Yoga as a Remedy

More and more, people are beginning to practice yoga based on a need to address a physical issue. On their doctor’s advice or based on friends’ recommendations, students often first come to yoga classes to find relief from low back pain, hip issues, scoliosis and other problems.

While yoga’s origins are philosophical and mental rather than physical, the now common use of the physical aspect of yoga is being extended beyond general fitness to be seen as a remedy for physical problems. And, although yoga can definitely improve misalignments, build muscle, and increase flexibility, simply participating in classes is not necessarily a path to recovery.

Recently I attended a weekend workshop with Elise Browning Miller, a senior Iyengar yoga teacher and expert on yoga for scoliosis. Much of the weekend was general practice, but Sunday afternoon she focused specifically on yoga for scoliosis.

Since scoliosis is asymmetric by definition, practicing yoga to address the condition involves modifying poses differently for each side of the body. The result can be that the two sides of a pose are practiced in dramatically different ways and may be held for different lengths.

The session with Elise Miller got me thinking about teaching not only in the context scoliosis where every pose should be individually tailored to the student’s physiology, but more generally about teaching when yoga is being used as a remedy.

In a private or semi-private session, a teacher can feasibly tailor the practice to address physical issues such as scoliosis; however, a group class environment does not allow teachers the time or structure to present an optimal practice for every student’s individual needs.

So, does this mean that students with physical issues should not attend group classes or should look outside of yoga for relief? I don’t think so. Rather, I think that students with physical problems just need to be more informed and mindful about their practice than other students.

Specifically, I recommend the following:

  • Research the physiology of your issue and understand what is happening with your body as completely and specifically as possible. You don’t have to become a medical expert, but the more knowledge you have, the more you will be able to make appropriate decisions about what will benefit you.
  • Research or talk with experts about how to modify your yoga practice for your issues. There are books available on many specific topics that can provide a good basis of understanding. (I know of books for arthritis, scoliosis, one written by a teacher with MS, and I’m sure there are many more.) You might also consider a one time or periodic private session with an expert yoga teacher to learn appropriate modifications and to create a personal practice that meets your needs.
  • Talk to your regular yoga teacher about your issues. Even if your teacher doesn’t modify the class practice, he or she might be able to provide individual modifications or advice and will be supportive when you practice differently than other students.
  • Create a regular home practice of poses that will address your specific problems. Once a week in a group class is probably not enough to provide a remedy.
  • Finally, make sure that your practice is always your own. Don’t be afraid to practice a pose differently than everyone else. Don’t be disruptive to the class, but don’t feel embarrassed that your pose doesn’t look like everyone else’s. Especially, don’t feel pressured to do something that you know will aggravate your issue just because everyone else is doing it.

By becoming educated and staying mindful, you can maximize the benefit you gain from your yoga practice in addressing your individual issues.

[For anyone interested in yoga to minimize the effects of scoliosis, I definitely recommend visiting Elise Browning Miller’s website ( for books, DVDs, and her workshop schedule.]