Interview by Molly Tynjala “Experience Life” assistant editor.
Esther Gokhale | In the ninth month of pregnancy with my first child, I experienced excruciating back pain. I had previously had back spasms doing yoga poses but returned to an active life after each episode. This time the back pain was accompanied by sciatica. I was told the pain would go away after my baby was born, but it got worse. I couldn’t lie down for more than two hours at a time. A year later, after not getting help from numerous conservative and alternative therapies, I underwent back surgery, an L5-S1 laminectomy/discectomy for a badly herniated disc. I was unable to lift or carry my baby and was advised not to have any more children. Within 12 months of the surgery, the pain returned and further surgery was recommended. At that point I decided to find my own way out of misery and began research into the causes and treatments for back pain.
That’s when I came across L’Institut d’Aplomb in Paris. Its founder, Noëlle Perez-Christiaens, questioned the explosion of back pain in industrialized cultures while people in traditional societies had virtually none. She saw that in industrialized societies we have increasingly poor posture and don’t use our bodies well, and that we can learn from traditional cultures, which retain both strength and elegance.
EL | How did you develop your Gokhale Method? What was your research and development process like?
EG| The Gokhale Method retained an anthropological base. I continued to research widely in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, observing healthy posture at first hand. For example, I spent days learning how to carry water on my head, seeing how the women doing it would naturally engage their “inner corset” for length and stability, protecting their spines. I asked a lot of questions and documented the body wisdom I saw with photographs and video.
Back in the United States, I practiced acupuncture and started teaching some of the postural principles to patients with back pain. And they got better! My husband, Brian, is a professor of mathematics at Stanford University, and we live on the Stanford campus. I reached out to the many physicians I knew at the Stanford medical center and other local clinics who were suffering with back and neck pain. Like many professionals, they were highly skilled but had received no training in how to stand and operate for many hours. Similarly, academics like my husband were suffering from decades of poor posture at their desks. And so word spread locally that the posture re-education I teach is a highly effective alternative to painkillers and surgery. Over time the techniques I used gelled to create the Gokhale Method.
My book, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, was published in 2008. I’ve trained more than 50 teachers worldwide to provide hands-on instruction in the Gokhale Method. Our teaching team continues to discover improved ways to explain, observe, and speed up the process of transforming a student’s posture.
EL | What kind of response have you received? Is your method generally accepted?
EG | Physicians have been the strongest allies of the Gokhale Method. They appreciate its effectiveness and its logical basis. Considering the contrarian nature of our approach, we have met with surprisingly little objection. The arguments are compelling, and the techniques work — it seems the world is ready for this paradigm shift.
EL | How is the Gokhale Method different from traditional approaches to easing back pain, and how is it more effective?
EG| The Gokhale Method introduces a paradigm shift away from the conventional S-spine shape to a J-spine. A J-spine has significantly less curvature than an S-spine in both the cervical and lumbar areas. The J-spine shape is seen in ancestral populations, young children, and indigenous people, and protects the spinal discs and nerves from strain and injury. It also accommodates a healthy position for the pelvis. There is now radiological evidence supporting that a J-spine correlates with a healthy, pain-free back, whereas an S-spine correlates with back pain.
EL | Do you have pet peeves about the way back health and posture are covered?
EG | It’s striking to me that just about every popular guideline on posture is not only unhelpful but counterproductive. Here is a short list of common posture notions that I consider problematic: chest out, chin up, S-spine, tuck the pelvis, crunches for ab strength, sit up straight, stand up straight, parallel feet, lumbar support, cervical pillows. As a society, we now know that we made some errors in our notions about diet; the errors we have made in posture far exceed the errors we made in diet!
I believe that, perhaps because common advice has been ineffective, the medical profession has largely ignored posture as a measure for addressing back pain. Posture simply wasn’t being approached in a useful way. Now that the Gokhale Method has formulated an effective way of improving posture and addressing back pain, the medical profession is beginning to take note and refer patients to this method. They are doing so, but change in medical protocol takes a long time to implement. Posture needs to be recognized as an essential pillar of health, like good nutrition, exercise, work–life balance, etc.
EL | What do you hope to achieve through your work?
EG | Our mission is to make back pain rare.
EL | Can you describe some of the results you’ve seen? What excites you most?
EG | Every student and every success is exciting. The most common adjective people use in their feedback forms is “life-changing.” Our teachers feel very privileged to be able to shepherd that level of change for our students.
Since the advent of our wearable SpineTracker, we’re seeing speedier learning and better understanding, and we’re able to track and research posture changes over time. The possibilities are limitless, and we are keen to see how far we can take high tech in conjunction with high touch to support people being pain free and functional for their entire lives.
EL | Do you have any tips for improving posture and easing/preventing back pain?
EG | The most general category of recommendation would be to lengthen, strengthen, and remodel the spine so that there is plenty of room for the discs and nerves to remain healthy. I believe the most natural “playground” to make these changes is in everyday movements: Sitting, lying, standing, bending, lifting, and walking provide ample opportunity to stretch, strengthen, and reshape the body. That way, everyday life provides much of our exercise and therapy. Once good habits have been learned as a part of daily life, these same habits extrapolate to the gym.
The most important thing is to take the first step toward a life free of back pain!
Interview by Molly Tynjala “Experience Life” assistant editor.
Submitted by: Michelle “Mickie” Ball Massage therapist and Gokhale Method Teacher® 0428 223 271