A Violist on Her Head: How Yoga Helped My Scoliosis
Crippling pain almost ended my music career. After years of consulting specialists and trying therapies, I found the solution: yoga.
I remember the day I almost gave up. It was supposed to be an exciting day. I was somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean on a plane bound for Munich, traveling to Vienna — the city of Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert — for a month-long residency with my college orchestra. The electricity of anticipation that had overcome the ninety-piece student orchestra was palpable, crackling like a sparkler throughout the entire rear cabin of our Lufthansa flight.
Unfortunately, however, this was not the only kind of shock I was experiencing. About four hours into the transatlantic journey, the chronic pain I had been dealing with for almost five years was the worst it had ever been. Each breath brought a new jolt of pain, each one a sharp, piercing and electric reminder that my dream of being a violist was at significant odds with my physical wellness.
Maybe it was time for surgery. Maybe I should have just been a journalist. Maybe it was time for a new dream. All I knew was that something needed to change.
The Crooked Path to Yoga
This moment, this heartbreak, this realization that my current passion was perhaps only wishful thinking — unsustainable and impractical — is the halfway point of my story today. While contemplating the need for drastic change, I was on the brink of discovering that sometimes radical transformations start in the most humble places.
I was about to unearth a simple truth: my body was the problem, intrinsically asymmetrical from severe scoliosis, a medical condition in which a person’s spine has a sideways curve. Paradoxically, it also was the solution. I was about to learn that just like a twisted, knotted oak tree stands firmly in the ground, there is stability, there is a presence, and there is wholeness even in the most warped places. And it certainly was a long time coming.
When it all Started
The pain first began when I was fifteen, the summer before my sophomore year of high school. I had just switched from violin to viola and was so enthusiastic about the new instrument that I dramatically increased my practice time.
It was not long before I began experiencing pain in both of my arms. After a visit to my doctor that fall, I was diagnosed with tendonitis, inflammation of a tendon. I was referred to a local occupational therapist and admonished to limit the amount of time I spent playing each day.
The seven months that followed provided little progress, and consequently, my next doctor appointment was devastating. I had to stop playing altogether until the tendonitis was gone. The doctor said that this could take anywhere from two to four months, a duration that seemed distressing enough since I was already eager to resume serious musical study after a year of barely playing.
Little did I know this was just the beginning.
On July 26th, 2007, after playing for a wedding ceremony, I put my viola back to rest in its case, and I did not touch it again for 385 days.
Long story short, it turned out that I did not have tendonitis. In spite of the fact that I had eliminated the offending repetitive activity from my lifestyle, the months went by, and my symptoms remained the same, an indication that perhaps a more holistic evaluation of my condition was necessary, that my pain was not entirely my viola’s fault. The initial diagnosis was understandable enough, as tendonitis is a common occupational hazard faced by many musicians, but I was dealing with something else entirely. This was no common repetitive strain injury.
Searching for the Cause
The years that followed felt like a diagnostic circus: neurologists, orthopedic surgeons, performing arts medicine specialists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, body mappers, and Alexander Technique teachers.
Although I eventually resumed playing, I was still in pain, and my official diagnosis remained a question mark. The closest I ever got to a satisfactory conclusion from the medical community was a diagnosis of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a condition where the nerves of the arm are pinched in the small opening below the collarbone.
Whatever the case, I had a growing suspicion that this whole crisis was stemming from a source no one had even considered: my scoliosis, a condition for which I had already been under doctor supervision for nearly a decade. Even after years of wearing a back brace during middle school, my spine progressed to a severe right thoracic-left lumbar scoliotic curve, strongly resembling the letter S. My crooked spine was the elephant in the room.
This was not a problem of repetitive strain; it was an issue of structural integrity. One of my shoulders is higher than the other, one leg is longer, my ribcage is rotated, and my waist is uneven. This reality should have been obvious: my asymmetrical body was just not equipped to deal with gravity.
So, it was 2011, and there I was, sitting at a cruising altitude of 36,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, frustrated and desperately needing something to change. It was time to come to terms with gravity, to interrogate my asymmetries. Or in other words, it was time to buy a yoga mat.
The Healing Practice
At that point, it seemed like yoga was the only thing I had not tried. The memorable day on the airplane was the day I gave myself an ultimatum. I would practice yoga for a year, and if I were not feeling better, I would pursue corrective surgery for my scoliosis.
The month after I returned from Europe, I began studying yoga with an incredibly knowledgeable Iyengar Yoga teacher. I quickly learned that flexibility was secondary to stability, and that proper alignment superseded the ego’s desire to achieve the outward appearance of each posture.
We all want to possess the flexibility to touch our toes and beyond or to accomplish intricate backbends, but there is no merit in straining or compromising physical structures to achieve such an arbitrary goal. By first striving for alignment and stability, flexibility becomes a natural secondary outcome.
For me, however, the most powerful lesson I learned was how to find balance in asymmetrical conditions. My teacher taught me that it was possible to retrain my distorted musculature, to resist gravity. I still have the vivid memory of her standing above me, nurturing my backbend over the edge of a folding chair:
“Angela! Your collarbones do not have scoliosis! Make them even.”
Iyengar Yoga often makes use of various props as aids in performing postures, minimizing the risk of injury or strain. By using feedback from props and the ground beneath my feet, I learned to use my discomfort as a guide, mapping balance, space, and stability on my yoga mat like a kinesthetic cartographer.
It was a slow going process, but within a few months, surgery was the furthest thing from my mind. After years of doctor visits with no relief, I finally had found something that worked. My pain was becoming more manageable, and I started to approach my viola from an entirely different perspective.
Every physical transformation I discovered on the yoga mat had an equally groundbreaking implication for how I related to my viola. Fighting chronic pain might be a full-time job, but it was an obstacle that I overcame daily in my yoga practice with an inquisitive spirit of self-discovery: I started dreaming big again.
Reaping the Benefits of Yoga Practice
Over the past few years, my yoga practice has continued to mature, reinforced by several notable opportunities that were fortuitous, to say the least. After college, while holding an orchestral fellowship with a symphony in California, I had the opportunity to study with an Iyengar teacher who has devoted her life and practice to helping scoliosis patients find pain relief.
From this experience, I learned how to adapt yoga postures to my specific needs with even more precision than I knew was possible. As I learned to lengthen my spine on the yoga mat, I also learned how to lengthen my spine in the concert hall. I was inspired by what I had learned about counteracting scoliotic structural imbalances, and I started applying the same knowledge to functional imbalances that are unavoidable as a violist.
This journey was complimented by my discovery of the holistic viola pedagogy of Karen Tuttle (1920–2010), a major violist of the 20th century who is remembered for teaching the physicality of musicality, building violists from the ground up. Her pedagogical approach resonated so strongly with what I had been hearing in the yoga studio that I knew I had to study with one of her students, many of whom are devoted to passing on her teachings.
Additionally, I firmly believe that Rolfing significantly deepened my yoga practice, as body tissues were freed from harmful holding patterns, allowing me to cultivate a wider range of motion. When I look back, I see all of these discoveries happening at just the right moment, each piece of the puzzle falling precisely into place.
Lessons Learned Along the Way
I like to think that mine is a success story. I just completed a Masters of Music in Viola Performance and Literature at the Eastman School of Music. For me, the completion of this degree represents how far I have come since that day in 2011 when I almost gave up.
I have learned that behind every chronic pain patient there is an army of bodyworkers, yoga teachers, doctors, and therapists. There are piles of TheraBands, TheraPutty, and Kinesio Tape. Not to mention the unforgettable scent of Tiger Balm. And, in the case of this violist, incredibly patient and supportive teachers and family members who encouraged me to keep going, even when I could only play for ten minutes a day.
The truth is that pain is still a part of my daily life, but yoga has given me the tools to manage my symptoms, empowering me to pursue my musical ambitions. With the proper management, I am happy to report that I can now play for six to seven hours a day without serious repercussions.
Wellness is not an end result, it is a process.
I had to cultivate a new lifestyle. My yoga practice has taught me that there is potential for wellness in each and every moment because when it comes down to it, movement is a choice. It is an expression of knowledge. What does it mean to have knowing hands, knowing feet? What are the powers of perception that supersede language and cognitive thought that can only be expressed through pure presence? For me, the answers to these questions are found on the yoga mat.
If you take anything away from my story today, please always remember:
And don’t you dare ever give up!