How Yoga Can Help Psoriasis — and How to Get Started
The ancient physical and mental practice can help counter the stress that may lead to psoriasis flares. Experts say even 10 minutes a day can make a difference.
One of the major triggers for a psoriasis flare is stress, which is known to fuel inflammation. To keep flare-ups under control, some patients turn to yoga, often described as a “moving meditation.” This discipline for physical and mental well-being may calm the mind, helping ease psoriasis symptoms.
“Stress increases inflammation, and it’s likely to increase the severity of symptoms,” says Pooja DeWilde, DO, a family medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group in Huntley, Illinois. So doing things like deep breathing, meditation, and yoga for as little as 10 or 15 minutes a day can really improve psoriasis outcomes in the long term.”
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A study published in 2022 in the journal Dermatology and Therapy reviewed six scientific trials exploring the benefits of mindfulness and meditation as complementary therapies (meaning in addition to traditional treatments) for patients with moderate-to-severe plaque psoriasis. Five of those studies reported improvement in psoriasis area and severity index scoring after 8 or 12 weeks of meditation or mindfulness interventions. Two of the trials demonstrated psychological improvements in psoriasis patients who meditated.
“Overall, these results suggest the possibility that meditation can be used as a tool to improve both psoriasis severity and patient quality of life in the short term,” concluded the study authors.
What Is Yoga?
Yoga originated in India some 5,000 years ago, combining physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual elements. It wasn’t until the 1960s that yoga really spread across North America, and its popularity continued to grow through the 1970s, according to the Yoga Journal.
As a philosophy that developed from Hindu worship, yoga met with some resistance in the Western world. But today, gyms, community centers, private practices, hospitals, and schools throughout the United States embrace yoga.
The central elements of yoga are a series of postures and breathing techniques. The postures are intended to create strength, flexibility, and stamina, and the breathing is meant to quiet the nervous system and provide an inner peace. Because the system promotes overall well-being (including cardiovascular health), practitioners tend to sleep better and feel more vital in general.
Deep Breathing Can Calm the Mind When Psoriasis Leads to Stress
“One of the first things I would recommend is to try a deep-breathing exercise,” says Dr. DeWilde. “This is something a person can do at home or when they have a few minutes of downtime during a lunch break.”
She advises patients to find a quiet place where they won’t be interrupted. Ideally, you sit on the floor in a comfortable position with your legs crossed.
Lately, DeWilde has been recommending the 4-7-8 Breathing Method. With this technique, you gradually inhale for four seconds, hold that breath over a count of seven seconds, and then breathe out slowly over an eight-second count. Advocates of the 4-7-8 approach say that it calms the body, creating a relaxed state.
Even People Who Aren’t Physically Fit Can Do Some Form of Yoga
Yoga poses are all about increasing physical flexibility, strength, stamina, and balance.
Some poses may look intimidating. But yoga comes in all levels of difficulty, from beginner to advanced.
“There are so many different styles of yoga. I think there is probably a yoga that would be appropriate for almost anyone,” says John Anthony, MD, a dermatologist with the Cleveland Clinic who is a big proponent of using self-care approaches like yoga combined with medical treatment.
One of the common simple beginner positions is child’s pose, which requires kneeling, bending forward, and extending the hands out ahead. It is designed to stretch hips, thighs, and ankles, while decreasing stress and fatigue.
“It’s probably a position most people could do even if they are not very physically fit,” says DeWilde.
A yoga teacher or yoga therapist can help you learn to do the techniques properly. You can search for professionals in your area through the International Association of Yoga Therapists.
Yoga Can Help With the Emotional Challenges of Psoriasis
Yoga can also help psoriasis patients cope with depression, anxiety, and isolation related to their illness.
“We know that there are a lot of self-esteem issues that can be associated with chronic skin diseases like psoriasis,” says Dr. Anthony. “These issues can also be helped by stress-reduction techniques like yoga.”
He adds that just being engaged in an activity like yoga — often with other people — can boost emotional resilience for those living with psoriasis.
For People With Psoriatic Arthritis, Yoga Can Loosen Joints
Another condition related to psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, can lead to swollen and painful joints, stiffness, fatigue, and a reduced range of motion.
For psoriatic arthritis patients, yoga can limber up the body. Pain levels go down as mobility rises.
“Arthritis symptoms can get worse with prolonged rest of joints,” says Anthony. “Yoga movements may help arthritis patients loosen up and retain some range of motion.”
Like yoga, the ancient Chinese art of tai chi has been shown to have a beneficial effect on psoriatic arthritis, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation.
Yoga Can Work in Tandem With Medication to Ease Psoriasis Symptoms
Megan Couvillion, MD, a dermatologist in Houston, emphasizes that yoga alone isn’t the answer to coping with psoriasis.
“I wouldn’t recommend it as a first-line therapy but I think it can be a helpful complementary activity,” she says. “The first order of business is to see a dermatologist because we have great medications — they’re the mainstay of treating the inflammatory response.”
Medical treatments have expanded over the years and become more effective, according to David Pariser, MD, a dermatologist in Norfolk, Virginia.
“With current modern treatment, about half of psoriasis patients can be cleared or almost cleared and maintain that for years,” says Dr. Pariser. “We can help people with psoriasis now so much better than we could a few years ago.”
He does note, though, that some of these new treatments — such as biologics (drugs derived from living sources) — can be very expensive and access may depend on insurance coverage.
On the other hand, yoga, although not a sure-fire remedy, can be cost-free.
To find health professionals who use yoga in their practice, the NPF offers an online patient navigation center, which gives free assistance in finding resources.
DeWilde emphasizes that no matter how bad your psoriasis is, some form of exercise is likely to help.
“I always stress the importance of physical activity,” she says. “And for a lot of my patients who do have a chronic condition like psoriasis and can’t do a whole lot, yoga is less intimidating and seems more doable than trying a CrossFit workout or something like that.”