Those of us who grew up in India have seen sweepers, dhobis, and paddy workers laboring all day in positions we couldn’t conceive of holding longer than an hour. How do they do it? And why don’t they suffer sciatic pain, spondylosis and scoliosis, like so many of the rest of us? And why do 90 percent of people in the U.S. suffer back and neck pain, according to the World Health Organization and the Bone and Joint Decade, even though we spend $100 billion a year in the attempt to avoid or treat it?
It’s easy to blame our sedentary lifestyle, or stress, or the extra weight we carry. We may even think that pain is the inevitable result of aging, or that it happens because we were not designed to walk upright. But these excuses don’t hold up. The reason why Indian villagers don’t have chronic back pain in the numbers that we do is that they know how to use their bodies, and we have forgotten. No matter how well we exercise, how good our therapists are, and how many back-care gadgets we buy, there is no substitute for sitting, standing, bending and walking in the way nature designed us to.
I became painfully aware of this in my 20s, when I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area and was nine months pregnant with my first child. In spite of having been a yoga model, an athlete, and an acupuncturist, I ended up with a painful L5-S1 disc herniation. I did not want to take pain medication because I was nursing my child. Instead, I walked around my block every two hours through the night to ease the spasms in my back.
After a year of suffering, I ended up on the surgeon’s table, worn out by pain, worry, and the usual challenges associated with raising a baby. I was advised to limit strenuous physical activity and to have no more children.
Two years later, I had a recurrence of the L5-S1 disc herniation and sciatic pain all over again. I was offered more surgery. This time I was luckier—I discovered Aplomb, a French alignment technique based on observation of people in cultures with low incidence of back pain. I attended classes at l’Institut d’Aplomb in Paris, where students learn to mimic the everyday movements of villagers and tribal people.
Learning body wisdom from villagers made good sense to me. It harkened back to my own childhood in which my Dutch mother, married to my Indian father, harvested health tips from our ayah, the fruitwallah, and farmers in the Ghats where we vacationed. Our family ate jwar chapattis, spent summers in yoga ashrams, and gave each other regular oil massages. My mother’s volunteer job was fostering sick and abandoned babies for six to nine months while their adoption papers were being processed, and the whole family helped her administer the naturopathic, dietary, and TLC measures needed to get the babies well.
Years later, I found myself, like my mother, drawing on the wisdom of traditional peoples. Learning natural posture, first through Aplomb and later through my own studies, completely cured my back pain. It also gave me more energy, helped me move with greater ease and strength, and allowed me to have two more children without injury to my back. I was inspired to travel extensively, studying the posture of traditional cultures from India to Brazil to Burkina Faso, and figuring out how best to teach natural posture to people who no longer have it. Gokhale Method 101, the course I currently teach, grew out of these studies, and uses visual, intellectual, and kinesthetic cues to help people transform their bodies in six sessions.
One key practice involves the “inner corset,” which villagers use when they carry loads on their heads, backs, or shoulders. This “corset” consists of a set of abdominal muscles including the internal obliques, the external obliques, the transversus abdominus, and the rotatores muscles deep in the back. Forming a brace that makes your torso slender and tall instead of short and squat, it functions much like the support belts many American workers wear when they move heavy objects. While your torso becomes slender and tall, your vertebrae are eased apart, decompressing the spinal discs. This simple technique is essential for vigorous activity without wear and tear on the spine.
Studies conducted in the 1960s on the Bhil tribe of central India show that the spinal discs of 50-year-old Bhils were indistinguishable from those of 20-year-olds. This is unheard of in Western society, where we have come to regard degenerative disc disease and arthritis of the spine as a normal part of aging. If we learn to use the inner corset whenever the spine is challenged, just as the Bhils do, we too can be spared the “natural” degeneration and disease that afflicts most of us.
To engage your inner corset:
1. Being careful not to arch your back, stretch upward with your arms over your head, as though reaching for a high kitchen cabinet. You will notice that the abdominal obliques and transversus muscles in your abdomen automatically engage
2. Keeping those muscles engaged, gently lower your arms to your sides. You will notice that you are slenderer and taller, and that your torso feels braced and your spine protected.
More detailed directions on this technique can be found at www.egwellness.com by downloading Chapter 5, “The Inner Corset,” from 8 Steps to Pain-Free Back.
The good news about natural posture is that although it requires some training, it is not difficult to learn. All of us have memories of good posture from our childhood. Good posture is also part of our heritage and our genetic code. Once students have relearned it, they report improvement not only in their aches and pains, but also in their general health and mind state. I have come to the conclusion that posture is indeed the missing cornerstone in the modern health picture.
Esther Gokhale, L.Ac., studied biochemistry at Harvard and Princeton, and Chinese medicine at the San Francisco College of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. She is the author of 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back and founder of the Esther Gokhale Wellness Center in Palo Alto. The center offers a free class in healthy posture, yoga and dance classes, acupuncture, and workplace and group trainings. (650) 324-3244. www.egwellness.com.