HomeVolume 7June 2022 Yoga helped me heal

NIRJA PARIKH is a pediatric physical therapist, an Ayurvedic consultant, a certified yoga instructor, and a Bharatanatyam dancer. She shares her journey of how scoliosis impacted her dance career, and how yoga helped her body heal and her mind persevere.

Growing up in North Carolina, my talented mom taught me my first choreographed dance routines. I felt at ease when performing on stage and enjoyed dancing at various cultural events to Bollywood film songs. At 12, I started training in Bharatanatyam, a form of Indian classical dance, and by 16 I had transitioned to advanced training. I also joined ballet classes and eventually took a gap year in India after graduation, so that I could focus full-time on classical dance.

We all grow up having dreams and ambitions, but many of us never see them fulfilled. I did not want to look back and regret not having followed my instincts. As a child, I always enjoyed going to India, and dreamt of going back there to learn dance and explore my cultural roots. After college, I auditioned for a dance reality show called Dance India Dance. During the fifth round, one of the judges disqualified me when he observed my spine curvature. I’ll never forget his statement, “I do not think it is safe for you to continue, given the situation with your back.” 

With that one statement my dreams fell apart. I came back to the US to get my back checked. I knew I had scoliosis (curvature of the spine), but I had never thought it would limit me physically. The judge was right: X-rays showed that the curvature of my spine had increased from 12 to 60 degrees, affecting my shoulder blades, rib alignment, and breathing. I was immediately taken into surgery, and with two rods, fourteen screws, and two weeks in hospital, my whole life changed.

After surgery, the orthopedic surgeon remarked, “Look at you! You’ll be able to do backflips now!” I would come to resent that statement, because I believed him. Spine mobility is critical for a dancer, and I later learned that I had limitations in extension, rotation, and side bending. I had to re-learn how to move my body in a new way, and that is how Yoga became a core part of my life.

I had learned Mala meditation, Sanskrit mantra recitation, and Pranayama breathing as a child. Revisiting these lesser-known parts of yoga helped me heal after surgery. Yoga saved my body, which at the time had limited motion. Yoga helped me appreciate my new movement patterns and allowed me to let go of my ahankar (ego). By not comparing my new body to my old one, I began to appreciate the present moment.  

Nonetheless, it was a tough journey. It required turning away from media stimulation and focusing entirely on myself. With dedicated practice, I eventually felt like my atman (soul) was reborn into a new body, despite being only 22 at the time. What helped me most was the practice of Pratyahara, which involves meditating in isolation for a couple of hours. Pratyahara is considered the fifth of the eight limbs of yoga, and it allows us to calm the wandering mind and senses. Pratyahara helped me find calm, take control of my emotions, and improve my psychological immunity.

The more I learned about yoga, the more I realized that elements of it had been instilled in me since adolescence, without the label. For example, I regularly attended Swadhyaya every Sunday, in which we studied the eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, recited Sanskrit slokas, prayed, fasted, and maintained a sattvik diet. This facilitated my journey to becoming a yoga instructor, because I was already so connected to the spiritual roots of yoga.

But I was intimidated by the other instructors when I first started teaching yoga at the local gym. The other instructors could handle the physically-taxing poses. To fit in, I molded myself into the Yoga costume, purchasing expensive leggings and accessories from popular athleisure brands. Despite my attempt to fit in and demonstrate my qualifications, I still felt unsettled, and at times humiliated and belittled. For example, I would hear the other instructors make comments like, “I’d love to go to India to practice yoga, but it’s so dirty.”

After finishing a Yoga Teacher (YTT-200) certification in 2016, I started applying for jobs. I was repeatedly not selected, despite having a multi-dimensional understanding of yoga. I realized it was because most studios cared only about my appearance and ability to handle physically-taxing poses, a symptom of how the West has glamorized the physical positions of yoga and the multi-billion dollar “athleisure” industry behind it. In subsequent years, I learned how culturally appropriated Yoga was in modern-day society. This fueled my passion to educate people on the true roots of yoga.

I am optimistic that change is coming in the yoga industry. I have been inspired by a small group of masters who are finally speaking out about this, and are being heard. As I hone my practice, I have started incorporating elements of the yogic culture, including Sanskrit chants. I recently began studying the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Yoga Sutras in depth. Rather than treating yoga just as a profession, I consider it a lifestyle. I try to instill yoga into every part of my life – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Yoga is a gift. It is a journey and a way of life that enables people of all races, religions, and body types to reach their potential, physically and spiritually.

I thank yoga for connecting me with my cultural roots, for making me stronger physically, and for giving me an avenue to cope with stress. 


Nirja Parikh

Nirja Parikh