Yoga for Scoliosis - yoga and your strong fluid spine
What is Scoliosis?
This can be a somewhat tricky question! Essentially, a scoliosis is an asymmetry within the spine, as a three dimensional expression. Sometimes simply referred to as 'curvature' of the spine, scoliosis weaves its path through the three cardinal planes of the body's terrain;
• through front to back, travelling the sagittal plane,
• from side to side, in the coronal or frontal plane, and
• horizontally, ie the 'twist', within the transverse plane.
Think of it as a lateral curve, with a rotary component, often with a increased lordosis or kyphosis, (as the case may be). Like each human being, and the echoing the landscape itself, each scoliotic spine and its ecology are unique.
I’m often asked the 'difference' between a structural versus a functional curve. Simply stated, a structural curve is within the bony architecture itself. Yet all such curves have their 'functional' voice. Perhaps as genesis. Perhaps as effect. Perhaps both. A functional asymmetry, perhaps arising from the way one inhabits, or uses, their physicality, can, given time and given continued asymmetric use, evolve to a 'structural' asymmetry. Form follows use.
Know however, that the expression of the scoliotic spine is not limited to the bony form. Impact echoes over to respiratory function, cardiopulmonary exercise effects, balance, kinaesthesia and interception, imbalances and facilitation within the nervous system, to name a few.
Whilst the prevalence of Scoliosis is reported as being 3-4% in most of the scientific literature, my experience suggests that this physicality is underreported.
In addition, I would suggest, that most bodies experience a level of asymmetry!
The body is not symmetrical at all. Consider the organic body and the pathways of major blood vessels. Consider your own experience, as you stand on the mat, or walk; how ‘balanced’ does your body actually feel?
This is an important question.
It is in fact, one of the primary ways that working in yoga offers change within the asymmetric body. Learning to Sense the Spine. Learning to deeply sense and embody, your experience of your form, in space, in relationship to the various parts of the body one to another, in relationship with gravity. Your care filled attention to and sensation of yourself, is how you will learn to be in relationship with, and offer change within, your spine.
Curve Patterns in Scoliosis
In order to work effectively in yoga with a Scoliosis, it is vital that you know your own curve pattern intimately; this is the landscape of your body, as interior embodied terrain and as outer sweeping topography.
Your spine is, in effect, your interior Songline. It is your midline; that around which everything else orients. Your sense of yourself, your actions in the world.
There are as many ‘curve patterns’ as their are bodies with spinal asymmetry.
Curves are named according to the region of the Spine through which they traverse, and for their lateral direction. When speaking to the latter, it is vital to understand the terms ‘convexity’ and ‘concavity’. Think of it like a glass lens; the convexity swells out. A concavity, on the other hand, is like a little cave. The same with your spine and rib basket; the ‘convexity’ of a scoliotic curve, is that place that ‘bulges’, or appears as the convex surface of a lens would. This part of the scoliotic curve, will take the spine away from the midline. If it is in the thoracic region, it will draw the rib basket with it. The ‘concavity’ of a scoliotic curve, on the other hand, is where the spine forms a little ‘cave’ or hollow, like a cupped palm. This too, will draw the rib basket inwards.
The more common curve patterns are described as;
• Right or Left Thoracic (Right is more common)
• Right or Left Lumbar (Left is more common)
• Right or Left Thoracolumbar C Curve, involving both the thoracic and lumbar spine, in the same direction of convexity ((Right being more common)
• Right Thoracic - Left Lumbar S Curve, where the curve is in opposing directions, the thoracic and lumbar regions. And, yes, the S shape can write itself the other way around as Left Thoracic - Right Lumbar.
Often compensatory curves will be present, higher or lower in the spine. For example, there is often a pelvic imbalance accompanying a lumbar curve, or, as a compensation within a thoracic curve. The neck and even the skull itself may be involved.
When you work with a Student with Scoliosis, you MUST assess them carefully, and support them in understanding their curve pattern. This will form the riverbanks within which you must work, in rebuilding sensation, relationship and appropriate, intelligent application of yogasana to effect change and cohesion in the body’s form and psyche.
Weak or Stong
I want to address a misconception about ‘strengthening the weak side’, or ‘stretching out the strong side’ of a Scoliosis. Let me say this; both sides of a scoliotic spine are functionally weak. The reason lies beyond the scope of this brief article, but it has to do with sarcomere length and the length-tension relationship between the actin and myosin filaments within muscle cells. Just know this; when the contractile proteins in a muscle cell are further apart (ie an overly lengthened muscle, as would be the case in the convexity of a scoliosis), then those proteins have a harder job moving closer together to elicit a muscle contraction. Conversely, when the contractile proteins in a muscle cell are closer together, (as is the case in the concavity of a Scoliosis), then those proteins, already being relatively close together, are more challenged in generating the oomph to come even closer to effect a potent muscle contraction.
Myth dispelled. BOTH side are functionally weak
So, what shall we do?
My role, when I work with a Student, or a Teacher, with Scoliosis, is to help them sense their spine, and invite a functional midline. Note, I did not say, ‘straighten their spine’! Yes, yoga can, and often does bring a Scoliosis into much, much greater centrality and derotation, and, whilst this may be part of my vision in helping someone work with their spine, I am much more interested in supporting a fluid functionality.
Note also, I said ‘student’, not ‘client’.
The relationship between Student and Teacher is a sacred one.
You work together. This is communion and reciprocity. It is the deepest respect.
In this way, Yoga is not exercise, nor is it in fact even “therapy”.
Yoga is a Practice. Pure and simple.
Yoga is a quality of attention, it is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness. Yoga, is a self study. It is about your relationship with yourself, in relationship with All Things.
For me, Yoga is one way I participate with myself as part of the greater ecology.
A Rationale of Practicing Yoga with Scoliosis
• building awareness and sensitivity of the whole body in three dimensional and relational space,
• Creating spinal axial length and balance about the felt midline,
• Facilitating sensitivity and ease in the fullness of breath,
• Mitigating changes with ageing and gravity,
• Challenging osteopenia and osteoporosis appropriately,
• Appropriately challenging and building balanced strength in the spine and limbs, ultimately around the new spinal alignment,
• Integrating and connecting the limbs into the centrality of the spine; working with the lower limb and its impact on the lumbar spine, and the upper limb and its impact on the thoracic spine and lungs,
• Derotation of the spinal spiral in Scoliosis; through the breath and other means,
• Restoring balance in the function of the nervous system, through restorative asana and other means,
• Moving with functional ease, grace and poise.
I will also add in here;
• Offering bony and connective tissue changes in the Asymmetric /Scoliotic curve,
• Mitigating and reducing pain and offering pain management processes.
One of the many ways to begin to explore yoga in the presence of spinal asymmetry is through partial poses; to do less and to sense more.
You will need to work with support and break things down to their most simple, to truly and deeply search the sensation of the spine. Yes, I am talking about a palette of traditional yoga props, but remember, a wall is a prop! In the absence of full sets of wall ropes or a trestle, simple props such as a chair, timber blocks (wood speaks to bone and is penetrative!), straps, firm blankets, all offer the body much vital feedback. Props offer a lot more, but that’s another Article!
In my work with Students and Teachers, I layer in a great deal of embodied anatomy, spinal and limb embryology and developmental movement patterns.
Know that it is paramount to work with clarity and precision in Scoliosis, with direct and incisive action that penetrates both the intelligence and the interior body. However, if this is all one does, then the body can become dry, brittle, rigid. This is where the balance of the fluid systems, the organic pathways of alignment and Embryology offer a counterbalance and generate a truly resilient and cohesive body that moves with its inherent dignity
I view the body as landscape.
My body, my organism, is part of the land, part of Place.
For this reason, I often teach using my photographic image of aspects of the land that echo our own physicality. This might include the relationships of,
• Rocks and bones,
• Sand and connective tissue (my most recent exploration),
• Our internal waterways and the the various fluid bodies in the landscape.
There are many, many other relationships.
All, are relevant to inhabiting your strong, fluid, spine.
Narelle Carter-Quinlan BAppSc (Biomed)
is a global leading exponent on Yoga with Scoliosis. She is the only Yoga Teacher in the Southern Hemisphere to specialise in yoga for the asymmetric spine. An Anatomist by long formal academic training and research, Narelle has taught yoga for scoliosis and backcare in New York City, San Francisco, Europe, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and of course in her native Australia. A photographer, writer, and dancemaker, her work seeks to offer the yoga practitioner important kinaesthetic information through image and metaphor, transforming and healing the yogi’s relationship with the body-land and our greater ecology.
Why Yoga for Scoliosis?
I am also often asked why I choose to teach Yoga and Scoliosis. The answer is simple. I inhabit a scoliosis. Yoga, with a scoliosis, is my Practice. And all I have, as I teach, is my Practice. Nope, it's not a groovy niche market I thought might be good to 'get into'.
Yes, but why Yoga? Essentially, for me, yoga has been a significant exploration since age four. Before I knew it had a name, or was a Form. And, even then, I was aware of the left-right conversation through my spine having different freedoms of expression, different experiential relationships. Back then, it was more about curiosity and exploration, rather than 'let's fix my back'. It still is.
As a form, the Iyengar method of yoga has a capacity for incisive, penetration of the body. The method demands clear, potent action through the limbs - particularly the feet and legs, which in turn, profoundly impacts the spine. Props (yoga equipment) are employed extensively, clarifying the direction and intent of your work, and augmenting and harnessing the actions of the pose. This offers you deep insight into the way you use (or do not use), your body. In scoliosis, specific prop usage can offer traction and de-rotation within the asymmetric spine. Props can also assist in strengthening around the new alignment, as the individual learns the new felt sense of the body in space - kinesthesia re-written. Much can change!
When you stand on your mat in my yoga room, you will experience your embodied anatomy, and your developmental movement processes, both interwoven with your searching the sensation of your spine within asana. Why? Because you are a Being whole in the ecology of your function. Your direct conscious encounter with your body's interior, together with an awareness of your movement pathways, offers you, above all, integration and ease of movement. Doesn't that sound nice?
My own practice and my teaching center around yoga as a spiritual practice of embodiment and consciousness. It's about the Whole ecology of the Being on the mat within the Whole ecology of their life. Whilst yoga is undoubtedly a physical practice of often very intense application, I do not see yoga as 'musculoskeletal therapy'.
Can Yoga change my back? Yes. You can change the experience, function, and often the architecture of your body through consistent, intelligently applied yoga. You can change the way you move, the way you feel your back, and you can change the way you breathe as you inhabit your body! Peace is a common side effect. Oh, and simple joy.
My work is currently the ONLY service in Australia, that focuses specifically on helping you practice yoga with scoliosis. Indeed. Welcome!