Martha Carter Talks About Her Healing Journey - Part 11

This is Part 11 of a serial blog post. In Part 10, I share how waking up one morning with the idea for a performance piece, and no idea how to realize that vision, lead me to yoga. In Part 9, I talk about how my return to dance kicked off some important investigations and discoveries in the world of Supportive Care. Missed the earlier posts? Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7 and Part 8.

When I discovered Elise Browning Miller and her method, Yoga for Scoliosis, I finally felt confident to explore Yoga further. First of all, Elise had scoliosis! So, unlike other Yoga teachers I had worked with, her teaching provided insights that could only come from having personal experience with this condition.

I had been apprehensive about trying Yoga again, but Elise was gentle and welcoming, and I felt safe.

I was immediately inspired by her story, not to mention her flexible and fit body.

When Elise was diagnosed as a teenager during the 1960’s, she chose NOT to have the recommended surgery. Instead, she had the good fortune to have a forward-thinking doctor who suggested she try yoga, which was quite new in North America at the time. She explored a few different experiences, and eventually landed on Iyengar Yoga, created by the late and great BKS Iyengar. The Iyengar approach is perfect for asymmetrical bodies as it encourages the use of props to adjust and modify poses to fit each person. Perfect!

Over the years, Elise has become a certified Senior Iyengar Teacher and Mentor as well as a specialist in Yoga for Scoliosis. It is also notable that in all of her workshops, she provides additional teacher training so that her work can reach more people. Her recent book, YOGA FOR SCOLIOSIS, is the definitive guide on the subject.

So, about the workshop experience - the first thing I notice at the beginning of every Yoga for Scoliosis workshop is that there are a whole bunch of people with crooked backs. Mostly female - all ages, shapes, and sizes - and a few men - and every kind of twisty spine you could ever imagine... An often-heard comment when people enter the studio is something like:

”I didn't know there were so many people with scoliosis … I always feel so alone!”

This, in itself, is telling about the importance of these workshops.

So many people feel alone with their scoliosis, and often don’t know what to do to help themselves. In addition to physical exercise, these workshops also provide the opportunity to meet and connect with other people around a common experience. For most, this space provides an easy way into conversation and exchange and often friendship.

Elise is best known for her two different 10-hour weekend workshops: Yoga for Scoliosis Part 1 & 2, which are designed for people with scoliosis, bodyworkers interested in learning about working with scoliosis, and Yoga teachers who want to be certified in Yoga for Scoliosis.

She begins each workshop with an informational lecture and slideshow about scoliosis. During this section, the most important information (and what comes into play for the rest of the workshop) is the fact that every person’s curve is unique, but that they all have a few things in common:

  • All scoliotic spines have lateral curves with both convexities and concavities;

  • All curves are also rotations;

  • All curves and rotations cause asymmetry in the torso, and likely the whole body.

She explains how it is extremely important for each person to learn to visualize their own curve pattern in order to benefit as much as possible from each exercise.

At the end of the introductory session, Elise invites questions and comments. As people recount their stories, they often comment on the fact that they have never had anyone to talk to (or had anyone to listen to them) about their issues before. Everyone is welcomed to share if they want - or to ask questions. Elise often repeats that there is never any pressure to try anything that doesn’t feel comfortable - emotionally or physically - but she also has an encouraging way of teaching so most people feel safe to open themselves to the work. In almost all cases, Elise finds a way for everyone to experience the entire workshop in a beneficial way, regardless of their past experience.

For the rest of the workshop, Elise teaches a series of classic Yoga poses that can all be modified to best help each person’s specific spinal curve and other body issues.

She almost always starts with a simple standing pose to get the body going by stretching the arms high over the head and bending from side to side. She will guide each person to bend less ‘in the direction’ of the curve, which can potentially increase it, and instead, more ‘against’ the curve, to stretch out the collapsed or concave side of the body.

She repeats, “move with awareness of your own curve pattern” throughout the exercise.

From there, she guides the class through some gentle stretches at the wall, and then onto more familiar poses, such as downward facing dog, triangle, and the warrior poses. The rest of the class continues like any Yoga class - a series of exercises that challenge through stretches, strengthening exercises, balancing and relaxation. In every single pose, she repeats the reminder from the first exercise, “move with awareness of your own curve pattern,” constantly guiding us to be more aware of how each pose affects our unique curve.

Depending on the studio setup, the workshop might also include working with the traditional Iyengar rope wall, or the adapted western version, called The Great Yoga Wall.

This wall is a fantastic addition to anyone’s yoga practice, allowing for multiple modifications. Elise also teaches many unique and creative ways of using Yoga straps - with and without the wall.

One of the unique features of the workshop is that Elise often gets people working in partners. This teaches us ways to help each other by using our hands and body weight to increase the effect of the poses.

Alongside the studies in the studio, the workshop atmosphere is always very social. Given the subject matter and mutual connection over it, conversations start up quickly, and there is always lots of chatting at meal time. And I can’t forget to mention the scoliosis boutique! Elise travels with an array of products, including t-shirts, books, DVDs, and more.

I generally feel exhilarated from these workshops. But, one thing I have noticed is that my energy always starts to lag in the last half hour. Ten hours of scoliosis information is a lot of information to take in -- emotionally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually. Especially the first time! I have taken it several times, and like clockwork, by the last half hour, I am exhausted. It challenges every part of me, as the work literally repatterns the body. If you let it, it can realign everything; your alignment; your breath, your balance, your proprioception; your gait -- your entire way in the world.

Another ah-ha moment!

At first, I thought all of the feelings and sensations I was experiencing were purely physical transformations. The exercises were challenging my asymmetrical physical body. But the more I studied, the more I understood that I was transforming every part of my life.

This was not just Yoga for Scoliosis. This was Yoga!

Yoga For Scoliosis made me understand that Yoga could really help me, but it also made me realize that I didn't know anything about Yoga, in the wider sense. Armed with Elises teachings, and the confidence they gave me to do Yoga in a safe way for my body, I decided to undertake a  200-hour Yoga teacher training in Hatha Yoga...

In my next post, I will tell my story about Yoga Teacher Training at the Salt Spring Island Yoga Centre, and share what I learned about how Yoga is much more than a physical practice of postures. I will briefly describe the program, and how it affected my life in myriad ways. Founded by the great Yoga master and silent monk, Baba Hari Dass, I continue to gain enormously from his suggestion for a successful life: “Work honestly, meditate every day, meet people without fear, and play.”