Can yoga fix scoliosis?
By David Keil
I was recently asked a question via email. Can yoga 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 and 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 yoga fix 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 fix scoliosis. There are different types of scoliosis with different causes. This means that the management of each type could be different and the potential for fixing is also different.
The potential expectation that yoga will fix 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 and sometimes it’s the result of other diseases such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and others that can cause the same problem in the spine. This is the more extreme of the two categories and is often the one that leads to the rods being placed along the spine to prevent it from heading further into it’s bends and turns.
In this type of scoliosis we will often find a rotational component that leads to the appearance of a hump on one side of the spine and we may see it as the rib cage being shaped differently on each side.
The likelihood that a yoga practice is going to fix 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 can easily be achieved is that we slow the progression of the scoliosis or actually maintain it where it is and arrest the continued progression of the problem.
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 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 it 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.
How to work with Scoliosis
Although work along the spine itself is beneficial, we don’t want to lose site 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 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.
As much as some of you would like for me to give you some specific asana to treat your own scoliosis it would be disingenuous of me to give some generic sequence that might help. We would need to look at all of those underlying causes and work with them over a long period of time. My recommendation is that you should start by looking at the pelvis and see if you can tell if one side is rotated more forward or back than the other. Perhaps assess the person in a virasana or supta virasana.
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 it’s function we should change this pattern of thinking and continually remind our selves that the body has formed and our patterns have also formed. Undoing them can take time.
Author: David Keil
Visit David’s Website: http://www.yoganatomy.com
Take a look at the Interview I did with David recently when he was at Purple Valley in Goa, India.
Here are some of the articles posted here by David Keil:
- Quadratus Lumborum (QL) A real Pain in the Back! March 24, 2013 By David Keil I have written about a number of the “lightning rod” muscles such as the piriformis, psoas, and transverse abdominis. I refer to them as “lightning rods” because they attract attention. Sometimes this is for good reason, after all, everyone should know about his or her psoas. However, every problem related to core shouldn’t ...
- Sun Salutations Part 1 October 20, 2014 There is nothing that seems to cross all boundaries of yoga styles as clearly as sun salutations. Of course there are variations on the theme, but it seems that all styles do them. Sun Salutations put movement through all of the joints of the body and moves it in many directions. Perhaps we have a ...
- Sitting for Meditation May 31, 2013 By David Keil The basic goal of all the asana practice is finding and maintaining a comfortable padmasana (lotus pose) for meditation. There are a few key anatomical components and principles to finding this comfort. The foundation of the pose is the crossing of the legs and “sit bones” comfortably on the floor. With a firm ...
- Got Sit Bone Pain? – What to do with that hamstring May 31, 2013 By David Keil I was in the DC area this month and saw a student that I knew from a previous workshop. At that time Patricia had recently “pulled a hamstring”. Her major symptom was pain at her sit bone (ischial tuberosity) when folding forward, secondary was that it would also hurt when sitting for long ...
- Gluteal and Psoas Relationship for Yogis March 24, 2013 By David Keil There is a pattern that has shown itself to me over the last few months. I don’t think that this pattern is a result of practice but probably an underlying pattern that already existed. As often happens, regular practice can uncover any number of problems or imbalances in our body. Hopefully the practice ...
- David Keil Interview 2015 March 6, 2015 When I first started getting into yoga anatomy it was David Keil’s website and videos that I turned to so it is always top of my list to get the chance to sit down and chat with him. Ok so it’s going to be a bit geeky but David always explains things in such an ...