Gokhale Method: The Right Observation, the Wrong Hypothesis (at least for me)

One of the early solutions to my pain that I sought out was the Gokhale Method. I had read several accounts of people who had back pain online who were permanently ‘cured’ by following her teachings, so I bought her book, consumed it, lived it, bought all of the posture-modifying cushions, and watched every YouTube video she ever made. I even briefly considered flying down to Palo Alto to get hands-on training from the master herself.

Esther Gokhale struggled with back pain from a herniated disk, much like I did. She even went so far as to get surgery without results. So she ended up traveling the world and learning that many people that grow up in more primitive cultures don’t experience back pain, despite having lives filled with arduous labor involving carrying heavy things, bending over repeatedly, and spending long hours seated on the ground.

She spent time with these cultures, photographed them, and formed a hypothesis: primitive cultures didn’t have back pain because they had fundamentally different movement patterns than we Westerners. And these movement patterns are imprinted on children at birth. They are learned behaviors, and as such, they can be taught, practiced, absorbed and mastered. According to her theory, the way that we learn to sit and stand and move and bend is all wrong, and thus we have spines that have slightly different curvature – which gives us back pain.

Her book emphasizes how ‘graceful’ and ‘natural’ and ‘at ease’ all of these third world peoples are. And I was determined to emulate them. I would become an elegant, soft-walking wood elf that moved like a dream.

I spent six weeks fervently and religious practicing the way that Gokhale wanted me to sit and stand and walk and bend. And it made me worse. I spent all day trying to hold these unnatural postures that felt like absolute torture. Her book and videos assured me that it would eventually come to feel natural but…

It came to a head one day when I was out walking with my husband. “Is something wrong” he asked, “It looks like you’re limping or staggering around.”

“No, I’m glidewalking,” I informed him. Clearly he wasn’t grasping how beautifully and gracefully I was moving under Esther’s tutelage.

“You look like a drunken sailor angrily stomping on insects,” he responded.

It was then I realized that this wasn’t working for me. I felt constantly tense and unnatural. My muscles were stiffening up – not elongating. And my back pain was getting worse. I stopped practicing the Gokhale Method and put the book away. I chalked it up to my own failure of not being coordinated enough to achieve some of these movements. My broken movement patterns were hopelessly ingrained.

Meditation and mindfulness have been a part of my life for a year now.

And I am becoming that woodland elf.

It’s hard to believe, really. When I walk, sometimes I am gliding. My feet are soft pillows of air. My neck has all of this space to move and breathe. My legs, instead of being the stomping, plodding things they were, feel supple and lithe. I am standing up straight. I am naturally sitting straighter.

And it’s all because of one thing: I am more relaxed and more connected with my body.

I think this is what Esther got wrong. The movement patterns of a relaxed, mindful individual are fundamentally different than the movement patterns of a chronically tense, hyper-vigilant, traumatized person. It just so happens that people who live in primitive cultures are more relaxed and mindful than we are. There are lots of happiness studies that back this up. There’s less judgment, a more profound sense of community, more interconnectedness, less pressures and stressors, and so the people in these cultures are just more relaxed. And what do you know, a relaxed body actually moves differently. It aligns differently. The muscles yank on the spinal column differently from a relaxed state than from a tense.

This is something that I figured out almost immediately when I started meditating. On day eight I had my first experience with spontaneous posture correction. Where about 15 minutes into my meditation session, my breathing darkens and deepens, I feel a wave of relaxation pass over me, and suddenly I sit up straight. My shoulders open up, my neck is long, my chest is reaching for the sky, and I literally feel three inches taller.

This has happened for me now almost every single time I have meditated. At some point, my body just lets go, and suddenly I get a small glimpse of what it means to be relaxed.

Every day as TMS forces me to process my repressed emotions, let go of my fear of pain, and embrace a relaxed, mindful state, I find my body more and more able to adopt this relaxed posture naturally. It started about eight days in. It’s almost an instantaneous result.

I hope that some day this becomes my natural state, and the tense state is the temporary one that I can recover from.

In the meantime, I would advise people to not force posture. Good posture isn’t something that should be integrated into you by strictly monitoring and constantly correcting yourself. Your self-critic does enough of that already. Instead, be mindful of your body and how it feels. Meditate. Accept what your body is doing with its alignment today. Good posture will begin to fall out as the natural byproduct of acceptance and self-love.

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