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What is Yoga?

Yoga, meaning yoke or union is an ancient physical, mental and spiritual practice designed to cultivate inner peace, an open heart, a calm mind, and a strong, relaxed body. In the West, yoga is most commonly associated with the physical discipline known as hatha yoga, one of several branches of yoga.

The roots of yoga go back over 3,000 years to India and was first introduced into the United States in 1893. Today, an estimated 5 million Americans practice yoga and the number is rapidly growing.

Hatha yoga is the practice of physical postures (asanas), the practice of breathing techniques (pranayama) and relaxation (sivasana), and was developed to relax, detoxify, strengthen and stretch the body. Within hatha yoga, there are many different schools, such as Iyengar, Kripalu, Ashtanga, and Viniyoga. Iyengar yoga, named after its founder B.K.S. Iyengar, is renowned for its precise attention to alignment, and anatomical detail. Individual attention is given to special physical problems such as scoliosis.

    B.K.S. Iyengar

Yoga for Scoliosis

In the practice of doing the yoga postures, there is an emphasis of postural alignment, particularly in the Iyengar system. One becomes more aware of imbalances throughout the body and learns methods of improving one's posture. For someone with scoliosis it is very important to both lengthen and strengthen the muscles that support the spine in order to relieve tightness and pain. There are many postures where the spine is simultaneously being lengthened and the paraspinal muscles (longitudinal muscles down the spine) and other supporting muscles of the back are strengthened which together help offset further lateral curvature and rotation.

Standing poses strengthen the legs which creates a solid foundation from which the spine can stretch and become freer. This enables the legs, rather than the spine, to carry the weight of the body.

At the same time, it is very important to create flexibility in the legs and mobility, particularly, in the hips. There are many yoga postures that stretch the hamstrings, hip flexors, and quadriceps which are the key muscles that not only create more mobility and strength but which can help improve posture.

Many yoga postures also loosen the upper back particularly the trapezius muscle (large muscle from neck to base of shoulder blade).

Yoga also emphasizes breath awareness while doing the postures. With scoliosis, there is often a decreased breathing capacity particularly on the concave side, because the intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs) have decreased in their elasticity and strength. By sending the breath into the collapsed ribcage on the concave side, one can actually stretch the intercostal muscles and create more lung capacity as well as more evenness of the sides of the body.

Suggested Yoga Postures

The following are beginning yoga postures that you can do on your own. As you progress, it is recommended that you receive the guidance of a yoga teacher to assist you in learning more advanced poses so they can give you guidance of proper alignment for your scoliosis. Please remember to breathe while holding these poses. You may start to hold these poses for a half a minute and build up to a minute.

1) Right Angled Wall Stretch - Place hands on the wall shoulder width apart at shoulder level and walk the feet back placing them hip width apart under the hips. Push palms into wall and lengthen spine. Keep lower back in. As the shoulders become more flexible, you can bring the hands to hip level to form a true right angle

2) 3 Part Kitchen Sink Pull
a) Pull back from kitchen sink, railing or ropes. Feet are in towards sink and legs are straight.
b) Walk feet forward so when you bend knees, legs are at a right angle as if sitting in a chair. Bring ribs to thighs. Pull back.
c) Walk feet in a few inches. Drop buttock to a squat and pull back.
(May also do with a partner)

3) Pelvic Tilts Pose
a) Dog Tilt: Tailbone, sitting bones lift. Lower back in. Head lifts. Inhale.
b) Cat Tilt: Tailbone, sitting bones down. As palms press down, lift mid back bringing navel to lower back and spread shoulder blades. Head drops and neck releases. Bring concave side of back up to ceiling more to even the sides. Exhale.

4) Extended Puppy Pose - Stretch the hands out in front. Move the buttock halfway back to the heels and press down through the hands as you pull back through the hips. Move hands toward convexity if extreme lateral curve and feel ribs and spine come towards the center. (i.e. move hands to right if you have right thoracic scoliosis)

5) Lunges
Bring right foot forward and back knee down. Lunge forward so front knee is slightly over ankle bone. Feel stretch in back thigh and groin. Variation-Bring back knee off and stretch through heel.

6) Hip Opener - (piriformis Stretch)
Come back on all fours. Bring right foot and knee forward and place on floor. Square hips and slide left leg back. Slowly come down with hands out in front. If you come far enough, place elbows on floor. Reverse.

7) Back Strengtheners
a) On tummy, Arms out in front. Lift right arm and left leg. Stretch, take five breaths holding the position. Reverse and repeat again on each side.
b) Place hands on a low ledge at least 8 inches from floor or seat of a chair if shoulders are flexible. Press down through palms as you lift up through crown of head. Breathe. Repeat a second time.

8) Hamstring Stretch - Bend right knee to chest and place belt or strap around ball of foot. Slowly straighten leg and stretch through heel. Reverse.

9) Abdominal Strengthener - Legs on floor. Bring right leg up to 90 slowly bring down to 60, 30, a few inches from the floor and relax. Reverse legs. Do both legs as you get stronger. Arms down by side or overhead as you get stronger.

10) Gentle Twist - On floor, bend right knee and place foot on left thigh, move onto side left hip and twist left knee over towards floor as you simultaneously look to right and keep right shoulder down.

11) Relaxation - Place a hand towel or washcloth under concave side of back as you lie evenly on the floor. Lie on back with blanket under head and knees. Align your body and let go of all tightness in your body from head to toes. It is advisable to stay in the relaxation position for at least 5 minutes letting go of all tension.

Elise Browning Miller, M.A. in Therapeutic Recreation, is a certified Iyengar yoga teacher from Palo Alto, CA. She has employed yoga to work with her own scoliosis over the last 25 years, which she states has alleviated her pain, improved her posture, and gave her more vitality and a better outlook on life. Elise teaches special workshops on "Yoga for Scoliosis" to students, teachers and the medical community throughout the country and abroad and sees clients privately. She works closely with several orthopedic surgeons in the Bay Area and has written articles on "Yoga for Scoliosis" in various magazines. For more information write; Elise Browning Miller, P.O. Box 60746, Palo Alto, CA 943406.


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