Yoga for Scoliosis

Yoga for Scoliosis

Scoliosis refers to the sideways, or lateral, curvature of the spine.  When I was 10, I found out that I had mild lumbar scoliosis, i.e. a slight curvature in my lumbar spine.  As the curvature remained under 5 degrees, I did not have to undergo surgery or any other form of treatment.  The scoliosis does not cause any pain (for now, at least), but it has resulted in some asymmetries in my stance.  So I hope to use yoga to reduce this curvature, or at least prevent it from worsening as I grow older.   

(1) Bend towards convex side of curve

In a class with Master Paalu, I learned how I could modify certain positions to straighten up the curve in my spine.   Generally, I should try to bend towards the convex side of the curve (which is my left side) as much as possible. So in poses like Utkatasana (Chair Pose) or Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), I can modify my alignment by twisting towards my left side instead of facing forward.  Similarly, Balasana (Child’s Pose) can be modified by moving my arms toward my left side, keeping the arms shoulder-width apart.

I can also incorporate more twisting asanas in my practice. These may include Ardha Matsyendrāsana (Half lord of the fishes pose),  Bharadvajasana and Marichyasana.  While I should practice these asanas on both sides, I should spend more time twisting to my left side.  It is important to lengthen the spine before twisting into these poses.

Side-bending poses like reverse warrior may also be useful for lengthening the spine.  More time should be spent bending to the convex side of the curve.

(2) Maintain proper posture and place equal weight on legs

Master Sree has constantly emphasised the importance of proper posture, whether we are sitting or standing.  To keep the spine straight and healthy, we should maintain an upright posture and avoid slouching or hunching the spine.  This is particularly important for people with scoliosis, since we have the tendency to slouch to one side.  We need to always remember to place equal weight on both feet and remain aware of any imbalances in our posture.

(3) Strengthen abdominal muscles

If the abdominal muscles are weak, the back muscles overwork and thus tighten. This may cause lordosis or worsen the scoliotic curve in the lower back.  Therefore, it is important to practice asanas that strengthen the abdominal muscles. 

(4) Strengthen musculature on convex side

A study has shown that regular practice of a modified Vasisthasana (side plank) pose with the con­vex side of the lumbar curve down can reduce the scoliotic curve. The modification was to hold the upper ribs about a half-inch higher than in the classic pose.  The researchers hypothesized that the poses may help straighten the spine by strengthening the musculature in the abdomen, spine and lower back on the convex side of the curve.

In essence, regular practice of carefully selected and modified asanas will help to reduce the scoliotic curve.   The key principle is simple: strengthen the muscles on the convex side and lengthen the muscles on the concave side.   While yoga may not bring about instant results like surgery, it is definitely the safer treatment option and is ideal for people with mild scoliosis.

Kakasana: Principles on the mat and beyond.

While Kakasana (Crow Pose) comes easily to some people, it has always felt like an impossible pose for me.  I have lost count of the number of times I came crashing down onto the mat trying to get into this pose over the past few years. 

To my surprise, I finally managed to do it (for the first time!) during the first week of YTT, albeit for just a few seconds.  Here are some tips which helped me get into it – equally applicable on the mat and in life.  Hopefully, this will be helpful to those still struggling with this asana.

First, build a firm foundation.   Starting in Malasana, bend forward and press your hands flat onto the ground.  When I started out, I used to place too much weight on my wrists, overstraining them as a result.  To avoid this problem, we will need to spread our fingers wide and press our fingertips and the palms firmly into the mat.   This will spread the weight evenly through the hand, and remove pressure from the wrists.  Next, we will need to engage our core and squeeze our elbows closer together.  I used to think this arm balance pose was all about arm strength, but it is in fact mostly our core muscles that will be holding us up.  Without this firm foundation, we will never be able to rise.

Second, stop finding excuses.   To justify my constant failures to myself, I used to think to myself: I will never get this pose because my butt is just too fat.  Besides, my wrist is too weak to support the massive weight of my hips.  To be fair, I injured my left wrist when I fell from a pole and landed on my left hand 3 years ago – but I had long since recovered from this injury so this wasn’t exactly a good excuse.  According to Patanjali, one of the nine obstacles to sadhana (disciplined and dedicated practice) is Samshaya or doubt.  This can happen when our minds start clouding over with doubt about our own capabilities. Unless we push this doubt out of minds, we will never be able to progress.  But of course, if we have existing injuries or ailments, particularly hip or wrist injuries, it would be better to leave this pose out of our practice.

Third, focus your eyes straight ahead, and never look down (or that’s where you’ll end up).  This last tip was the most pivotal in helping me take flight into Crow.  As I was struggling to get into the pose, Master Sree placed a block in front of me, and told me to look straight ahead and focus on the block.  I looked up from the ground and focused ahead – and for the first time in my life, I lifted into Kakasana.   

Lessons from My Lower Back Injury

Last September, I went canyoneering on a grad trip with some friends in a beautiful island in the Philippines.  We hiked through forests, swam through canyons, and jumped off cliffs and waterfalls.  At one juncture, we also had to slide down a stream leading to a waterfall. 

So I lay down in the stream in prone position, and then off I went with the current, accelerating down the stream and plunging down the waterfall from a height of about 5-6 metres.   Once I landed in the water below,  I felt a sharp pain radiating up my back.  I couldn’t move for a few moments.  It turned out I had sprained my lower back quite badly from the impact of landing in the water with the wrong body alignment.

This took a huge toll on my yoga practice.  As a result of the injury, I struggled even with the most basic yoga positions like Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog).  They were simply too painful to do — at best, I could only manage to arch up a few inches.  More advanced back bends like Chakrasana (Wheel Pose) were completely out of question. 

However, from this adversity, I learned valuable lessons relating to my yoga practice on several different levels.

First, I learned to put my ego aside.  It did not matter that I was the only person in class who could not do those poses properly.  Yoga was not a competition.  I learned to listen to my own body, because to force it beyond its limits despite the pain would have been a violation of Patajanli’s first Yama, Ahimsa.

Second, I learned the importance of engaging my core to protect my lower back.  As the lower back is generally very prone to injury, it is all the more crucial to strengthen the core muscles to protect the lower back. 

Third, I should not rely excessively on my lower back in back bends.  Rather than putting all the pressure in the lower back (which is a very bad habit I have), I should learn to use my upper back and middle back more.  As my lower back has always naturally been very flexible, I tend to arch it excessively in back bend poses.  However, I never knew this until I injured my lower back and realised how much I had been relying on it to get into these poses.  Increasing the flexibility of my upper back and middle back is thus one of my main goals now. 

Fourth, I discovered some yoga postures for strengthening my lower back muscles and easing lower back pain.  From my experience, these are the most effective ones.

  • Apanasana (Wind-Relieving or Knees-to-Chest Pose).  Slowly rocking side to side in this pose provides great relief to the lower back.
  • Bitilasana Marjaryasana (Cat-Cow Pose)
  • Supta Kapotasana (Reclining Pigeon Pose)
  • Supta Matsyendrasana (Supine Spinal Twist)
  • Balasana (Child’s Pose)

Fifth, proper alignment and posture are indispensable for a safe and effective practice.  I injured my back because I landed in the water with the wrong posture. If my guide had pointed out that I was going down in the wrong position, I may not have injured myself.   I found out afterwards that I should have gone down the stream lying face up, and not in prone position.  Perhaps this could have been common sense to someone who was experienced with outdoor adventurous activities, but it certainly wasn’t common sense to me at that time as it was my first time canyoneering.   

Applying this lesson in yoga, it is similarly important that we practice asanas with the correct alignment, lest we incur injuries and fail to reap the benefits of the pose.  As yoga teachers, we will have to keep a sharp eye on our students at all times (especially if they are beginners!) and correct any wrong alignment, in order to protect them from injuries and maximise the effectiveness of their practice.

Yoga and Vegan Diet

Growing up in Singapore, a melting pot of culinary flavours ranging from chicken rice to satay to bak kut teh (a kind of peppery/herbal pork rib broth), I never imagined I would ever turn vegan.

It started when, at the age of 10, I stumbled upon videos exposing what happened in slaughterhouses. The blood, the screams, the animals’ eyes dilating with fear as their throats were slit – it all looked like a scene out of a horror movie.  Traumatised by the reality of how meat was made, I decided I could not eat meat anymore.  When I told my parents my decision, they reprimanded me and told me I needed to eat meat to have a balanced diet.

It was not until I turned 20 that I finally stopped eating meat.  A few months ago, I stopped consuming eggs and dairy as well. 

After studying yoga philosophy, I started to reflect on how a vegan diet related to yogic principles. 

As a starting point, yoga does not enforce veganism, or any diet for that matter, on its practitioners.  In fact, there are many yoga practitioners who consume meat and animal products. 

Nevertheless, it seems that a vegan diet is supported by a few key yogic principles. 

(1) Three Gunas and Food

In yoga philosophy, the mind is formed from the essence of food.  If the food consumed is pure, the mind can develop a strong subtle intellect. 

Tamasic food, which includes meat, fish and intoxicants, is considered to be “stale, tasteless, putrid, rotten and impure refuse” (Bhagavad Gita, XVII, 10).  Such food makes a person dull and inert; fills his mind with impure thoughts; and increases his risks of getting chronic ailments and depression.  This age-old philosophy has been partially backed by modern science, which has established links between meat consumption and heart disease, cancer, stroke, obesity and harmful cholesterol levels.

On the other hand, a Sattvic diet consists of pure natural food which increases health and vitality, while rendering the mind pure and calm.  It includes vegetables, pulses, nuts, fruits, seeds, and whole grains such as oats and quinoa.  It includes dairy products only if the cow is fed and milked in the right conditions.  However, cows are abused in modern dairy practices.  Dairy cows are artificially inseminated repeatedly and slaughtered for cheap beef once they stop producing milk. Their calves are removed within 36 hours after birth, breaking the strong bond between mother and child.  These calves are killed if they are male, or raised to be dairy cows if female.  In addition, milk is now filled with hormones and antibiotics, which are harmful to our health. 

Therefore, a vegan diet, which excludes all meat and animal products, is Sattvic and ideal for nurturing our physical and mental health.

(2) Santosha

Santosha is about being contented.  I may not get to eat a lot of my favourite dishes like butter chicken or char siew rice (roast pork rice) anymore, but I still get a healthy and delicious diet which meets all my nutritional needs.  For this, I am contented.  There is no need to compare myself with others around me who get to eat a larger variety of food than I can. 

(3) Ahimsa

Ahimsa is about respecting all living beings and practicing nonviolence to others. 

In a place with little or no plants available for consumption, perhaps due to environmental conditions (like in the Arctic or Mongolia), a person would certainly need to hunt for meat to survive.  Otherwise, he would be committing violence upon himself. 

However, in most modern cities like Singapore, people have access to a large variety of food.  Thus, most of us can choose to adopt a vegan diet if we want.

Veganism applies to ahimsa in several ways.

First, by turning vegan, I am renouncing the confinement, abuse, and killing of animals. This is a direct way to disengage myself from one of the most prevalent (but overlooked) forms of violence.  Modern factory farming is inherently cruel to animals.  Unlike farmers in the old days, today’s factory farmers show no concern about individual animals. They embrace any practice that increases profit, regardless of how much pain, suffering, and death it inflicts on the animal.  Nearly all farmed animals live in intensively crowded and filthy factory farms.  Castration, debeaking, and other painful mutilations are routinely carried out without pain-relief.  Egg-laying hens are crammed into cages so tiny they can’t spread their wings.  Male chicks, an unwanted by-product of egg production, are often ground up or scalded alive.  By adopting a plant-based diet, I stop contributing to this systematic violence.

Second, veganism is an act of nonviolence towards the earth and other fellow humans.  Animal agriculture uses natural resources at a way higher rate than plant crop production.   Veganism would, therefore, drastically reduce the damage inflicted on the earth.

Third, veganism extends compassion to other fellow humans.  There are millions of starving people in the world.  Farmed animals are fed huge amounts of crops and water.   In fact, it takes 13 pounds of grain to produce just one pound of meat.  These plants crops could have otherwise been used to feed more people, saving them from starvation.  

Finally, veganism is an act of nonviolence to myself.  I feel more at peace, and my conscience is clearer than before.

One of the most popular mantras is a Shanti (peace) mantra, which takes into account all living beings, not just humans:

Om Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah
Sarve Santu Nir-Aamayaah
Sarve Bhadraanni Pashyantu
Maa Kashcid-Duhkha-Bhaag-Bhavet
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih

Meaning:
May all beings become happy
May none fall ill
May all see auspiciousness everywhere
May none ever feel sorrow
Om Peace Peace Peace