Devout yogi Julie Wilkins is passionate about the ancient exercise because of its intensely transformational nature. The Mobile native and Fairhope transplant has been practicing yoga for 11 years and training others in the active art form for six. She often teaches sessions at Church of the Apostles in Montrose. (Rumor has it, even pastors Robert and Mark participate on occasion.) Beginning this month, she’s also instructing year-round classes at Kula Yoga Community.
At age 8, Wilkins was diagnosed with an exceptionally aggressive case of scoliosis. Four years of wearing a highly restrictive back brace 23 hours a day, seven days a week, pressed her to undergo a total spine fusion to resolve her S-curved vertebral column. It took a four-hour operation, in which two titanium rods were applied to mechanically straighten her spine, and about a year of bone fusion before she was able to resume more vigorous activities. Eventually, Wilkins’ spine attained 50 percent correction, a relatively high percentage in 1988.
Today, as a licensed occupational therapist, Wilkins marries yoga and therapeutics to teach people how to manage their bodies over long periods of time. She offers personalized private yoga sessions to clients who have also endured spine fusions. Wilkins learns their medical histories, observing their x-rays or MRI results in order to ensure the utmost in customized care. From California to Georgia, she now conducts one-on-one lessons via Skype in order to teach students how to regain balance and orient their body to their post-surgery alignment.
I never really thought about my physical limitations, so they didn’t seem to exist. Through his steady encouragement, Dr. Dempsey in Mobile gave me an incredible sense of empowerment. I was a cheerleader at UMS and I played softball.
Despite this, I left my first ever yoga class feeling pretty hopeless about a yoga-filled future. I was totally unprepared. I wore shorts and a baggy T-shirt. What I’ve learned is there’s a timing involved with yoga, a readiness factor. After more maturity and awareness of my own body, I fell in love with it. I tell all my students to give it a fighting chance; it often takes six to 10 classes to gain a whole new motor plan.
Ellen Kiley (a Sea Island, Ga. instructor who also has a fused spine) taught me to continue to focus on the breath, to trace the breath through my body, and most importantly, to feel the yoga poses from the inside so that I would never fall into the trap of comparing my body and the way it can move to anyone else’s.
There’s always a modification for each body type. Yoga begins to affect every aspect of life. It brings my students a new awareness to how they feel in their bodies. I start to see people coming in and looking completely different, with rested faces and eyes and an increased softness in temperament. It’s as if their whole system has been softened. Peace to the body. Peace to the mind. Peace to the heart. Namaste.
text by Hannah Manverse