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?