Throwing In The Towel (Not!)

RA Guy Adventures of RA Guy

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!