Learn the three cues that reverse your scoliotic tendencies. That is the most important piece of advice I can give students with scoliosis. That would be three cues, particular to your scoliotic pattern, that you can perform simply in a yoga pose or exercise.
For example: For a Right Thoracic (major curve), left lumbar curve (compensatory curve) where the ribcage is highly rotated and visually prominent, the three cues could be:
LEAN TORSO LEFT
DEROTATE RIBCAGE LEFT/TWIST LEFT
REACH LEFT ARM DIAGONALLY LEFT
For this curve pattern (which is the most common pattern), the body is leaning right, their bodyweight is in the right leg, and the head is drifting towards the right foot. When the thoracic spine bows out to the right, and rotates right, the majority of the bodyweight will be leaning right. 55- 75% of the weight is managed by the right leg. Which brings us to the central principle behind scoliotic correction:
“Do the OPPOSITE of your body’s tendency in order to find Balance.”
When your bodyweight, ribcage and head are shifting right, LEAN LEFT.
When the ribcage rotates right, DEROTATE LEFT.
When the left ribs narrow and collapse, ELONGATE the left side and REACH LEFT.
Some systems “elongate” or lengthen the spine first. This works great if your spine is centered. However, if your scoliosis is displacing your weight predominantly to one leg, elongation efforts don’t have enough momentum to shift the spine. Therefore, shift the weight and the torso to the opposite side FIRST, to foster a true spinal elongation.
PRACTICE: You can try this for yourself, even if you don’t have scoliosis!
Stand up. Lean your torso right (widening your right rear ribs and narrowing your left ribs), twist your ribcage right. Can you feel more weight in your right leg? Do your right ribs feel heavier and sinking with gravity toward the earth?
Now stretch your arms overhead and lengthen your spine while still leaning right. Can you sense how more weight poured into your right leg? Or maybe your arms went up and over to the left to act as a counter-balance. Those left ribs might have narrowed more! Or your shoulders may have scrunched up without the spine moving much at all.
Instead, from the starting point, lean your torso left till you feel the weight come into your left leg (Imagine you are angling your torso to 10 o’clock on an old-fashioned analog clock face.) Now ‘derotate’ the ribcage (twist left; sternum to 10 o’clock). Finally, elongate. Reach your left arm diagonally up and out to the left to stretch those narrowed left ribs. You have reversed the scoliotic dynamic. You have “unfrozen” the frozen position of the scoliotic spine.
And yes, you have “overcorrected.” You are not “centered” yet. You are deliberately moving opposite of your habit to unlock the scoliotic pattern. This overcorrection is so powerful, that when coupled with isometric contractions and corrective beathing, you can return true center, with weight equal in both feet, and a much straighter spine[i]. Repeated over time, with concentration and high awareness (using mirrors to see that the correction actually happens), the spine begins to correct easily and quickly.
Doesn’t Scoliosis Move the Spine Both Left & Right?
To be clear, a scoliotic spine “zig zags,” with certain parts shifting left and other parts moving right. And sections of the scoliotic spine can both rotate left and right. This is what can make scoliotic corrections confusing (for teachers and students!) However, for many scoliosis patterns with a large thoracic curve, there is a fundamental, more primary bodyweight shift and lean in the posture. Correct this, and the reason for all the counter-shifting parts starts to fade over time. The body remembers its true midline, and the bodyweight finds both legs more evenly.
What About Other Scoliosis Curve Patterns?
There are other curve patterns, which require different techniques, but the fundamental idea of shifting the bodyweight and finding your top three most fundamental cues holds true.
For example, you could still be a right thoracic/left lumbar pattern, however your ribs haven’t rotated or shifted laterally much, but your pelvis has. For these students, there is still a preferred weight-bearing leg, under the lumbar convexity (instead of the under the ribcage). As the weight of the body shifts over the lumbar convexity (often left), the pelvis shifts to the right. Those with a major lumbar curve pattern have a visually prominent hip (the pelvis shifts way over to one side), whereas those with a major thoracic curve pattern have a visually prominent ribcage (one side of the ribcage rotates backwards and moves sideways).
The correction for the major lumbar curve pattern does not involve leaning to one side. Instead, these students shift their weight to the non-preferred leg and simultaneously squeeze this side’s buttock to move the pelvis the opposite way. Finally, the spine is elongated directly upward.
Here are those three fundamental cues: (left lumbar curve = major curve)
SHIFT WEIGHT TO RIGHT LEG
SQUEEZE RIGHT BUTTOCK TO MOVE PELVIS TO THE LEFT
ELONGATE SPINE DIRECTLY UP
How Can we Halt Spinal Side Bending & Rotation?
To more effectively prevent or reduce scoliosis’ lateral shifts and rotations, we need a strong pose, that can be held with isometric contractions. We need to target the muscles that prevent sideways shifts in the body. Those are the lateral line muscles. What pose strengthens the lateral line? Side Plank.
Dr. Loren Fishman developed an approach to addressing the (lateral) lumbar curvature of the scoliotic spine using side plank[ii]. He has since expanded upon his findings using poses to address the thoracic curve (Side Plank with elevated feet). These poses are extremely effective in getting students out of pain and addressing a scoliosis that is progressing (worsening).
Later Schroth Method developments[iii] emphasize the importance of restoring the lumbar curve and appropriate pelvic tilt. These three approaches taken together have benefitted the vast majority of my students with scoliosis:
Reverse the scoliotic dynamic
Side Plank variations for the lumbar convexity and, for some, the thoracic convexity
Correct the (overly arched or flattened) lumbar curve and pelvic tilt
There are more aspects to scoliosis correction, important things including breathing into the concave areas of the ribcage and lifestyle considerations. Many clients have questions about the optimal sleeping position, and sitting and standing positions are important as well. It’s this work ‘off the mat’ that relies on the fundamental three cues; from this solid advice, all other practices grow.
[i] “Schroth Exercises for Scoliosis” Schroth Method Exercises for Scoliosis; “A central Schroth concept of exercise is to reverse malposture by striving for the opposite of the defective form that the scoliotic body has assumed…. To reverse the defects, (one) must practice overcorrecting the laterally-shifted sections beyond the midline.” Retrieved from https://www.schrothmethod.com/scoliosis-exercises; 2021. [ii] Fishman, Loren M et al. “Serial case reporting yoga for idiopathic and degenerative scoliosis.” Global advances in health and medicine vol. 3,5 (2014): 16-21. doi:10.7453/gahmj.2013.064 [iii] Weiss, Hans Rudolph, Lehnert-Schroth, Christa, Moramarco, Marc. “Schroth Therapy: Advancements in Conservative Scoliosis Treatment. Lap Lambert Publishing. 2015.