SACRAMENTO, Calif. — To see Kim Wagaman on a yoga mat — her supple spine stretched, her limbs angled with apparent aplomb — is to witness a body perfectly aligned and in harmony with itself.
She’s a yoga instructor, after all, so such flexibility is a given.
Not in her case. Wagaman, 34, once was so restricted by scoliosis that she spent most of her teenage years in a neck-high brace.
The curvature made her spine look like a winding country road, veering right in the upper thoracic region, swerving left in the lumbar area.
She also had a smaller curve high in her neck and was showing the beginnings of kyphosis, a rounding of the shoulders.
“I made a conscious effort to hide the back of my body,” Wagaman recalls. “I’d enter a room at a party and position myself with my back to the wall. There was all this insecurity and denial. And there’s this drive to fix the issue.”
In Wagaman’s case, that drive put her on an unusual path to confronting the condition.
Her parents already had ruled out spinal-fusion surgery as too invasive.
So as a junior in high school, Wagaman chose to send the cumbersome “Milwaukee” brace, which she had worn 23 hours a day, to the back of her closet and look for more promising alternatives.
For her, the better way turned out to be yoga.
In her early 20s, Wagaman started practicing poses and movements, and she went on to study with a leading practitioner of yoga for people with scoliosis.
Over time, Wagaman found that tweaks to standard yoga poses — a change of hand positioning, a more pronounced shoulder twist, a deepening of breath — not only eased pain but strengthened muscles around the spine and led to better structural alignment.
The weight bearing down on her left leg no longer is heavier than on her right side.
One hip no longer is higher. Wagaman has trained the right side of her rib cage to return to a standard position.
Her spinal curve hasn’t gone away, of course, but Wagaman firmly believes her adherence to yoga has delayed further complications and has taken away whatever bodily limitations she had.
“A lot of us have the concept from our society and culture that we’re deformed, not right as we are,” she says.
“We try to work through that. You have to accept that your practice is going to be different than others’ in terms of poses and expressions.
“As your awareness becomes more finely tuned, you begin to sense where you are in space, feel more keenly what your body is doing.”
Mary Lau, 54, who has had severe scoliosis since high school and suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, says taking Wagaman’s classes over the past year has helped both conditions.
She says the 51-degree curve in her back has improved by eight degrees in a recent measurement.
“It really makes a difference,” says Lau, a retired scientist with the state Environmental Protection Agency.
“I have an S-shaped curve that pinches one of the nerves in the lumbar spine.
“So a lot of those stretching poses, like the puppy pose, will help my pain. Doing that for a few minutes will give me relief and put pressure off the nerve.”
What might surprise some students, Wagaman says, is how subtle changes in the poses can ease pain.
Take the standard puppy pose, a spine-lengthening movement in which one begins on all fours with arms extended to the front and moves the buttocks toward the heels while dropping the forehead toward the mat.
“For scoliosis, I’ll have people walk their hands over to the left and then draw the hips back and drop the right side down a little bit and breathe into the left side,” Wagaman says.
The standard triangle pose differs more significantly.
After spreading the legs, those with right thoracic scoliosis will steady their left arm on a chair and, instead of reaching up with their right arm to stretch, will bring their hand to the rib cage.
“You’ll try to draw the ribs in toward the body,” Wagaman says.
A downward-facing dog pose has the most subtle change.
When arms are extended in mid-pose, you “swivel the right palm out to draw that side of the scapula (shoulder blade) in,” Wagaman says. “It’s sort of an ‘aha’ thing. Students with scoliosis will feel a lot more comfortable that way.”
Comfort and healing, of course, are precisely what Wagaman’s scoliosis patients seek.
“This yoga is the best form of pain management I’ve tried,” Lau says.