Martha Carter Talks About Her Healing Journey - Part 13

Becoming a Yoga for Scoliosis teacher

This is Part 13 of a serial blog post. In Part 12, I share experiences from my 200-hour Yoga Teacher training on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. In Part 11, I talk about my learning and discoveries studying with renowned Yoga for Scoliosis teacher, Elise Browning Miller. Missed the earlier posts? Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8,  Part 9 and Part 10.

One of the hardest things about scoliosis is that it is difficult to know what to do to make it better.

People ask me questions like these all the time:

  • How do you cure scoliosis?
  • How can I make my back straight again?  
  • How can I stop the curve from getting worse?
  • What can I do to get rid of the pain?

Though extremely understandable questions to ask, they are very difficult questions to answer, because every person and every curve is different. There is one thing that is for sure though: it is NOT possible to CURE a structural scoliosis.

In some cases, folks with functional scoliosis may be able to correct their curve through targeted exercises and lifestyle changes, but structural scoliosis is extremely difficult to change. The best most people can hope for is to manage their scoliosis, and to keep it from getting worse. Sometimes some people can achieve some straightening or correction through a specific treatment or exercise program, but in most cases, a scoliotic curve and twist is quite stubborn.

It also doesn’t help that most people are diagnosed in early adolescence when they have very little control over their life choices. And in my personal experience, most general practitioner doctors have very few answers, or even suggestions. In most cases, a diagnosis of idiopathic adolescent scoliosis leads to three possible actions:

  1. Do nothing and wait and see (for a mild curve, 10-25 degrees).
  2. Wear a brace and wait and see if it makes a difference (for a medium curve, 25-40 degrees).
  3. Have ‘correction’ surgery that will surgically straighten and de-rotate the spine, changing the body’s biomechanics forever (for a severe curve, 40 degrees +).

Until very recently, the extremely important fourth category, “Things you can do to help yourself” (i.e. exercise and supportive care), was often not mentioned. In fact, I was shocked to learn from a scoliosis-focused physiotherapist that during his four years of training, they only had ONE lecture on back conditions, and during that lecture there was only ONE slide showing scoliosis. That was the extent of their education about scoliosis! The reason he had decided to become a scoliosis specialist was because he wanted to help his good friend who was suffering from the condition. When he realized that neither he nor any of his fellow students would learn more about scoliosis during physiotherapy school, he made a point of figuring out how to educate himself further.

For me, finding Yoga for Scoliosis and then training to become a Yoga Teacher helped me tremendously. With that training under my belt, the next logical step was to become certified in Elise’s technique in order to become a Yoga for Scoliosis teacher.

To do this, I was required to take her Yoga for Scoliosis 20-hour workshop, and then complete a three month apprenticeship / practicum, followed by the submission of a written report.

The report is made up of two parts:

  1. A scoliosis questionnaire to ensure basic knowledge of the condition.
  2. Hands on work with two different people with scoliosis over the course of three months to teach them exercises appropriate for their curves. The final submitted report explains the teaching process, recording the student’s progress and responses through photographs and written notes.

The funny thing for me is that by the time I was finally ready to do my three month practicum, I had already taken Elise’s workshop SEVEN TIMES! Part of the reason for waiting was because I had not yet become a Yoga teacher, which was a key requirement. But also, I realize now, the first several times I took Elise’s workshop were about me overcoming my fear of trying new things; getting past my fear of possibly hurting myself, and my need to let out the stored frustration, anger and sadness that were stuck in my spine.

In other words, the first seven times were about me learning to help myself.

The eighth time - and the subsequent practicum - was about me learning to apply my knowledge in order to help others.

For my practicum, I chose to work with two people who not only had different curve patterns (one of the practicum requirements), but who also had very different challenges.

The first woman had structural idiopathic adolescent scoliosis, was surgically corrected (like me), and experienced a lot of stiffness and pain throughout her whole body. The second woman was a dancer and musician who was very body aware, but nevertheless had developed a functional scoliosis, likely due to pressure cause by a large ovarian cyst. Her body was fluid and flexible, but she suffered from severe asymmetry along with some other conditions that exacerbated her body discomfort.

Over the course of three months, I worked with each of them individually to develop a personal yoga progression that they could do at home to help themselves manage their curves and find pain relief. By the end of our time together, they had both identified their three ‘favourite’ poses that they could easily remember and repeat on a regular basis - an important detail, as not everyone has the time or desire to do a full practice every day.

I found the practicum very interesting, especially enjoying the opportunity to connect with these two women who shared similar challenges to me; to discuss and exchange thoughts, fears, secrets, discomforts, revelations; to share ways to help ourselves. Very satisfying!

For me, the biggest realization to come out of the experience was the fact that just as Yoga for Scoliosis had helped me to discover the many layers to my own healing, my teaching could also offer these same benefits to others. The technique is empowering, and gives people a chance to examine, unwind and manage their own particular layers of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual trauma that are often brought about by this confusing condition. By the end of our time together, both women were showing improvements in posture, flexibility, strength, awareness and pain management. And perhaps most importantly, they felt more confident in their bodies.

With the specific body awareness that Yoga for Scoliosis inspires, most people are then able to apply this knowledge to keep themselves from getting hurt while taking general public yoga classes. (note: gentle and beginner level of Hatha or Iyengar styles are recommended).

I encourage anyone with scoliosis who is interested in trying Yoga to either take a private class with a Hatha or Iyengar teacher, or to attend a Yoga for Scoliosis workshop with an accredited teacher. Elise Browning Miller has a list of teachers around the world on her website here.

And for those who would like to try other techniques besides yoga, there are three other popular Scoliosis-focused exercise methods that are becoming more available, and are showing promising results:

  1. Pilates for Scoliosis (also known as Scolio-Pilates) - an extension of Pilates, which is an alignment, strengthening and overall wellness exercise method.
  2. The Schroth method - a scoliosis-specific physiotherapy from Germany.
  3. ScoliSmart - an extension of physiotherapy and chiropractic, using equipment and special ‘suits’ to rebalance asymmetry in the body.

In my next post, I will go into more detail about these other interesting and effective therapies.