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What is Yoga with Scoliosis?

Years ago, I decided I would no longer teach Yoga for Scoliosis & Spinal Fusion.

It had nothing to do with the content or clientele - I loved my students, and I couldn't wait to keep teaching more workshops and trainings on the subject! But I did not want to call my classes Yoga for Scoliosis & Spinal Fusion. It just didn't feel right. Any future scoliosis-related class, I resolved, would be called Yoga with Scoliosis & Spinal Fusion.

This may seem like a silly little distinction, and not deserving of all that dramatic build-up, but allow me to explain:

When we approach yoga as something to do “for” a certain condition, it’s easy to see the condition as a problem to be fixed. The condition then becomes the focal point of the practice, often making us forget that yoga is actually a holistic practice, meant to support our whole selves: whole body, whole heart, whole mind, whole spirit.

While focusing on specific conditions can be very helpful in understanding our selves and bodies, I believe we must not stop there - because we are so much more than our conditions.

When I teach Yoga with Scoliosis & Spinal Fusion, the first thing I encourage my students to do, is to be with their bodies, exactly as they are. I encourage them to remember that yoga is meant to support them, not simply as patients with a spinal condition, but as whole, complete humans. If they can remember this, it not only makes the practice more effective, but also more enjoyable - and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my years of scoliosis treatment, it’s that a practice needs to be enjoyable if we are to sustain it.

When we remember that yoga is for us, not for our scoliosis, we can more effectively work with our scoliosis to cultivate balance, stability, and mobility. We are more likely to listen to our bodies, to respect our limitations, and celebrate our capabilities.

If you’re reading this, thinking, “Sure, sure, but aren’t there certain yoga poses or movements that I should avoid or do more of, if I have scoliosis or a fused spine?” And the answer, in general, is yes. But since everyone’s spine is different, and since I have not seen an x-ray of your spine, nor am I living in your body, I cannot say for sure what exactly you need. But I can give you some general guidelines for you to try out for yourself:

  1. Lengthen your spine. Hang from a pull-up bar. Hang out on a traction table. Or simply reach your arms overhead as high as you can! If you already have a yoga practice, try upward salute with hands in vira mudra, or down dog, or restorative bridge. Anything that de-compresses your vertebrae and disks is wonderful (as long as it feels good)! This will give your vertebrae a break from weight-bearing, and your disks some space to expand.

  2. Strengthen your core and spine. Plank is a great one. So is locust. So is side plank. I don’t recommend crunches or sit-ups or bicycles (especially if you have fusion!), but I highly recommend anything that builds strength in the core, especially isometrically. (Check out my cool new YouTube series on Core Strength for more ideas!).

  3. Take it easy with leveraged spinal movements. This is especially important with long spinal fusions, but even if you “only” have scoliosis, it's good to keep in mind. Leveraged movements are anything where additional, external force is added: pushing down into the floor to come up into cobra pose; hooking your elbow around your knee in a twist; connecting your hands and feet in bow pose, etc. There’s nothing wrong with these poses, but adding leverage makes it easy to go too far. And when we go too far, we can stress the joints right above and below the fusion (if you’re fused), or around the apex of the curve (if you’re not fused). Maintaining as much practical spinal mobility as you can is great, but my guess is that your life doesn’t require you to be in huge backbends or deep twists - so no need to push it!

  4. Use your breath. Notice the areas of your spine, ribs, and waist where you feel more compressed or restricted (hint: this will generally be on the concave side of your spinal curve). Send your breath there. Let those compressed areas expand!

I could go on - but these 4 things are a great place to start. And, if you’d like to learn more about best practices for your spine, I’d love to work with you! Whether in person or via Zoom, private sessions can be an excellent way to build more body awareness, a greater understanding of your bones and muscles, and to remember that you’re not in this alone!

Keep taking care of those beautiful bodies, y’all. My heart (and spine) is with you.

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