One Pose—Three Ways
Inspired by her own scoliosis, Deborah Wolk, founder of Samamkaya Yoga Back Care & Scoliosis Collective, developed a style focused on alignment and anatomy. Her extensive education has included studies with BKS Iyengar, Genny Kapuler, Donald Moyer, Rachel Lynch-John, and yoga and scoliosis teachers Bobbie Fultz and Elise Browning Miller. "All of my work is therapeutic as that is how I was taught for my own scoliosis," she said. Here, Wolk describes adho mukha vrksasana:
YogaCityNYC: What pose did you chose and why do you like it?
Deborah Wolk: I chose adho mukha vrksasana (full arm balance) because it is both an energetic pose and a psychologically empowering pose. The pose always renews my energy, but for the student with limitations, the idea that she can safely turn upside down and support herself with her arms is transformative. For back care and scoliosis, turning
upside down decreases imbalanced functional muscle use by tricking the nervous system; it doesn’t know where to grip the muscles anymore. Thus the focus is disengaging the convex areas of the back muscles and taking up work in the numb, lordotic areas as well as in the often atrophied muscles of the limbs (as opposed to the joints). Modified, the pose offers great relief for those with back pain. It is contraindicated for osteoporosis.
YCNYC: Describe the anatomy of the first pose and body parts engaged.
DW: The first pose is modified to be an approachable step up from adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog). Lifting the feet up to chair height transfers the weight into the arms and demands aligned and even lift of the the arms. The position of the triceps and biceps must be rotated (biceps forward, triceps back) and hands placed evenly to support the pose and lift the radius and ulna off of the wristbones in the hand. The hamstrings are lifting toward their attachment at the sitzbones. Beginners, students with scoliosis or
kyphosis, must keep their knees bent to maintain the lift in the spine. Without the lift in the hamstring attachment those with kyphotic asymmetry or misalignments will find themselves falling forward—this action is particularly challenging for those with lumbar herniation or lumbar scolisis—but will help with the skills needed to find lift in
the groins. The head hangs so the cervical spine can let go—a boon to those with spinal issues as the cervical spine will tend to move from extremely flat to overly curved (posterior compression) in habitual movement. The thoracic spine and upper trapezius lifts away from the hanging skull, tractioning the cervical spine.
YCNYC: What body parts are engaged in the second pose?
DW: The second pose profoundly disengages specific body parts. Adho mukha vrksasana in a “box” or hallway allows the work to be taken away from the spine and back muscles as they are supported by the wall, especially in the convex areas of an asymmetry. No effort is needed to align the spine and the wall gives proprioceptive feedback regarding the shape, position of the spine, ribs, pelvis, and back muscles. The arms still have to work, and, by having a goal of supporting the sacrum at the wall, so do the legs. The turned-out position of the hands at the wall helps the student with asymmetry, thoracic kyphosis, or scoliosis and hyperextension find the correct arm and shoulder position. The head must hang and the cervical spine stops working to lift or overstraighten. The practitioner can actively move any hyperlordotic areas, toward the wall muscularly or with the breath. The hamstrings continue to lift and the wall gives hyperextended elbows or carryangles direction.
YCNYC: What is the overall effect of the third pose on the body, and what does this one add to the understanding of the pose [and mind]?
DW: The third pose, adho mukha vrksasana full pose with a block between the thighs at the wall is a challenging pose for intermediate/advanced students who can easily hop up into the pose with two legs, or who have a helper nearby to place the block for them. Practitioners with scoliosis or asymmetry have uneven leg use and will tend
to lean in the pose. Adding the block between the thighs, lifting it and squeezing it back will encourage even leg use and lengthen the lumbar on the side of the shorter psoas muscle. In the photo, you can see a slight imbalance in my right leg which is functionally shorter than the left, but the imbalance is extreme without the block. Sensorially I can feel a stretch directly behind my navel at the third lumbar vertebra and this lift against gravity is a boon for the area of the spine, which is normally very curved and tends to sink toward the pelvis, especially on the right side when upright. The block allows me to understand my compensatory behaviors whether in this pose or upright. The power in the arms and lift through the entire body brings energy and joy to the system.
Wolk teaches extensively. Visit samamkayabackcare.com for her regular schedule. Wolk also teaches two classes a week at Yogasana Center, in Brooklyn (Back Care and a Level II/III).
At Samamkaya, she offers monthly workshops for yoga teachers wanting to learn more about scoliosis. The next workshop is February 17. Students with scoliosis are also encouraged to participate as models. Her first retreat, Yoga, Asymmetry and the Nervous System, is this summer, on Vancouver Island. Details soon to be announced on the Samamkaya workshops page.
--Photography by Hae Soo Kim