Q: I have a student who has scoliosis and is afraid of doing yoga. 
The student has unbalanced shoulders and hips. One side is higher than the other. She is afraid of doing twists, as she feels twisting will aggravate her thoracic spine. She was depressed after she was diagnosed with scoliosis. 
Could you share your experience of having scoliosis? How did yoga help you ? Can you recommend any specific flows for students who have scoliosis ?

Thank you for your time and energy to answer my questions.

A: I am eager to help you and your student with scoliosis because no one should be afraid of doing yoga. Yoga is exactly the thing that has saved me and made it possible for me to live comfortably with my scoliosis.

I learned I had scoliosis when I was 10 years old. I wore a back brace (to keep the scoliosis from getting worse, they said) from ages 13-18. I started doing yoga when I was 24 years old and I met Kaliji and TriYoga when I was 26 years old. I do yoga every day and have done yoga every day for over 20 years. I teach a lot of TriYoga, sometimes 2 hours a day, sometimes 8 hours a day. The point is…it is very possible (and important!) to do TriYoga if you have scoliosis. I have had no pain for most of this time, and no problem with doing yoga. Last year, my back began to feel tired and stiff when I was cooking. This led to studying more about how to work with scoliosis through yoga, and that is what I am giving my special attention to now.
My curve was about 35 degrees when I was in my 20’s. They said it would get about 1 degree more every year, but I have not had it measured since then and I have not been to the back doctor for decades. TriYoga is my doctor. I am able to do all activities of life without problem.
The place to begin is for her (perhaps with your help) to understand what kind of curve pattern she has. TriYoga is about building awareness and the first starting point is to know one’s own curve pattern. The body is constantly compensating for the imbalances, and so we have to learn how to work with each side specifically to address the habits of the body. Without awareness of how the body is tending to hold itself, our habits and patterns and the curve itself will deepen over time. See if you can find out about her curve pattern from her, or maybe with her, if she does not know already.
For example:
  • What kind of curve does she have? (C-curve, S-curve)
  • Where is it in the spine? (lumbar, thoracic, thoracolumbar)
  • At which point/vertebra is the apex (the deepest place) of the curve?
  • Which direction does the curve go? (left? right?)
  • In addition to the spine having curvature in the lateral (left/right) place, it is very likely there is also rotation of the spine toward the curve side. How much does she see this, for example when she lies on her back and feels the different amount of space beneath the two sides or looks at the height of the hips or the level of the ribs?
  • How extreme is her curve or curves? (It will be hard to know how many degrees of curvature she has if she has not had a measurement from a doctor. It is not the most important thing to know, but it is helpful for understanding how much challenge she has and how much she might need to modify. The stronger the curve, the harder the backbend bend movements are.)
The best practice to learn is how to relax while lying on the back (Partial Recline or Reclined Butterfly with blocks under the thighs would be better than Tranquility) and then learn complete breath. You see, it’s the same as what we teach everyone! Start with the breath so the mind can focus on what is happening in the body and not be taken away by the pain or the fears.
Then she can notice the places where the back comes fully on the earth on one said, and lifts high off the earth on the other side. This may also happen in the pelvis. This will help her understand what the curve pattern is in that position. Teach her how to relax and get comfortable here. If she has a very big space on one side, you can pad under that space with a little washcloth or towel, to fill in the hole and allow that area to relax more. Learning how to relax the back is a good place to start, while experiencing Complete Breath.
From there, she can notice the same kinds of patterns in the spine while standing against the wall or sitting with the back against the wall. It’s easiest to see the patterns in Asana rather than Kriya, but I am getting better at being able to do it in Kriyas too. Once you understand the pattern, you can use your TriYoga knowledge to begin to invite awareness that would change the pattern and bring more balanced alignment. I work to bring the curve in on the side where it bulges out and lengthen the side where my back is compressed on the opposite side. (You can see the folds of skin on this compressed side, and you can see a mound on the side where the curve is.)
Leg Stretch is great.
Standing postures that strengthen the legs are great.
Wall Hang (and even Wall Hang 2 if she is strong and flexible) is a great place for you to look at her back, touch it, and help her learn to lengthen in some places and pull in on others. The body will try to make these changes in the pelvis and shoulders, because we have more access to those places. It is important to try and keep the pelvis and shoulders square and begin to find out how to move the ribs and the vertebrae themselves, using the breath to shift things.
Since you mentioned twists, I will say that if she is worried about twisting, you might have her do seated twists in a chair. She must learn to lengthen, especially on the compressed side, to have room for the spine to make rotation. She can pull in on the curve side.
Let me know if I can be of more help. Tell your student I send my joy and confidence that she can live quite well and enjoy TriYoga with scoliosis. I’d be happy to help more if you have more questions.
Theresa 🙂