow, sphinx and baby cobra may provide relief by helping you extend through the spine and with time move more freely. Any gentle twists and thoracic rotations are also good for this and they can help open up the upper back and tip cage so breathing feels easier. If you have fusion in your spine I'd recommend working directly with a physical therapist or trusted yoga teacher that can help tailor specific moves based on your individual needs.
Increased Strength & Joint Stability With Low Impact Movements
The combination of stretching and strengthening poses found in most yoga classes helps to build muscle strength and joint stability without putting too much strain on the body. This makes it perfect for those with AS who may not be able to do more high-impact exercises such as running or heavy weight lifting due to joint pain or stiffness. Strengthening poses like warrior II and Chair Pose are great ways to improve balance and stability while building strength in the legs, arms, core, and back muscles—all important areas when dealing with ankylosing spondylitis pain and stiffness.
Reduced Stress Means Better Sleep Quality
Yoga is known for its ability to reduce stress levels which can lead to better sleep quality at night. Stress hormones such as cortisol can disrupt our sleep cycle by keeping us awake longer than we should be, not to mention the sheer anxiety of trying to go to sleep when we're stressed out. A regular yoga practice can help us become more mindful and more at ease with whatever is going on in our life - whether its stress, pain, or any other negative factors. Sleep is also very healing, its when our body regenerates - so its extra important for us with Ankylosing Spondylitis. If you have trouble sleeping due to pain, check out my post on how to sleep with back pain.
Mindfulness Proven To Reduce Inflammation
Some breathing techniques can be very calming for the nervous system, decreasing cortisol levels over time as well as pain levels! A couple of scientific studies has shown that inflammation is reduced when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated (the rest & digest response) vs the sympathetic (the fight or flight response, which most of us live in constantly) - here is one example:
Mindfulness meditation and the immune system by David S. Black and George M. Slavich
You can find a number of others discussing the correlation between the sympathetic nervous system and increased inflammation by a quick google search. On this same topic, I'm also a huge fan of visualization meditations and I have a number of back pain, chronic pain, and spinal visualization meditations in my virtual studio! You can check out the studio here:
Again, scientific studies have shown that visualizations can help alter the body in different ways. I believe this is a great resource if you'd like to learn more:
The power of the mind: the cortex as a critical determinant of muscle strength/weakness by Brian C. Clark et al.
So in conclusion: The calming effects of yoga make it a great way for those suffering from ankylosing spondylitis to find relief both physically and mentally. Regular practice helps relieve pain and stiffness while also reducing stress levels which results in better sleep (and life!) quality overall. So if you’re living with AS don’t forget that one of the best treatments you can do is incorporate some form of yoga into your daily routine! It will make a world of difference, I promise.