This is Part 2 of a two part Yoga for Scoliosis series. Read Part 1 here.
Yoga Poses For Lengthening the Spine
When beginning to practice yoga, the most important movement is lengthening the spine. This movement will create more evenness in the spine and ribs and release tension in the muscles of the back.
Cat / Cow Pose: At the start of a practice period, loosening the spine with the breath is important to prevent injury, particularly at the apex of the scoliosis. Kneel with the hands below the shoulders and the knees below the hips. Inhaling, lift the head and tailbone, making the lower back concave. Exhale and tuck the tailbone, rounding the back and releasing the neck. Repeat at least 10 times.
Balasana (Child’s Pose): After completing the exhalation in the Cat/Cow Pose, stretch the hands out in front. Inhale deeply into the back, particularly the concave side where the ribs are compressed. Exhale and move the buttocks back halfway toward the heels. Inhale, and stretch the arms and the pelvis away from each other, with the upper back following the arms and the lower back following the pelvis. Breathe into this position, feeling the intercostal muscles stretching between the ribs and the spine and back muscles lengthening. To help stretch the compressed ribs on the concave side, move the arms toward the convex side, keeping the arms shoulder-width apart. Notice how this movement makes the back more even. After breathing into this position for a minute, move the buttocks all the way back to the heels and relax the arms by your side. Relax the entire body.
Three-Part Bar Stretch: This pose may be done at a dance bar or at home on a porch railing, sink, or wherever you can grab onto something and pull.
- Grab onto the bar with hands shoulder-distance apart and walk the feet back until the spine is parallel to the floor and the feet are directly under the hips. Now bring the heels forward to the position where the toes were and hang backwards, bending from the hips and stretching the buttocks away from the bar. Keep the neck in line with the spine, not allowing the chin to lift up. Feel the entire spine being lengthened by the pull.
- Bring the feet in a few inches toward the bar and bend the knees into a right angle, with the thighs parallel to the floor and the knees directly above the heels. Continue to stretch the buttocks down and backwards. This particularly stretches the mid-back below and to the sides of the shoulder blades.
- Walk the feet forward a few inches farther to allow the heels to remain on the floor. Let the buttocks move down toward the floor in a squat. Now pull back, keeping the buttocks down, and feel the lower spine being stretched.
Trikonasana (Triangle Pose): In Triangle Pose, the feet are separated while the torso stretches to the side. Because of the scoliosis, your emphasis should be different when you stretch to each side. When stretching toward the side of the concavity, emphasize lengthening the spine to open up the compressed ribs on the underside of the body and decrease the protrusion of the ribs on the opposite side. When stretching to the convex side, emphasize twisting to create more evenness on the sides of the back.
For example, someone with a right thoracic scoliosis would stretch to the left to create length in the spine. Separate the feet about one leg’s length. Turn the left toes out to 90 degrees and the right toes in to 45 degrees, and stretch the torso to the left, bending from the hips and stretching the arms away from each other. Placing your left hand on the back of a chair helps to spread out the ribs on the concave side. Drop the right ribs in medially towards the spine so both sides of the body are parallel to the floor. Notice how dropping the right ribs spreads out the compressed left ribs. You can also press the right outer heel of the foot into a wall to give stability and strength from which to stretch. If you are practicing in a studio that has wall ropes, a rope attached to the wall and wrapped around the right thigh is an excellent way to create this stability, particularly for someone with a lumbar scoliosis.
It is also important to stretch to the opposite side to decrease the bulge in the back on the convex side of the spine. Place the left outer heel at the wall or use a rope attached around the left leg. Lengthen out from the hip as you did on the left side. Place the right hand on the leg and bring the left heel of the hand to the sacrum. Inhale and draw the base of the right shoulder blade down from the ears and into the body, opening the chest. Exhale and twist from the navel, drawing the left elbow back to align the shoulders with each other. Let the neck and head follow.
Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose): This pose strengthens and stretches the legs, psoas, and back muscles. For students with scoliosis, this pose is best practiced with the support of a doorjamb or pillar, to keep the torso upright and balanced. Bring the back groin to the edge of the door jamb with the front heel about two feet ahead and the front leg hugging the side of the wall. Place the back toes about two feet behind the left hip. Square the two hips so they are parallel to each other and point the tailbone to the floor, lengthening the sacrum.
Inhale and bring the arms overhead parallel to the shoulders, palms facing toward each other, and lift from the upper back, lengthening the ribs and spine out of the pelvis. Exhale and bend the right leg, creating a right angle, with the thigh parallel to the floor and the shinbone perpendicular to the floor. The right knee should be directly over the right heel, with the left leg fully extended and the left heel descending to the floor. Keep lifting the spine and at the same time press into the floor with the back leg. If you have difficulty bringing the back heel to the floor, place a sandbag under the heel for balance. Pressing it back and down to the floor helps to penetrate the deep psoas muscle.
For additional standing poses helpful for scoliosis, consult B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. Utthita Parsvakonasana (Lateral Angle Pose), Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), Parighasana (Cross Beam of a Gate Pose) are three excellent lateral stretches to do for scoliosis that follow the same guidelines as Trikonasana. Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose), and Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Lateral Angle Pose), two twisting standing poses, are highly recommended for intermediate yoga students.
Even in a healthy spine, the continual pull of gravity can compress the intervertebral disc and eventually cause nerve damage or disc herniation. In a spine with scoliosis, the problem is even more pronounced. The person will tend to feel the uneven pressure of gravity constantly but have no understanding of how to create alignment to alleviate it. Inversions create a freedom in your body to experience alignment without the usual distortions caused by gravity. As a result, it is often easier, particularly if you have a scoliosis, to feel what alignment is upside down than while standing on your feet. The inversions also develop strength in the back and arms; increase circulation to the vertebrae, brain, and other organs, and encourage Iymphatic circulation and venous blood return.
Ardha Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Half Handstand): Handstand is generally one of the first inversions students learn. It helps to develop arm and shoulder strength, preparing you for other inversions such as Headstand. By learning to lift up in Hand stand, you also learn to lengthen the spine against gravitational force, a movement that is particularly important for those with scoliosis. If you are new to Handstand and afraid to try it, Ardha Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Half Handstand) is an alternative that can help you build your confidence and strength. To warm up, do Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) with the heels at the wall. Lift the right leg and extend through the heel with the ball of the foot pressing against the wall. Reverse, bringing the right leg down and lifting the left leg. This movement helps build upper body strength, often lacking in practitioners with scoliosis; it also teaches you to lengthen both sides of the body evenly, despite the distortion in your spine.
Rest in Child’s Pose. Now go back into Adho Mukha Svanasana and lift both legs onto the wall, hip-width apart and parallel to one another. The feet should be at hip level, no higher, and the arms, shoulders, and torso should be in a straight line. Press actively into the wall with the heels. Spread the shoulder blades away from each other and draw them away from the ears. Press into the inner hands, draw the elbows in and keep the arms straight. If this is difficult, use belt around the arms, just above the elbows.
Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand): Shoulderstand releases the chronic tension in the neck and shoulders so common among people with scoliosis. If you are a beginner, you should have as much support as possible to encourage the chest to open and to prevent the weight of the body from descending on the neck and shoulders. Begin by using a chair, a bolster, and the wall. Place the back of your chair approximately one foot from the wall. Place a nonslip mat and thin blanket on the seat of the chair and a blanket over the back. Place a bolster or several blankets on the floor in front of the chair. If you are on a wooden floor, place a folded towel in front of the blankets for placing under your head. Sit in the chair facing the wall and roll backwards into the pose, bringing the shoulders onto the bolster and head on the floor. Hold on to the chair’s back legs and lift your legs, resting your feet against the wall. If your chin is higher than your forehead, place a folded towel under your head. Relax the eyes, turning them inward and down toward the chest. Stay in the pose for 5 to 10 minutes. To come out of the pose, slide the chair away and lower your but tocks to the floor.
As you progress, begin to do Shoulderstand at the wall with out the chair and bolster. Place four folded blankets at the wall; lie on the blankets with the buttocks close to the wall, the shoulders at the edge of the blankets, and the legs stretched up the wall. Bend the knees, lift the buttocks, and shift your weight onto the shoulders. Interlace the fingers with the elbows straight and roll the shoulders under. Support the back with the hands and lift up through the knees. Straighten one leg at a time, until you are strong enough to straighten both legs and balance. If you get tired, stretch the legs back to the wall, keeping the legs straight. Hold for a minute in the beginning and gradually increase to 5 to 10 minutes. To come out, release the hands from the back, and continue to extend through the heels as you slide to the floor, pressing the tailbone toward the wall.
As your practice progresses, you might wish to try Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance). When the arms, shoulders,and back have been strengthened through regular inversion practice, you may be ready to practice Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand).
The backward bends have been the most powerful poses in releasing my back tension and armoring. Backbending has given me freedom and mobility, particularly on the more developed right (convex) side of my back.
Passive Backbend Over a Bolster: With a scoliosis you may experience periodic muscle spasms. Thus, even though backward bends are helpful, you should approach them with softness rather than force. In order to open up, the muscles in the back must learn to release rather than tighten, allowing the heart to open like a lotus blossom from the inside out. Beginning with passive backbends encourages this approach.
Roll a firm blanket into a cylinder or use a bolster. Lie back on the folded blanket or bolster so that your shoulder blades are resting on the roll. Your head and shoulders should rest on the floor. Stretch the legs out through the heels to prevent lower back compression, and lift the breastbone. Bring the chin down toward the chest and lengthen the neck. Now extend the arms straight overhead and rest them on the floor, if possible. Feel the breath evenly expanding the rib cage. Try to breathe into and expand the compressed side of the rib cage. If you feel the convex side of the back protruding onto the roll more than the concave side, place a small hand towel or tie under the concave side so that the back touches the blanket evenly. You may also do this passive backbend over the edge of your bed.
Salabhasana (Locust Pose): This backbend is very important for scoliosis, because it strengthens the erector spinae muscles and the hamstring muscles of the legs. This strengthening helps to ensure adequate support of the spinal column in all back bending poses.
Lie face down and extend the arms out to the side, in line with the shoulders. On an exhalation, lift the head and upper chest off the floor, keeping the buttocks firm and pressing the thighs strongly down. Lengthen the arms out to the side so the shoulder blades stretch away from the spine, keeping the hands below the level of the shoulder blades. Exhale as you release. Repeat three to five times.
Now stretch the arms overhead and feel the muscles of the back lengthening from the pelvis. Lift the arms and place the palms on the seat of a chair in front of you. Stretch the arms out once again and move the chair farther away to lengthen the spine. Gently lift the abdomen and floating ribs to support the front of the spine. Press down strongly with the palms on the chair as you press the thighs downward and lift the spine further. Exhale as you release. Repeat three to five times. You may also do this pose with the legs lifted as well as the arms.
Twists are very important for scoliosis because they help to derotate the spine. Caution should always be taken to lengthen the spine before twisting.
Chair Twist: Sit on a chair with your right side to the back of the chair and your hands placed on each side of the back of the chair. Place your feet firmly on the floor, knees and ankles together. With an inhalation, lengthen the spine; with the exhalation, gently rotate from the navel, stretching the ribs away form the pelvis. Press with the right hand into the back of the chair to create more twist, and with the left fingers pull on the back of the chair, drawing the left shoulder blade away from the spine. Continue to breathe into the pose and twist further with each exhalation. With an exhalation, slowly release the pose. For a right thoracic scoliosis, emphasis should be put on twisting in this direction. Twist both ways twice, but stay longer on this side.
As you progress you will be able to add several other seated twists that are beneficial to scoliosis, including Blharadvajasana, Maricehyasana, and Ardha Matsyendrasana.
Forward bends help you release deep tension in the back and shoulders. The longer you can stay in these poses, the deeper will be the release.
Janu Sirsasana (Head to Knee Pose): Sit at the very edge of a folded blanket with both legs straight, and pull the flesh of the buttocks away from the sitting bones. Bend your right knee and bring your right heel into the right groin, letting the knee fall gently to the side. Bend forward from the hips over the left leg. In this forward bend, first lift the spine and draw the shoulder blades down and into the back, opening the chest. This movement counter acts the tendency of people with scoliosis to hunch their backs and round their shoulders. To achieve this opening of the chest, you may pull gently on a chair, or on a tie wrapped around the ball of the left foot. Place a sandbag on the protruding (convex) side of the spine. If you can come farther forward, place a bolster or blanket across the straight leg and rest the forehead on the bolster. Repeat on the opposite side.
Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) and other seated forward bends can also be practiced in a similar fashion, with the aid of a chair, a sandbag, and a bolster.
Savasana (Corpse Pose) with Breathing Awareness
Relaxation is crucial to allow the body, mind, and spirit to receive the fruits of the practice. Especially for scoliosis sufferers, relaxation is difficult, for the muscles have been clenched to support the uneven spine. Lie down on your back on the floor, stretching both sides of the body evenly. If the back is uneven due to the scoliosis, place a tie or small towel in the concavity of the back. Close your eyes and breath deeply, becoming especially aware of the spine and expanding both sides of the rib cage evenly. Move your awareness through your body, noticing and releasing any areas of tension. Stay in the pose at least 10 minutes.
As the body relaxes in Savasana, the mind becomes quiet, and true healing can take place. Healing is not just a physical activity, but involves deep awareness of the mind and spirit as well. In the course of out lives we encounter many hardships that, like our curved spines, may initially appear to be painful handicaps. In learning to take responsibility for healing our backs and to treat them with awareness and sensitivity, we also learn to respond this way to other emotional, mental, and physical traumas. Through yoga, we discover that the curved spine has a wisdom all its own. Its greatest power is its ability to teach us to live our lives with sensitivity, balance, and grace.