The Power of Adjustment: Making Yoga Work For You!
A couple of nights ago, EK Park and I—your dedicated TBM staff—had the great fortune of attending a workshop at Yoga Sanctuary Danforth with self-described "Yoga Crone", Cora Wen. Though you'll have to wait to hear all about the workshop, Yoga for Therapy, in a soon-to-be-released Journal entry, I just wanted to share one of the many things I learned about from the wonderfully uplifting and energetic Cora.
If you don't know, I came to yoga initially because of back problems. Scoliosis, to be exact. Meaning that I've got an abnormal curvature of the spine, something like an S shape that also twists my upper body and crunches my left side. Though the curvature has never been excessive enough to cause functional problems, it does frequently cause me pain and discomfort. And, so, never having been partial to having a rod fused to my spine, I turned, on the recommendation of my family doctor many a year ago, to yoga for assistance.
Granted, "yoga" first began as mild stretches and rehabilitative exercises like cat and cow pose that allowed me to begin to gauge how exactly my spine moved and what movements felt good and which felt bad. As I began to feel relief, I became more and more interested in exploring the anatomy of scoliosis and finding ways to support the muscles that were overcompensating for my twist while developing those that were weaker. Working with weights, for instance, really helped me build up the musculature of my back and abs in a way designed to best support my spine. Deadlifts? Best weight-bearing exercise ever. As long as you're absolutely sure you're using correct form, they're a killer workout that'll strengthen your lower and middle back and help maintain a supple core.
As I matched weight-bearing routines with the subtle movements of yoga, I became aware that yoga was beginning to have a much broader influence on my life as it tends to do when taken as a holistic method of health in all its layers and forms. It took me awhile to grow into my yoga practice, and of course, I continue always to grow more into it, but it's clear I recognized right from the start the benefit of a good asana. While deadlifts helped me build my muscles, yoga allowed me to relax them, encouraging a spaciousness where other forms of exercise couldn't. Certain poses created lift and air in the intercostal muscles while twists encouraged a release of the strain my spine placed on the Latissimus Dorsi. Physically, yoga helped open my body and relieve pain. Well, for the most part.
I had a couple of unfortunate experiences with teachers in the past who chose to "force" my body into alignments that didn't feel good to me and my poor aching back. Although I had mentioned having scoliosis, it seemed these teachers were intent on having my spine conform into what they thought was a normal alignment. Not a great idea when my spine is abnormal. Forcing my back to accomodate standard alignments didn't help my scoliosis, and I left those classes injured and not a happy yoga camper. Since then, and due to a variety of other circumstances, I've alway been a yoga class grazer, someone who practices at home but attends a class every now and again. Admittedly not the best of ideas, but I always worried about coming home from a class in more pain than when I started.
At Wednesday's workshop, however, I must say I've had my faith restored in good yoga teaching and even in my twisted spine. When Cora discovered I had scoliosis, she invited me to test out one of her therapy techniques—what she calls the "Strap Jacket"—and asked me to assume a Downward Dog. Though I won't give away too much about the Strap Jacket just yet, there was something else Cora did while I was in pose that made Downward Dog a completely new experience. She adjusted my right arm. It might sound elementary, but let me say that moving my right hand forward and out was a modification not to be underestimated. Immediately, I felt release and relief in my back on the lower, right side, the space where I carry much of the burden of an uncooperative spine. It was adjustment magic!
I learned a couple of things from Cora's magic modification. First, never give up looking for a good yoga teacher, and don't let a couple of bad apples stop you. Second, yoga is about your body, and all the intricacies and quirks that go with it. It's important to know that even if something in your physical body is "abnormal", that yoga can accommodate it. Alighnment doesn't have to be a rigid, one size fits all kind of deal. I guess the last lesson then is that it's important to always check in with a good yoga teacher to see how yoga can better support your body. My spring resolution? Find a great class, a great teacher, and modify my practice to fit my wacky spine.