“Sit up straight and tall,” the yoga instructor tells the class — but when you have scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, your version of sitting straight and tall can look very different from everyone else’s.
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But don’t be disheartened, and don’t let yourself believe that yoga isn’t for you. Yoga therapist Judi Bar, E-500 RYT, C-IAYT says people with scoliosis can do yoga and benefit greatly from the practice. She explains some of the unique concerns and issues you should keep in mind while doing yoga with scoliosis.
Can people with scoliosis do yoga?
Yes! Your ability to do certain poses may be impacted, and you may have a more limited range of motion than someone who doesn’t have scoliosis. But yoga includes poses, breathing techniques and an overall mindset that offer something for everybody — and for every body.
Which poses you can and can’t do (and which poses you can do some in-between version of) depends largely on the unique details of your scoliosis. Depending on the location and degree of your spinal curvature, scoliosis may affect the alignment of your:
- Rib cage.
“The most important, overriding thing to keep in mind is that your ability to do yoga poses will depend on your age, the type and degree of your curvature, your amount of pain and how long you’ve had it, among others things,” Bar says. “There are a lot of variables.”
Is yoga helpful for scoliosis?
It’s important to say it upfront: Yoga cannot heal or cure scoliosis. You can’t “correct” your scoliosis through yoga. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.
Here’s what yoga can do for people with scoliosis.
Strengthen your core and spinal muscles
When you do yoga, your muscles stretch and contract, ultimately growing stronger. Stretching the muscles around your spine, in particular, can lead to better mobility of the thoracic spine, the segment that runs from the base of your neck to your abdomen.
One study, for example, found that after practicing side planks for at least 90 seconds a day for about seven months, about one-fourth of patients saw an improvement in their scoliosis curvature based on a strengthening of the convex side of their curve.
“What yoga can do for scoliosis is to start to balance out tight and weakened muscles,” Bar says. “That can, in turn, lead to better posture, even and especially in people with scoliosis.”
Relieve pain and tension
“Yoga won’t fix scoliosis, but it can help with pain and strengthen the muscles around your spine,” Bar says. Stronger muscles can help with better spinal alignment, which is also associated with reduced pain in people with scoliosis.
Improve breath control
Steady, intentional breathing during yoga practice brings oxygen to the muscles and can help reduce stress, which can also help reduce pain.
“Scoliosis can cause respiratory challenges in some people,” Bar says. “One of the best benefits of yoga — for anyone, but especially for people with scoliosis — is mindful breath and body awareness, which contributes to balancing the muscles. The combination of moving, breathing and focusing promotes overall well-being.”
How to practice yoga safely
With your scoliosis in mind, Bar shares some guidelines to live by as you begin your yoga practice.
Don’t expect (or try to achieve) symmetry
Sometimes watching yoga videos and wellness influences can give you the impression that poses should look and feel exactly the same on both sides of your body.
But the idea of doing a “perfect” yoga pose is a myth — and people with scoliosis, especially, should expect poses to look and feel different on each side of the body based on the location and degree of their spinal curve.
Talk to your doctor
Scoliosis is different for everyone, so a pose that feels great for you might not be right for someone whose curve is different from yours. Your doctor, who is most familiar with your scoliosis, will be best positioned (no yoga pun intended) to discuss your abilities and limitations.
“No matter what, you should have a physician’s support and opinion as you begin your yoga practice,” Bar advises.
Work with a trained instructor
Yoga isn’t a one-size-fits-all practice, even for people without scoliosis. All bodies are different, and they can’t all do the same things — including yoga poses.
For individualized care that ensures your safety and maximizes your benefits, start your yoga practice by working with a yoga therapist who has experience with people with scoliosis will provide you with.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all prescriptive yoga guidance for people who have scoliosis,” Bar says, “so it’s really important to work with someone who can help guide you and watch your alignment. A professional can help tailor your practice to your needs and give advice on what will help you and what might be dangerous for you, based on the specifics of your scoliosis.”
It’s also a good idea for people with scoliosis to start yoga with private instruction, rather than group classes, for a safe, more effective, tailored approach. If you eventually progress to a group class, though, let your instructor know about your scoliosis ahead of time so they don’t try to “correct” poses that are actually just a result of your unique skeletal structure.
Skip any uncomfortable poses
Listen to what your body is telling you: Does that move hurt? Maybe it just feels a little funny? Are you experiencing tingling or numbness?
Don’t push yourself to the limits; push yourself to be the best, healthiest version of yourself — which means respecting your body’s boundaries and limitations. People with scoliosis should largely avoid poses that require:
- Bending your rib cage.
- Twisting your torso.
It can feel discouraging to have to pass on poses that you simply can’t do, but it’s really OK. Even the most trained of yogis has limitations!
Yoga poses to help scoliosis
Before starting yoga, it’s helpful to know about scoliosis in general and about your curve in particlular. Every scoliosis curvature has both a concave and a convex side.
- Concave refers to the “inside” of your curve, where your muscles are shorter.
- Convex refers to the side to which your curve bends outward or sticks out. Your muscles on this side are longer and may be stronger than the muscles on your concave side.
Muscles are typically tight on both sides of a scoliosis curve, but your yoga poses (and other exercises) should aim to stretch your concave side and strengthen your convex side.
Just remember to start your practice with the help of a trained yoga professional, who can help you determine which poses are feasible for you, what will be most helpful to you and what moves you should avoid. They may suggest:
- Cat/cow pose: Focuses your breathing and loosens your spine.
- Downward-facing dog: Lengthens the group of muscles that run the length of your spine.
- Mountain pose: Can improve your balance and strengthen your core.
- Tree pose: Stretches and lengthens your spine, which can improve your posture.
Above all, give yourself some grace as you enter your yoga practice, Bar says.
“In yoga, we teach self-observance, self-compassion and patience. If you have scoliosis, go into yoga with the awareness that your skeletal structure is a little bit different than average and that your poses may not feel or look the way you expected.
“Try to have no judgment about that. The poses are not the main goal. The calming, mindful feeling of well-being that comes from practicing is just as valuable. Be proud of yourself for taking another step toward your well-being and empowering yourself to feel better.”