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.

Yoga as we age

For our first attempt at lesson planning, Master Sree asked us to teach an ultra beginner’s class as if we were teaching grannies how to do yoga. It was quite a fun exercise thinking of easy poses that could be modified, how you would help an elderly person get into such a pose and also pretending to be grannies in a yoga class.
When I was back home and planning for the 30 minute class we had to teach the next day, my mum saw me struggling and suggested that I try out my lesson plan on her. I was quite confident she’ll easily manage a 30 minute class as she’s pretty healthy and fit for her age. Then my dad came around and was curious as well so I ended up agreeing to teach both my parents a short yoga class. I tried to tailor my class to 2 senior citizens above 60, while they do exercise regularly, they are completely new to Yoga. With all this in mind, I tried to modify what I had planned so that everything would be doable. However, I was pleasantly surprised. My parents were a lot more capable that I gave them credit for and I even might say a bit competitive with each other. They did so well that I taught them 1 or 2 ‘hard poses’ as well.
This made me reflect afterwards, what constitutes ‘Yoga’ and what it means for other people. We might not always have a name or detailed steps for getting into a pose, but doing some back stretches in the morning or a few sit ups to wake up the body, is still movement. My dad waking up 15 minutes earlier each morning to do these simple exercises seem to have done him well. Movements that keep your joints active and your body healthy.
I think yoga for me is less and less about hitting a certain number of classes per week, but rather how it can be incorporated into my daily life and also for a long time from now. I can only hope that my practice be it physical, mental or spiritual will keep me healthy even in 60s and beyond 🙂

Starting a home practice

Having started going for classes 2-3 years ago, my practice usually revolved around going for a 60 min class maybe once or twice on a good week. I just didn’t quite know what to do without a teacher instructing through poses and keeping count. Doing yoga at home didn’t even cross my mind. It’s quite possible that I didn’t want to have to think what next and liked that I just have to follow along especially after a long tiring day at work.

Last year, things changed a little and I decided to buy myself a good mat so that it would entice me to practice yoga on my own rather than depend on classes. I tried sometimes for a couple of minutes whatever I could briefly remember from classes or watched online videos that could guide me along. However, I would easily get distracted and could never stay on the mat for longer than 20 minutes.

Jump forward to this week, I realised how I actually look forward to time on the mat where I can have my personal practice, be it trying to master a pose or simple stretching out in cat-cow. The time we’ve spent on lesson planning comes in handy here and what better way to make use of these skills learnt than to apply on yourself. I find myself thinking of how I want to start my practice, what warm up poses should I start with, and if I had a pose I wanted to master, how I should complement it with some preparatory poses and then counter poses.

It is quite interesting looking back seeing how my practice has evolved and will continue to evolve. As for now I’m excited for what’s next and where this new home practice will take me.

Studying for the theory exam

As we’re reaching close to the end of the course, the stress of an exam is beginning to set in. I’ve not had to study since I last left Uni. What if I can’t remember all the tough Sanskrit names, all the details on the muscular or skeletal system!? While it all seems a lot more daunting now with a set deadline being exam day, I also recognise that push when under pressure and time constraint circumstances can sometimes be the push we all need. The hard part is juggling time at work and time I have to study. I started my week with a plan and a checklist of stuff to tick off as the week progressed but as always things get pushed back especially if I had a long day at work and didn’t come home in time for my allocated study session, things would naturally have to be carried over to the next day. Suddenly I realised I have 5 days to the exam but not that much information in my head. This is where I found some study tips really handy and I thought I’d share it here.

1. Printed out a poster I found online of the Ashtanga Primary series poses. While the printed version didn’t have great resolution, you can still work with it. After learning the names of poses from the text, I tested myself by writing out the names in Sanskrit.

2. Learning some key Sanskrit words and their meaning. Master Sree had taught us some cheat codes to help in remembering Sanskrit. It’s easier knowing the meaning of “Pada”, “Ardha”, and other repeated words.
3. Creating cue cards that you can ask your family or friend to test you on. I even looked up an app for this but didn’t have the time to test it out. Apparently, also very helpful for learning a new language.
Lastly, amidst all the studying and stress of an exam, remember to practice Pranayama and some asanas. You could take it as killing 2 birds with one stone, getting some learning in as well as your daily practice.

Why I decided to do a YTT

It has been something that I have considered since 2017, but always seemed quite far reaching for me given I felt I was not good enough in my practice for something so intense.

Come 2019, I’m still at the same level I would deem myself as 2 years ago and I thought to myself maybe the only way to get better in my practice is to just go for it. While searching for studios and which YTT I wanted to join, I also discovered my close friend and yoga buddy, Stacy was considering a YTT too. After some convincing we both decided starting our course in Jan 2020 would be a good way to start the year and went ahead to put in a down payment making it OFFICIAL.

Now looking back at the 9 weeks of Yoga, I can say one thing you’ll never be 100% ready but if it’s some thing you truly want, the only way to get better is to just go for it.

Yoga and stress

Most of us who practice yoga regularly knows that yoga helps to reduce or manage our stress. But how does yoga really help?

When we are stressed, tension is stored in the body, making us feel tight and sometimes even causing pain. Most of the stress that we feel would show itself as tension in our shoulders or tightness in our hips. Yoga helps manage stress using 3 methods: 1) Breath control 2) Clearing the mind 3) Relaxation

Breath Control

We also know this as pranayama – breathing is an involuntary act but yoga increases the awareness we have of our breath. When we are stressed, our breath becomes short and we tend to breathe through the chest and throat. By actively breathing using our belly, we slow down the breathing, which in turns, relaxes the body.

Clearing the mind 

Our minds are constant racing from one thought to another, often juggling multiple thoughts within a single minute, dwelling on the past and wondering about the future. Yoga helps to clear the mind, or bring it to focus on a single thought through 2 well known techniques. The first has been outlined above – breath control. By focusing on your breathing, you focus on the here and now, as each breathe is intricately tied to the present moment. Focusing on the breath is also a meditation technique as it excludes other thoughts that may otherwise come into your mind. Another way to clear the mind is to do the asanas, or yoga poses. The poses are physical and requires mental concentration, so much as so that other thoughts would have to be cast aside to focus on the pose itself.

Relaxation

After every yoga session, we lie in savasana, which is most of our favourite pose. But do you know that it is also the hardest pose to achieve? In this pose, we are supposed to be completely relaxed and free from thoughts. The other form of relaxation in yoga is known as yoga nidra, or yoga sleep. It is meant for a longer and deeper form of relaxation where the participant would experience alpha brain waves. It is the state where the body sleeps but the mind remains lucid. Some school of thoughts also believe that yoga nidra helps one get better quality sleep.

So, the next time you are feeling stressed, or have trouble sleeping, why not come for a yoga class?

 

 

Take advantage of Breathing

Before doing YTT, i never encountered so many breathing techniques even though i have practiced yoga for years. And often we hear instructors repeating “keep breathing” “breath deeply”. Breathing, or what is called Pranayama in Yoga is a vital element in asana practice.

Some basic rules are: exhale when fold forward, twisting or when the body goes out of the center. Inhale when the body is in the center. Exception is back ward bend where you inhale while going down. I personally find this very usually doing twisting asanas, ie. Marichiyasana C or D in Ashtanga. Every inhale i try to come back a bit for lengthening spine and exhale i can twist deeper.

Here are 2 of my favorite breathing techniques that i practice regularly:

  1. Kapalbhati- passive inhale and forceful exhale. Exhales are generated by powerful contractions of the lower belly (between the pubis and navel), which push air out of the lungs. Inhales are responses to the release of this contraction, which sucks air back into the lungs (Yoga Journal, 2017). The important thing here is to isolate the lower belly contraction which many of us can’t control at the beginning. Place a palm on the lower belly and gently press it during exhalation helps to find the feeling. 20-30 cycles per time and as we improve, the pace of the breathing cycle can be increased. Kapalbhati is good for morning practice or before yoga practice to warm up the body and activate the circulation of the energy.

 

  1. Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing and Breath hold)- we can either do left-left or right-right breathing. Using right thumb to close right nostril and right ring finger to close left nostril through the whole practice. Keep the right nostril open, inhale, then close it , breath retention, and open and exhale slowly through the left. This is one cycle. Repeat 3 to 5 times, then release the hand mudra and go back to normal breathing (Yoga Journal, 2007). This is a great breathing practice to reduce stress and anxiety. Practice left-left before bed time and cooling down the body. Practice right-right during day time or before/after exercise to gently warm up the body.

During this difficult time, let’s take advantage of breathing and breath it right to benefit our physical and mental healthiness.

Yoga with Adolescents

Since its early roots, the demographic of “who-is-yoga-for” has evolved significantly.   We might imagine anything from a yogi monk to a HIIT yoga guru, sporting the latest trend  legging style. Today there are hundreds of styles and classes, specific to market groups and populations for whom the practice is tailored.  The beautiful thing is that in the 21st century, yoga has extended far from the once exclusive practice, to now being accessible and relevant to almost any population.

In this blog  we will explore practicing yoga with adolescents, and why the practice is beneficial for physical, but mostly for  mental health in our youth. The mind of an adolescent is incredible; the way the neurons are firing, the connections in the brain developing. The ability to build self-compassion and awareness is developing, but is also very vulnerable.

 As a teacher in a prestigious international school, we see students who are in an environment of ever increasing academic benchmarks and an expectation to be the best.  While there is positive intent in these goal driven environments, the community has also witnessed adverse effects on the well being of students. In some instances, we see tragic ends and responses to the societal and academic bar. 

The prescription for how to cope with stress has evolved as well.   While it is true that prescription medications are still quite prevalent as a “fix” in our society, we also see more pathways toward self-compassion, therapy, and meditation.  Studies are revealing that yoga and related practices in schools or communities are also contributing to a cultivation of self-compassion and overcoming inadequacies in positive ways.  Yoga practices the holistic development of students in all age groups, and the range of mind-body-soul practices has deep rooted effects in well being. 

There is a lot  of research out there to support the positive effects of incorporating yoga into school programs and with youth; 

As mentioned above, it can contribute to a more positive learning environment.  It helps students with anger management, stress, body image… more than can be described in a simple blog.  The research is out there.

 However, a  few points to highlight are:  

-Yoga practices aim to bring about solace among students who are unable to manage uncontrollable influxes of self-demeaning and self critical ideas when they’re unable to meet their set ideals.

-Physical and meditation practice help to shape more realistic and grounded beings.  The practice helps students to withdraw from the idea of an inflated self, or idea of being somebody they are not. 

-The emotional uplift and support needs to be initiated by school teachers, support, mentors, and authorities.  Adolescents need the support and vision of their mentors to guide them on this journey, and through other trials and tribulations.  If you as a practitioner bring yoga to your youth, you have the potential to make really positive impacts on their lives. But they need you to initiate. 

In short, yoga +  mentorship can instill humbleness, self compassion, and perspective to our younger generations.

Here are some helpful things to remember when practicing yoga with youth:

-Say yes (& often).  Don’t get caught up telling your students what not to do.  Tell them what to do, and tell them what they’re doing well.   Saying yes is empowering, especially to youth who are often told “no” all day long.

-Create a soothing environment. Many students struggle with being overstimulated, and are often medicated or punished for it. Try to tone down the visual and aural distractions.  Create an atmosphere for calmness. Remember, most adolescents are far far away from a state of dharana. 

-Give structure, but offer choices.   Meet your students where they are. What do they need from their practice? How do they feel capable? What is success to them? Give them the gift of individuality and permission to be who they are. Allow them to take from their practice what it is that they need. 

Lastly, when working with adolescents (or any population really), take a moment to reconnect with your own purpose for teaching. Being present and aware of your own intention will allow you to meet your students right where they are.  Kids are smart, and they’ll either see right through you, or truly appreciate the energy and support you bring to them.

 

Being Yogic in Challenging Times

In light of the current CoVID-19 pandemic, I thought it appropriate to reflect on how to lead yoga and and a holistic life practice in the face of challenge, adversity, and fear.   Our yoga journeys have led us to this class, this place in our practice, for many reasons. Among them and perhaps mostly obviously, it to be yoga teachers. As the global environment evolves, it calls for us to evolve our practice to not only be teachers, but also to be self leaders, and leaders in our yoga and extended communities. 

In the past two months, we in Singapore have had a particular perspective of how the virus has grown, and how the world has responded to it.   First it spread here, in Asia. Then of course to farther banks and European nations, to where it is now. Everywhere, borderless. The virus does not have a border or a culture, and perhaps that is something we can explore in our yogic practice.  That our practice is beyond culture and borders. That our practice is shifting with the times.

An attribute most leaders carry is that they can learn from adversity. They can take suffering and frustration and turn it into a learning opportunity.  Leaders have a growth mindset, instead of being fixed in a particular practice. Let’s bring this into our yoga practice.

Perhaps we learn that our own practices can shed a mold of lineage, tradition.  

Our practices can continue to evolve in the most modern version of the world.  

Our own practices should adopt compassion and service first, and should learn from communities outside of our own.  

If we approach our teaching as a unifying force and connection to each other, then we radiate and make the connections our global community needs in times of uncertainty.  We learn from each other. We rise to the occasion of community, much as our health care leaders, service workers, and members of the community are rising for the global fight now. Creating divisions, accusing others, xenophobia, and fear, is not the message of our practice.  And our world will not survive in such an environment.

As the globe goes into lockdown, we as people and practitioners are called to respect the needs of our communities.  It can be challenging, as most yoga students these days practice in studios with many people, in a physical, tangible, way.  But what the world needs right now, is for people to stay home, and to find creative ways to connect beyond the restrictions put in place by our global leadership.

As we suffer on a global scale, we are also privileged with the opportunity to connect virtually, to exercise online platforms, to practice in solidarity, or in intimate settings.   While social distancing makes yoga practice challenging for some students, the refuge we can instill in ourselves in our community is still as strong as ever. 

If you’re feeling down about your practice, about the isolation and discomfort this global shift is taking, I encourage you to reflect on some of these thoughts:

  • This time offers us the opportunity to reflect on the roots of our own practice. 
  • This time offers us ways to evolve yoga into a modern practice, beyond what it has become in its most recent version
  • This time offers us to realize our suffering and find the light in between
  • This time offers us space for self reflection
  • This time offers us a place of sharing information and selfless, country-less, unity
  • This time offers us the reminder that our own practice is always with us, wherever we go. 

And remember, this too shall pass. 

 

Food for thought

The nutrition is directly linked to the performance of asanas and our lifestyle in general. The yogi diet is based on Ayurvedic teachings. Some products are strictly forbidden by them, others are consumed in small quantities and in a certain period of time, and third yogis eat constantly. Three types of food in yoga According to Ayurveda, even the best and cleanest foods are not always healthy. So, there is food that should be consumed only in winter or summer. Some foods should be eaten in the morning, because they excite and give energy, others in the evening, as they calm and set you up for a long sleep. Yoga  divides all food into three types:

       Sattva, which means “purity.” This includes all fresh vegetarian food. Mostly seeds and sprouted grains, fruits, wheat, butter, milk and honey.

      Rajas is a food that excites the body. It is better not to use products from this category or to reduce their amount in the diet to a minimum. This includes citrus fruits, tea and coffee, as well as spices, fish, seafood, eggs, alcohol, soda, garlic and onions.

     Tamas is a rough and heavy meal. It is difficult to absorb by the body. It does more harm than good. Relaxes, after eating it makes you want to sleep. These are root vegetables, red meat (beef and pork), all canned foods, mushrooms, food with a heavy taste (roach, etc.). This includes frozen food and one that has been stored for some time. These are also considered dishes that are reheated, alcohol and food that has been cooked in a restaurant or store.

 Doing yoga, you will feel what products you will not need. Changes in the body will occur harmoniously and in accordance with the needs of your body. The gradual process of rebuilding the habits of the body is very important.

Many (and not only in yoga) make the same mistake: they abruptly begin to change their diet (completely abandon meat, fish, eggs, switch to the most sophisticated diets, such as raw food diet, etc.). With this development of events, in a few months you will face a series of ailments, such as colds, exacerbation of all previously existing sores, and digestive upset. And then it could be worse. Naturally, there can be no question of doing yoga.

Beware of this mistake!

  • never abruptly change your lifestyle, especially in nutrition, non-compliance with this rule leads to big trouble;
  • a complete rejection of meat food does not always bring positive results. If you abandoned the meat, you need to replace it with another animal protein: milk and dairy products, eggs, fish;
  • in your diet should always be present in large quantities vegetables and fruits;
  • food should always be fresh and harmoniously selected.

It must be remembered that the body will never tolerate abuse of itself both in the diet and in the mode of activity. And with the right approach to yoga, you become as independent as possible from environmental conditions, feeling great in any situation, with any set of food products.