Body, mind, soul: The benefits of yoga, tai chi, and pilates

Lupus Foundation of America

Resource Content

When Patty Gaetz needs to recharge, release stress, and feel stronger, she takes advice from the old Madonna song: “Strike a pose.”

Gaetz, 42, doesn’t “vogue” like the Material Girl. Instead, her poses include the plank, the cat, and the other -flexibility-building positions she’s learned in her yoga classes. She started taking the classes at a doctor’s suggestion in 2008, two years before she was diagnosed with lupus in March 2010.

“I love my yoga,” says Gaetz, a restaurant manager and mother of one from Waite Park, MN. “The physical stretching is rejuvenating and has helped a lot with my joint pain. I also sleep better now. I had lost quite a bit of weight, and the yoga helped with toning and bringing back some of my physical strength. It has also improved my breathing and energy level.”

Of course, you should always let your physician know that you are interested in starting any exercise program. With your doctor’s approval, exercise can be a great tool for dealing with lupus symptoms. Sometimes, however, traditional exercises—such as an aerobics class or weight training—can be difficult while dealing with swollen joints and fatigue. “Yoga, tai chi, and Pilates can be very useful for those with lupus,” says Stacy Ardoin, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Ohio State University. “I recommend exercise to all my patients at the lupus clinic, and yoga, tai chi, and Pilates can promote stress reduction, flexibility, and endurance.

“Exercising releases endorphins,” Ardoin adds. “Endorphins can improve mood and reduce pain. Exercise in general helps the person with lupus gain confidence, as well as strength and stamina.”

Gaetz agrees wholeheartedly. “Yoga is the best prescription I’ve had so far,” she says. “I even sent a personal thank-you to my doctor for the suggestion.” She started with basic poses. Then, when she felt she could keep up, Gaetz signed up for a class. Now she tries to devote 30 minutes a day to yoga, often placing a mat in a corner of her house and practicing her poses as she watches the sun set.

What are yoga, tai chi, and Pilates?

Participants in yoga, tai chi, and Pilates all benefit physically and mentally from the exercises. However, there are differences between the forms.

Yoga, considered a branch of classical philosophy in India, uses meditation, exercise, and breathing practices to improve overall health. “The immediate benefit of yoga is an awareness of your body,” says Mary Scudella, an experienced registered yoga teacher and founder of “Many of us live moving from thing to thing and don’t realize what we’re putting our bodies through.”

Tai chi, a Chinese soft martial art form, uses gentle, slow movements and postures to keep the body in constant motion while the person meditates. “Tai chi may contribute to the psychological well-being among healthy adults and patients with chronic conditions,” says Chenchen Wang, M.D., M.Sc., associate professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, who recently headed a study on tai chi and lupus.

Pilates focuses on the core postural muscles, which help keep the body balanced and are essential to providing support for the spine.

“Pilates can benefit someone who has lupus by enabling the person to experience greater and more expansive mobility in her joints while not exhausting her,” says Gia Marakas, a classically trained, certified Pilates instructor in Los Angeles.

All three forms are extremely adaptable exercises that can be tailored to an individual’s needs and abilities.

Benefits include pain relief and relaxation

Lindsey Shepherd, 25, of Oxford, CT, a special-education teacher who was diagnosed with lupus in 2009, works out three to four times a week using a rotating schedule of low-impact aerobics and Pilates.

Shepherd finds that the core-strengthening Pilates routines have allowed her to keep up with her young students. “It seems ironic that working out makes my joints feel better, but it does,” she says. “My back and hips have improved tremendously. It relieves my pain and makes me stronger, which makes getting down on the floor and up again with a group of 5-year-olds a lot easier.”

Of course, most exercises offer physical benefits, but Pilates, tai chi, and yoga offer mental and emotional advantages, as well. 

“Recently, I’ve been feeling angry about having lupus and having to change my lifestyle because of it,” admits Gaetz. “I’ve turned to yoga, and it quiets my mind and helps me to release most of my negativity. Lupus has taken so much from me. I feel that yoga gives me an edge to fight back. I’m more in control of my body now, when for a long time I felt my body was controlling me.”

“With these exercises, you have to roll out your mat and shut out everything else,” Gaetz says.

Another benefit of these exercises is their relative ease. Beginners’ exercises can be found online, and a plethora of videos and DVDs can lead you through the postures and breathing if you don’t feel ready for a public class. “You can go online and create your own routine,” Gaetz says. “I also use the Denise Austin yoga routines, which are more about stretching and are best for my swollen joints because her routines are lower impact.”

“Talk to your doctor when you’re ready to start exercising,” says Ardoin. “Many patients think they should start off with an intense regimen, but you need to get your doctor’s input and start low and slow.” She recommends a routine that alternates one of these exercises with low-impact aerobics.

“Stick with it and do it consistently—if you do, you will reap the benefits,” Ardoin adds. “Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.”