What effect does yoga have on scoliosis?
I was recently asked a question via email. Can we use yoga to fix scoliosis? It’s certainly not the first time that I’ve ever been asked about scoliosis and I’m sure it won’t be the last. It’s a seemingly simple question. But, it bends in a direction that makes me wonder about our larger expectations for our yoga practice. It also points out our desire for a simple answer to what seems like a simple question. The truth is, it’s neither a simple question nor a simple answer.
As a yoga teacher who often gets asked about injuries and conditions, I always try to give a realistic and balanced answer. There are both limitations on science and modern medicine as well as limitations on yoga’s ability to heal or “fix” things. Of course, anything is possible, just not always probable.
Before I digress too far, let’s come back to the question at hand. Can we use yoga for healing a scoliosis? The simple answer is, I don’t know. The more complicated answer requires a whole lot more information about a specific person than the general question about whether yoga can be used for scoliosis. There are different types of scoliosis with different causes. This means that the management of each type is different. Likewise, the potential of yoga to change something about the scoliosis is also different.
The potential expectation of yoga for fixing a scoliosis may be unrealistic. Managing and slowing the progression of a scoliosis may be a bit more realistic. Is it impossible that scoliosis can be completely fixed? No, it’s not impossible. I’m sure there are a few cases where certain types of scoliosis have been fixed with good therapeutic yoga. We just have to be aware of the various factors that would allow for this to happen.
What is scoliosis?
Scoliosis is a condition where there is a curve in the spine that goes sideways (laterally). There can be a single or a double curve. There can even be a twisting of the vertebrae mixed in with the sideways bending of the spine. How do these get into the spine in the first place?
There are two categories of scoliosis that we should consider. The first is one that includes potential genetic level issues or diseases that can affect the formation of the bones. This group is sometimes referred to as structural scoliosis.
Sometimes there is a genetic coding that has the spine doing its side bending. In other cases, it’s the result of other diseases such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and others which can cause the same problem in the spine. This is the more extreme of the two categories. And, this is the type of scoliosis where you may hear about rods being placed along the spine to prevent it from heading further into its bends and turns. In this type of scoliosis, we often find a rotational component that leads to the appearance of a hump on one side of the spine. We may also see it as the rib cage being shaped differently on each side.
The probability of a yoga practice for fixing this type of scoliosis is less than the next category. That doesn’t mean people can’t benefit from a yoga practice, but managing expectations is important. What we can do is slow the progression of the scoliosis. We can actually maintain it where it is and arrest the continued progression of the problem.
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The second type of scoliosis is more of a postural type. These are the more mild cases that are often referred to as functional scoliosis.
There are certainly a number of ways that a functional scoliosis can get started. In these cases what I often find is that the pelvis is uneven on one side or the other. There are a number of pieces that may fit together here. How did the pelvis get like this? What effect does it have on the sacrum? How does this lead to scoliosis?
Where does scoliosis start?
Scoliosis commonly occurs in adolescent girls. What is going on around this time to trigger scoliosis? Growth is the simple answer. Bones and muscles may grow at different rates from one another. The right side or the left side may grow at slightly different rates from one another as well. What this can lead to is an imbalance around either side of the body and specifically at the pelvis.
It’s the legs and their growth that may end up having the largest impact. If we develop one leg longer than the other we can end up with a leg length difference. This leg length difference then has the effect of tilting the pelvis in one direction or causing one side to rotate forward or back relative to the other side. Any of these scenarios can lead to the sacrum being tilted off to the right or left. I often find that the more mild cases of scoliosis in the lumbar section go along with a pelvis that is out of alignment.
Yoga for scoliosis
Although work along the spine itself is beneficial, we don’t want to lose sight of the bigger picture. If we can recognize our underlying problems then we should address those as well. Perhaps it’s getting our pelvis into alignment, or addressing a leg length difference we notice in ourselves. If these are functional, then we can change the musculature to get the pelvis back in the right place.
For instance, sometimes a rotated pelvis on one side creates that longer leg. If so, can we undo the muscles that create that rotation in the pelvis? If it’s an anterior tilt, then we might do extra postures that lengthen the hip flexors (psoas, quadriceps, adductors) in general to allow it to rotate back a bit and be more neutral. This could take pressure off of the sacrum and over time deconstruct that scoliosis.
So certainly asana used intelligently and therapeutically can impact this type of scoliosis. But it may be too much to lay all of our hopes on the asana alone. It’s often helpful to have a therapist, perhaps craniosacral, chiropractic, osteopath, or darn good massage therapist who can recognize not only the scoliosis but also the potential underlying causes of it.
I always end up stressing the big picture and the interconnected nature of the body. It’s so important to stop trying to see the body as parts and pieces that have been “put” together. They haven’t, and as people interested in our bodies and their function, we should change this pattern of thinking. We need to continually remind ourselves that the body has formed and our patterns have also formed. Undoing them can take time.
Can yoga fix scoliosis? Maybe not completely, but there is definitely no harm in trying intelligently.