Curved spine? Yoga can helpOn the surface, the instruction taking place in the basement of Bonnie Ambrosi’s Congdon Park home is like any other yoga class.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
On the surface, the instruction taking place in the basement of Bonnie Ambrosi’s Congdon Park home is like any other yoga class.
“Breathe and smile,” Ambrosi tells Sheryl Van Scoy and Sharon Robertson as they roll their shoulders while seated in chairs. “Just a little Buddha smile. It doesn’t have to be a big, wacky grin.”
It is yoga, but with a wrinkle. Van Scoy and Robertson both have scoliosis, a curve in the spine. Ambrosi is one of only 38 people in the United States — and the only person in the Upper Midwest — certified as a “yoga for scoliosis” instructor.
All of the poses and techniques are essentially the same, Ambrosi said. The differences are subtle but significant. If practiced consistently, they allow the individual to compensate for the way in which the spine is misformed.
Dr. David Gordon, an orthopedic surgeon at Essentia Health, said yoga won’t make scoliosis go away, but he endorsed it as a form of exercise and improving flexibility.
Gordon, who works mostly with pediatric patients, said he’d gladly recommend specialized yoga training to his young patients.
“Yoga and anything that maintains your core, that’s really valuable,” he said.
Yoga poses are used to lengthen the side of the torso that’s chronically compressed, Ambrosi said. They’re used to strengthen the other side, because that side is chronically weaker. Other motions counter the backward rotation of the spine.
“You build a brace from inside,” Ambrosi said. “You do with your core muscles what a brace would do.”
Van Scoy knows what a brace on the outside is like. Now a 46-year-old mother of three who lives in the Lakeside neighborhood, Van Scoy was diagnosed with scoliosis at age 7. She wore various upper-body braces from then until she was 17. It limited her mobility, and it was emotionally tough during her junior high years.
“A book came out by Judy Blume that had a character that had scoliosis,” Van Scoy recalled. “She was kind of a pitiful character. All my friends were reading that book, and they thought it must be really terrible.”
Van Scoy came across a flier for Ambrosi’s class a couple of years ago, just as she was coming off some serious back problems. She had been in the Spine Exercise Program at Essentia Health, designed for people battling back problems. It emphasizes keeping active.
“They like to say that motion is lotion for your back,” Van Scoy said. “They’ve found that the more movement that you can do, especially with stretching and strengthening, the better off you’re going to be in the long run. … That’s definitely what brought me to Bonnie’s yoga for scoliosis class.”
Robertson, 66, who lives in the lower Kenwood neighborhood, was born with scoliosis but wasn’t diagnosed until she was about 30, she said. “I knew I was always askew because I had to shorten my left pant leg more than my right.”
She took a community education class from Ambrosi in the fall of 2011 and kept taking weekly classes from her. Robertson, who volunteers constructing and maintaining portions of the Superior Hiking Trail, said taking yoga increases her flexibility and endurance.
Ambrosi, 52, a yoga instructor since 1990, learned about yoga for scoliosis in a conversation with Jan Karon, a Park Point resident, in 2007. The two traveled to Virginia for training under Elise Browning Miller, the nation’s foremost authority on the subject, with Karon, now 72, serving as Ambrosi’s pupil.
Since being certified, Ambrosi has taught about 50 students, but many come to her just once.
“I really try to impress on people: Here’s a toolkit,” she said. “I’m going to give you a little toolkit that you can use to be more comfortable in your own body. But then you have to use it. I’ll teach you a few things that will really work for you. You don’t need 40 different poses. Usually, there are three or four poses that really work well, and then you have to go and do them.”
The students who keep coming back are interested in the broader benefits of yoga, Ambrosi said. “It’s therapeutic mentally, relieving stress and helping you feel at ease.”
Van Scoy said the greater benefits she receives are noticed by her husband and children.
“They all know that I’m a happier person when I’m doing yoga,” she said.