The Benefits of Yoga for Scoliosis

When I was 15 years old, I found out that I had scoliosis. My pediatrician examined me one day and saw that when he had me bend forward at the waist, my right back ribs were protruding. He told me I had scoliosis, a lateral curve of the spine with vertebrae that rotated. I was sent to an orthopedic surgeon specializing in scoliosis. He took X-rays of my back that revealed a right thoracic 49-degree curvature with a compensating left lumbar curve. He recommended surgery immediately. If I had surgery, I would be in the hospital for a long period of time and could plan on at least a year’s recovery.

I got a second opinion from a well-known orthopedic surgeon who specialized in scoliosis, Dr. Harris. After Dr. Harris, who was in his sixties, examined me, he told me that my growth spurt had ended and he felt sure that the increase in my curve would subside. He said that too many young surgeons were recommending surgery for too little a degree of curvature and that there was much I could do to stabilize my curve. He recommended that I wait a year, continue to be active in sports, and start swimming regularly with a focus on the backstroke.

But it was the next thing he said to me that changed my life. He told me he had recently read a book on yoga and he believed that its breathing, stretching, and strengthening could be good for those with scoliosis. He was going to research it further, and would examine me again in a year to see if my curve had stabilized.

I look back at that meeting with the late Dr. Harris in 1964 and realize how far ahead of his time he was. This was the diagnosis I wanted to hear, and that small mention of yoga had left an impression that would bring me to yoga years later.


A body with scoliosis develops a highly sophisticated compensating “act” but, with proper instruction, it can also learn a more refined symmetrical “act.” By combining yoga postures with awareness of breath, you can redevelop structural alignment and create more symmetry in the body. By stretching the muscles that have tightened and strengthening the muscles that have become weak from the asymmetrical imbalance of scoliosis, realignment of the body is accomplished. When asymmetry is reduced in spinal alignment, the body can rely more on its bone structure to hold itself up, rather than overworking the muscles, and the effect is a more effortless posture. By developing a regular yoga practice, corrected proprioception and muscle memory come into play, and the muscles begin to move the bones into a more symmetrical, aligned position. In turn, once the bone alignment is improved, the muscles become more efficient and require less effort to maintain that alignment. A regular yoga practice can help you find that balance point that allows the scoliosis curve to coexist with gravity and activates the body’s natural plumb line. The result for most people with scoliosis who commit to a regular yoga practice is better posture and less pain.

How Yoga Can Help Psychologically

Developing a yoga practice is empowering. By committing to a regular practice, you are taking personal responsibility for your well-being and addressing the physical and emotional effects of your scoliosis. You are choosing to not depend solely on drugs, doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, or other professionals to heal you. By developing a personal yoga practice, you are investing and participating in your own healing process. Yoga gives hope that you can do something to improve your condition and your quality of life.

Yoga is a journey of self-awareness. By taking the time and energy to focus on your body and find more alignment and balance, you are giving yourself a gift. By directing loving attention to your breath while you align yourself in yoga postures, you can transform the pain or feelings of imbalance into self-acceptance and freedom. To be in the present is a “present” to yourself. Yoga is a practice that can bring health and well-being. With a yoga practice, you are doing something positive and healthy for yourself. This may even affect how you eat, move in your body, interact with others, and make other choices to develop healthful habits.

Yoga helps you to find balance, physically and mentally. Often with scoliosis, you either ignore the fact that you have it or are thrown into self-pity. A regular yoga practice will help you understand your body’s limitations and stay open to the transformation and freedom that are possible, both physically and mentally. With this balance, you are able to honor yourself and enjoy a fulfilling life with an openness to exploring new horizons. Choosing to practice Yoga for Scoliosis requires commitment and inner awareness. With scoliosis, it is important to not expect perfection, but instead accept yourself and find our own optimal alignment and center. As there is beauty in the straight alignment of a palm tree, there is also beauty in an oak tree, with its many twists and turns.

Key Components of Yoga for Scoliosis

  1. Developing Breath Awareness. From the start, you’ll come to experience how deepening the breath invites relaxation and calmness. You’ll start by focusing your attention on breathing through your nose. In time, you’ll learn how to breathe into areas of discomfort throughout the body and into the side of the lungs and ribs, where the breath does not flow easily. Focusing on your breath will remind you to keep breathing throughout your practice.
  2. Lengthening the Spine. You’ll begin your practice by elongating or lengthening the spine to create more space between the vertebrae and assist in bringing it back to center. This is also a key factor in reducing pain.
  3. Strengthening. You’ll learn how to strengthen the muscles that are weak as a result of imbalances that occur as a result of scoliosis. You’ll strengthen your leg muscles in order to support the back and spine. Standing poses give you that focus. You’ll also experience through your practice how building strength in your abdominal muscles, core muscles, and the muscles that run along the spine can help prevent the lateral curve in your spine from increasing.
  4. De-rotating. In all poses, especially twists, it is possible to de-rotate some of the abnormal rotation caused by the scoliosis and thereby gain more alignment and balance. When a spine is fused through surgery, the rotation of the spine is fixed, and twisting will be very limited.
  5. Realigning Your Posture. Finding your center is quite a challenge for those of us with scoliosis. But, like an oak tree, you can find your center with all your beautiful twists and turns. In a way, you are learning to remap your body’s alignment from within. You’ll also learn how to maintain the four natural curves of the spine (cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacrum/tailbone) when standing in daily life and when practicing standing poses. Flattening or overarching any of the four natural curves leads to discomfort and pain.
  6. Defying Gravity and Centering the Spine. When you live with scoliosis, your body’s center of gravity shifts. As a result, you lose height as the spine collapses, and you are constantly fighting against gravity’s pull. By hanging in inverted positions and allowing the spine to stretch upside down and into gravity, it is possible to realign your centerline, release tension in overworked muscles, create more space between the vertebrae, and center the body. In more advanced inversions, you can center the arms and legs as well.

This article is adapted from Yoga for Scoliosis: A Path for Students and Teachers, © 2016, by Elise Browning Miller and nancy DL heraty.

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Elise Browning Miller, MA, a senior Iyengar Yoga teacher and therapeutic recreation therapist, is a founding director of the California Yoga Center.

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