When looking for ways to manage scoliosis, many people turn to physical activity. One form of movement that’s gained a lot of followers in the scoliosis community is yoga.
Scoliosis, which causes a sideways curve of the spine, is often associated with children and adolescents, but people of all ages have this disorder. And the spine, like the rest of our bodies, can change over time.
Physical activity, such as a regular yoga practice, is one form of treatment your doctor may recommend to help you deal with the challenges and pain that accompany scoliosis.
That said, there are some things to consider before you flow into a yoga sequence. Here are some tips and moves to get you started.
Yoga can be very helpful for those with scoliosis, particularly given the combination of flexibility and core stabilization needed to perform yoga poses properly, according to Sami Ahmed, DPT, a physical therapist at The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics.
Stretch and strengthen the sides of the body
When practicing yoga, Ahmed says parts of the body are stretched, and others are forced to contract by performing various movement patterns that require a sustained hold of a certain position. This often results in increased mobility of the thoracic spine.
Decrease pain and stiffness
“When looking at the spine, especially for those with scoliosis, we think about two concepts regarding its stability: form and force closure,” says Ahmed.
By strengthening the force closure, which is made up of muscles and connective tissue that keep the spine in proper alignment, Ahmed says you can often see a decrease in pain and improvement in overall function.
Physical activity, such as yoga, can help foster the maintenance of a neutral spine or improve the overall alignment.
Maintain or improve spinal position
In fact, one study of 25 patients with scoliosis found that those who performed the Side Plank pose saw improvement in the primary scoliotic curve of the spine (measured as the Cobb angle).
To show improvement, participants practiced the yoga pose for 90 seconds, on an average of 6 days per week, for a little over 6 months.
Know your scoliosis type
If you’re interested in trying yoga to reduce pain and correct your curve, Elise Browning Miller, a senior certified Iyengar yoga teacher (CIYT) with an MA in therapeutic recreation, says you first need to understand what your pattern of scoliosis is.
“In other words, they need to picture which way their curve goes from behind and understand the rotation as well because if they don’t know their curve, they won’t understand how to do the poses to correct the curve,” she says.
Begin with conscious breathing
When Miller works with students who have scoliosis, she first focuses on yoga breathing with simple poses to bring the breath into the compressed areas, where breathing is compromised.
“If there is the gnawing tightness on the side or sides of the back where the scoliosis laterally and rotationally goes, then stretching that area can relieve the discomfort,” she adds.
“The approach should both involve reducing pain as well as correcting the scoliosis,” says Miller. That said, she does point out that the most important thing is to reduce the pain or discomfort and to keep the curve from getting worse, which can be done with the right approach to yoga.
Accept that moves can be different for right and left sides
Jenni Tarma, a Yoga Medicine® therapeutic specialist, says that when using yoga to help manage scoliosis, you should remember that the distribution of tension in the surrounding tissues has become uneven due to the curvature of the spine.
“More specifically, the tissues on the concave side of the curve are shorter and tighter, whereas those on the convex side are in a continually lengthened position, and most likely weaker,” she says.
Stretch or strengthen where it’s needed
Ideally, Tarma says the goal is to reestablish some balance and try to get things more symmetrical with:
- targeted stretching on the concave or shortened side
- strengthening on the convex or lengthened side
Skip the pose, any pose
She also reminds students that since there might be significant limitations with range of motion, you should feel comfortable and empowered to skip poses that aren’t feasible or productive. It’s always important to work within your own capacity.
Give the instructor a heads-up
It’s common for instructors to move around during a yoga class and make adjustments to a person’s pose.
“Hands-on adjustments in classes aren’t necessarily off the table,” says Tarma, “but I would definitely recommend making the instructor aware of the specifics before class and absolutely letting them know if you’d prefer not to be adjusted for any reason.”
As to the method of yoga, Miller prefers Iyengar because it focuses on alignment and postural awareness strengthening, as well as flexibility.
“It is a therapeutic approach, and also, mind-consciousness is key to this system (meditation in action) where you stay in the pose long enough to adjust for your scoliosis,” she adds.
Yoga poses that Miller recommends for scoliosis include:
- Half Forward Bend (Ardha Uttanasana)
- Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasna) with a belt around a door for traction to lengthen the spine
- Locust Pose (Salabhasana)
- Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha)
- Side Plank (Vasisthasana)
- Side-Reclining Leg Lift (Anantasana)
- Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Use bolsters, rollers, or other accessories to stretch
Miller adds that supported back opening, such as lying over a bolster, and corrective breathing, such as lying on your side where the apex of the scoliosis curve is, can be beneficial. It opens up the breathing and corrects the curve.
Practice your posture
Postural awareness is also key, and Miller says she teaches it between the standing poses, such as in Mountain pose.
Try gentle spinal twists and side bends
Simple movements like spinal rotation and side bends can also be very helpful in addressing the imbalance. However, Tarma says that due to the asymmetry, these movements will be noticeably more challenging on one side than the other.
“The goal is to train a better range of motion and function on the weaker side. For example, if twisting to the right is more challenging, that’s the side we would focus on,” she says. You can do twists and side bends in a simple seated posture, either on the floor or in a chair.
Strengthen your core
That said, Tarma does point out that at least some of the work should be active, meaning you’re using the core and back muscles to execute the movement, as opposed to using your hands or arms to leverage yourself into the position. “Long-term results require more active strengthening to shift the spine into a more neutral position,” she adds.
Work towards a balance, not symmetry
And while perfect symmetry may not be attainable or even necessary, Tarma says that working toward it can help mitigate discomfort and improve overall function.
- Get private instruction. When getting started with yoga, Tamra recommends private sessions with a knowledgeable instructor before participating in public classes. “An appropriately trained instructor can help identify the convex and concave sides of the spinal curve, provide the appropriate therapeutic exercises, and provide guidance with ways to modify in public classes,” says Tarma.
- Practice daily. Miller says daily practice is key, even if only for a short time. “By committing to a daily practice, you can educate and make an imprint on the body to find more symmetry from an asymmetrical body,” she says.
- Avoid inversions or poses that hurt. Ahmed’s advice? It’s wise to avoid yoga positions that cause pain above a level 2 on a scale of 1 to 10. “In general, I’ve found that inversion poses tend to create the most pain due to the pressure on the thoracic spine,” he says.
- Work within your flexibility and range of motion. He also recommends avoiding putting stress on your body’s flexibility levels, especially for beginners. You should also ease any expectations about how a pose should feel. “With time and practice, everyone can improve their yoga execution,” says Ahmed.