Teaching Yoga for Scoliosis
To determine whether a scoliosis is functional or structural, have your student bend forward from the hips. If a lateral (side to side) curve visible in standing disappears in this position, the scoliosis is functional; if the curve remains, it is built into the ribs and spine, and the scoliosis is structural.
Yoga or Surgery?
When I was 15, my family physician informed me that I had a severe structural right thoracic scoliosis. He recommended a brace and threatened me with a possible fusion of the spine, an operation in which metal rods are inserted next to the spinal column to prevent the curvature from growing worse. Appalled, I consulted a top orthopedic surgeon, who suggested that instead I try a regimen of exercise and stretching.
I exercised regularly throughout high school and college, but although 1 experienced little discomfort, I noticed that my posture was becoming worse. I was rounding my shoulders, particularly on the right side; and when I wore a bathing suit, I noticed that the right side of my back protruded more than the left. After graduation, while working with the Peace Corps in Brazil, I began to experience spasms and acute pain in my back. Guided by a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, I turned to hatha yoga.
When I stretched in the yoga poses, the numbness on the right side of my, back went away, and the pain started to dissolve. To explore this path further, I returned to the United States, where I studied at the Integral Yoga Institute with Swami Satchidananda and learned about the importance of love, service, and balance in life and yoga practice. Then I turned to the Iyengar system to explore in depth the way the therapeutic use of yoga postures could help my scoliosis.
Since that time, I have been exploring and healing my body through the practice of yoga. By teaching students with scoliosis, I have learned how to assist others with their own explorations. I have found that although every scoliosis is different, there are certain philosophical guidelines and practical yoga postures that can be helpful to yoga students with scoliosis.
The decision to do yoga to remediate a scoliosis entails a lifetime commitment to a process of self-discovery and growth. For many people, this kind of commitment is intimidating. It's tempting to turn instead to an orthopedic surgeon, who will "fix" a back by fusing it and get rid of the pain forever. Unfortunately, this operation results in a virtually immobile spine and frequently fails to alleviate the pain. I taught one teenage student with an extreme scoliosis who, weary of struggling with her yoga practice, gave up and had her back fused. To her dismay, her pain persisted, and she had even less mobility than before. When the rod in her back broke, she had it removed rather than replaced, and she returned to her yoga practice with a renewed and deeper commitment.
Choosing the path of self-discovery rather than surgery requires not only commitment, but inner awareness. While your guidance will be helpful, your students must develop an awareness of their own bodies--no famous teacher can fix their backs for them, any more than an orthopedic surgeon can. Only through their constant awareness and loving attention can they transform discomfort into a guide that helps them get in touch with their bodies.
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