Throughout all stages of life, caring for the health of joints and bones is vital; from building strong bones throughout childhood, to ensuring strong and mobile joints through adulthood, and maintaining bone density and joint health into our later years.
If you’ve ever experienced joint pain or broken bones, you’ll also know how important it is to be aware of the specific nutrients needed for healthy bones, joints and connective tissue.
When it comes to yoga, there’s an abundance of practices to care for joints and bones, from weight-bearing postures to joint rotations, and even the ability to relax the nervous system, which has a beneficial impact upon pain levels.
Keep reading for a deep-dive into all aspects of joint and bone health, from specific yoga practices and joint mobility exercises to the best foods and nutrients for growing and maintaining healthy joints and bones.
Caring for our bones
Childhood and our teenage years are said to be our ‘bone-building years’, where the skeleton is made up of both bone and cartilage. Especially around the joints, hips and ribcage, there’s more of this softer, elastic tissue known as cartilage, in order to allow the body to continue growing and changing shape.
Having a body that contains lots of cartilage is partly why children are usually more flexible, and as they’re constantly building new bone, they’re also likely to heal quickly from injuries too.
By age 16, most of the cartilage has transformed into hardened bone, and when we reach roughly age 25, our bones are said to have fully hardened, through a process known as ‘ossification’.
In order to build strong bones and joints, it’s important for children to move naturally and regularly as they grow. Bone density and healing is triggered by ‘stress’ placed upon it, which means that simple actions like walking, jumping, crawling, skipping, and carrying heavy objects can all help stimulate bones to grow. Unfortunately, one of the issues facing children today is weaker bones, which research shows could be caused by a lack of movement, a deficiency in sunlight and vitamin D, and a poor diet. What Richard Louv coined ‘nature deficit disorder’ is not only having an impact upon children’s’ mental health, but their physical health too. If we want to help children grow strong and healthy bones, it’s thus pretty important to simply let them be children; to play, move, hurt themselves at times, and heal naturally.
Peak bone density is thought to occur sometime in our early 20s, which means focusing on bone health becomes even more important as we reach adulthood. A sedentary lifestyle, too much time spent indoors, a diet full of processed food, and stress can all have a negative impact on joint and bone health.
To remedy this, it’s important to engage in forms of weight-bearing exercise, to consume enough calcium and vitamin D, and to spend time outdoors, as the vitamin D from the sun plays an important role in how much of it we can absorb from food.
Whilst we’re thinking about food, it’s important to consider gut health too. We can eat all the organic, bone-healthy foods we like, but if the gut can’t absorb it due to common issues like leaky gut, colitis or IBS, we could still be deficient in key nutrients. As well as opting for bone-building foods (which you’ll find below), focus on good quality probiotics from sources of yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir, miso, and prebiotics from almonds, bananas, leeks and onions.
As we age, it’s possible that levels of bone density can decline. This isn’t to say that we should be at all fearful of weak bones as we approach our later years, but paying attention to bone health is important at this stage of life.
Post-menopausal women are most likely to experience lower levels of bone density, or ‘osteopenia’ due to the declining levels of hormones like oestrogen, but there are plenty of natural ways to support bone health at this stage of life and prevent osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is associated with low bone density, increasing the likelihood of fractures in the hips and spine. As well as links to lower hormone levels, a diet high in acidic foods such as sugar, and long-term excessive consumption of alcohol and fizzy drinks, as well as smoking and steroids that can be found in medications for eczema, asthma, IBS and arthritis.
Again, natural approaches such as diet, movement, sunlight, and caring for mental health all play an important role in caring for bone density at this stage.
There are two main types of arthritis that can cause pain and discomfort: Osteoarthritis is known as a ‘degenerative’ joint disease, and commonly referred to as ‘wear and tear’ of the joints. Within osteoarthritis, the cartilage within the joint wears down, exposing the bones and producing bone spurs. The pain tends to develop over months and years, occurring in larger weight-bearing joints, or those that have been previously injured.
To help remedy osteoarthritis, it’s important to engage in exercise that increases synovial fluid within the joint, as well as building muscle around the affected joint to support it.
Acupuncture and massage can ease pain, and helpful vitamins include vitamin C (supports the growth of cartilage) and glucosamine and chondroitin, which improves cartilage and synovial fluid health. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune issue, whereby immune cells abnormally attack the synovial joints, causing them to become inflamed and often severely swollen.
There is a genetic predisposition to rheumatoid arthritis, but the biggest influencer is environment and lifestyle (poor gut health, a diet high in processed foods, and exposure to stress and environmental toxins can all increase the risk of rheumatoid arthritis). A natural approach to rheumatoid arthritis includes a Mediterranean diet, with the exclusion of
nightshades (such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and aubergines), avoiding gluten and sugar, and consuming anti-inflammatory foods like omega three fatty acids from nuts, seeds and oily fish, quercetin from red onions and apples, vitamin C from broccoli, berries and citrus fruits, vitamin D, and herbs such as turmeric and boswellia.
Ayurveda’s approach to bone health
Yoga’s sister science of Ayurveda recognises that we have several ‘layers’ of bodily tissue that all need different vitamins and minerals. These bodily tissues are known as the seven Dhatus, including:
- Rasa (the plasma, lymph and immune cells)
- Rakta (blood)
- Mamsa (muscle)
- Meda (fat)
- Asthi (bones)
- Majja (the nervous system tissue)
- and the male Shukra and female Artava (reproductive tissue).
Ayurveda says that in order for the deeper layers of tissue, such as asthi (the bones) and Shukra or Artava (the reproductive system) to receive nutrients, it’s vital for all other layers of the body to be fully nourished too. If we’re not consuming enough goodness to fully feed our skin, blood and muscles, it could therefore have an impact upon bone health. The first step towards building better bones then? Building a body that is fully nourished and cared for from the inside out. Perhaps take a moment at this point to pause and consider whether there are parts of yourself that perhaps don’t feel fully fed – does your skin feel dry? Do your muscles feel weak? Do you feel mentally or emotionally exhausted? Try to address these aspects before moving onto the deeper layers of tissue.
How to keep your joints and bones healthy
Several studies show that a consistent yoga practice can help maintain bone density, and prevent osteoporosis as we age. When we place a healthy amount of force through the muscles, joints a bones, we stimulate osteoblasts – bone-making cells that turn into osteoclasts when stimulated, which become the cells that become embedded into the bone
and help strengthen the skeleton. The best types of postures tend to be those that require us to build and maintain strong muscles and joints. Try adding asanas like Utkatasana (chair pose) Virabhadrasana || (warrior 2) and plank to your yoga practice, to strengthen the ankles, legs, hips, shoulders and wrists.
Further research from Loren Fishman, MD, a Columbia University physiatrist specialising in rehabilitative medicine, shows that even if lower levels of oestrogen do cause osteopenia or osteoporosis in women after menopause, yoga postures can actually build back bone density in the spine and femurs. The study included twelve specific postures:
- Vriksasana — Tree
- Trikonasana — Triangle
- Virabhadrasana II — Warrior 2
- Parsvakonasana — Side-angle pose
- Parivrtta Trikonasana — Twisted Triangle
- Salabhasana — Locust
- Setu Bandhasana — Bridge
- Supta Padangusthasana A — Supine hand-to-foot A (leg raised)
- Supta Padangusthasana B – Supine hand-to-foot B (leg to the side)
- Marichyasana B — Straight-legged twist
- Matsyendrasana — Lord of the fishes pose – Bent-knee twist
- Savasana — Corpse pose.
- Visit our yoga poses library for guides to all these poses
As for joint health, there’s an age-old practice you’ll find in texts such as Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha by Swami Satyananda, known as the Pawanmuktasana series.
This series of simple movements includes joint rotations, flexing and bending of the knees and ankles, and floor-based stretches, which work well as a warm-up for stronger practice, or as a daily dose of joint-friendly movement. Interestingly, modern mobility practices are increasingly expounding the importance of focusing on joint strength and mobility. David Croft works primarily with men to help restore and strengthen their joints after years of intense sports or exercise that has led to pain. He says; “The physical activity you do should make you feel better, not worse”. David has helped clients go from experiencing constant severe knee pain, to being able to run with ease. “With strong joints, you’ll be able to rely on your body to do what you want with more confidence. As well as strength, joint mobility is
very important too. Being able to squat down to pick something up, to move around comfortably with your children or to engage in your favourite sports pain-free is something everyone deserves, and is achievable when you put the work
into creating strength and mobility in the joints”.
Stress can wreak havoc not just on the hormonal system, but upon bone health and the way we use nutrients too. If we’re living in a chronic state of stress, much of our energy tends to be ‘used up’ as we deal with the subsequent inflammation, circulating cortisol, rapid breathing and tense muscles. As the body uses it energy to deal with what it thinks are ‘urgent’ and stressful matters, it re-routes energy away from the deeper levels of tissue such as the reproductive system and bones. Research shows that elevated levels of cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’) can actually block the body’s ability to absorb calcium, and also blocks those important bone-building cells from creating new bone. The solution? It’s time to focus on de-stressing and relaxing your nervous system.
Whilst a dedicated yoga practice is well-known to reduce stress, you’ll want to focus on relaxing deeper and more often if you’re healing from a bone injury, or concerned about joint health. Bring more restorative yoga practices into your week, and try to adopt a daily meditation practice – even five minutes can make a huge difference.
Foods and vitamins for healthy joints and bones
There are lots of foods that help nourish bones and joints, but firstly, here’s what to avoid:
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Processed meats
- Excessive caffeine
- Fizzy drinks
- Excessive sodium
- Improperly cooked beans can prevent the body from absorbing calcium, so ensure you soak your legumes in water for a few hours before cooking to reduce the phytate content.
And here’s what to enjoy!
- Vitamin K: Kale, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, collard greens, sauerkraut, edamame.
- Vitamin C: Berries, peppers, broccoli, kiwis, citrus fruits, guava, papaya.
- Collagen: Collagen supplements, fish, chicken, eggs, garlic, white tea.
- Magnesium: Dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, nuts, lentils, chickpeas, flax seed.
- Vitamin D: Mushrooms, oily fish, liver, eggs, sunlight.
- Omega 3s: Nuts, seeds, nut butters, fish, avocado, walnuts, flax oil.
- Calcium: organic cheese, yoghurt, milk, leafy greens (other than spinach), tahini.
Try some of EkhartYoga’s recommended classes for healthy bones and joints – available to members or with your free trial.
- Practicing from the bones with Anat Geiger
- Joint freeing exercises with Esther Ekhart:
- Caring for your joints and Caring for your bones with Lyn Core
- Joint freeing slow flow with Jennilee Toner
- Rolling joints with David Lurey (a yoga class!)
- Joint mobility with Mark Freeth
- The Skeleton and common Vinyasa Flow injuries – talk with Jennilee Toner
Learn more about how yoga can help you build strength: Yoga for strength
How yoga can help with osteoporosis and osteopenia