Why Practicing Yoga May Be Good for Scoliosis
Scoliosis is a condition that causes an abnormal side-to-side curvature of the spine. The bones of the spine may also twist or rotate. In addition to changes in posture, scoliosis can cause other symptoms such as back pain or stiffness.
Research shows that regular practice of side plank and half moon poses can reduce scoliosis curvature in both adolescents and older adults. Other yoga poses may also be helpful, but these have not yet been studied in clinical trials.
Yoga also offers other benefits for people with scoliosis. It increases overall strength and flexibility, improves breathing, and promotes self-awareness. These can help people self-correct the curve of their spine and maintain good posture during everyday activities.
While yoga can help, everyone’s scoliosis is unique. In order for yoga to be most beneficial, the sequence of poses needs to be customized for a person’s spine curves. Using variations of the poses and props can provide additional benefit.
There are several types of scoliosis that affect children and adolescents, as well as infants and older adults. Some cases of scoliosis are caused by spine defects present at birth (congenital), and others by nerve or muscle problems. Many cases, though, have no known cause (idiopathic).
The most common type of scoliosis in teens and pre-teens is adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. This develops after the age of 10 and occurs more often in females than males. This type does not usually cause pain, although lower back pain is common in many adolescents, even those without scoliosis.
The size of the curve in adolescent idiopathic scoliosis varies, but curves can grow larger during a child’s growth spurt. Larger curves are more likely to worsen over time. Sometimes curves can also progress after a child has stopped growing.
Degenerative scoliosis occurs in older adults due to age-related changes to the spine. In addition to posture changes, people may also have symptoms such as back pain or weakness and numbness in the legs. These symptoms are often due to the changes in the spine that led to the scoliosis rather than the spine curve itself.
Clinical studies have focused on adolescent idiopathic scoliosis and degenerative scoliosis. Yoga may not be appropriate for younger children with congenital scoliosis or for people with muscle or nerve problems that caused their scoliosis.
Before starting a yoga practice, check with a health professional to make sure yoga is safe for you and to find out which poses and movements you should avoid. While many yoga books and videos are available for people with scoliosis, it is often safer and more effective to work with a teacher trained in yoga for this condition.
Is Yoga Good for Scoliosis?
People with scoliosis can have a single C-shaped curve or a more complex S-curve. Each C-shaped curve has a convex side that is lengthened and bulges out, and a concave side that is shortened and curves inward. S-curves have two convex sides and two concave sides, one for each curve.
A person with an S-curve may have one curve that is larger, the major curve. This curve sometimes has more restrictions — tighter muscles and a smaller range of motion in this part of the spine. A smaller curve may also develop as the spine compensates to keep the body upright. Using yoga to focus on the major curve can sometimes give better results.
"Yoga will not change the curvature of the spine in scoliosis, but can help with the residual impact of the curvature on the connective tissue..."
Asymmetrical yoga poses are often used to strengthen the muscles on the convex side of the curve, while stretching the muscles on the opposite concave side. In some cases, this may mean doing the pose only on one side. For an S-curve, the strengthening and stretching would need to be done along multiple parts of the spine.
Traction of the spine while in the yoga poses—using either the body or props—can also help stabilize, elongate, and align the spine. Breathing while in the yoga poses can be used to expand the concave side of the body and compact the opposite side.
Much research has studied the benefits of physical therapy for scoliosis, especially the Schroth method. However, only a handful of studies have looked at the use of yoga for scoliosis, making it difficult to know how well it works and in which cases. So far, the limited research available is promising.
“Yoga will not change the curvature of the spine in scoliosis, but can help with the residual impact of the curvature on the connective tissue. On the side that is shortened, Yoga can help mobilize the tissue so that the person feels less discomfort and on the curved side that has links and tissue, Yoga can bring more stability and strength,” says physical therapist and certified yoga instructor Lara Heimann.
In one study, researchers asked 74 people with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis or degenerative scoliosis to do side plank pose every day for several months. For people with a complex “S” curve, half-moon pose was also added. By the end of the study, the curves had improved an average of 20 to 35 percent.
Benefits and Precautions of Yoga for Scoliosis
Yoga for scoliosis offers several benefits:
- Yoga uses static poses that are held for some time. This strengthens the muscles by requiring them to support the bodyweight.
- Yoga is adaptable. Every person’s scoliosis is unique. Yoga poses can be chosen and modified to work best for a person’s spine curves.
- Yoga can be done on your own. Once the yoga poses are learned, they can be done every day at home, and for free.
- Yoga can be done at any age. Yoga poses can be safely done by children, adolescents, adults and older adults.
While yoga can be helpful for people with scoliosis, care must be taken in choosing which yoga poses to do. Some physical therapists have raised concerns that certain yoga poses should not be done for people with scoliosis.
“Inversions like downward dog and dolphin, lunges like crescent, low lunge, side lunge are great exercises,” says Heimann.
The yoga poses to avoid depend upon the location and severity of the curves of the spine. In general, if your scoliosis is severe or you have back pain, avoid inversions unless you use support to keep the spine from being compressed. Also, avoid any poses that cause pain.
When doing asymmetrical poses, you may need to do them only on one side — to stretch the concave side of the curve. In addition, avoid twisting too deeply. Think more about lengthening the spine and then twisting gradually. In all poses, use the breath to support the pose and expand the contracted side of the spine.
“Just as with all yoga students and practitioners, I recommend doing what feels good and don’t do what doesn’t feel good,” Heimann recommends.
Best Yoga Poses for Scoliosis
Because everyone’s scoliosis is unique, yoga poses should be customized for a person’s specific curves. This may mean using a variation of the pose or supporting the pose with props. While it’s impossible to devise a general yoga sequence for scoliosis, here are a few of the most commonly used yoga poses for scoliosis.
- Child’s (Balasana)
- Mountain (Tadasana)
- Extended triangle (Utthita Trikonasana)
- Warrior I, II and III (Virabhadrasana I, II and III)
- Extended side angle (Utthita Parsvakonasana)
- Half-moon (Ardha Chandrasana)
- Rotated half-moon (Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana)
- Rotated triangle (Parivrtta Trikonasana)
- Rotated side angle (Parivrtta Parsvakonasana)
- Side plank (Vasisthasana)
- Staff (Dandasana)
- Seated forward bend (Paschimottanasana)
- Locust (Salabhasana)
- Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
- Reclined bound angle (Supta Baddha Konasana)
- Resting (Savasana)
An excellent resource for people with scoliosis who are interested in trying yoga is Yoga and Scoliosis: A Journey to Health and Healing by Marcia Monroe. It is also useful for yoga teachers who are working with students who have scoliosis.
“All forms of yoga can help people from scoliosis, but it is helpful to have informed yoga teachers who understand the body and biomechanics to help all variations that are presented. I cannot think of any example or method of yoga that someone with scoliosis would not benefit from,” concluded Heimann.