I used to have neck, shoulder and lower back pain. But hey, who doesn’t in the modern world. Sitting at the office, typing away on your phone all the time. These issues are so common to everyone we almost assume they are unavoidable. I thought so too, but then it got worse throughout the years and became unbearable when I was carrying my second child. There were a few times half of my body would paralyze and I would collapse onto the floor. Since I was pregnant I couldn’t really do much about it, so I went through weekly acupuncture to ease the pain throughout the last few months of my pregnancy. Really not fun having needles into your spine when you are carrying a big bump leaning on one side.
Turns out it was more than just sitting and phones, I was diagnosed with Scoliosis.
Scoliosis is a lateral (toward the side) curvature in the normally straight vertical line of the spine. When viewed from the side, the spine should show a mild roundness in the upper back and shows a degree of swayback (inward curvature) in the lower back. When a person with a normal spine is viewed from the front or back, the spine appears to be straight. When a person with scoliosis is viewed from the front or back, the spine appears to be curved.
If you look at me, my right shoulder is lower than the left, and my right hip is also lower, identifying a S-type thoracic scoliosis.
Knowing about this misalignment of the spine, I have seek medical advice, Western and Chinese doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, osteopaths, you name it, and at the same time I started yoga. I didn’t do yoga to “cure” my scoliosis, but I thought some stretches may help.
Yoga did help (and still does). Any poses that helps to lengthen the spine tremendously help to create more evenness in the spine and ribs and release tension in the muscles of the back. Standing poses like Triangle poses or forward bends are great beginners’ poses. Backbends and twists are great but have to approach with more attention.
However, the most beneficial poses of all, are inversions, and long inversions in particular, like headstands and shoulder stands.
Sarvangasana – the Shoulderstand. A pose I was so scared to do for a long time and always hated it when the teacher asked me to do it.
Even with a healthy spine, it bears most of the weight of the body and hence is under constant stress. In the case of Scoliosis, this stress aggravates the pain further.
When you are upside down, the misalignment becomes more obvious. For years all I feel is uneven pressure of gravity constantly and one side is much heavier than the others but have no understanding of how to create alignment to alleviate it. When my teacher adjusted me to the proper alignment, I feel more misaligned. Without the intelligence of approaching this pose and the strength to do it, all I left was “a pain in the neck”.
However, when you start to build strength and study the pose with proper alignment, long inversions like shoulder stands and headstands help lengthening the spine, neck and shoulders. They also help strengthen the leg muscles, thus taking off a considerable amount of stress of the spine.
But there is something special about inversions compared to other yoga poses. When I am inverted, it allows my body to have the freedom to experience alignment without the usual distortions caused by gravity. As a result, it is often easier to feel what alignment is upside down than while standing on my feet. It also means with practice and eventually building more strength, I can “align” myself much effectively than when I am standing. And these long hold inversions like headstand and shoulder stand (normally 5-20 minutes hold) allows me to really “study” my body and to work and realign myself minute after minute, day after day.
The more and more I do this pose I started to get less “freaked out” by it and at this point feeling more calm and comfortable (Sarvangasana is supposed to be a pose to calm the mind) for a longer hold. With the help of yoga props I can approach this pose without hurting myself, and be able to benefit from it. It does require a lot of attention, patience and consistent practice to build the strength. Not so easy to start but getting much better throughout time.
The ironic thing is, when I consulted doctors few years ago, I was advised by one of the doctors not to do headstands, shoulder stands and spinal twists. And today I can tell you these are the poses that help me the most. And recently when I see an osteopath it seems my condition of scoliosis has improved, and the spine is less curved. And most importantly I no longer suffer from the pain as long as I keep doing yoga and spine lengthen poses.
Shoulder stand is a pose that I cannot live without now. I still won’t do Shoulderstand without props, which usually involves two to three blankets or yoga mats to prop up my shoulders and a yoga belt for my elbows.
I have been thinking a lot of about yoga alignment as I get deeper into the practice, which is the practice I am primarily focused on. I used to think there is a perfect form of every pose. But being physically misaligned, I may never be able to perform the the perfect form of the pose with the perfect alignment in most cases. However, studying the alignment helps me to work with my own body, my capabilities and limitations safely, and with the knowledge and intelligence, yoga can be healing, and be more pain-free.
More on that later.
A few links on yoga poses for people who suffer from Scoliosis.