Mobility is something we often take for granted while we’re young.
But for 85-year-old Anna Pesce, mobility was a thing of the past.
Pesce suffered from a severe hunchback and chronic pain for decades due to a combination of a herniated disc, scoliosis, and osteoporosis.
It had gotten so severe that she had lost the ability to walk, depending on a wheelchair to get around. She also had to be picked up and carried to get up and down the stairs.
Pesce had sought out the help of doctors, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and back specialists in vain, until a visit to Wagener, SC, in November 2014 changed her life forever: The Orangeburg, NY native was visiting her family when her granddaughter, a yoga teacher, introduced her to Rachel Jesien (1).
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Jesien, 28, is a certified yoga instructor who also once suffered from scoliosis and is known for incorporating back-based stretched into her practice. The young teacher received her yoga and back-care certification from the Yoga Union center in Chelsea in 2011, making her relatively new to the practice.
The pair began seeing each once a week, as Jesien taught Pesce restorative poses, including child’s pose and chair savasana. “[Pesce] was timid at first, because just moving caused her so much pain,” explains Jesien, but it didn’t take her long to catch on.
In the beginning, Pesce needed to be held up with straps to perform the exercises. After a month of sessions, Pesce was not only able to stand, but she began to walk on her own. She also started doing yoga every day at home.
“After two months, another big milestone was that [Pesce] knew what poses to do whenever the usual pains would come up for her,” Jesien says.
“For example, if she was having hip pain, she’d sit on a chair and do an ankle-to-knee pose.” Within four months of her first lesson, the grandmother could even do a modified headstand by resting her back against the wall and placing her feet parallel to her head in an upside-down v-shape.
Jensien insists that the results aren’t short-term: In fact, the young teacher turned to yoga in 2010 following the advice of her massage therapist. 6 years later, she lives a relatively pain-free life. “I had to wear a back brace for five years and went to physical therapy every week, but this was the only thing that worked,”she says.
Her patient is another great testament to the restorative powers of the ancient practice. Over two years after they first came together, the pair still meet every week.
Pesce’s family is also incredibly supportive of Anna change in lifestyle. Her daughter, Rosemary Pitruzzella, thanks yoga for her mother’s renewed energy. “My mom is a lot more independent, and even how she carries herself — she just seems a lot happier and brighter now,” she says.
And Pesce agrees “I feel wonderful now because I can drive by myself and do the things I wasn’t able to do before,” she says. “I would recommend this to other people.” Pesce still uses a sling to support her in some poses, including downward dog, and now also practices pranayama breathing exercises.
“Doing weight-bearing exercises like squats and lunges can definitely increase bone density,” says Dr. Houman Danesh, director of integrative pain management at Mount Sinai Hospital. “Yoga poses can be easily extrapolated to have the same effect. Physical therapists have been incorporating yoga stretches into their sessions as well.”
“I would rather patients see a great physical therapist over a great yoga instructor,” he says. “But what’s important is that people get individual care and attention.”
Loren Fishman, a physiatrist and a specialist in physical and rehabilitative medicine affiliated with New York-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital, uses yoga to prevent and treat patients with muscle injuries, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and scoliosis. He says that yoga and other body-weight exercises help to prevent osteoporosis and bone fractures (2).
Conventional medicine is also getting increasingly interested in alternative therapies for patients with weak bones. A pilot study conducted by the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York found that 10 minutes of yoga a day for two years increased bone density in the hips and spines of post-menopausal patients as well as decreased their risk of falls and fractures (3).