Yoga for Scoliosis: Benefits
Since my scoliosis surgery, Yoga is something I have been afraid of and in the past, actively avoided. Because I have scoliosis and a fused spine, I automatically thought “I’m not bendy enough” and dismissed it. I have been to the odd Yoga class here and there but struggled with some of the moves, which initially put me off.
However, since I have gotten into running, and more specifically, started marathon training, I have found Yoga to be a great relief.
Yoga is a great complement to running as it helps to strengthen and stretch sore muscles, which can help to prevent running related injuries. Not only that, Yoga is great for scoliosis. Building strength through Yoga can help to keep the core and back muscles strong, which can help manage scoliosis related back pain.
So far, I have mostly been doing online Yoga classes via YouTube. However, I find with having a spinal fusion, some of the moves can be awkward, painful or difficult to do. In this sense, I sometimes worry about doing more harm than good with some of the Yoga moves, as I don’t know how to adapt them for my own condition.
Yoga for scoliosis: Amy Dickson
This is where working with a teacher who is trained in teaching yoga for scoliosis and back conditions can benefit.
Several months ago, I met Amy Dickson, who is a trained Yoga for scoliosis teacher, when I attended her Yoga for Back Care workshop at the Ministry of Yoga. Amy is not only a trained Yoga teacher, but she also has severe scoliosis herself and has had a spinal fusion.
When I attended her workshop last year, it was like a revelation to me.
It was exactly what I needed – someone with experience and knowledge of my condition to show me how to adapt certain Yoga moves so that they are less painful/awkward for me, and also show me moves that will benefit my back.
I have since done a virtual 1:1 session with Amy and I cannot recommend her highly enough. If you have scoliosis and are interested in Yoga, it is definitely worth arranging a session with a Yoga teacher who is specifically trained in scoliosis.
Having a personal Yoga teacher who understands your condition and can guide you through the moves offers a massive benefit over YouTube videos or Yoga classes.
Interview with Amy
Following our recent virtual 1:1 Yoga session, I asked Amy a few questions about her scoliosis background and how Yoga can benefit scoliosis:
Tell me a bit about your background and scoliosis history?
I was 12 when my mum first noticed the curve in my spine and I was diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis soon after that and referred to the local orthapaedic hospital.
My thoracic C curve progressed quickly to a Cobb Angle of 47 degrees and was in danger of compromising my heart and lungs and so I had spinal surgery in April 1992, just before my 14th birthday. I have Dwyers apparatus from T9-L2, which is a series of screws and wires over partial fusion T2-L1 rather than a rod, and my scar runs around the right side of my body rather than down my back. I still have a considerable thoracic kyphosis on the right side and the lower lobe of my back left lung is slightly compromised.
I was so young and had convinced myself that the surgery was a magic fix – the trade off for the risk of paralysis. However, aesthetically the surgery was not the success that I had hoped for and though it successfully halted the progression of the curve, it still remains at 42 degrees. I had 6 months off school to recover and spent most of that time lying down reading. I had the plaster cast for the first 3 months and remember my parents coming in to turn me several times per night, like a turtle stranded on its back!
I felt like a disembodied head – totally disconnected from my body, which I did my best to ignore, in part to block out the physical pain I was experiencing and in part to block out the emotional pain, which began to manifest itself as an eating disorder. A year after the surgery I was discharged following a course of physio and hydrotherapy and advised to swim three times per week and not to go bungee jumping or do a parachute jump and to get a referral back to orthapaedics before planning a pregnancy.
When my partner and I began to think about starting a family, I was referred back to orthopaedics. The surgeon I saw examined me and said “they made a mess of you didn’t they! Fortunately we don’t do surgery like this any more.” Although I knew the surgery hadn’t turned out how I had hoped, this was hard to hear.
He reiterated the no bungee jump/parachute jump advice and informed me that in terms of having kids I could “crack on!” I now have two daughters aged 5 years and 19 months (both via C section) and though I experienced some challenges relating to my scoliosis during the pregnancies and beyond (in particular during the toddler years when there is lots of bending and lifting) my yoga practice has supported me well alongside regular visits to my osteopath.
How and why did you get into Yoga?
In 1999, I was working at a dot com design consultancy in Shoreditch and we shared our premises with a printing cooperative. One day one of my printing colleagues approached me on the communal roof terrace and said something along the lines of “you have scoliosis – I can help you, I’m also a yoga teacher.”
My initial reaction was to tell her to mind her own business, but for some reason I didn’t. To this day I don’t really know what made me go along to that first class. My self confidence was pretty low and initially I felt upset and embarrassed that she had noticed my scoliosis. This was a few years before yoga became more mainstream and I had absolutely no idea what to expect.
The first class was a bit of a challenge. I remember lying on the hard floor for relaxation at the end with tears rolling down my face because it was so uncomfortable (I soon learnt to support the backs of my knees to make savasana more comfortable.) But for some reason I went back; soon I had an established daily self practice and was attending a couple of classes a week. Yoga means to yoke or to join together and for me it felt like my disembodied head was slowly reattaching itself to the body that I had tried so desperately to ignore – like I was coming home. Not only did I have less pain (I no longer needed my daily ibruprofen) – I felt calmer and happier too. I began dragging my friends to class, encouraging my then boyfriend to practice with me at home.
If my teenage years were characterised by denial of my scoliosis and alienation from my body, my 20s were characterised by trying to prove that my body could do amazing things – from fixating on ever more challenging asanas to triathlons, snowboarding, and surfing. A herniated L4/L5 disc in my late 20’s was a wake up call in terms of my intention in these endeavours and it was around this time I met my teacher Adelene Cheong.
Her teaching has inspired me to accept my scoliosis and to meet my body where it is with honesty and humility, to make appropriate modifications to poses and to stay true to my intention in my practice. I remember her saying “do you want to do yoga or join Cirque du Soleil?” Guided by Adelene my practice became much kinder and more patient – I still enjoy stronger poses but approach them in a way that supports my body rather than with a view to conquering it. I still love to snowboard and surf and my yoga practice supports me in being able to do these things with kindness to my body.
As time went on I found myself sharing my yoga practice more and more with family and friends – it was almost like I couldn’t help it, like it was spilling out of me. This was the beginning of my journey into teaching. But something held me back and I realise now that this was the fear of having to confront my scoliosis in order to be able to truly share yoga, that teaching would mean people looking at my body. It was the birth of my eldest daughter that became the final catalyst for teaching. Seeing that my body could nurture and carry this beautiful baby was so healing – I remember realising that so much of my body narrative had been about my body’s limitations and restrictions – what it couldn’t do. This gave me the courage to enroll on the Yogacampus teacher training course.
My experience of finding yoga really challenging, particularly in the early days, has deeply informed my teaching and I always offer options, alternatives and modifications for poses. My passion is teach yoga that is accessible for all, particularly for those of us who have physical conditions and considerations.
How long have you been teaching Yoga for scoliosis?
I have been teaching Yoga for Scoliosis and Yoga for Back Health for 3 years and practicing yoga for 20 years studying under my current teacher Adelene Cheong, a scoliosis and Back Care specialist for the last 12.
How can Yoga benefit people with scoliosis?
Yoga asanas (poses) and yoga based movement practices offer a brilliant starting point for scoliosis – they take the spine through all of its movements: flexion, extension, side bending and rotation. Supported release poses and restorative yoga can ease discomfort, tension and pain and teach you how to support the body correctly in order to maximise your comfort – princess and the pea yoga!
Mobilisation practices can help keep the spine supple – even with a fused spine they can help us to access the little bit of movement that is still there. Yoga asanas also allow encourage axial lengthening through the spine, creating more space and offer opportunities for us to strengthen and rebalance the body.
My teaching draws on Adelene’s Musculo-skeletal Release Model (MRM), inspired by Donna Farhi’s movement principles. The practice of yoga in this way can improve our postural awareness, allowing us to integrate and habituate what we learn on the mat in our day to day life – we might practice for an hour per day but it is the awareness that we take off the mat for those other 23 hours that is really transformative.
Yoga is more than a physical practice – it is also an energetic practice – and it therefore has the potential to act on a mental and emotional level, and in this way it offers the possibility of acceptance, which is something 14 year old me would have never have imagined was possible. Yoga is empowering – with the support of my daily practice, I am less reliant on others to “fix” me – it is something I can do to support myself (though I also love seeing my wonderful osteopath.)
What advice would you give to those who have scoliosis, or have had scoliosis surgery and would like to get into Yoga?
Every scoliosis is different, like a finger print, with different degrees of rotation and lateral deviation. Because every scoliosis is beautifully unique, there is no one size fits all with yoga for scoliosis. Get to know your curve(s), your body, what works for you – you are the gatekeeper for your practice. Yoga offers an opportunity to get to know your body – how it feels from the inside, rather than how it looks from the outside. Be curious and approach your practice with kindness and without judgement.
Find a teacher you like and try to attend a weekly class, but also try to do something every day, even if it’s just 10 minutes. If you are able, keep your mat rolled out so that you are encouraged to step on. Make a pact with yourself to get on the mat for at least 5 minutes each day and see what happens. Some days, it might just mean lying down or sitting for 5 minutes. Other days you may find that suddenly an hour has passed!
Approach your practice with the intention to support your scoliosis rather than change it: I read an article about Usain Bolt, which explained that his scoliosis may have contributed to him being the fastest runner of all time – he learned to work with his scoliosis, to harness the power of his asymmetry rather than trying to change it. This blew my mind – by accepting every bit of ourselves we can liberate our full potential.
How can people find out more information about your Yoga for scoliosis classes, 1:1 sessions and workshops?
I teach regularly with www.BermondseyFayre.com in London, and The Yoga for Life Project www.theyogaforlifeproject.co.uk and am currently teaching virtual classes for both including a Yoga for Back Health workshop this Saturday and a weekly Yoga for Back Care class beginning on 25 April. My website, www.amydicksonyoga.com is a work in progress but will be live in the near future.
If you have scoliosis, have you ever tried Yoga? Does it help?
Let me know in the comments below. 🙂