The story of 87-year-old yoga student Anna Pesce's transformation was a sensation this summer--the before and-after-pictures of her going from hunched to standing straight and tall should be burned into every yogi's third eye. The stir it caused was so great that her teacher, Rachel Jesien, had to transform her entire business model to keep up with the newfound renown.
Having lived with a hunchback for years due to scoliosis, osteoporosis, and a herniated disc, Anna was practically immobile when she met Rachel in 2014. Rachel could could certainly empathize with her student. She herself spent 5 childhood years wearing a brace for scoliosis 22 hours a day, free of it only when dancing.When pain brought with it the threat of surgery, Rachel found a better path to wellness through the teaching of Deborah Wolk and Alison West.
Within weeks of starting yoga therapy Rachel had
Anna, then 85, upright and walking again. Within several months she was doing modified headstands that would make yogis half her age feel like slackers!
The article on Anna's return to vitality lit up social media and 28-year-old Rachel rushed to accommodate the now huge demand for her services. She got super-savvy overnight, hiring a PR team; creating a website, Yoga with Rachel Jesien, along with an FB page and YouTube channel.
Launching this March is an online home practice series, where students will receive 5 sequences a week for general backcare or scoliosis, learn how to create a home practice space, and become part of a private facebook support community where Rachel will answer questions. And if you want to go old-school and share actual physical space, that's an option too: she still teaches class twice weekly at Yoga Union!
In person, Rachel exudes the joy of someone who has found her true calling. She is openly emotional at being given the opportunity to heal others who share the condition she grew up with, while laughing about the particular challenges of joining the social media/tech universe. YogaCity NYC's Jim Catapano recently sat down with Rachel to ask her about the challenges of becoming a yoga celebrity.
Jim Catapano: Since your work with Anna, you have attained tremendous attention, What's it like to be a go-to healer for back issues and scoliosis?
Rachel Jesien: I grew up with really severe scoliosis myself, so being able to share this knowledge and bring some clarity to these issues has been really incredible. Since I found this work with Alison and Deborah, I knew this was going to be a big part of my path. So that article really gave me such a huge platform to speak about this; it's really a blessing. God bless western medicine for coming up with so many life-changing surgeries that can save people, if they decide to go that route. But I believe people deserve to know about all the options that are available to them.
JC: Having experienced these back issues as a child, what's it like to now work with kids with the same challenges?
RJ: I think about 8-year-old me in upstate New York, I once thought surgery was her only option. So now it's interesting working with kids specifically--teaching them how to stand properly, and how their habits also contribute to scoliosis.
What a yoga practice does that a brace doesn't do, is teach the person how to move in a different way.
And for kids it's about making that fun and accessible. Structural yoga can feel very stagnant for kids, so you have to give them bigger tasks to achieve. A lot of kids love using the slings and ropes; it's like a Jungle Gym. For my youngest student, Emily, if I need her to be still for a certain pose, or hold her spine in a certain way, I have her pretend she's a robot. And she'll go "Beep-Bop-Boop," as she does all her block lifting! Or I'll have her close her eyes and see if she can tell which foot she's standing on more than the other.
Getting the parents involved is also huge, and having the whole family on board with practicing every day. That's actually really important for all demographics.
JC: What are the unique dynamics in working with more mature students like Anna?
RJ: For older people it's really about giving them poses that help them maintain their independence. And I really see fast progress when they have a supportive spouse or friend. I recommend they have a family member there to record the session on their phone or iPad so they can practice right along at home. In Anna's case, she has a wonderful daughter, Rosemarie, who would help her with poses that I would show them how to do together. Anna also had a set of poses that she could work on by herself. So if nobody else is there and she's feeling any kind of pain, she knows the poses to go into.
JC: Many with osteoporosis, scoliosis and other back problems believe that there is little they can do to fix it other than surgery, and Western practictioners would appear to encourage this. How do you go about convincing them that there is another way?
RJ: The spine is not a fixed entity. There are little joints all the way up and down it. It's all flexible, all malleable.To say that it can't be changed, is absurd. I compare it to to what Western medicine does for feet. We have 26 little bones in our feet and the first thing doctors do is put in an orthotic. As if to say, "this is just how your foot is." It's probably because we're in a quick-fix society, we don't want to change habits. "See if that works, and if not come back for more and more painkillers, and if these don't work we'll do surgery." How about doing standing poses to build your feet up, instead?
JC: What's your personal experience in attaining this awareness of your own body and how it can heal?
RJ: What was really eye-opening for me is that when I first started to bring this work home with me, my back started to change. I was taking class, and listening to what my teachers were telling me and their corrections. But when I took it home is when I started to understand where my asymmetries were coming from. And that is really what was huge for me, so now I require my own students to practice daily, even if it's only 5 minutes. .
You're really retraining the nervous system when you're working with scoliosis and back issues. We're basically putting new pathways into the weaker, more compressed side of the back, and in order to keep those awake, alive, active and flourishing so those organs can function at their highest and we can bring more balance to both sides of the spine, you have to do something every day. It's not like going to a gym, where you go for an hour Tuesday and Thursday, and that's going to keep everything at bay. Which is a shift for a lot of people. It's a totally different ballgame when you're retraining that nervous system.
I use this visual in my classes: It's like carving out a new pathway through a jungle. You go in with a machete and cut down leaves and branches to clear your path. But if you don't go back for two weeks it's always going to be just as difficult to walk that path. But if you go through every single day, bulldozing, it's going to be easier to make that a normal pathway to walk. And that's really when your spine changes.
JC: A lot of wellness seekers just go to the gym or to a one-pose-fits-all power vinyasa class. If they have chronic back issues would you dissuade this?
RJ: It's easy to go into a vinyasa class sometimes and have everything feel good in the moment. It feels wonderful to just move. I was a dancer for 20 years so I loved vinyasa when I got my first taste of it. But afterwards my back would be killing me because I was moving in my scoliotic pattern.
No matter what class you go into, you know how to take care of yourself. Whether or not the teacher knows how to work with your issues, it's how you're relating to your back pain and your own body so you can keep yourself safe.
JC: How do you approach teaching a new student?
RJ: I work with the Alexander Technique, and was very influenced by body-mind-centering; learning how those movement patterns work in the body. So much of the initial sequencing I do is just making people aware of their unconscious movement patterns. I spend a lot of time with people working on the floor first, because just floating in the middle of nowhere, you have no idea what is going on in your body. So the floor, or the wall, becomes a very important teacher in your practice. You can feel one side of your back on the floor more than the other. Someone with scoliosis will feel one side of their rib cage move before they lift an arm up. I can always feel myself going into my pattern, when I lift an arm or leg I can feel my curve do all that work for me. So it really does take that amount of awareness in someone's body to truly retrain the spine. In that way the work has to start so subtle, and as the person gets more and more aware of their own pattern, then they can start to lengthen and strengthen the spine, and create new, more balanced patterns in the body.
Elise Browning-Miller (Senior Iyengar Teacher) says the spine is like a tree. Even if it has twists and turns, it can still be healthy, bear fruit and live a long life. But we get caught up in a fear loop surrounding these issues, especially as a kid. And obviously for the benefit of the organs and the aging process you want to find balance on both sides of the back. But by understanding what your back is doing, you can actually be aware of when you do something that could make your scoliosis worse, and when you do something that brings you into more balance.
It's all about the balance between how much of these issues are structural; and how much are functional or habitual. It's incredible what changes can happen once you give people the correct tools, and a little encouragement and guidance. And letting them know that there's hope.