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Joint pain: an Ayurvedic perspective

In the colder winter months many people notice aching joints more than the summer. In fact it is rare to find anyone who hasn’t experienced ‘aches and pains’ at some point in their life. Joint pain can particularly become an ongoing problem after the age of 45 with the most common cause being ‘osteoarthritis’. It is estimated that more than a third of the UKs population seek medical help for joint pain related to osteoarthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis and gout are two other common conditions where joint pain is a major symptom. Excessive and improper usage, stresses on joints, injuries and ageing all have the potential to damage joints, restrict movement and cause pain. Knee, hips and the spine are the most commonly affected joints and literally all of us are candidates as we age because of the damage caused by wear and tear.

Seeking medical help

Anyone who practices yoga on a regular basis will be keeping themselves supple and to some extent may not notice as much joint pain. However, although simple muscular pains due to strain and exercise are common and can resolve without major consequences in many cases, it is not advisable to neglect persisting joint pain, which should be at least evaluated medically or by a trained health care practitioner.

When joint pain is associated with Rheumatoid Arthritis or Gout both need specialist medical attention and should not be ignored or treated as simple wear and tear. Both conditions indicate serious inflammation. Rheumatoid Arthritis usually starts in smaller joints and is confirmed with a blood test that reveals a positive Rheumatoid Arthritis factor. Gout can occur as sudden severe pain in the big toe, associated with redness and swelling. Here blood tests may reveal abnormal levels of uric acid.

Ayurvedic views on joint pain due to osteoarthritis

If you are a Vata type, meaning, you for most of your life have had a tendency to be thin or find it difficult to gain weight despite eating well. Like fast activities but tire out easily. Do not sleep deeply even when tired. This may indicate a naturally predominant vata aspect. On the other hand, if you have had a vata aggravating life style such as excessive detoxing, yo-yo diets, extreme sports, years of ballet dancing or other forms of demanding dance styles, self-instructed or wrong yoga practices, constant use of high heeled shoes or other posture compromising habits, you are likely to suffer from vata disorders including joint pains. Osteoarthritis especially gets worse with age and individuals of vata by nature or those who’s vata has been aggravated due to lifestyle must take special care of their joints.

Pitta types, which are characterised by sharp hunger, analytical nature, find it easy to loose weight when dieting and tend to gain muscles proportionate to the amount of exercise can suffer from acidity or are prone to inflammation due to improper food habits and stress. These people need to watch inflammation and acidity that may become a pattern and could lead to joint wear and tear.

Kapha types tend to be strong and well built, slow moving, generally calm who sometimes prefer comfort eating than being physically active. If you are either Kapha by nature or have had a Kapha aggravating lifestyle such as overeating or gaining excess weight, you are likely to put stress on your joints especially knee joints which often becomes osteoarthritic. Kaphas despite naturally having the ability to cushion the joints well can put stress on their joints by excessive weight gain. Often osteoarthritis is common amongst Vata and Kapha types. No matter what type you are, if you live for 60 years and more eventually osteoarthritis affects almost everyone.


Vata balancing food

It is important to eat nourishing food with good fats such as almonds, walnuts, brazil nuts, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds. The Monosaturated and polysaturated fats, plus the minerals and antioxidants nourish and protect both bones and joints.

Vata balancing oils

Use raw oils in salad dressing or for seasoning food such as olive, sesame, coconut, hemp, macadamia, walnut and hazelnut. Oils are the most powerful vata pacifying substances and they provide warmth and nourishment to the tissues.

Vata balancing exercises

Whilst movement is important in keeping the joints healthy, wrong types of exercises can wear out the joints and trigger faster degeneration. If you are especially a vata type, you must be careful if you practice yoga or do exercises that have heavy impact on the joints and pay special attention to correct body alignment. Strengthening the muscles and tissues that surround the joints is essential, therefore, resistance based and functional exercise are highly recommended for supporting healthy joints. Surya Namaskara or sun salutation when performed correctly for several rounds a day can be a fantastic practice to keep the joints strong and supple.

Joint protecting self-care

It is best to perform self-massage before a shower and preferably in the morning. Alternatively, massaging in the evening can promote better sleep in addition to improving joint health. Daily self-massage is the best practice for protecting the joints. If your lifestyle does not allow for daily self massage at least aim for once a week. Use organic cold pressed sesame oil. If you find the smell of sesame oil intense or that sesame is too heating for you, use coconut oil. If you can’t find or don’t like either use olive oil instead.

Applying Ayurvedic self massage

Pour a small amount of oil into a stainless steel cup and place it in hot water(in the sink or a sauce pan with hot water) so that the oil can be warmed. Start by massaging the head. Place a small amount of oil on fingertips and palm of hands and begin to massage the scalp, use gentle pressure throughout. Apply oil gently to the face and outer parts of the ears. Massage front and back of the neck, upper part of the spine. Now apply small amount of oil to the entire body and then start massaging the arms and legs. Glide your hands back and forth along the long bones and make small circular movements over the joints. Massage both arms including hands and fingers. Apply oil to the chest and the abdomen. Use gentle circular motion. Massage the back and the spine to the extent that you can reach. Massage legs by using long strokes on the bones and circular movements on the joints. Lastly, massage the soles of the feet.

Additional Antioxidant spices to help with Joint Pain

Use ginger, turmeric and hing in cooking.

Ginger is an anti-inflammatory and balances Vata and Kapha, the two underlying factors in osteoarthritis.

Turmeric is a powerful antioxidant that may reduce tissue damage.

If you are brave, you may try ‘hing’ which is also called ‘asafoetida’ due to its strong odor. By adding a pinch of pure hing, usually available as a resin, to warm butter, coconut oil, ghee (clarified butter), or cooking oil, the spice unfolds its aroma and when used as a dressing along with other spices, not only enhances the flavor of savoury food but can have a protective action against joint degeneration due to its anti-inflammatory properties.

NB. Processed hing may contain wheat flour.

As you can see by paying attention to your food, exercise and with self-massage, you can ensure better joint health not just for now but hopefully the future.

If you are worried about any aspects of your health or are experiencing pain, stiffness and difficulty in movement in the first instance always consult your health practitioner.

For more comprehensive ayurvedic support, seek a fully qualified ayurvedic practitioner in your locality by contacting the APA (Ayurvedic Practitioners Association).

This article first appeared in Om Yoga Magazine in December 2014

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