I am a yoga teacher, and I have scoliosis. I am not a straight-spined person.
My dad has a condition called ankylosing spondylitis, which is a type of arthritis in which your bones eventually fuse. My dad is not a straight-spined person.
And I think we’re okay. In fact, however crooked we may seem, we’re not much different than anyone else. Crookedness is a trait that seems to come in two versions: more and less visible.
Humans are not nearly as straight or as symmetrical as the stick figures you see in yoga instruction manuals or the drawings highlighted in red in anatomy books. We start to get the idea that a physical yoga practice puts a premium on achieving a certain image of a pose with perfect symmetry and straight lines. I just don’t have’ em. My dad doesn’t, and neither do you.
I’ve had teachers try to “fix” my one shoulder that pops us a little more than the other one. I’ve had some come by and iron out the curves in my fingers so that my hand is flat and straight in my warrior poses. I’ve been poked and prodded and adjusted until I look perfect. It doesn’t feel right to look perfect. My question remains: “Why are we doing this?” Why try so hard to look a certain way when each one of us is different?
A lot of the anatomy I learned about yoga is from Bernie Clark, a Vancouver yin yoga teacher, who presses the understanding that every body is fundamentally different. Our hip bones insert in different places, our spinal vertebrae are different shapes, the ratio of our bone lengths vary throughout the body and from person to person. We grow in spirals, not straight lines.
If there’s anything I’ve learned about teaching yoga, it’s that the value of what we have to teach has nothing to do with achieving the poses. This is a bit of a myth that we need to break down. It’s even in our language: when you manage a pose and hold it still, it’s called “sticking” the pose. But we are not stick figures. We are living, breathing humans, and what we do is move and shift and change, even if it’s on very subtle levels. Trying to iron ourselves out or match our bodies with the shapes stick figures can make is just silly.
You really can’t know what a person is feeling inside their body unless you ask them. If you must judge by looking, a tight jaw or scrunched-up face with tell you a lot more than whether they look straight or symmetrical.
My dad doesn’t like doing yoga. At least, not in front of people. And he’s not alone. I asked him once, when I was younger, if his AS hurt. He told me yes, it hurt, until he stopped trying to make his spine straight. When he relaxed and let his bones do their thing, it got a lot easier. If he shows up at a public class, he might very well be told it’s time to straighten his spine, and you better believe he’s been through that.
So then why are we doing this? Why teach a yoga class if you aren’t trying to stick round people into square holes? You’ll never know the exact perfect shape for every human, but you can teach body awareness: listening as deep as you can to what happens when you move. Then the practice becomes about what you can do, rather than all the ways you are inferior to those crazy straight-spined people known as stick figures.
P.S.: For a short video I made for my dad and anyone else with AS, go here.