A joint is a place, an articulation, where two bones meet. Joints can be immovable, such as the places where the bones of the skull meet, and also where the six bones of the pelvis (did you realize each side of the pelvis is three separate bones?) connect.
Joints more often are categorized as slightly moveable or freely moveable, like the joints of the vertebral column, the elbow, knee, wrist, or ankle joints.
As it pertains to how your yoga practice can strengthen your joints, we will be primarily discussion the moveable joints.
Anatomy of a Joint
If a joint is a part of your skeleton where two bones meet, how are they connected so that your body is a mobile unit?
Joints are made up of two or more bones, tendons (connecting muscle to bone), ligaments (attaching bone to bone across the joint), cartilage (for cushioning), and a fluid called synovial fluid.
Synovial fluid is there to provide lubrication, so that the parts of the joint do not rub on each other. Synovial fluid reduces friction.
Practicing yoga asanas can help keep your joints healthy. Here's an anatomical perspective on some of the ways yoga strengthens the joints:
1. Yoga increases your range of motion.
Each joint or group of joints has a range of motion measured in degrees. For example, your lower back, your lumbar spine, has a range of motion about 30 degrees backwards (extending) and about 70 degrees forwards (flexion).
These numbers will differ based on the source. The point is, yoga can help you to regain more of those numbers to do useful and daily things like bending over to tie your shoes.
Another example is the wrist joint (which is made up of many bones coming together at one place) that has a normal range of motion of flexion up to 90 degrees and extension up to 70 degrees. By practicing yoga asana, you may be able to increase your normal range of motion and find that your wrists are now more capable of raking up those dreaded fall leaves, or having a better golf swing.
2. Yoga strengthens muscles that support the joints.
Remember that one of the components of a joint is a tendon. If you were to follow a tendon away from the joint it would “turn into” a muscle. Strengthening muscles with yoga asana will ultimately create healthier joints, as stronger muscles will support the body, relieving stress and strain on the joint.
Weaker muscles means that the body relies on the joints for stability. You may be locking out your joints due to weakness in the surrounding muscles.
3. Yoga increases bone strength.
Bones are living breathing tissues and because bones, or the ends or edges of the bones are a major component of a joint, then it makes sense that healthy bones help to promote a healthy joint.
Activities that are stress-bearing, such as yoga asana, provide signals to the bone cells to increase bone cell production. Conversely, a lack of activity signals to the bones that they do not need to work on building bone material production, and can also signal that minerals may be deposited elsewhere.
A solid, strong, built up bone, provides the groundwork for a solid joint.
4. Yoga keeps joint cartilage healthy.
Staying mobile keeps joint cartilage healthy, so any exercise helps. Cartilage may be lost by immobilization. Have you ever heard the phrase “Move it or lose it.”?
5. Yoga circulates synovial fluid in the moveable joints.
Staying mobile and keeping hydrated keeps synovial fluid in the joints healthy. The right amount of synovial fluid means that the ends of the bones, which are covered in cartilage, will slide easily when you move a joint, as opposed to the alternative of grinding.
If the fluid decreases in amount, there is not a way to increase its production with diet or mediation.
If you struggle with joint pain and joint health, know that yoga has been found to be an appropriate option for those suffering from disorders that specifically affect joints such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. When yoga is combined with typical medical care, both psychological and physical benefits are felt by participants to help deal with both pain and disability.
Do you have a joint that bothers you typically, but because of your yoga practice, the pain and frustration are now gone?
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This Yoga Sequence for Healthy Joints Will Help You Age Gracefully
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When I discovered yoga 40 years ago, I started on a journey fueled by curiosity and a desire to find effective ways to take better care of my body. At the time, I suffered from sciatica (pain along the sciatic nerve that runs from the lower back down the leg). Like many active people, I pushed through searing agony so that I could keep up adventures such as skiing the Wyoming backcountry, trekking in Nepal, and cycling through the Badlands. My pain continued to intensify for years, and it took me more than a decade to find relief—but I finally did, through yoga.
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The sequence on the following pages helped alleviate my pain, and it’s one that I regularly practice and teach to students of all ages. It’s the culmination of years of study and training in myriad yoga disciplines, including Iyengar and Kaiut.
WatchIyengar 101: What You Didn’t Know + Myths Debunked
Each movement is done in slow motion, and much of it is practiced on the floor. As I move into my 85th year, I find this work is accessible and more appropriate for my aging body. What’s surprising is how beneficial it is for my students, too—many of them five decades younger than I. They find it challenging and effective for easing aches or stiffness and offering more freedom of movement in their everyday lives.
As you practice, hold each pose for two minutes. This will allow time for your nervous system to accept the pose and your major joints to be fully nourished. May you reap the benefits of yoga— a healthy body, mind, and spirit—through every decade.
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1A. Viparita Karani, variation (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose)
Lie on your back with your hips about 10 inches from the wall. Interlock your fingers under a bolster. Lift your right heel and place it over your left toes to encourage toe-joint flexion. Repeat on the other side.
See alsoBenefits of Viparita Karani
1B. Viparita Karani, variation (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose)
Place a strap over the ball of your left foot. Walk your hands up the strap, arms extended, elbows and leg straight. Draw your leg toward your left shoulder. Repeat on the other side.
TryprAna Raja Yoga Strap
2A. Sukhasana, variation (Easy Pose)
Sit on a bolster with your right shin crossed over your left, feet aligned under your knees. Curve your spine forward, and rest your hands on the floor. Spread your fingers until you feel the skin of your palms and fingers stretch. Switch the cross of your legs and repeat.
See alsoAnother Variation of Sukasana
2B. Sukhasana, variation (Easy Pose)
Sit on the floor and repeat step A. Drop your chin to your sternum, and rest your elbows on the floor. Switch the cross of your legs and repeat.
3. Upavistha Konasana, variation (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend)
Sit on the mat with your legs wide apart. Turn your torso to the left, aligning chest with thigh. Curve forward, bringing your nose toward your knee. Use your hands to increase the twist, bringing your right ribs forward and left ribs back. Repeat on the other side.
See alsoUpavistha Konasana
4. Mindful Walking
Walk in slow motion, feeling toe flexion as you raise your heel and contract your buttocks with each step. Allow several seconds per step, and continue for 3 minutes.
See alsoUse Mindful Nature Walks to Deepen Your Meditation Practice
5. Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch)
Stand facing a wall and graze it with your left big toe. Press your hands against it at shoulder level. Take a giant step back with your right foot, but only so far that you can press your right heel to the floor. Slide your hands up, straightening your arms and extending your elbows. Repeat on the other side.
See also3 Versions of Parsvottanasana
6A. Supta Padangusthasana, variation (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Lie on your back with your head and neck on a bolster, knees bent and together, arms beside your hips, palms down. Raise your left shin, while keeping thighs aligned and knees touching. Flex your left ankle. Switch sides.
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6B. Supta Padangusthasana, variation (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Continue lying on your back with your knees bent. Extend your left leg to vertical, which demands more extension in the back of your knee. Then, cross your left leg over your midline. Point your left toes toward your right shoulder (not shown). Switch sides.
See alsoBack in Traction: Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe-Pose
6C. Supta Padangusthasana, variation (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Extend your left leg to vertical. This time, slowly extend your right leg until your heel hovers 2 inches above the floor. Flex your ankles. Relax your neck. Repeat on the other side.
7. Supta Urdhva Hastasana (Reclining Upward Salute)
Push the bolster out of the way, and lower your head to the floor. With your arms fully extended, bring your hands under the bolster. Slowly lift the bolster, balancing it on your palms, until it is directly above your chest. Slowly lower it to the floor, pause, then lift and lower it one more time.
See alsoThe Complexity of the Simplest Stretch: Upward Salute
8. Restorative Knee-to-Chest Pose
Lie on your back with your head on a bolster, your knees bent, feet hip-width apart. Turn your toes in and heels out, slightly. Interlock your fingers around your left knee and pull it toward your mid-chest. Then, draw your knee toward your right shoulder. Feel your thigh contact the flesh of your belly. Repeat on the other side.
See alsoMore Cleansing Poses
9. Savasana (Corpse Pose)
End in Savasana. Hold for at least 5 minutes.
See alsoSavasana Variations with Props
Get morehome practice sequences.
About the author
Octogenarian Juliet Sherwood teaches Healthy Joints yoga classes at the Iyengar Yoga Center of Denver, where she follows a methodology developed by Francisco Kaiut. She has studied with many teachers over the years, including B.K.S. and Geeta Iyengar, Faeq Biria, François Raoult, and Patricia Walden. Learn more at iyengaryogacenter.com.
Please note that we independently source all of the products that we feature on yogajournal.com. If you buy from the links on our site, we may receive an affiliate commission, which in turn supports our work.
Is Yoga Safe to Do After Joint Replacement Surgery?
“Yoga may help you become more aware of your body, including your muscles and joints,” says Christine Mironenko, NP, who works with patients after surgery and has practiced vinyasa yoga for 15 years. “Yoga may help with flexibility and overall posture, strengthen the muscles around your new joint, provide pain relief and even improve digestion.”
Yoga’s relaxation benefits can also be a big help—after all, joint replacement is a major surgery. The stress of the surgery itself as well as the pain you may feel leading up to it can take a toll. “Many patients are not prepared for the mental stresses their recovery might entail,” says Mironenko. “Yoga can help with stress relief, as well as insomnia and postoperative pain.” Before starting yoga, you must first get medical clearance from your orthopedic surgeon. “Most surgeons recommend waiting anywhere from three months to one year, again taking into account your medical history, type of surgery and other factors,” she adds. Your doctor will also give you any specific precautions to take.
Your new knee, hip or shoulder will often have limitations. Modifications will be necessary for a safe yoga practice. “A prosthetic joint implant is designed to perform activities of daily living and is not exactly made for advanced yoga poses,” Mironenko says. “In addition, the stress of the surgery on surrounding tissues may make them more vulnerable to injury or instability. We recommend staying within a certain range of motion and always avoiding any position that causes pain.”
Here are a few other tips for practicing yoga safely after a joint replacement:
- Develop a safe yoga plan with your surgeon. When discussing yoga clearance precautions with your surgeon, it may be helpful to provide photos of the poses to your surgeon. Just talking about poses can be tricky.
- Find an experienced yoga instructor. Ask around and get references from friends and family. Find out from your local yoga studio if they would recommend a certain teacher with experience and knowledge of anatomy. You may notice an instructor helping other students with modifications and asking about injuries before class. This is a good sign. Your teacher should make you feel comfortable and be approachable enough for you to ask questions.
- Always let your yoga instructor know that you have had a joint replacement before starting a class. They can help you correct your alignment to stay safe and provide help with props. Some instructors offer hands-on assistance, and they will need to know not to push you into certain poses, as this could cause injury.
- Never assume that the teacher is knowledgeable about joint replacement surgery. Before you start your yoga practice, you should know your own limits and the precautions you need to take. Never force yourself into a pose or allow a teacher to do so. Do not do anything that’s painful or feels wrong. Listen to your body’s cues to maintain proper alignment and protect your joint replacement.
- Start slow. Immediately after surgery, upper body chair yoga poses are a safe option to stretch and strengthen the arms after a hip or knee replacement. Early on in recovery, a restorative yoga class may be beneficial. Restorative yoga classes are typically slow and gentle, use a lot of props and focus on relaxation. Restorative poses with props would be a great option for total shoulder replacement patients to get into a relaxing pose for some rest. Once you receive the go-ahead from your surgeon, any style of yoga, including Vinyasa or Bikram yoga, is possible as long as the proper modifications are made to your practice.
Yoga after Hip Replacement Surgery
“A few orthopedic surgeons at HSS advise their patients to avoid yoga following hip replacement due to the risk of hip dislocation,” says Mironenko. “Of course, you should always follow the advice of your physician.” Certain medical conditions can increase your risk for this, and there’s often no warning that a hip is about to dislocate, which makes it impossible to use pain or discomfort alone as a guide, she adds.
Once the soft tissues around the hip fully heal, many hip replacement patients get the green light to do yoga. Turning the hips too far in (internal rotation) or out (external rotation) should be avoided to decrease any risk. Extending your leg too far forward or backward should also be avoided, Mironenko says. Again, talking about yoga poses and rotation directions with your surgeon may be tricky, so reviewing photos of poses on your phone can make it more clear.
“Dislocations are rare and usually very patient-specific, but I strongly recommend that people avoid extreme actions of the hip in all directions,” she says. “I even recommend modifications in child’s pose, or Balasana pose. Keeping the knees apart and supporting yourself with a bolster decreases hip flexion and internal rotation.” An experienced yoga teacher can help you with modifications.
Yoga after Knee Replacement Surgery
“Modifications to one’s yoga practice following a knee replacement are a bit simpler,” Mironenko says. “Some patients are not comfortable kneeling, so blankets, padding, or even knee pads can be used to ease discomfort in poses where the knee is on the ground. Also be mindful not to hyperextend the knees,” locking them out straight. Consciously keep a slight bend in the knee, just enough to keep it unlocked, while in standing poses.
“You will also want to avoid poses that put a lot of pressure on the inside or outside of the knee, especially in combination with the added force of pressing your body down when in these positions,” she adds. “Certain positions such as half pigeon pose might stretch the ligaments on the sides of the knees and, over time, could make your knee unstable. These poses can be avoided or modified with props.” How much you’re able to comfortably move your knee during physical therapy is a good guide for what yoga poses are safe to try.
Yoga after Shoulder Replacement Surgery
The muscles surrounding the shoulder are at the highest risk of damage following shoulder replacement surgery. You should wait until the muscle is completely healed before starting any exercise routine—typically 10 to 12 weeks. Work with your surgeon to develop a safe yoga plan.
Yoga after total shoulder replacement can help to stretch and strengthen the shoulder muscles to maximize the benefits of your surgery. “The type of shoulder replacement—anatomic versus reverse—will determine which positions your shoulder and arm can safely move into,” says Mironenko. “Although dislocation is very uncommon, any extreme positions after a shoulder replacement should be avoided. This especially includes extreme internal rotation, like in reverse prayer pose, or Pashchima Namaskarasana.”
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