Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease that affects every organ system in the body. Regular exercise can help with many of the symptoms of lupus, especially where it affects the cardiovascular system (including the heart and brain) and mental health, as well as being good for the overall health of the body. You can read more about the cardiovascular risks of lupus here.
However, for many people with lupus, it can be difficult to get enough exercise. Lupus symptoms like joint pain and fatigue play a part, but some people with lupus don’t feel that they have any time or energy to spare for exercise. You can read more about fatigue and lupus here.
Between work, childcare, and other obligations, adding in a workout routine can seem daunting. Fortunately, there are options for people with lupus that are easier and more accessible than going to a gym. Short, simple home exercises and stretches can be done in between or a part of other activities, and once they are used to exercising regularly, many people with lupus report that they have less pain, more energy, and better mood as a result.
For some people with lupus, the ancient meditative exercise practice of Yoga might be ideal.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is an ancient meditation technique that has been practiced for thousands of years. It’s a major part of Hindu philosophy, and it is a way to “unite” the body and mind by controlling the movement of the body and focusing the senses. Modern Yoga focuses on only one part of the philosophy of yoga, the holding of certain postures or poses, known as Asanas. While only a part of the whole philosophy of yoga, regularly practicing these postures carries many benefits including building core strength, strengthening other muscle groups, improving posture, stretching muscles and tendons, strengthening the cardiovascular system through stamina and breathing exercises, reducing anxiety, and improving focus.
However, it should be noted that yoga as a whole is much more than just asanas. It’s an ancient tradition of meditation, spiritual practice, and enlightenment, and while finding information on practicing the postures and exercises is easy to find these days, the other parts of traditional yoga can be difficult to come by.
In the Western world, Yoga (typically Hatha-style Yoga) is often taught in classes with an instructor, sometimes indoors or outdoors, with exercise mats and nonrestrictive clothing. It involves gentle exercise movements, breathing exercises, and the holding of poses which is gentle on the joints while still providing exercise benefits. The classes can be paid (and vary in price) or might be freely available through school or community center programs. These classes are typically in person, but since 2020, they can sometimes be hybrid or remote. There are also videos that can be purchased that go through a series of poses called a routine, and other videos can be found online, which allows people to practice yoga in their home on their own, on their own time and schedule. It’s generally considered to be best to have a teacher in a class or private setting, however, since they can make sure that you are doing the poses correctly. Like with exercise, incorrect form can put extra stress on the body, leading to pain and even serious health conditions. A teacher or trainer can also help adapt routines to your physical capabilities.
Yoga as an exercise can be done on its own or with music, scents, and other additions. It can even be done alongside prayer, which does connect it back to its spiritual roots. These are mostly personal preferences – any addition or accommodation that helps you to regularly practice yoga will help you make the most of the benefits.
Meditation, Stress, and Lupus
Yoga is considered a type of meditation, and meditation is well-known to have benefits for people with lupus. The mindfulness technique of meditation has been proven to reduce depression, anxiety, and stress by giving the brain – and body – space to heal from the burdens of everyday life with a chronic disease.
Stress relief cannot be understated – mental stress affects the body, too. When stressed, the body naturally ramps up the immune system, causing inflammation. While this is beneficial in a situation such as an injury or sickness, this stress response can trigger the symptoms of autoimmune disorders like lupus. The symptoms of lupus cause further stress, and the damage from lupus increases over time. Relieving stress helps to break the cycle and has been shown to reduce the symptoms of lupus. Massage and art therapy can help relieve stress for people with lupus, but meditation has the advantage of being easily done on one’s own at home. You can read more about massage and lupus here.
Meditation is generally done while sitting, and uses breathing, mantras, and focus techniques to create a calm, even state of mind. While some people use tools like essential oils or incense or music, many forms of meditation need nothing more than a few minutes of a person’s time. Meditation relieves stress, clears the mind, and also allows the body to rest, which helps with energy and alertness. It can also help with insomnia when done before bed. Both meditation practice and better sleep are associated with lower levels of anxiety. You can read more about lupus and anxiety here.
There is some evidence that people’s perception of pain is also reduced by meditation – the source of the chronic pain might still be there, but they aren’t as affected by it.
While it does take some time out of the day, meditation can be done as part of a morning or evening routine, on commutes, or during breaks. The main disadvantage is that it is a sedentary practice – you are sitting and not getting much exercise – but it still has many benefits.
Mindfulness is the best known and studied meditation, but there are many different types. The internet is full of videos and meditation aids, so people with lupus can easily find a type of meditation that is right for them. And, for some people, yoga, which combines physical activity and stretches with meditation techniques, may be exactly what they are looking for.
What does Yoga Do for People with Lupus?
Yoga provides many of the benefits of exercise to people with lupus:
- Stretches muscles and tendons
- Increases blood flow and strengthens the heart and lungs
- Helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle (also known as the circadian rhythm,) metabolism, and the immune system
- and produces endorphins, which are natural mood-boosters and painkillers. You can read more about how physical activity affects mood here.
Yoga also calms the mind and creates a routine, which also is beneficial for people with lupus. When yoga is a part of a class, either in person or online, it also helps alleviate the social isolation that many people with lupus endure, improving mental health.
However, the benefits of yoga go beyond stress relief and stretching. In a 2018 review in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers noted that, in small randomized controlled trials, it appeared to reduce pro-inflammatory immune system cells that are often found in people with lupus such as interleukins (IL-6 and IL-1 beta) and tumor necrosis factor (TNF-Alpha). An updated review in 2021 supported this reduction in inflammation, but noted that the trials were small and not standardized. The yoga programs in the studies varied in length and frequency (8-12 week programs, weekly or daily, 30-90 minutes of class time,) and would have benefited from more standardization. However, despite this, yoga was consistently seen to have benefits for people with autoimmune diseases when done regularly. As alternative medicine becomes more accepted in the medical community, more solid research studies will be available.
When done correctly, there are few downsides to yoga. Most of the problems come about when people do the poses improperly or do poses that their body is not ready for. Going out to classes can expose people with lupus to infection, pollutants, and sunlight. Sunlight sensitive and immunosuppressed people should be careful with this, as with any outing. Yoga facilities that use essential oils as a part of their practice might be irritating for some people with lupus, and regular class attendance can be difficult with the unpredictability of lupus flares. Fortunately, some classes are now hybrid and there are many online resources that can help with performing yoga regularly at home. It’s a matter of personal preference and what is available, and each individual person with lupus will have different preferences.
Does the Style of Yoga Matter?
There are many different styles of yoga, just as there are many different styles of meditation. The teachers and practitioners of each one will claim that their style is the best – however, according to a 2016 review, different yoga styles did not make a large difference. All styles studied provided roughly the same benefits. The key is that the teacher must be qualified and competent. Like any exercise, yoga can be done improperly, and potentially cause harm.
The takeaway here is: Don’t worry about the style of yoga. Instead make sure that you find a good teacher that is available to you, either live or virtual. The style or method of teaching is important, but that can be left to personal preference – positive experiences maximize the benefits that you can get from yoga and encourage regular practice. The Lupus Foundation of America recommends restorative yoga, Iyengar yoga, and hatha yoga for people with lupus and advises against hot yoga, Bikram yoga, vinyasa yoga, or ashtanga yoga due to the physical demands. Again, though, it is about personal preference.
A Lupus Warrior’s Takeaway
You are probably sick of people telling you to “eat healthier,” “get more exercise,” or “stop stressing.” You already know that. You’ve probably tried a lot of things – finding the right combination of diet, routines, and techniques for you is, unfortunately, a long journey for many people with chronic illnesses. You can read more about the challenges of lupus here.
Yoga is a great, easily accessible technique that provides many benefits, and it might be exactly what you need! Or it might not – there are many other techniques out there to try. You know your body best and you will find what works best for you. Keep trying. It will be worth the search.
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