Clarice Lam spent her childhood in a back brace. Here’s how yoga helped her strengthen her spine—and embrace the unknown.
I was in seventh grade when I was called out of class and down to the school nurse’s office for a routine scoliosis check. When I revealed my backbone, I caught a glimpse of the nurse’s face: It portrayed a mix of shock and sympathy. I wasn’t surprised. I knew that my spine looked like San Francisco’s famous twisty-turvy Lombard Street with its snake shape, marked by a 19-degree left curve in my neck, a 23-degree right curve in my upper back, and a 35-degree left curve in my lower back.
I spent the next five years in and out of doctor’s offices getting fitted for back braces. My first one looked like a corset and was easily hidden beneath my clothes. But when my condition didn’t improve, I was forced into a full-body trap from which my only relief was a shower. It tugged at me from my head to my hips, and I hated the rigid metal rods (one in the front, two in the back) and ring around my neck. Already an awkwardly skinny high schooler at 5-foot-10, now I looked like a walking robot. As you can imagine, my peers were not exactly kind: I was the butt of endless jokes, and my self-esteem plummeted.
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When I stopped growing, I was once again free from my brace. One summer in New York City, I was scouted by a modeling agency. As a 15-year-old with poor body image, I jumped at the chance. Modeling became the catalyst for me to travel all over the world. And while I had the most amazing experiences, I constantly suffered from back pain. Without regular support from my brace, I was weak—and my spinal curve pushed up against my nerves, causing migraines.
I was living in London when I decided to try yoga to ease my discomfort. In my first class, I fumbled through a series of challenging postures in 120-degree heat. I had zero core strength. There were a lot of forward folds, and I wasn’t able to move or bend in certain ways that others in the class could. But by the end of it, my pain had lessened. After a month of practice, I was stronger, calmer, and officially obsessed.
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Life got busier, and my practice waned. I moved to Spain. I went to culinary school. I began working in kitchens for 14 hours a day. When I started my own business, an oven-to-door bakery specializing in all-natural desserts for delivery within New York City, and found myself overwhelmed by stress, I knew I needed something to recenter myself.
One day while mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, I came across an image of a beautiful Headstand. It looked so cool and pretty; I had never done one before. Intrigued, I tried it against my sofa—unsuccessfully! But there was potential. I practiced until the skin on my scalp was worn. When I finally pulled it off, I felt so accomplished. Thus began my social media–inspired home practice.
My scoliosis will never improve without surgery, but yoga helps me manage it while building the back muscles that support my spine. I’ve never felt stronger, more centered, or more present. In fact, I’ve come to think of my yoga practice as a different kind of brace, bolstering me both physically and mentally—even when life feels a little like Lombard Street and I’m met with the unexpected at every turn.
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