Throwing In The Towel (Not!)

Manduka MatSakEarlier today, on my way home from physical therapy, I stopped by the gym. No, I did not go there in order to work out or exercise. Instead, I collected my yoga mat and turned in my locker key.

A few months ago I went through the same routine, feeling all the while defeated by my inability to go to the gym. This time around, I’m approaching things from a different perspective.

For the past few years, yoga has been an important part of my life. After having my knee muscles atrophy (and subsequently losing the use of my knees) during one of my pre-diagnosis flares, and after months of daily recuperative physical therapy, I was determined that I would not let that happen again…so I signed up for yoga classes.

Within a year I shed almost 50 pounds, was much more flexible, and was feeling great. Within two years, I was performing handstands and forearm stands of all types, was hooking my foot into my elbow behind my head while in pigeon pose, and was coming close to perfecting an unsupported (no arms!) headstand. On some days, I would do power yoga in the morning and power pilates in the evening. I was feeling fit, and I was loving it.

And then, a year and a half ago, my rheumatoid arthritis took a turn for the worse. I started missing classes, and even when I did attend I had to incorporate many modifications into the routine in order to get through class. I started wearing flexible ankle, knee, and wrist braces during class in order to give me a little extra support. I started using my forearms instead of my wrists, and started placing more weight on my knees and less weight on my ankles.

And at the end of class, I would feel great (emotionally). However, I would not always accept the fact that I was actually feeling worse (physically).

A couple of weeks ago, after months of struggling, I finally made some difficult but necessary decisions related to my exercise practice. I accepted the fact that my ankles and wrists, even in their best days, are no long strong enough to endure the strenuous weight-bearing positions that are required in my power yoga and pilates classes. Sure, I could continue to attend class and make my own modifications, but at a certain point (that would be now!) my personal routine would not even resemble that of the other members of the class.

So, instead of throwing in the towel, I have instead moved to a private yoga practice – here in the comfort of my own house. Before I start my routine, I lay flat and listen to my body. I take note of which areas hurt more and which areas hurt less (and which areas don’t hurt at all!). I then compare this against the wide range of postures that are available, and perform my yoga routine accordingly. In my core (abs, torso) I can still perform power exercises without problem. In my arms and legs, I can perform only soft, gentle (non weight-bearing) exercises.

What I’ve ended up with is a hybrid power-restorative exercise routine that fits me to a T. I enter into a boat pose, and while I hold it for ten seconds I perform a few open/closed hand grasps. My hand-strengthening exercises, which I have been particularly reluctant to perform as prescribed (my rheumatologist checks up on me during every visit!), have taken on a whole new meaning since I’ve incorporated them into my yoga practice.

Last week, I received a call from the gym asking me how I was doing (they know that I have rheumatoid arthritis, and we’ve come to an agreement that missed days won’t be counted against my prepaid membership). I told them that I was no longer going to be participating in the classes that I took part in for so many years, but that I would still be stopping by to take advantage of the sauna, exercise bicycles, and light weights. Pilates reformer machines are currently being installed (to be launched next month!), so I might give them a try to see if they help me exercise without having to place a lot of weight on my ankles and wrists.

So while my yoga mat is now here in my house instead of in a locker at the gym, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In the past this used to be a sign that I was not exercising. Now, it’s just a sign that I am now doing a different form of exercise. A form of exercise that is less about “pushing” myself, and more about “helping” myself.

Stay tuned…for the next adventure of Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy!

9 Comments
9 comments
  1. Elizabeth Riggs says:

    Good for you, RA Guy! You are a Superhero! Keep on with the home routine – stretching and healing. Keep your joints moving and your muscles toned as best you can. Rest frequently. Keep on keepin’ on! Or, as we used to say back in the 60s and 70s, “Keep on truckin’!”

  2. Millicent says:

    The beauty of yoga is that it is the journey, not the destination. It adapts to you. OM!!

  3. Marianne Hoynes says:

    I am always moved by your insights. They always make me think about myself, and the way I am handling my own illness.
    I love that you are able to adapt. When you cannot do what you once could, you do not “throw in the towel” and give it up completely. You find a way to modify what you used to do, and you love yourself through it, accept yourself through it. As a hot headed, stubborn woman of Mediterranean descent, I am often given a smack down by my ever changing physical body. I used to fight back. Now, I listen and accept more (most of the time), and I focus on what I CAN do to keep moving, keep excersizing. Thanks for the insight, and thanks for sharing when you are able to overcome a limitation that this disease puts in your path.

  4. Laurie says:

    Listening to your body is the right thing to do. I have a pregnancy yoga dvd that is pretty gentle…great stretching and breathing routines….my kids laugh seeing it on the shelf and want to know if they’re getting a sibling (kinda hard to do without the parts anymore and NO WAY..I’ll wait for grandkids)

  5. Laurie Grassi says:

    Thanks so much for the inspiration – I’ve been meaning to get back into yoga, which I’ve done briefly in the past before coming down with RA, and now you’ve shown me I really have no excuses!

  6. Sunita says:

    If I lie down on the floor, I wouldn’t be able to get up again! I always dread falling down in public for that reason…I’d have to ask passers-by for help to get up again. Still, I have to look vaguely respectable, and professional, so I can’t go around in trainers…I have to wear smart shoes with a midheel. I used to love to have long soaks in the bath. Now I can only take showers, because there is no way I could get out of a bath with my weak knees. Luckily I don’t need a walking stick any more(being on aTNF), and I try not to let people know just how worried I am of ending up on the floor, hence I always err on the side of caution, just taking the stairs one step at a time. I think people around me get a bit bored with it…but self preservation is very important.

  7. Ash_WebMD says:

    That’s great to hear! On the WebMD Rheumatoid Arthritis Exchange there is a community discussion on how those with RA use yoga and others ways to relieve stress . It would be great if you could share your experiences.

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