I was born with a crooked spine. Many prefer the term “scoliosis”, “the abnormal curvature of the spine”, but I find the description “crooked spine” simply does the trick. My crooked spine is not that crooked, with an angle of only thirty degrees. However, that small angle can wreak havoc on a body’s structure.
My first orthopedic doctor used archaic methods. She had me positioning soup cans between my back and a wall, and rolling the cans up and down. My personal “favorite” was the usage of industrial-strength tape that my mother would adhere to the line of my spinal column in a way that it would start to rip at my skin if I slouched. This tape that caused an incredible amount of shed tears during my youth was not the only tool put in place to improve my posture. I also had a pillow shaped like a Swiss cheese triangle that I was instructed to sit on throughout the school day. I can see how needing to carry around an orthopedic pillow in elementary and middle school could scar a child more than pulling industrial-strength tape from their skin, but luckily my disposition allowed me to turn it into a “queen’s seat” of sorts. My friends and I had fun with the pillow, even naming it at a certain point. (For those of you who are dying to know its name… Gunther, we named it Gunther).
Another “fun” childhood-crooked-spine story comes to mind: Although I was born with scoliosis and was very aware of the abnormal curvature of my spine, in sixth grade when the nurse lined us up in our bathing suits and saddle shoes outside of her office and had us touch our toes, my mischievous side kicked in. When the nurse called me back to her office to break the news to me that my spine was abnormal, I staged a melodramatic reaction and overall freak out.
While my crooked spine has led to the imaginary royal assistant “Gunther” and an innocent prank on the school nurse, it was not all fun and games. The truth is, it is hard for me to remember a time when I did not have chronic back pain. It is difficult to express the type of discomfort that can come from such a minor curvature, but my childhood consisted of a lot of discomfort, frustration, a series of physical therapy appointments, inflated exercise balls, heating pads, being the girl in dance class with a hunchback, and tantrums… many tantrums.
As I grew older, we entered the age of almost nonstop cell phone and computer usage; and, let us just say there are not enough Swiss cheese pillows or rolls of industrial-strength tape in the world to save a computer-staring, cell phone-toting teenage girl from poor posture. You may be asking yourself, “Is she ever going to get to the silver lining of this story?” Please, read on...
I was lightly introduced to yoga at a young age. My mother had purchased a Rodney Yee “Back Care Yoga For Beginners” VHS for me, and the twenty-minute routine was sometimes all that could break up the back pain. My mother had also taken me to one or two yoga classes in between physical therapy appointments. These small windows into the world of yoga were what helped pique my interest when I saw yoga as an elective option for my senior year in college. An Iyengar-trained instructor taught the course. For those of you unfamiliar with the Iyengar style of yoga, it is a form of ashtanga that focuses on the correct alignment of the body.
As I see it, alignment is the most important part of yoga, as well as any other type of body movement. This is not because yoga or Pilates looks prettiest when the practitioner is in perfect alignment (although they do), this is not because your muscles form in proper proportion when you practice good alignment (although they do), and this is not because this is how the ancient yogis, yoginis, and Joseph Pilates intended us to practice (although it is). The importance, as I see it, is that when you practice in proper alignment, you are preparing your body for an overall healing that you may not even see as being possible.
My college-course yoga experience was enough to get me hooked on the art and practice of yoga. After graduation, back home in Maryland, I joined my mother for a class. I do not know what came over me (perhaps the ghosts of student loans), but after savasana I went up to the front desk to ask if the wellness center was hiring. It turned out that they were hiring, and as most things you are meant to do fall into place, the job fell into place with much ease. At this job, I learned about the many different styles and traditions of yoga as well as equipment and mat Pilates. I was introduced to incredible instructors from all different backgrounds and skill sets. It was there that I met Stephanie Kafonek.
This job was an interesting juxtaposition of a) access to unlimited (free) yoga and Pilates and b) working while sitting at a desk for the first time in my life. Without access to almost daily classes, I do not know if my crooked spine would have tolerated this desk job. Knowing what I know now, the classes were not only preparing my body for more hours at a desk and computer, but they were preparing my body for, what I saw as, a miracle.
The wellness center where I worked did not only offer yoga and Pilates, but there were practitioners and healers of all different types. For example, I had seen many clients come in for acupuncture and leave looking fresh, renewed, relaxed, and sometimes, a little drugged. My antennae were out and I was paying close attention to the acupuncturists and the work they were doing. I wanted to learn more about this ancient modality that “moved energy throughout the body.” After dragging my feet for a time, I decided to schedule my first appointment with the acupuncturist I had been recommending to so many others.
I had my first acupuncture treatment, which was a detoxifying treatment. The acupuncturist had me lying facedown on the table while she lined either side of my crooked spine with needles, each the size of a strand of hair. By the end of my session, I had become one of those clients who looked like they needed a designated driver to take them home from their appointment. There was no denying it, the relaxation was nice. That evening was full of rest and I fell asleep unaware of the processes taking place within my body. The next morning, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. In that moment, I broke into hysterical tears of joy. For the first time since I was a baby girl, my back looked flat.
Here is where alignment comes in. I believe that had I not prepared my body through yoga and Pilates, that it would not have been so receptive to the treatment. The acupuncture treatment was moving energy throughout my well-aligned body (well, as well-aligned as it gets). The energy did not straighten my spine; the spinal column was still laterally curved at a thirty-degree angle. What I was seeing was the absence of the muscle-tissue bulge that results from the curvature. The “hunchback” had been broken up by the fluid energy.
We, as humans, hold blockages in our bodies. The blockages may be physical like a bulge of muscles pulling in disharmony due to an abnormal spine. The blockages may be emotional, like a neck pain that flares up whenever life feels unhappy. We all have these ailments and often times we feel hopeless, like we will live with them forever, but that does not have to be! Our bodies are capable of great healing but we must first prepare them through movement and alignment.
The bulge in my back returned and it became my compass. “Bulge in the back is back, what does it mean?” Is it indicating that I have been too inactive? Is it indicating that I have spent too much time on my computer and not enough in nature? Is it indicating an emotional hurt or stress?
The compass in my crooked spine led me straight to Stephanie Kafonek. When she opened her Pilates studio, I was first in line, waiting at her door. I took the same Friday morning Pilates equipment class for almost five years. At the point of starting this class, as well as others of hers I would take less routinely, I had been in enough studios to know which were for me and which were not. For example, there had been times that I found myself in a yoga studio where I could not relax or find the zen or alignment I was looking for because I saw, around me, injuries just waiting to happen. You may know the type of studio I am talking about? There are far more students in one room for the instructor to be mindful of each student’s limitations, ninety percent of the students are in competition with each other… or even worse, in competition with themselves, and you can almost picture the ascended yogi masters shaking their heads in disapproval right there in the very room in which you are practicing. I was one of the lucky ones, with enough body awareness from my life with scoliosis, dance, physical therapy, and wonderful teachers to know my limitations independently, but not everyone in these classes were so lucky.
Being in Stephanie’s smaller classes, with her knowledge of the body was like a deep sigh of relief in contrast to the aforementioned studios. I felt comforted as she would lead us: “So and so, you will want to skip this one because of your shoulder…” “So and so, let’s keep your legs in tabletop to protect your lower back…” “Brennan, be sure to take off a spring for this exercise because of your spine.” It is so safe in Stephanie’s studio that I can relax and focus on my favorite piece… alignment. In there, I see Joseph Pilates, B.K.S. Iyengar, and the other alignment-loving souls smiling down as we move our bodies.
My Friday class at Stephanie’s studio is not only a safe environment to practice Pilates, and my favorite time to chat with the women I have met there, it is also a weekly practice of unlocking the dreaded bulge. Pilates with Stephanie is like a key that unlocks a twisted, bulging back. As the key turns, the alignment falls into place and the energy is free to move. As I age (steadily approaching my thirtieth year), the curvature in my thoracic spine that I was born with has affected my overall spine and I now have scoliosis in the thoracic, cervical, and lumbar portions of my spinal column. One would think that with the worsening condition of the state of my spine, that I would have increased back pain… and I do. However, if I am conscious about practicing yoga and Pilates and use these practices as the key to unlock the bulge and unlock the pain, the energy can flow throughout my body and I am pain-free, left with a flat back. I know that if I walk into the studio with a locked spine (be it because it is a certain time of my monthly cycle, because I have not eaten enough anti-inflammatory foods, or because I have been too contracted on a winter’s day), I will have the key turned during the fifty-minute class and I will walk out in the flow of my inner body as well as in the flow of the day around me. When you look at a master of anything-- carpentry, martial arts, yoga, etc., you watch them and their movement seems effortless. A master begins, as we all do, learning each step, posture, asana and then at a certain point, they begin to flow and the movement, the art, becomes part of them. This transition is the departure from thinking about the movement or alignment with the head, to feeling it in the body. I am far from a master, but I am beginning to feel the flow. From the time I began consciously focusing on alignment and learning the steps, through to today, I have lost a healthy twenty pounds. The weight did not come off as I pounded the treadmill and focused on endless repetitions of lifting barbells in college; the weight came off when my body entered into a state of alignment that allowed the energy to flow and for all of my organs, muscles, and blood to be in harmonious balance.
I urge you to see if the world around you is not in alignment with your wishes. If you find that it is not, look first to the alignment within you. Begin there and prepare to be wowed as what changes within you also changes what is around you. The world needs more masters, even those with crooked spines.