Help for teens with scoliosis: The yoga therapy approach

By Rachel Krentzman

Affecting 4 out of 100 teenagers, adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS) is the most common form of scoliosis. Idiopathic means we don’t know exactly why the curves happened, and often this diagnosis takes parents and adolescents by surprise—they may find themselves at a loss as to how to manage the condition. Regardless of whether there is pain, many are concerned about esthetics, the need for bracing, and the possibility of corrective surgery in the future.

Yoga therapy provides complementary solutions aimed at allowing the body to transform naturally. Because we look at the physical body as an integrated and organic structure, yoga therapists can offer tools that encourage a process of “letting go,” along with functional realignment that is noninvasive and enjoyable.

Photo by Johannes Plenio

A modern medical mindset can encourage us to look outside ourselves for solutions, forgetting that our own body and mind can be the most powerful healer. When teens learn ways to connect to their own bodies with both awareness and kindness, they can develop a program for self-care as an adjunct or even an alternative to bracing or surgery.

In a study examining the effects of yoga on scoliosis, doing one particular yoga pose called vasisthasana (side plank) with appropriate cueing produced a 32% improvement in the Cobb Angle (degree of sideways curve) in a sample of 25 patients. The Schroth approach, which focuses on patient education and breathing, has also been shown to be effective for teenagers with AIS. Yoga therapy addresses the individual on the physical, emotional, and spiritual level, offering tools such as the asana (postures) mentioned here, as well as pranayama (breathwork), meditative and mindfulness practices, and lifestyle changes.

How does it work?

Clients who have worn a brace in their teenage years often come to me with hypersensitivity to touch and decreased body awareness because of the constant pressure the brace places on their curves. Braces may prevent progression of the scoliosis, but they can also create a great deal of muscular tension and rigidity. In addition, many of these young clients never received any guidance on physical exercises to help their condition, so they may have little connection to their body’s needs and limited awareness of how their spine functions.

When I offer yoga therapy for adolescents with AIS, I

  • normalize scoliosis and let them know that many others have the same condition;
  • maintain a lighthearted attitude and reassure them that they can participate in sports and activities with few restrictions;
  • teach them how to adapt yoga poses to help realign their specific curve(s);
  • guide them to move breath into restricted areas in the chest and rib cage;
  • stick to a few key poses so they will succeed in practicing regularly (too many exercises can be overwhelming for anyone!); and
  • provide simple, clear instructions.

Adolescents need to develop a kind and loving relationship with their bodies—and with their scoliosis. I opt for an integrated approach that lengthens the shorter (concave) side of the curve while strengthening the weaker (convex) side; works toward alignment, symmetry, and length on both sides of the waist; supports balanced posture and a strong core; increases breath awareness; and, most importantly, includes a practice of acceptance.

Yoga therapy can be a way for teens to develop a new relationship with their bodies and themselves—a relationship that empowers them for the rest of their lives.

Rachel Krentzman, PT, C-IAYT, is a physical therapist and certified yoga therapist. She is the author of Yoga for a Happy Back: A Teacher’s Guide to Spinal Health Through Yoga Therapy and Scoliosis, Yoga Therapy & the Art of Letting Go.