Yoga After Spinal Fusion? – Interview with Yoga Teacher Julie Wilkins

julie_wilkins_yoga_teachJulie Wilkins teaches yoga near Mobile, Alabama. She has a rather unique and inspirational background for a yoga teacher, as we can see from her introduction on her homepage:

Julie began her yoga practice in 2004 fifteen years after having extensive spine-fusion surgery for scoliosis. Through diligent study and amazing teachers along the way, Julie found freedom of movement and incredible strength in a way that she never thought would be possible after scoliosis surgery.  Julie’s mission is to inspire others to find mobility and freedom in their bodies through the practice of yoga. 

How long have you been practicing and teaching yoga?  I have been practicing yoga for 10 years and teaching for 4.

Can you please describe your physical condition before you began learning yoga?  When I walked into my first yoga class I was 15 years post spine fusion surgery for severe scoliosis. I had been primarily walking and lifting weights in gyms off and on through the years which maintained my level of fitness, but really did nothing for my body awareness, core strength, and flexibility. So I was very tight, especially through my chest and shoulders and weak in my lower back. Needless to say I was extremely frightened in that first class.

How did you first get interested to try yoga? To be honest, there wasn’t much yoga in my town at that time. I was really interested in the mind/body teachings, relaxation techniques, and overall improving my quality of life. I found yoga at a time in my life where I really needed “something”. It was a half glass empty time for me. I was disconnected, making choices I wasn’t proud of in my life, and searching, searching, searching. I needed community, I needed to feel belonging, I needed to fit in somewhere. I felt a sense of nurture and safety in the yoga community, and it was like a magnet for me.

Could you please describe the difference that yoga has made in your life?  Not only did I lose 20 lbs and morph into the best shape of my life, but my entire life began to slowly change…little by little…One small step at a time. It began with simply learning the practice. Really studying myself, my body, how I moved, and how I interacted with my world. I had to learn to breathe! I had to learn to push ego aside and work with my body instead of against it. And this is a lesson I continue to work on. I learned how to modify my practice to best serve my physical structure. I began to honor myself which began on my mat. I became happier, more at peace in my body, more connected, more positive. I went to every yoga workshop I could find and even traveled afar to not only study yoga but study yogis! I saw a trend in this community, and I wanted more. I found a delightful family of men and women interested in self growth, health and wellness, and I really felt at home. It has been yoga, yoga, yoga ever since!

Which yoga asanas are the most beneficial for somebody with a fused spine such as yourself?  This all depends on the level of fusion. This is why it is very important that you have your X-rays in your possession and know exactly where you are fused. In my case, I am fused everywhere except my neck and two lower vertebrates. So the goal is to support the fused spine with strong muscular support and clean straight lines in your poses. Then I gently facilitate mobility in the unfused areas in all planes of movement. So for me, it’s important to work baby cobras to maintain extension in my unfused lumbar spine. For all types of spine fusions it’s important to remember that your shoulder girdle (scapula, clavicle, humerus) has lots of mobility, as well as the hip joint. Much of yoga requires mobility in those two areas as well—Yoga isn’t really all about a twist spine!

Are there any asanas that you can’t do or need to modify, and how do you approach that?  I modify a lot! And I’ve learned how to modify with grace so I’m not too distracting in class. I modify all my twists. I actually don’t really twist since my spine is fused. I just “open” my shoulders or hips in the direction of the twist. I also modify all back-bending poses and opt out of poses like headstand and shoulder stand. The great thing about yoga is there is always a modification or starting point to every pose.

What did you find most challenging about learning yoga, and how did you overcome that challenge?  Managing my ego and competitive drive and accepting the fact that I may have to soften my practice a bit. Isn’t that what yoga is about? Making the practice serve you. That has been a valuable lesson in yoga and in my life.

What was your most memorable experience from teaching or practicing yoga?  I would have to say teaching a large scale outdoor class in 2011. Just seeing all those people, different bodies and ages moving together in synchronicity—It was amazing!

What does the spiritual aspect of yoga mean to you?  This is an interesting question for me. I’ve always been a spiritual seeker with a very rich inner world. Growing up without religion has made me seek even more. I’m interested in all spiritual practices and how each one weaves together with common themes. I’m diving deeper into Christianity these days and have found a lovely community that is supporting me in this journey. Yoga helped me quiet my mind in a way that I had not experienced before. For me yoga is a tool that helps my busy mind settle enough to receive the spiritual practices I take part in.

To what extent, if any, do you bring the spiritual side of yoga to teaching?  Another interesting question! I would say my teachings are more related to mind/body practices than any sort of spiritual teaching. I talk a lot in classes about connecting to foundation, source, and power. If a student interprets that in their own mind/body as connecting to God, Jesus, Buddha, or a higher power then that is great. I leave my teachings a bit vague in that area so the students are free to process the messages in their own way. Remember I do live in the Bible Belt! I teach my students to breathe, connect, settle in to their hearts, and listen. I teach an alignment technique in the physical body during practice and then I help them make connections to that same principle off the mat, in their families, communities, and conversations. I have been influenced tremendously in this area by the teaching of Elena Brower. My teaching intention is simply that students leave my class feeling more alive in their body, mind, heart, and spirit.

How would you describe your teaching style?  Creative, flowy, therapeutic, strong, and inspirational. I hope!

What advice would you give to someone new to yoga who may feel intimidated?  Start with a beginner or foundation class. Make sure to read class descriptions carefully since there are many styles of yoga. Push the ego aside and start from the ground up. Even better, schedule your first class as a private session with a yoga studio owner.

julie_wilkins_warrior_3_yoga_poseJulie is available for private yoga consultations in the Mobile, AL area. She also teaches group Vinyasa Yoga classes and can coach remotely via email and Skype for individuals following spinal fusion surgery who have been cleared by their doctor for physical activity. If you want to learn more about yoga classes with Julie and her journey through scoliosis, please check out 
Julie would also love it if you follow her on Facebook.