If you are looking for an alternative treatment for scoliosis, yoga is one of the first to be recommended. Modern yoga integrates several yoga practices, particularly body movement and breathing exercises, in order to strengthen the body and help all physical systems to work together in harmony. Considering that scoliosis means your body is way out of harmony, yoga sounds pretty good as an alternative treatment.
As I talk about in this web series on treating scoliosis, we tried yoga for my daughter’s scoliosis when her curve had progressed and was already in the 30s (degrees, that is). Ultimately, we did go with scoliosis surgery, but I do think that the yoga helped increase flexibility and lengthen the spine, which also is important for preparing for surgery and also has helped her keep pain and discomfort at bay after surgery. If you or your child have structural scoliosis, I would definitely recommend looking into yoga as an alternative treatment.
How Yoga Can Help Scoliosis
In order to understand how yoga can help scoliosis, you’ve got to understand what is going on with the muscles, bones, and other bodily structures. Anyone who has dealt with scoliosis will quickly tell you that it is much more than a curvature of the spine! Not only is your spine deformed, ribs displaced, and shoulders and hips twisted, but your body’s center of gravity is shifted. When your spine is curved, it will throw the rest of your body out of alignment and create pressure on the hips, legs, neck… It can create a wide range of symptoms including pain, headaches, breathing problems, and even menstrual irregularities.
CONCAVE SIDE = SHORTENED MUSCLES — less flexible, denser.
CONVEX SIDE = LENGTHENED MUSCLES — are weak from being over stretched
With scoliosis, the muscles and connective tissues have to adapt to the skeletal changes of the body. Take a look at this picture of scoliosis. On the concave side (red in the picture above), the muscles are shortened. This makes them more dense and less flexible. They pull hard on the spine, which can put pressure on the bones and nerves, resulting in serious pain.
On the convex side (blue in the picture above), the muscles are lengthened. They are weak from being overstretched. Because the muscles are weak and overstretched, they are not able to support the spine well, which means the scoliosis is likely to get worse.
To make matters worse, the tenseness on the shortened side can affect the amount of airflow getting to them, resulting in hypoxia (deficiency of oxygen). The hypoxia can produce scar tissue in the shortened muscles, which makes them even shorter and less flexible – again making the scoliosis likely to get worse. (Source)
Yoga can be a great alternative treatment for scoliosis because it focuses on increasing flexibility and balance (in the case of scoliosis, balance is about putting the body back into alignment). Certain yoga poses can help stretch out the shortened muscles and tissues around the spine while strengthening the weak, overstretched tissues. (Source)
Yoga can help fix spinal curvature. However, yoga as a treatment for scoliosis usually doesn’t aim to fix the curve. It is more about helping the body regain its sense of balance – despite having a spine which isn’t in alignment. I like how the National Scoliosis Organization describes it:
“The goal is not to make the spine ‘perfect’ but to find one’s own center and beauty, just as an oak tree reaches for the sky with its beautiful balance of twists and turns.” – Source
Benefits of Yoga for Scoliosis
Increased Flexibility: When you have scoliosis, the concave side of the spine has shortened, dense muscles. The shortened muscles pull on the spine, causing compression which can result in intense pain. The compression pulling on the spine can also make the scoliosis worse. By doing stretches to increase flexibility of the concave side, yoga can help solve these problems.
Strengthening Muscles: The muscles and connective tissues on the convex side of the curve are constantly being pulled down, which makes them overstretched and weak. By strengthening these muscles with yoga, the muscles will be better able to support the spine and prevent the scoliosis from getting worse.
Improved Oxygen and Blood Flow: The improper alignment which occurs in scoliosis can often cause restricted oxygen and blood flow to the compressed areas of the body. Yoga practices include breathing exercises which can improve blood and oxygen flow to these areas.
Reduced Pain: People with scoliosis often suffer from pain because of the compression on their spines, ribs, organs, and other tissues. By increasing flexibility of the spine, yoga can reduce compression and pain.
Realignment: There are some specialized yoga exercises for scoliosis which focus on rotating the body back into alignment and strengthening muscles to hold the body in alignment. Elise Browning Miller is a leading expert on yoga for scoliosis and has a great DVD called Yoga for Scoliosis which I highly recommend. You can buy it here. (Source 1, Source 2)
Caution: Traditional Yoga Was NOT Designed for Scoliosis!
Before you go and join a yoga group or watch some YouTube yoga videos, I should warn you that yoga was not designed for scoliosis. Some yoga poses which are normally safe may be very dangerous for people with scoliosis.
At the Scroth Method website (which is one of the leading exercise programs for scoliosis), they warn that people with scoliosis generally should NOT do poses which involve:
- Bending backwards
- Twisting the torso
- Bending sideways
- Bending the rib cage
- Shoulder stands
They then go on to list many yoga poses which could be dangerous for people with scoliosis, such as the cobra, half moon, camel (ustrasana), wheel (chakrasana), locust (salabhasana), and triangle (trikonasana).
Yet, at other websites, they recommend these very same yoga poses for scoliosis! It just goes to show you why you need a QUALIFIED yoga for scoliosis instructor to supervise your yoga sessions instead of trying to adapt traditional yoga yourself. A qualified instructor will be able to give you modifications that you can use to accommodate your unique curvature. (Source)
Getting Started with Yoga for Scoliosis
Yoga for scoliosis is about helping the body get back into proper alignment through increasing flexibility of dense muscles and improving strength of muscles which have gotten weak from being overstretched.
When you start doing yoga for scoliosis, the poses might feel a bit awkward, unnatural, or askew. This is because your body has gotten used to being out of alignment. Often, what feels misaligned is actually proper alignment. (Source)
Over time, your body will relearn alignment. Don’t expect any miracles overnight though. You might feel some pain relief right after the yoga session thanks to the reduced compression, but it takes time to permanently stretch out muscles and increase strength of weak muscles.
It’s important to find a teacher that is knowledgeable about scoliosis.
We were able to find a good yoga teacher by searching on yogaforscoliosis.org under “trainers” and searching our area. If you can’t find someone in your area that way, you can also search for Iyengar yoga (a type of yoga) in your area and inquire if the teacher is familiar with scoliosis modifications.
Important: Yoga should never hurt. It should strengthen and stretch you. If you feel pain during yoga, let your instructor know immediately.
Major Areas of Focus
According to Elise Browning Miller, a leading expert on yoga for scoliosis, there are 6 major areas of focus when doing yoga for scoliosis. They are:
- Feet and legs: These are the foundation of your body. They need to strengthened to provide a solid base for the spine.
- Spine: Exercises should focus on lengthening/stretching the spine
- Major and minor psoas: These are your loin muscles and major hip flexors. They are important for posture and help keep the lower body in alignment with the spine.
- Scapula: The scapula often gets rounded with scoliosis. Yoga poses which increase scapula flexibility can prevent this.
- Abdominal muscles: With scoliosis, the back muscles can become overworked and tighten. You need to have strong ab muscles to counteract this.
- Breath: Air flow is often restricted to the concave side with scoliosis, so yoga breathing techniques can be used to improve air flow and lung capacity.
Yoga Poses for Scoliosis
Different yoga poses will provide different benefits for scoliosis. For example, you might do twists to reduce posterior rotation. Here are some to start with. Again, you will want to consult with a qualified yoga for scoliosis instructor to come up with a plan for you!
For Realigning the Body: Tadasana Pose
One of the first things you will need to do when starting yoga for scoliosis is find your plumb line, or the vertical line which goes from the top of your head to your feet. Since your spine is curved, your body has probably learned to compensate for the curvature. For example, if your spine curves to the right, then your head probably also tilts to the right. Have your doctor or a friend look at you and tell you whether your hips or shoulders are uneven. Try to note whether you put more weight on one foot.
The tadasana pose can help you find and restore a more symmetrical alignment. It will feel unnatural and uncomfortable at first but, over time, your body will “relearn” proper alignment. Once your body is in proper alignment, then your muscles and connective tissues can relax instead of being stretched or too tight.
To do the Tadasana for scoliosis:
- Stand with the feet hip-width apart. Distribute the weight evenly on the heels and fronts of the feet. Tighten the knee-caps and draw the quadriceps upward.
- Lift the lower abdomen and chest upward. Release the tailbone downward toward your feet and elongate your lower back.
- Look straight ahead and stand upright feeling as though you are lifting upward through the crown of your head.
For Elongating the Spine: Two-Part Wall Stretch
This yoga pose for scoliosis is great for stretching out the muscles which are too tight and restoring flexibility to the spine. In the group classes, Natalie was instructed to do this pose while the rest of us did downward dog for instance, since she could not do that comfortably. To do the exercise:
- In the first stage, with the arms lifted, breath into the side ribs evenly.
- In the second stage, with the arms parallel to the floor breathe evenly into the side ribs. Keep the left hip back and level the hips.
- To come out, walk in and stand up. Stay for 30 to 60 seconds in each stage.
Other yoga poses which are good for lengthening the spine include:
- Downward dog (if you are able)
- Half forward bend
For Strengthening Foundation: Passive Lateral Adjustment Pose
You want to strengthen back muscles which have become weak so you can better support the spine and keep it in alignment. This can help keep the scoliosis from progressing. This pose, which is done while lying over a lift, is good for this. To do it:
- Lie on your right side with the apex of the thoracic curvature supported. Place a pillow underneath your head and extend the opposite arm overhead, palm facing the floor (if this is uncomfortable keep the arm resting at your side.)
- Hold the pose for 1 to 5 minutes breathing normally.
- To come out role towards the floor and slowly push up.
Bear in mind that you also want to strengthen the core, hips, and legs for scoliosis. Some good strengthening yoga poses for scoliosis include:
- Triangle pose
- Extended side angle pose
- Warrior pose I and II
- Intense side angle pose
De-Rotating the Back: Supta Tadasana
Get an instructor’s advice before attempting to do any of these yoga poses for your scoliosis. You could end up over-twisting the curvature and making it worse. Once you get the go-ahead, you might try the Supta Tadasana:
- Lie down on your back with your knees bent. Place support underneath the lower left side of the lower back and the left upper thoracic ribs below the armpit.
- Place your hands on the abdomen and breath into the lungs. Feel the navel drawing downward toward the back spine and the chest lifting upward and outward. (Learn to feel the abdomen receding toward the back spine as the chest lifts.)
- Stay for 30-60 seconds breathing evenly into the lungs and release.
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