Healing Scoliosis through Yoga

woman with Scoliosis
Photo by Malena T Persson

None of us is perfectly symmetric, but some musculoskeletal imbalances are so extreme that they can impact well-being and self-image. Scoliosis, a condition that leads to lateral curvature of the spine, affects 6 million people in the U.S., from infants to the elderly. The most common age of onset is 10-15 years, and 85 percent of cases are idiopathic, meaning that the cause is unknown. Medical treatments include braces and spinal surgery, but at least one doctor has found an even more effective remedy: yoga.

Dr. Loren Fishman, who studied with B.K.S. Iyengar in Pune, India, applies his yogic experience to his specialty of Rehabilitation Medicine. In a recent study of scoliosis patients, he found that a daily practice of holding Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose) led to marked improvement in spinal curvature. Dr. Fishman’s peer-reviewed research focused on 25 patients with idiopathic and degenerative types of scoliosis, with curvatures from 6 to 120 percent. All patients improved, with the greatest improvement (up to 49 percent) noted in those who adhered to the daily regimen.

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You read that right: One pose, practiced 1-2 minutes daily for two months, significantly improved scoliosis. The key is practicing Vasisthasana on one side—with the convex side of the spinal curve down—to strengthen the muscles on that side of the spine.

The results of this study are especially good news for young women. While scoliosis affects boys and girls in equal numbers (doctors estimate that 2-3 percent of 16-year-olds have some lateral curving of the spine, often attributed to “growth spurts”), girls are much more likely to experience severe curvature that persists or progresses over time. When the curvature is more than 25 percent, bracing is recommended. At 40 percent, doctors may recommend surgery to fuse the spine. Curvatures greater than 70 percent may restrict mobility and affect cardiopulmonary function. Furthermore, the stigma of wearing a brace or having a visible disability often leads to psychosocial issues like body-shaming, low self-esteem and more.

Dr. Fishman has also prescribed yoga for patients with osteoporosis, sciatica, back pain and other ailments. His books and articles help illuminate the science behind yoga practices, making them a valuable resource for yoga therapists, teachers and students. Often, he is able to pinpoint a therapeutic pose or sequence to initiate healing, including the asymmetrical practice of Vasisthasana described above, or this forearm maneuver for rotator cuff injuries.

We’ve all met yoga skeptics (doctors among them), but most anyone who’s practiced yoga regularly has experienced firsthand how it increases mental, emotional and physical balance—even when, as in this case, balance is restored by asymmetrical practice.

Understanding how to work with an ailment or injury is a valuable life skill. Scoliosis is often detected by a school nurse or gym teacher. Wouldn’t it make sense to include yoga in school programs so that kids and teachers have additional tools for maintaining good health? What do you think?

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