One day in middle school, we were all required to go to a makeshift area in the back of the locker rooms, bare our backs, and be examined for scoliosis, as mandated by the state. The entire process was uncomfortable for me, and during the exam, it was discovered that I was one of the people they were searching for. Being diagnosed with a spinal deformity made me feel even more embarrassed and ashamed of my body than I had already been feeling. In gym classes, I was always one of the very last people picked for teams. I had felt weak and unwanted for a long time, and this feeling had greatly increased at the new school I was attending after my family had moved. In the hallways, other students would whisper about me and make fun of the clothes I wore. Now, I was labeled as having a crooked spine, and had no one to tell me what this meant for my life. It only made me feel more ugly.
I don’t remember my diagnosis being brought up again until I had to have my physical exam for entrance to private high school and college. During one of these exams, an x-ray was taken of my back. In the dressing room, when I had a moment to myself, I opened up the envelope that contained the x-ray in case the doctor wouldn’t allow me to view it. I was shocked and horrified to see the shape of my spine. It looked like the letter “S’ and nothing like the linear alignment that is shown on skeletons and in textbooks. I couldn’t understand how I could possibly be living with a spine that was shaped like that! The doctor told me that in a couple of years, I would need to have spinal surgery, in which a steel rod would be inserted in my back, replacing my vertebrae. I knew I wanted no part of this surgery. My mother had already taken so much of my spirit away from me, and now these doctors wanted to replace the bones that made up the core of my body with a metal rod that could not move. NO! I needed to get away from these people. I needed to get the required signatures and never return to this place again.
Throughout high school, I tried to run on both the cross -country and track teams, as we were required to participate in sports each trimester. I was more drawn to individual sports, in which I had only to rely on myself, and where I would not be a disappointment to anyone else. However, each trimester, I inevitably came down with a muscle, or a ligament, or a tendon injury in some part of my lower body, and spent the majority of the practices in the trainer’s room, icing my pain. I did enjoy running when I could, and ran cross-country during the first year of college, even managing to keep up with the top runners on the team during the day that we ran 10 miles in practice. After college, I tried, at various times, to keep in shape by running. However, no matter how slowly I started, I was never able to run for more than a few weeks at a time, still constantly plagued with injuries. It was frustrating to have to listen to other people’s stories about their completions of marathons and other events, while year after year, knowing full-well that I had both the desire and ability to accomplish the same achievements, could not because my body wasn’t allowing me the opportunity.
I eventually turned instead to cardio workouts in the gym and pool, and supplemented them with strength workouts with weights. I still often injured myself in various activities, tearing my Achilles tendon, for example, which caused pain for years even while doing nothing but sitting! I tried several forms of treatment for this injury, eventually undergoing the entire ten sessions of ‘rolfing’ – a series of deep tissue bodywork sessions in which the fascia of the body is shifted to better align the muscles and bones of the body. A couple of years later, I managed to hike the entire Appalachian trail, in part, I believe, because of that connective tissue work. After suffering the effects of hiking for over 2,000 miles up and down mountains with a backpack that was too heavy, for 10 months too long, I finally relented to attending my first yoga class. I loved it and immediately incorporated the three noon-time classes a week that were offered at my gym into my schedule.
Six months into my yoga practice, I tore a muscle in my outer right upper arm. I didn’t realize where I had sustained this injury from for quite awhile. I thought maybe it was from shoveling all that snow that fell in the winter of 2011. It persisted for several months. Soon after, I tore one of my right groin muscles. Again, I did not know what had caused this tear, and even though I could barely rise up into a Warrior I posture without great pain, I was not willing to give up my couple of hours of yoga classes a week, because I loved it too much. So, I continued to muscle my way through the postures, fighting through the pain, and relying on my healthy muscles to carry the extra burden. It was extremely frustrating to not even be able to do the most healthy and gentle form of exercise without getting injured!
As I began a more regular yoga practice at a studio, and went through teacher training, my injuries at times showed signs of healing, but would inevitably start speaking to me again (particularly the groin injury). Other older injuries, such as the torn Achilles tendon would also reappear. I also began experiencing pain in my outer right knee and my back would hurt, even in simple backbends such as cobra pose. I tried a couple of deep tissue bodywork sessions with my main yoga teacher to try to help my groin injury, but those sessions would always leave my groin in even greater pain afterwards.
In late January of 2012, I once again sought the help of a different body worker at my yoga studio for my groin injury. After agreeing that his work could help it heal, once seeing me, he seemed more interested in working on the structure of my collapsed chest. He advised me that if I wanted to correct that problem, I would need to come back to him on a weekly basis. So I agreed to see him for weekly bodywork sessions to help my shoulders open and my chest to lift, reversing a lifelong pattern of folding in on myself. However, after each session with him, injury after injury started showing up in a very pronounced way, mostly along the right side of my body. After my sixth session, my right knee had swollen to twice its size, my Achilles tear had reappeared, my groin was still very torn, my lateral deltoid had torn again, and my rotator cuff was now injured! It felt like my shoulder blade was ripping off of my body! After two weeks of serious swelling in my knee, my main yoga teacher urged me to see a doctor, thinking that I had torn something. I was sent to a physical therapist, who thought scraping the side of my injured knee with her metal tool was the best thing she could do for it! In the meantime, I had asked a friend for a recommendation for a chiropractor, knowing that I had scoliosis, and believing that my bodyworker had caused these injuries to sequentially show up in a such a pronounced way, most likely from working on me as he was taught for a person with a straight spine and 2 symmetrical sides. Because of my scoliosis, I have a tremendous amount of asymmetry in my body, which was revealing itself more in more in my yoga postures over the past months as my body tried to protect the injuries that were occurring.
After my chiropractor’s initial look at my back, he went to retrieve a plastic model of a torso from another room, came back and informed me that my spine was shaped like an ‘S’, and that additionally, there was a deep outward curve in my upper spine and a deepened inward curve in my lower back. Because of the lateral spinal curvature, my right hip was higher than the left and inwardly rotated. I was at first overwhelmed with a dreadful feeling of hopelessness that I would never be able to participate in physical activities without being injured. All I wanted was to be able to practice yoga and teach it to others. But the information also confirmed my intuition that I injured my groin from doing postures such as Warrior 2 or side angle pose, in which the leg is externally rotated. Forming a right angle from a leg that is always inwardly rotated is too much of a stretch. I would have to learn to adjust my poses accordingly and follow the advice of my own body and not the cues that the teacher was giving the rest of the class.
My yoga practice was not allowing me to ignore the abnormal curves in my spine. It was forcing me to acknowledge the different patterns in my body and adjust my postures accordingly. In early June, I had the opportunity to attend a weekend-long workshop on yoga for people with scoliosis, which was taught by a visiting teacher from California. She first presented us with information about the structure of the vertebral curves in a person with scoliosis, the rotational component of scoliosis that goes along with the curvature, and the news that the curves often deepen throughout our lifetime if nothing is done to prevent this from happening. I was shocked at what she was telling us, as I had never before heard any of this information! I had no idea that my bones on one side of my spine were crunched together and spread out along the other, that my ribs formed a similar pattern, that one side of the ribcage was shifted forward, and that one shoulder was more forward of the other. I had no idea that by side bending equally on both sides, I was actually increasing the lateral curves in my spine! Suddenly, the origin of every injury that I had sustained during my life, including the tear in my lateral deltoid became crystal clear. All of them were a direct result of my scoliosis. My arm injury was caused because of the position and rotation of my right shoulder, causing more stress on that arm when I tried to enter into yoga postures with binds. I couldn’t believe that no one had ever informed me about the structure of my spine, ribs, shoulder and pelvis before and what the implications were for my life and the activities that I had tried to participate in. Even the teacher who led my yoga teacher training, who has scoliosis himself, never suggested that I do anything differently on the two sides. I walked away from the scoliosis workshop with many different emotions. I was overwhelmed with the information that I now had to try to incorporate into my practice, angry at the doctors and teachers in my life who never offered any information on how to work with this type of body, and grateful to be, for the first time, in a room full of people who all had this similar struggle, and who were doing everything they could to work with it and live a healthy and happy life. Perhaps most importantly for me, was noticing that I saw only the beauty in each of the individuals in the room, and that there was nothing ugly about the curves in their spines. For my entire life, I viewed my own scoliosis as something that made me more ugly- something that I wanted to hide, push away, and pretend wasn’t there.
The practice of yoga doesn’t allow you to ignore any part of yourself. It centers around uniting each individual with his or her true, whole self. Because the entire body is used in each of the postures, each practitioner is given the opportunity to learn about their own strengths and weaknesses, blockages, habitual patterns, and feelings and experiences that have been pushed away and ignored because they were once too painful to deal with. Had I kept trying to run, I would have only been repeating the same patterns of sustaining injury after injury, trying to heal, and attempting to run again until my body simply wouldn’t allow me to. In my yoga practice, my body spoke loudly to me with the new injuries I was sustaining in both my upper and lower body. Until I understood where these injuries were originating from, my body was going to keep screaming at me, and showing me in new ways that I needed to start listening to what it was asking for.
My yoga practice has taught me that you can’t push anything that presents itself in your life away. What you don’t acknowledge will only come back with a louder voice in the future. Instead, we must learn to softly work with the challenges that have been offered to us, invite them in, sit with them, ask them what is needed, and learn to see the inherent beauty within each of our struggles.