A Violist on Her Head

Asymmetrical Reflections from a Scoliotic Life

Gravity and I have a complicated relationship. My right shoulder is higher than my left, my legs are different lengths, my ribcage is rotated, and my waist is uneven. Gravity is unkind to these asymmetries.

As an eight year old, I was diagnosed with scoliosis, a fairly common condition where the spinal column curves and rotates laterally. Even after four years of wearing a back brace, my curves continued to worsen. By the time I was 15, my spine had progressed to a severe right thoracic-left lumbar scoliotic curve, also known as an “S” curve, typified by a major curve in the thoracic spine with an equal counter curve in the left lower lumbar region. My spine eventually stabilized after I finished growing, and although my doctor recommended surgical intervention to alleviate symptoms of chronic pain, I was not convinced such an invasive procedure was my only option. It was time to come to terms with gravity. Upside down. Head over heels. On a yoga mat.

During my sophomore year of college, I began studying Iyengar yoga with an incredibly knowledgeable teacher. At my first class, Iwas initially shocked that flexibility was not even on the agenda. Rather, I learned that finding stability and balance in asymmetrical positions was my priority. What good is flexibility if there is no stability? Uniting these two concepts that I once believed to be mutually exclusive was liberating. I had found my answer: uniting balance and asymmetry was the key to withstanding the force of gravity, both as a violist and a scoliosis patient. I can still hear my teacher: Angela, your collar bones do not have scoliosis! Make them even. She taught me that it was possible to retrain my muscles that are distorted—overstretched or understretched—by my curvature. Even though I am intrinsically asymmetrical, I can use my discomfort as a guide, mapping a path to balance.
This guiding principle from the yoga mat is also applicable in the practice room. You may not have to deal with structural imbalances resulting from scoliosis, but playing viola certainly presents a number of functional imbalances that can be problematic. As you work toward a healthy physical relationship with your viola, here is some advice I have learned from living life a little crooked:
1. Challenge Imbalances. Every time you pick up your instrument, you have a choice. You can either let gravity happen to you or you can resist its downward pull. Since our bodies are best equipped to deal with gravity when they are properly aligned, finding balance begins with posture. In rehearsals, I usually notice an alarming number of violinists and violists who are letting gravity win, a defeat evidenced by sunken left shoulders and raised right shoulders. It is important to remember that gravity is an attraction between two objects, not just a downward force. Consequently, instead of caving under the weight of the instrument, meet your viola with a shoulder energized and supported by the entire back, countering the weight of gravity.
2. Dynamic Extension. Whether you are playing viola, doing yoga, or sitting in a music theory class, always strive to extend from your core. As Iyengar suggested, “Extension and expansion always stay firmly rooted in one’s center…When most people stretch, they simply stretch to the point that they are trying to reach, but they forget to extend and expand from where they are.” Essentially, dynamic extension is when your body stretches in multiple directions, expanding from the core. For instance, in a forward bend, as you reach toward the floor, it is of equal importance that you also stretch the opposite direction with your hips. This provides traction and allows the spine to fully lengthen. In viola playing, this translates into grounding through the floor while energizing and lengthening the spine upward. Dynamic extension is another effective strategy for resisting gravity.
3. Relaxation is not always passive. We all know that tension is harmful. The alternative? Just relax! But it is important to point out that too much of a good thing, even relaxation, is detrimental. Your skeletal system needs support! If you melt into a pool of pudding, how do you expect to move? Even savasana (corpse pose), arguably the most relaxed yoga posture, is still a highly informed pose. I encourage you all to cultivate active relaxation, a state of being where your muscles are engaged without excess effort and every motion is intentionally executed. I leave you with this thought: “Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action” (Light on Yoga 48).

Embrace gravity. Act well.

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