Talk Over RA – Julia McNally and Yoga For RA

During this #TalkOverRA campaign I wanted to bring in other Canadians living with RA to discuss what has significantly helped them with their rheumatoid arthritis journey.  I previously spoke about medications and achieving remission in the last Talk Over RA campaign, so this campaign the focus is on what has helped others throughout their diagnosis.

Living well with rheumatoid arthritis takes more than the advice of a medical doctor, sometimes hearing it from others who live with the condition because we speak a certain language together and can be a wealth of knowledge for each other. 

One of those Canadians is Julia McNally who I have interviewed about yoga and how her arthritis diagnosis inspired her to become a certified yoga instructor with a special focus on those living with arthritis. 

Motion is lotion when it comes to living with rheumatoid arthritis, find out how Julia turned to yoga in her RA journey. 

Who is Julia McNally?

My name is Julia McNally, I’m 32 years old and I was born in Montreal, QC. I was diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis at the age of 2 and I was given the second diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis as an adolescent around the age of 18 years old. I am a certified yoga instructor, chair yoga instructor and yoga for arthritis teacher living with rheumatoid arthritis. I am also the founder of The RA Yogi. 

A Love of Exercise and Adaptation From Arthritis 

I worked as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor from 2009-2015, but due to the progression of my rheumatoid arthritis, like many others living with arthritis, I had to change my career. I was devastated at that time. I was so passionate about health, fitness and wellness. 

I was employed as a corporate wellness coach in 2013 and still work with corporate clients by contract – mainly speaking about wellness, arthritis, and I teach yoga and meditation. 

I became a yoga teacher in 2017 at the Yandara Institute in Baja Mexico. I continued my education at Sivananda Yoga Ashram in Hatha Yoga and Meditation and became a certified Chair Yoga teacher with Sunlight Chair Yoga in 2019. Using a combination of my personal training and yoga background, my experience with rheumatoid arthritis & the certification I completed, Yoga For Arthritis with YFA (recognized by Yoga Alliance and International Association of Yoga Therapists) in 2020 – The RA Yogi was born. My yoga for arthritis classes include meditation, breathing exercises, movement, adapted yoga postures, yoga philosophy and relaxation.

I love yoga because it is not about how flexible I am or how long I can hold a pose, it is about connecting to my true self – to the breath, to the body, the spirit and discovering my inner well-being that is already within me. I found myself feeling so peaceful and content after a yoga class. It was much more than a workout, it was a state of being, a way of life and a way for me to live well with arthritis.  

There are many benefits to practicing yoga for people with arthritis, on a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual level. On a physical level, it has been proven to help reduce stiffness, improved mobility, decreased pain, as well as, increased strength, flexibility, and endurance. Some of the mental benefits include, lower stress levels, better ability to cope with anxiety and low mood, more mindfulness and deeper feelings of gratitude for life and seeing ourselves as a whole person rather than just our illness.

Some adaptations include using a chair as a prop to support whether standing or seated. Use additional yoga props such as cushions, blocks, a yoga strap and a folded blanket to provide further comfort, support and height during a yoga practice. Adaptations are personalized depending on the yoga student. It is recommended to have a yoga teacher experienced in yoga therapy or yoga for arthritis provide these adaptations for students. 

In yoga studies, practicing yoga 3 x times a week for 1 hour has shown improvement of arthritis including inflammatory arthritis. Although, practicing yoga even one time per week to me is better than nothing. It is what works for each individual person. Considering, those of us living with inflammatory arthritis only have so much energy in a day to complete certain tasks or responsibilities, it is important that your yoga routine truly works for you and your goals. For example, Maybe person X doesn’t need to practice for 1 hour, maybe mindful movement for 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon helps with stiffness and overall mood/energy level. 

As I mentioned before, it is not about how long you hold a pose or how low your yoga session is, it has to work for your body and your schedule. It is best to listen to your body.

Ideally in a supported restorative yin class, poses are held for longer to allow you to go deeper energetically and physically, working the tissues of the body while relaxing the muscles. In a flow class, breath and movement are linked. In a hatha class, you hold poses for up to a minute, maybe longer and relax between each yoga posture for 1 minute lying on your back in savasana. 

Yoga is an ancient system of physical and mental practices originated in India. The fundamental purpose of yoga is to foster harmony in the body, the mind, and the environment. Yoga provides a complete system of physical, mental, social, and spiritual development. My teacher once told me, Yoga is one conscious breath. I like this saying, because yoga is so much more than a physical practice. Intentional breathing by itself or accompanied by yoga poses, serves to increase our energy (prana/vital life force), remove energetic blockages and to purify the body. 

I would always consult a physician before starting yoga. I also recommend seeking yoga from an arthritis teacher or yoga therapist to provide a safe and accessible yoga class or routine.

There is no worst yoga for arthritis in my opinion. Some yoga classes may not be appropriate for a particular individual living with arthritis due to the following:

  • The intensity level (Tip: start with a beginner’s class).
  • The Duration (a 90-minute yoga class might be too long for someone with severe arthritis, perhaps start with a shorter yoga class/video or tell the instructor you will only attend a certain amount of time, make sure to take final relaxation also known as Shavasana before you leave the class then build your endurance slowly)
  • The absence of supportive props (props are crucial for a yoga for arthritis class in order to place less stress on the joints, obtain proper alignment in the body in certain yoga postures, and to ensure extra support in a yoga class. The props involved in a yoga for arthritis class might include a thicker yoga mat, a folded blanket, 2 yoga blocks, a yoga wedge, a foam pad or throw pillow and a chair).
  • The environment (some people might have more difficulty tolerating heat and might avoid hot yoga classes or outdoor yoga on a hot day).
  • Contraindications ( Regardless of the type of yoga, certain yoga postures and breathing techniques may be contraindicated for a specific individual. Contraindicated exercises mean exercises that are not advised to participate in due to possible safety risks. With the help of an experienced yoga teacher who has YFA training as I mentioned, you will be offered appropriate variations, time to rest, encouraged to ask questions, and keep an open dialogue with your yoga teacher.
  • Yoga Teacher’s Training Background (Find Yoga For Arthritis trained yoga teacher. If you are living with arthritis and want to add yoga to your regular activities to help you manage your arthritis, overall health and well-being, find a trained yoga for arthritis teacher. (YFA has been researched on arthritis patients by a team of yoga therapists, rheumatologists, public health and research experts at Johns Hopkins Arthritis Centre). 

Remember, the most important and repeated message for my yoga students is Listen To Your Body!

As a person living with arthritis, this also makes you the expert of your body, abilities, and restrictions. Please listen to your body and communicate with your yoga teacher at the beginning of the class to let them know you have arthritis, what joints/organs are affected for you and ask how might the teacher be able to support you during this class. It is also important if you experience discomfort and pain to stop and let your teacher know immediately.

Those with severe arthritis or those who are new to yoga, may appreciate restorative yoga or a gentle yin class. Those with OA or RA who have difficulty bearing weight in the hands and wrists may wish to forego the push-up-like movements common in vinyasa yoga and opt for a gentle hatha, Iyengar or chair yoga class. Those who may have difficulty standing for long periods or sitting on the floor may prefer chair yoga too.

Yoga is a whole-person practice and that’s why practicing yoga is beneficial in helping to relieve stiffness, pain, anxiety, low mood, low confidence etc. This is the way I want people to understand yoga. 

Yoga can absolutely help with sleep in my own experience with chronic pain and taking medications that would keep me awake at night. Right before bed, set 30-20 minutes aside for a restorative yoga practice (gentle stretching and calming yoga postures), yoga nidra (guided relaxation yoga) or pranayama (breathing exercises) for calming the nervous system. It is great for bedtime. For example, inhale through the nose for the count of 5 and exhale for the count of 10. Do this a few times while lying down in bed. 

Yoga and stretching are both great! But they are not the same. The primary goal of stretching is flexibility. You hold a stretch for 1-2 minutes to get a desired effect overtime of increased flexibility. Yoga involves meditation, breathing exercises, yoga postures that are put in a sequence for a specific reason, relaxation, mantra, yoga philosophy, proper eating, and positive thinking.

My YFA teacher Dr. Stefany Moonaz wrote an incredible book on Yoga Therapy For Arthritis which speaks to her research in this field indicating there are significant and lasting improvements for people with arthritis who practice yoga 2 x a week for 8 weeks, guided by an appropriate instructor and 1 x a week home practice. Some of the improvements I have experienced myself from a regular yoga practice includes, weight-management, improved mental resilience and mood, lower stress and anxiety, improved stiffness, improved strength and endurance standing, improved mobility and flexibility, as well as, increased overall well-being. 

Rheumatoid arthritis is a whole person disease. It affects the physical body, mental health, emotional health, activities of daily living, relationships, occupational health, etc. 

RA is an autoimmune disease which attacks the tissues of the joints and other parts of the body including; internal organs, the eyes and skin. The main symptoms of RA include pain, swelling, decreased range of motion of the affected joints, as well as, decreased joint function, deformities and it is the leading cause of disability in the US. RA can cause fatigue of varying levels, brain fog, anxiety, depression, and mood disorders.

This is the main reason why yoga for arthritis has become my main focus because it does not only address the body, it works with the mind-body-spirit connection. Through yoga for arthritis practices one can experience a holistic health approach that is so beneficial to someone living RA. This does not replace medical intervention and being followed by a healthcare professional. In my experience with RA, it is important to have both medical intervention and use complementary health approaches.

Where can someone find more out about Julia McNally and her yoga classes?

I have a series on my YouTube channel called The Basics where I talk about the different aspects of a yoga practice for those living with arthritis broken down into a series of videos.  

Additionally, I welcome anyone who is interested in yoga for arthritis to contact me directly with inquiries or questions at julia@rayogi.com 

They can connect with me on my instagram or facebook community page The RA Yogi and subscribe to my YouTube channel, a free resource for people looking to learn about yoga for arthritis and follow along from home. 

To learn more about Talk Over RA and how to have a meaningful conversation with your doctor download the Talk Over RA discussion guide today and browse their website

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