One-on-One Yoga Instruction Focuses Specifically on Structural Spinal Conditions
Living with chronic back pain is a challenge at any age, but for older adults, constant trips to medical appointments and an inability to perform daily household chores can take a serious emotional and physical toll.
While there are many ways to address conditions like scoliosis, osteoporosis, and herniated disks through traditional medicine, a recent success story published in the New York Post presents an alternative method of healing: specialized, one-on-one yoga instruction focused specifically on structural spinal conditions.
The Post’s story details the work of New York-based certified yoga instructor Rachel Jesien, who helped then 86-year-old Anna Pesce overcome a severe spinal curve through yoga sessions designed around her body’s unique needs and limitations.
During these yoga sessions, Rachel observed Anna’s body mechanics and taught her student a series of poses she could use to address specific spinal shape. After just a few months, Anna had regained her mobility, her arched back almost completely straightened.
According to Rachel, healing through yoga depends on a close study of her students to reveal their habitual movements – the way in which a person has learned to move their body in order to compensate for the aches and pains caused by their medical conditions.
After these habitual movement patterns are identified, Rachel develops yoga sequences that painlessly encourage mechanical movement – bringing the student’s body movements in line with how a healthy body normally shifts between positions.
Once these mechanically-sound sequences are developed, students are encouraged to practice daily, slowly changing the way they move in their day-to-day life, minimizing wear and tear, and allowing the body to heal. As classes progress, students learn how to relieve acute instances of pain by assuming poses that target different parts of their body.
When discussing Anna’s accomplishments, Rachel’s voice swells with professional pride, but she is quick to add that she “just gave Anna the tools, but she was really an A-plus student.”
Teaching from Experience
Rachel’s passion for therapeutic yoga stems from her own experience growing up with scoliosis. As a teen active in musical theater, she spent five years in a back brace meant to alleviate three major curves in her spine, constantly challenged by severe pain that nearly forced her to leave the stage.
After traditional medicine failed to produce results, Rachel tried a slew of alternative therapies from acupuncture to chiropractors before discovering yoga. Looking back, she remembers her own uncertainty as she searched for a way to ease her chronic pain.
“[As someone suffering from chronic back pain] you’re in and out of medical offices all the time, but you’re never really told what exactly is going on in your back,” Rachel recalls. “That first class was life changing for me – if you can change your back, you can change your life.”
Now standing an inch taller than she did prior to taking up yoga, Rachel is dedicated to sharing her healing arts with others.
“At first, I was floored, just so excited that I found this answer to my pain,” Rachel said. “Then I got really angry that nobody else knew about this. During all the bracing, all the orthopedist visits, all those years, there was an answer just waiting in the wings.”
Personalizing Yoga Poses
Because structural spinal issues impact every person’s range of motion differently, Rachel stresses the importance of working with an instructor trained to address these conditions before entering a larger, more general class. By receiving this one-on-one instruction, a yoga newbie learns how their condition impacts their unique body mechanics, as well as how to modify positions in order to avoid causing themselves further injury and make the most out of their routine.
“One of the things I’m most interested in doing is giving people the tools they need to keep themselves safe,” Rachel said. “I have some seniors who take classes at Chelsea Piers. After some time with me, they learn how to modify poses so they can follow along without straining their bodies.”
According to Rachel, many yoga newcomers in large classes focus on contorting their body into poses that match the instructor’s position, but fail to follow the specific movements used to reach the pose, missing out on the healing benefits of “traction,” the act of stretching spinal muscles that Rachel likens to pulling a Slinky on both ends. In that sense, successful healing through yoga focuses more on the body’s journey, rather than the destination.
“I can work on your tight shoulders in two thousand different poses,” Rachel said. “But it’s the actions of your body to form a pose that encourage healing.”
Getting Started with Therapeutic Yoga
Therapeutic yoga depends on regular practice to produce results, and anyone who has tried a new exercise routine knows it can be difficult to stick to a regular schedule. In order to ease this transition, Rachel recommends a few simple tricks:
Dedicate Space: Rachel recommends picking a specific place in your home for practicing yoga every day. Having a dedicated practice space makes the daily experience more uniform and easier to adopt into your normal schedule, and helps students put themselves in the right mindset to listen to their bodies.
Start Early: Our bodies are most stiff when we first wake up – prime time to start stretching. By running through a yoga sequence first thing in the morning, students can address the aches and pains of the day early, avoiding habitual movements that stress the body and ensuring they don’t let stretching fall by the wayside.
Plan Ahead: Rather than waiting for the morning to set up your personal yoga space, Rachel recommends setting up props (like yoga mats and blocks) before going to bed. By preparing in advance, students avoid wasting time tracking down items and can focus on checking in with their body for the day.
Set the Scene: Since daily yoga routines depend on the practitioner paying close attention to their body, distractions and clutter in your at-home practice space should be kept to a minimum. Having a practice space you feel good about spending time in will make sticking to your daily routine that much easier.