Yoga with Scoliosis
Long story short, yoga with scoliosis was not fun, but it was necessary. Let me tell you about my experience with scoliosis, practicing yoga, a sequence I found very helpful, and how my practice has changed over time. I was sixteen years old when I was officially diagnosed with scoliosis. I was experiencing back pain for quite some time and eventually this lead to getting x-rays. This was about thirteen years ago, so my memory around all the events is a little fuzzy, so I’ll stick to what I clearly remember. I was sitting at home in our living room when I received a call from the doctor’s office (on the house phone, because those still existed at this point!). The lady on the other end of the phone told me that my results had come back from the x-rays and that I had scoliosis. Yes, my results were given to me over the phone. I often wonder how different this experience would have been if it happened today. I was sixteen, and had no idea what this meant. I thanked her, and hung up the phone. The next thing I remember is speaking in person with my doctor about what I could do to alleviate the pain. See the scoliosis wasn’t aggressive enough to receive surgery, but it was enough to feel uncomfortable most of the time, and in debilitating pain at other times. So, the prescription, massage therapy, physiotherapy, and yoga.
When I pictured massage therapy, I pictured a spa like environment, soft music, comfy sheets, and a gentle massage releasing all my tension away. The environment was spot on, so soothing and relaxing. The treatment? Not so much. As you may know, there’s this form you have to fill out before getting a massage, the one that asks you if you have any medical conditions, heart problems, skin issues etc. This is where I always had to write about my scoliosis. Instantly the session was less about relaxation, and one hundred percent about releasing the tight muscles around my spine. Maybe now is a good time to define scoliosis: being any irregular curvature of the spine. My curvature was an “S” shape, what this meant was that you couldn’t visually see the scoliosis, and it was very even on both sides of the spine, which meant it had little affect on my hips or shoulders. What it did mean was that some muscles were very overworked. Okay I’m digressing, the massage therapy sessions: regularly I would wake up the day after a massage with bruises lining my spine, but I continued with the therapy as I always felt better for at least a few days following the massage. During the treatment the massage therapist was mostly looking for tension points, she/he would push their finger into a muscle and ask me to tell them when the pain started to subside. Needless to say, not the relaxing massage that I wanted - but the healing massage that I needed. I stayed consistent with these treatments, mostly because my mama would come with me - for a little mother daughter couples massage. For a while there we would go every single month without fail (thank you benefits).
Then there was the physiotherapy, and this is in no way intended to talk down about physiotherapy, it is simply my experience. I attended a couple of times per week, the first half hour was lifting weights, or using the weight machines. The second part of the session I was hooked up to a TENS machine. If you have never heard of this, it’s basically a small machine that you could hook onto your pants, there were wires with sticky pads attached that I would stick to my back. Then little shocks would be sent through the pads and this would release the pain from my muscles. As I said, I was sixteen, so I was less than impressed with the weight lifting. In hindsight, I realize that they were attempting to strengthen my core to take the pressure away from my back muscles. Either way, I stopped attending the sessions as I saw no immediate improvement to my symptoms, I purchased a TENS machine and would use it myself at home. In all honesty, with the knowledge that I have now, I wish that I stuck to physiotherapy a bit longer.
Now for the yoga! I was still in my teens at the time, and didn’t really know about yoga studios back then. I purchased a DVD for yoga at home (I actually still have it!) and would practice by myself at home. It was a long time ago, and I don’t remember if it was painful or if I enjoyed it or not. My first actual memories of practicing yoga were in University. I attended a few complimentary sessions that they hosted on campus, and then eventually found a local studio. I practiced on average about 5 times per week. I remember this time as being when I fell in love with yoga. I loved the way it made my body feel, I loved finding something that was able to draw my busy mind away from studying. I was in heaven. Then I entered my early twenties. And my body decided it was not okay with certain movements. I remember some days where I could barely move from my mat. I remember days where I had to call in sick to work because I couldn’t get out of bed. My scoliosis pain was getting out of control. I craved yoga, and I needed it in my life. So I had to seriously change my practice. I stopped attending the vinyasa and power classes, and I dedicated myself to yin, restorative, and gentle styles. This is when I learned a very important lesson that would shape the way I view yoga today. Yoga is for EVERY BODY, but not EVERY yoga is for every body. There are many different styles, and everyone can find a style that best suits their needs for that time. Some people can practice all styles, but this doesn’t mean that everyone can - or that everyone should. Sun Salutations were one of the worst sequence of poses for my scoliosis pain, the constant up and down movements were killer on my back. I needed to move, and so I needed to adapt.
Then I jumped into my first 200hr Teacher Training program, while still experiencing severe scoliosis pain. There was a lot of poses that I could not do, a lot of sequences I could not practice. So I learned to be creative, and I developed salutations and flows that suited my body. The great thing about this was I learned to modify everything. I found that everything could be changed to suit the needs of each client. Remember that pose at the top of this post? That’s Happy Baby pose, now when you go into this asana the instructor would typically suggest a gentle rock from side to side. It usually feels very soothing, and like a gentle massage to the lower back. But imagine rocking from side to side on a spine that isn’t straight? Ouch. So now I understand this, I can teach it and cue it better. Not everything that is “supposed” to feel good, actually does feel good. Here is a sequence that I put together and found to be soothing for my mild pain days, it was just the right amount of movement, without going into a full blown sun salutation. For severe pain days I would stick with Restorative Yoga, and lots of Thai massage adjustments on my back.
Sequence to Soothe Mild Scoliosis Pain and Discomfort
Each pose can be held for one breath in a flow like manner, or you can hold each pose for 5 breaths for a slower, more gentle practice.
Extended High Kneeling
Extended Puppy Pose
So, the massage and yoga were not fun in the moment, but as I said in the beginning - they were completely necessary. I needed the massage for the muscle and pain relief, and I needed the yoga for movement and strengthening my muscles. With a strong core, my core muscles could take on some of the burden that my back muscles were carrying. Now this is a story that I’ll have to tell in more detail at another time, but during the miracle of pregnancy, my scoliosis disappeared. I don’t know when this happened exactly, I don’t know why it happened. All I can tell you is that I had scoliosis, I was pregnant, had a baby, and then I no longer had scoliosis. Regardless of that happening, I use yoga (one of the many reasons I practice) as a way to keep my body and muscles strong in hopes that it doesn’t return. I fear the day my muscles become weak and the scoliosis returns (I hope that day never arrives!). Now my practice is very balanced, using a combination of Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Yin, Restorative and Yoga Nidra.
If you’re reading my story and you can relate to these feelings, maybe you have scoliosis, or any other kind of pain that impacts your practice - know that there is a practice out there that will feel good for you. Can I tell you that yoga will heal your scoliosis? No. And I definitely don’t recommend trying pregnancy, as I don’t think that’s a tried and tested cure either. But yoga is necessary for many people for pain management, a consistent practice can also bring many more things into your life: movement, strength building, mobility and flexibility, breath control, a calm and quiet mind, helping you better deal with stress and anxiety….the list goes on!
Until next time,