Embracing the Curve: Practicing with Scoliosis

September 10, 2015    BY John Zadroga
Yoga for Scoliosis

I remember it like it was yesterday—being corralled down a corridor to the school nurse’s office in separate boys' and girls' lines. Being instructed to bend forward and then stand back up again. Feeling the nurse palpate up my spinal column, tracing a painfully obvious lateral curve…how could this be? Although seemingly insignificant to many, my primary school scoliosis screening is a memory that has remained with me throughout my life.

Until this point, I figured back pain was a part of everyone’s life, and I asked how he managed his.

In high school, I swam varsity. I recall one very frank locker room conversation with a friend about back pain, and how I felt it was keeping me from performing at my best. Until this point, I figured back pain was a part of everyone’s life, and I asked how he managed his. When he told me he didn’t have any, my jaw practically hit the floor. This sparked an interest in the interrelation between anatomical form and function, and it set the stage for my personal philosophy and career choice.

I now understand that the prevalence of back pain is, in fact, remarkably high in the United States—especially among people with scoliosis. Scoliosis is a condition marked by a lateral deviation of the midspinal line. It can be inherent from birth, or develop during growth periods due to poor posture. Its severity is quantified in degrees by a clinical measurement known as the Cobb angle.

Shortly before college, I (reluctantly) attended my first yoga class, at the insistence of my older sister. The teacher that day delivered a structurally oriented class with liberal prop use and consistent verbal feedback. She made me feel as if I were the only student in the room. Without once rekindling my primary school insecurities, she made me feel that she understood my scoliosis better than I did. Most importantly, she gave me a huge gift that class—a pain-free afternoon. This not only convinced me that I could manage my pain by physical means, but also inspired me to become a yoga teacher.

Yoga is for every body. Modifications can make it work, and it is possible to feel at home in a pain-free body.

As a medical student, I spend a fair amount of my day sitting in lecture halls, attempting to absorb what can occasionally seem like an impossible volume of information. As an osteopathic medical student, I receive additional education on the manual diagnosis and treatment of conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system. This, coupled with my own struggle to “find alignment” in my inherently asymmetrical frame, inspired me to reach out to others and let them know that yoga is for every body. Modifications can make it work, and it is possible to feel at home in a pain-free body. I would be remiss to share this sentiment without providing practical examples of how you can accomplish this, so here goes.

Understand the underlying anatomy of your curve.

This might not seem revolutionary, but don’t count on yoga teachers who have completed a 200-hour training program to understand the fine points of your anatomy. A scoliosis-type curve can really be anywhere in the spine and can sometimes result in a compensatory “counter curve” (i.e., an S-curve). Ask your primary care provider to do a musculoskeletal exam on you and tell you if your curve is more predominant in the thoracic or lumbar region. Understand that scoliosis can cause other physical nuances (one shoulder sitting higher than the other, one hip lower than the other, etc.). Depending on your degree of curvature, some physical therapy might be indicated before beginning an exercise regimen like yoga. In severe cases, surgery is the only intervention indicated. Don’t let even this deter you, as I have a client with Harrington rods (i.e., surgically implanted, spine-straightening devices) who is quite capable in her practice.

Watch yourself in the mirror.

The first time I practiced in a studio with mirrors, my mind was blown. “Do I really look like that?” I asked myself in virtually every posture. Humbling as it was, it was an excellent opportunity to learn self-awareness on a very literal level. Need proof? Take yourself to your mirror now. Come into warrior II. Are your arms level with each other? (Mine rarely are.) A neurological mechanism known as “proprioception” is responsible for this awareness (or lack thereof) of our bodies in three-dimensional space. When you have a curvature of the spine at baseline, visible misalignment might feel entirely natural. Be aware of this, and try to make the effort to internalize visual cues and rely less and less on mirrors as you reset your proprioceptive “normal.”

Take verbal cues seriously…but not too seriously.

I genuinely believe in the power of concise, tactful verbal cues for improving form. However, getting caught up in the excessive verbiage employed by some teachers can be far more harmful than helpful. Listen carefully, but do not obsess.

Avoid teachers who make you feel bad about yourself.

I once took a very challenging class with a teacher at a local studio who made me feel terrible about myself. She pointed me out to the class as someone with “poor form,” when in reality her demonstrated knowledge of anatomy was very shaky. I felt compelled to continue to attend her class because of the physical rigor, but then noticed that I left the class feeling down on myself and far from centered. I decided one day that no amount of physical challenge was worth the borderline emotional abuse, and I found a new class.

Acknowledge that you are perfect just the way you are.

I basically consider myself a bonsai tree in the literati style. Pin-straight posture is a beautiful and rare thing, but I embrace the curve handed to me and recognize that some of the most beautiful things in nature are asymmetrical. Although alignment is always a good goal to have in a yoga practice, recognize that concerning yourself too much with perfection is anti-yogic in itself.

I embrace the curve handed to me and recognize that some of the most beautiful things in nature are asymmetrical.

Do what feels right and set small goals, keeping in mind that there is nothing ugly or wrong about your essential physical composition.

Feeling “at home” in my body is a choice I had to make, and my constant postural self-adjustment continues on. However, the corporal awareness yoga has instilled in me has helped not only to address discomfort in the physical sense, but also to correct some misconceptions I had internalized over the years of how one “ought” to stand tall.

John Zadroga
developed an interest in the human body and how its form influences its function as an awkward 10-year old at a school-mandated scoliosis screening. This interest (and subsequent diagnosis of scoliosis) motivated him to give yoga a try as a teenager. It was one teacher’s liberal use of props and emphasis of posture modification that kept him coming back to the practice and eventually motivated him to become a yoga teacher. As a medical student, John also recognizes the potential for movement... Read more>>

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