In recent years new information has come to light supporting the use of yoga as therapy for scoliosis. Groundbreaking discoveries made by MyYogaTeacher’s very own advisory board member, Dr. Loren Fishman, have shed light on exactly how yoga can benefit patients who are experiencing this condition.
More scientific research is underway, but here’s what we know about scoliosis, yoga, and how specific poses can help treat and help realign the spine for some patients.
First, it’s important to thoroughly understand scoliosis and how it affects the spine. This condition is defined as an abnormal curvature of the spine. Normally, your spine should have a natural curvature, but for patients who have been diagnosed with scoliosis, their spines may curve or twist at an anomalous angle. This atypical curve can range from mild to severe, and it’s typically diagnosed in early childhood.
This condition can but does not always result in pain. It can also lead to arthritis, back pain, and symptoms like numbness or weakness in one or both legs — due to the uneven alignment in the body that scoliosis creates. Depending on the severity of the scoliosis, some patients undergo surgery, while others manage the condition throughout their lives by exercising and stretching.
In a 2014 peer reviewed study, Dr. Loren Fishman discovered that regular practice of specific yoga poses could reduce scoliosis for some patients. An assistant Clinical Professor at Columbia University Medical School and Medical Director of Manhattan Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation in New York, Dr. Fishman has shown how yoga can treat a variety of conditions along with scoliosis — like osteoporosis, arthritis, insomnia, anxiety, and other issues. Dr. Fishman also studied yoga directly under master yogi B.K.S. Iyengar.
Through his research, Dr. Fishman found that by stretching and strengthening adjacent muscles, targeted yoga poses could encourage realignment of the spine. Through this process, the curvature of the spine could slowly move to a more natural position, resulting in reduced pain, stiffness, and other symptoms caused by scoliosis.
Dr. Fishman has also recently conducted a randomized control trial to further his research, designed to treat thoracic and lumbar scoliosis in teens between the ages of 14 and 18. Through treatment involving a daily, 2-minute yoga routine in conjunction with small botulinum injections, he is working to prove the effectiveness of yoga in a scientific setting.
Yoga works to treat scoliosis by strengthening and stretching specific muscle groups. The best poses to achieve this kind of targeted strength training are asymmetric poses that work the muscles on one specific side of the body, as well as poses that improve flexibility and mobility in the spine.
These poses are only effective if practiced on a regular basis — preferably for a few minutes every day. Over time, they work to adjust and realign the spine to a more natural position. Patients can expect to see improvement over 6 to 8 months.
However, it’s important to note that some poses can cause scoliosis to worsen, and if practiced incorrectly, even the right yoga poses can cause harm. Before performing yoga to treat scoliosis, it’s recommended that patients speak with their doctor first — to find out if yoga therapy is right for them. To learn the correct form and alignment for each pose, it’s also advised that patients work with a certified yoga instructor.
If you have scoliosis, make sure you avoid poses that might cause your condition to become worse. Any yoga posture that involves twists, backbends, or inversions should be avoided until you’ve been cleared for that kind of activity by your doctor. And while performing yoga for scoliosis, it’s vital that you listen to your body — if a posture causes pain or discomfort, stop practicing immediately.
Patients who have received a green light from their doctor and are ready to treat their scoliosis can get started with a few simple poses. Remember, regular practice is key, and this treatment only requires a few minutes of practice on a daily basis to create marked improvement over a long period of time.
The asymmetric poses below focus on strengthening and stretching the left side of the body. If your doctor recommends this work for the right side of your body, simply reverse the instructions to use the opposite hand and foot.
Start by warming up your body with Cat Cow. This pose works to improve flexibility and mobility in your spine, preparing you for the yoga poses to follow.
Start with your hands and knees on the floor. Inhale and look up, lifting your chin and gently arching your back. As you exhale, drop your chin and look down toward your naval as you curl your spine forward. Continue this movement 5-10 times.
In this progression, you can move from Cat Cow into Downward Facing Dog to continue warming up while stretching and strengthening the muscles in your back, around your rib cage, and your shoulders.
With your hands and knees on the floor, push your hips upward until you are balancing on your hands and feet, and your body resembles an inverted “v” shape. Reach your heels toward the floor, stretching your hamstrings and activating your thighs. Keep your head between your arms, lengthening your side-body as you stretch. Stay here for several breaths.
This is an asymmetric pose that strengthens the muscles on one side of the body, encouraging the realignment of the spine in patients with scoliosis. It works specific muscle groups in and around the abdomen, rib cage and spine.
Start in Downward Facing Dog and lower your body into a classic Plank pose. From there, rotate your body and balance on the outer edge of your left foot, with your right foot resting on top of it. Keep your right hip lifted so that your body resembles a straight line, with your weight balanced on your left hand and foot. Hold this pose for several breaths.
Another asymmetric-strengthening pose, Bird-Dog uses a balancing move to work the muscles on one side of the body while stabilizing your core.
Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position, with your hands positioned directly underneath your shoulders and your knees below your hips. Activate your core muscles and lift your right arm and left leg away from the floor at the same time. Your right arm should be straight and extended forward in front of you, with your palm facing the left side of the room. Similarly, your left leg should also be straight and extended straight behind you. Keep your gaze focused toward the floor, as you reach with your right arm and left leg, lengthening and extending while keeping your core muscles engaged. Hold this position for 2-3 breaths, rest, and then repeat the action.
While this pose is often regarded as a strengthening pose for your legs, it also deeply stretches the sides of your body, and can therapeutically help realign an abnormally curved spine.
Step to the front of your mat and stand straight in Mountain pose. Step your right foot forward and turn it 90 degrees. Ground your keft foot and turn it slightly inward, and hold your arms out in a “T” shape. Bend your right knee to a 90-degree angle with your right thigh parallel to the floor. Lean toward your right knee by hinging forward at the hips, bringing your right arm to the floor. If you’re unable to reach the floor, you can use a yoga block for support. Lift your left arm and extend it above your left ear, so that your body resembles a straight line from your left ankle to the tips of your left fingers. Breath and hold this pose for 30-60 seconds.
Like Bird-Dog, Half-Moon pose is a balancing move that stretches and strengthens the body asymmetrically. It’s best to move into this pose from Extended Side Angle.
While in Extended Side Angle pose, drop your left hand to your side while reaching your right hand forward. Touch the tip of the mat with your right hand as you inhale and lift your left leg off the floor. Ground your right foot into the mat, and gently straighten your right leg. Lift and extend your left arm so that it is stretching up toward the ceiling, and lengthen your left leg as it extends toward the back of the room. Keep your head in a neutral position and your gaze facing forward. Hold for 3-4 breaths.
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