Starting Yoga and a Key Discovery: Elise Browning Miller’s Yoga for Scoliosis.
This is Part 10 of a serial blog post. In Part 9, I share how my return to dance kicked off some important investigations and discoveries in the world of Supportive Care. In Part 8, I talk about some specific healing modalities’ pros, cons and experiences; in particular, Alexander Technique and Taoist Meditation. Missed the earlier posts? Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.
When my back finally started to feel stronger and more mobile, I found myself dreaming about dancing. In that moment between sleep and awake, I would have visions of myself in an extreme arabesque with my an open chest, arched back, and a long, high leg. Sometimes it was à Ia seconde — with my leg lifted to the side. I was never wearing a tutu. I was always either in street clothes or naked. I could feel my spine — free and powerful.
Like a body craves vegetables for nutrients, my soul craved movement for nourishment.
About 10 years into my exploration of various therapies following my Harrington rod removal, I woke up one day with the idea of creating and performing a theatre piece about my scoliosis story. I really didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I felt compelled to 'come out of my scoliosis closet’. Bringing this idea to life felt like a continuation of all the therapies I had been exploring. It felt right, even necessary — to share my secrets, and to let go of my scoliosis shame, as part of the ongoing healing process. I wanted to reap the benefits of all my hard work so far to reclaim mobility in my back — it was time to wear my scars proudly and enjoy dancing and performing again.
But, if I was going to go onstage, I needed to get in shape!
I had just moved back to my hometown of Vancouver, so I no longer had easy access to all the wonderful therapists and healers who had helped me in Montréal. I started going to a new gym in Vancouver, and I tried a new personal trainer, but I was completely disconnected and bored.
I needed something to inspire me — something that I could do at home, or at least in the dance studio where I was spending a lot of time anyway.
As a teacher and director, it was part of my routine to stretch with the dancers when they were doing their warm up, and, slowly, I started to do some ballet barre exercises with them again as well. I noticed that a lot of the Vancouver dancers were doing yoga as a warm up, but I was still feeling a bit insecure about trying it. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the doctors had always warned me against yoga, and when I tried it once in Montreal, it caused my back to go into spasm. But then again, the doctors had also warned against dance, which I had thought to be short-sighted, and returning to dance had turned out to be incredibly beneficial. Following this logic, why not try yoga again?
When I met yoga teacher Alix Rodrigues from Green Room Yoga studio, I appreciated her intuitive sense that taking a private session with her would allow space for extra awareness and caution. She explained that she would work safely with my limitations and create a sequence that was specifically designed for my body. I decided to try one private session with her to see how it went.
I was terrified and nervous! But thankfully, she was wonderfully gentle in her approach. She listened to my concerns, and then guided me through a series of simple poses. I was so relieved to be alone in the studio under her focused attention. It made me feel much more comfortable about asking questions, and I found that I didn’t feel self-conscious or anxious in any way. Plus, I felt confident enough to try all the poses she suggested; if something felt uncomfortable, she would change it to work better for me. Nothing was too difficult, but it wasn’t super easy either... In some poses I felt a bit weak, and in others it was hard to find balance. It felt like just the right amount of challenge to both push my limits and give me something to aim towards.
I was thrilled to finally be doing yoga!
I also loved how I could do yoga anywhere. I could do it at home, or in a hotel room, or in the dance studio. The sequence Alix gave me took me about 20 minutes to get through, and it became an effective part of my warm up routine before teaching and rehearsals.
At that point, I realized I wanted to learn more, but was not sure what to do next.
Thanks to Google research for my performance piece, I randomly came across Elise Browning Miller’s website and I ordered her DVD and booklet about Yoga for Scoliosis. When it arrived in the mail, I watched it immediately, but felt somewhat lost! I was not very familiar with yoga terminology, nor was I familiar with the Iyengar method, so it was overwhelming to try to understand all of the information without being able to ask questions. Nevertheless, I really liked how she explained that it was necessary to work in specific ways for different curve patterns. That resonated for me. So when I received an email promoting Elise’s Yoga for Scoliosis retreat in Mexico, I immediately signed up.
At first, I was just going to do some research. It seemed like a no-brainer to take classes from a scoliosis specialist like Elise, while also going on a Mexican vacation! It was the first time I had ever done something like that, and, as it turned out, it would be far more significant to me than I had initially thought it would be. The retreat would offer me many, many important firsts:
First yoga retreat
First time learning about scoliosis in general — from historical, anthropological, medical, physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual perspectives
First time I understood the shape and direction of my curve
First time in a room with so many other people with scoliosis
First time learning about Iyengar yoga and how it is a great basis for working with scoliosis
First time trying a yoga wall
First time using many yoga props to modify poses
First time realizing I was not alone with my scoliosis struggles, and that most folks with scoliosis have pain and discomfort at some point in their lives
First time I understood that having a fusion can cause even more limitations than non-fused scoliosis
The first class started with introductions. There were eight of us — all women, and all with scoliosis. Everyone had a unique story and a unique curve, but we also learned we had a lot in common. We were all diagnosed as teenagers, and we had all struggled with pain in our backs over the years. I was the only one with a fusion — and the only one who had not done very much yoga — but thankfully, it was a welcoming and forgiving environment.
Elise’s knowledge was brilliant and riveting. She warned us to take it easy, and encouraged everyone to go at their own pace. This was an important lesson. I could feel my pesky dancer ego wanting to prove that I could keep up, but Elise’s encouraging attitude about doing ‘just enough’ helped me to avoid doing that. And given that I was the only student with a fused spine, I finally had a chance to recognize the extent of my limitations compared to non-fused spines. That was very helpful for me in understanding how I needed to work with extra caution. It was also very humbling.
By the end of the week, Elise had explained and demonstrated all the poses from her DVD and booklet. Along the way, she carefully guided us through trying them all, while helping us differentiate the specific approach required for each of our unique scoliosis curves.
It was a lot of information to absorb, both intellectually and physically, but it felt useful and important. I also quickly understood that by attending a retreat, rather than just one class or workshop, I had given myself the opportunity to really delve into my scoliosis like never before. It gave me the chance to face my fears in an understanding environment, surrounded by a compassionate cohort.
As we all got to know each other, everyone benefited from the opportunity to open up and share their stories; to ask questions and exchange ideas; to be vulnerable and express emotions. By spending a week in close proximity, we came to understand that scoliosis is an extremely common condition, and that there are many other people with curved and twisted spines who share the same frustrations. It also helped us understand that we are each unique, and must advocate for our own needs. The retreat gave all of us tools, contacts, and community to better understand our backs, and to find ways to help ourselves.
That retreat was a major turning point in my life.
The inspiration and information it gave helped me to not only realize my performance piece, but it also started me on the path to becoming a yoga teacher, a yoga for scoliosis specialist, and now a FUSION yoga specialist.
Immediately following the retreat, I started to attend The Yoga Space studio in Vancouver, where I felt lucky to study with the wonderful teachers there, including director Louie Ettling. Although they were not scoliosis specialists, their solid understanding of Iyengar yoga helped me to better practice Elise’s approach. As a TOPS partner, The Yoga Space is a studio I often recommend for their gentle and restorative classes, which are an excellent choice for anyone who is looking for help with back issues of any kind.
Since that first retreat, I have taken Elise’s workshop on several occasions, increasing my knowledge and understanding each time, and improving my own teaching, while also deepening my personal practice. I still use Alix’s sequence regularly, understanding and appreciating it better than ever.
And that is just the beginning of my journey into Yoga for Scoliosis!
In my next post, I will go into more detail about what happens in a Yoga for Scoliosis class - how it is exciting, scary, challenging and fantastic all at the same time; how learning about props and modifications is a yoga life-saver; how body awareness, with a focus on decompressing, lengthening and strengthening, can help relieve the discomfort caused by scoliosis; and how personal practice becomes a form of self-empowerment.