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My Thoughts About Esther Gokhale's Posture Program (And Stuff About My Back)

Updated on June 19, 2013

Is the Book Any Good?

Yes! I think Gokhale is the best back pain guru around, but her visual style of teaching, while awesome, could be improved if she summarized the concepts behind her method.

I have been reading and re-reading Esther Gokhale's 8 Steps to a Pain Free Back and following the program. I've watched her nearly hour-long Authors@Google video and a few other videos I've come across here and there. I've read the forum on her website. I've spent hours thinking about what she's said and what she's written. In this review of her book, I have both positive and negative comments. Mostly I think the method she has developed for getting rid of back pain is truly innovative, realistic, and eminently doable. My only gripes are with the book on a few points regarding ease of use - mostly related to her section on glidewalking.

What's All the Fuss About?

Esther Gokhale wrote a book for sufferers of back pain that outlines, step by step, how to change your sitting, standing, walking, bending, and lying posture so as to heal your back and prevent further back pain. This does not seem all that remarkable or unique; nor is the rather bland title of her book exactly confidence-inducing. So why is her method becoming so popular? And given her amazing successes (check out the reviews of the book on Amazon) why is it not more popular? Why isn't Gokhale a household name among back-pain experts and sufferers?

The answer lies in HOW she believes good posture should look. What is unique about Esther Gokhale is her view of what constitutes a fit and healthy spine. Her picture of good spine alignment is not based on the current model preferred by the medical or alternative healthcare community. It is based on traditional wisdom that she traveled the world to unearth and that she's now trying to reclaim. She seems to care deeply that we have all but abandoned this wisdom when we summarily dismissed the lessons our predecessors spent so much effort carrying down from generation to generation - lessons about how to hold our bodies. Apparently, about a century ago, we started to scorn the old way of holding ourselves over a newer, trendier, slump-friendly stance.

Pause for My Personal Rant

I'm with Gokhale all the way here. The explosion of mass communications in the 20th century saw us doing something we never could before - transform the world with every "knowledge fad" that came around. Science and fashion decide something is natural and attractive, and - boom! Progress! As for the old way - aw, who needs it? People everywhere saw it on TV, in the newspapers and film and heard it on the radio: this is the way to stand, to walk, to hold ourselves. None of this stuffy posturing anymore. We're natural, we're cool, we're flexible, we don't have to follow the rules - we can move any old way we want!

But what if there might possibly be some knowledge that came before modern science that we might want to pull out someday and use? Like, um, how to maintain a healthy back? Something not based on fancy theories, but on practices as simple as how to handle babies? Well, we'd better hope someone remembers what was once common sense...

Problems With 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back

So I read the book and was converted real fast! But I also struggled in places to apply her method. It was obvious that Esther Gokhale is a teacher of concepts - but that she teaches the concepts in a step-by-step way, using visuals and assuming her readers have a familiarity with anatomy.

Too Much for Everyone. Not Enough for Me.

She targets the book for the Everyman, Everywoman, and Everychild. So people who don't fit neatly into a slot do not get specific troubleshooting help. Though she includes numerous step-by-step instructions for how to sit, lie, bend, stand, walk, and brace yourself for intense activity (like sports or lifting loads), there are few specifics about how to tailor her program to:

  • Children. What's safe for them? What's not?
  • People with special body types like overweight. For example, her stretchsitting technique involves checking whether a fold of skin on the back has made its way onto a backrest. Is this a valid check for people who are obese and have pre-existing folds of skin on their backs? She gives hints and guidance to help you figure out if you're doing it right, and alternative ways to accomplish the task, but no specific troubleshooting.
  • Specific back-related pathologies. I have spondylolisthesis, for instance - are there special considerations I need to take into account? If not, do reassure me of that!
  • Specific tasks: In reviews and forums, among the people who rave about how helpful the program is, I noted the odd voice here and there that complains of not being able to figure out exactly how to do dishes, or read, or nurse babies from the book.

Now, some savvy readers may be able, through reading closely, to figure out what they need to know, but she doesn't make these concepts easy to grasp. And some of these stumbling blocks are pretty common - common enough to merit some acknowledgement in the book.

Cool, New Concepts are There...But You Have to Work for Them

I found that with work, I could extract certain concepts to help tailor her method to myself. I think that if you follow the steps in the book, you will get (pardon the goofiness here) the answers you seek. But if you are in a hurry or want specific instructions for each task and situation, you'll probably come away hungry and want to take her more guided online or hands-on course. Is this intentional, to drum up business? Possibly. But I don't think entirely.

It Can Be Done

Is this flaw inevitable in such a self-help book? I don't believe so. Think about this: a similar problem must have presented itself to Clair Davies, co-author of The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook. That book is about how to deal with any pain through muscle release. So Clair and daughter Amber had to figure out how to tell people exactly how to release every single muscle in the body - whether big, small, or hard to reach - for every imaginable pain complaint, while also giving them the general tools they need to find trigger points that might not be included in the book.

A challenge. But by balancing conciseness with rich description, Davies managed to be thorough and detailed while at the same time offering a conceptual framework that users could use. (If it's not already obvious, I found Davies' book intensely useful for releasing muscles that were traumatized. It's written for people who want to work on themselves and can't afford or don't have access to trained trigger point massage therapists.).

Limited Approach

This is where Gokhale's book comes short. She simplifies too much; she also doesn't give us a checklist of concepts to apply. She does give stunningly detailed, step-by-step instructions and troubleshooting hints and provides a remarkable amount of imagery. Yet her approach still remains mostly visual. She does not explain the key concepts of her program. In her defense, I think she takes the approach she does because she feels that some things do have to be modeled visually, and a static book has its limitations in this regard. But if this is true, I disagree - I, at least, would rather be told what the new ideas were.

For example, in the section on glidewalking, she details step-by-step what to do. The problem is, she doesn't ground us with a conceptual understanding of what we're doing. Nowhere did I find her saying, "This is how you've probably been walking, and that's wrong - the better way to do it is this." Instead, I got that we should just do A, B, C, D, E, and F again and again. Though that's valuable, it isn't enough. I need to hear: "Stop doing X and start doing Y."

Her approach might work wonderfully for young people. But I'm in my forties. I have ideas implanted in my brain about how to walk. I want to know what ideas are wrong so I can unlearn them. Learning new ideas on top of an old foundation without telling me what's wrong with my foundation - that is, what's wrong with my specific mechanics - leaves a big gap in my mind and makes it hard to gain mental mastery of what I'm doing - and for a change as big as this one, yes, I do need to understand how to walk mentally as well as physically. I think she believes mental mastery must follow physical implementation - but perhaps not in as many people as she thinks...?

The Missing Concepts

I think a lot of people end up taking her expensive courses to get help really applying the techniques. Not having the disposable income to do this, what I did was try to assemble the concepts I extracted from her text, pictures, videos and forum responses (and she was great at responding to specific questions on her forums, at least, a couple of years ago - I haven't seen a lot of responses dating after 2010).

These are what I came up with after a lot of pondering:

Big Movement No-Nos

Avoid a) bending at the waist, b) arching your back or neck, and c) twisting severely at the waist - even when doing small movements, and even lying down or sitting.

Yes-Yes

Encourage pelvic anteversion as a sound, stable base for the body on which the spine, arms and head (everything above the pelvis) should stack in a more-or-less straight manner.

The Core

Every back health and posture program involves what fitness gurus and physical therapists call "the core" - your abdominal muscles. Gokhale is no exception, calling it the "rib anchor" and "inner corset" - though the way she instructs you to use your core is more targeted than the usual advice. In hip-hinging, stacksitting, tallstanding, and glidewalking, and any movement that involves supporting yourself with your back, including carrying loads and sports, it's vital to use your abdominal muscles to help support you in the way she instructs.

First Step - Stretching the Spine

Stretchsitting and stretchlying are what make healthy movements possible for people who did not grow up with elongated spines. If you do nothing else, stretch your spine using her techniques as much as possible.

Some Muscles Won't Stretch or Strengthen on Their Own

If you encounter tight or painful muscles, release them using massage, acupuncture, or other method before stretching or strengthening them further. Working through the pain can cause them to become more injured.

Think Outside the Box

Be creative about accomplishing familiar tasks. Consider how to do the work differently so you keep your movements safe and healthy. A theoretical example would be a shopping cart - if you can't keep a healthy posture while pushing it, is it perhaps better to pull it along behind you?

Either Stretch or Be Supported

Whatever you're doing - sitting, standing, lying down, moving - you should either be stretching your spine or supporting your spine optimally. Stretching is a good activity when you're relaxed, like in a car or sitting for long periods of time; learning to support your spine properly occurs best when you're in a stronger, more active state.

Go Slow

Both stretching and strengthening your muscles to bring about your new posture can be traumatizing to muscles. Discomfort is a sign to slow down. At any time, if you overdo it or get new pain (you will if you're like me), back off, re-read instructions, lighten up, take things more slowly.

Re-think Your Furniture

Evaluate each piece of supporting furniture for ergonomics and modify or discontinue use as necessary - the worst are car seats and plush sofas and chairs, as far as I can tell. Each fixture should allow you to either stretch your spine or have a stable and supportive base. Use pillows liberally to stabilize and change the shape of things.

Basic Stance Concepts

When standing and walking, try to keep your knees and hips faintly flexed but without tension (what she calls "soft") your legs and feet slightly angled outward, your ribcage lowered (instead of raised to expand our chest as we're commonly taught), and your weight mostly on your heels, with the front of the foot used primarily for stabilizing. When walking, use your butt muscles more and your front-of-thigh muscles less. I use my own personal "test" to see if I'm glidewalking well - I see if I can stop suddenly at almost any point without losing my balance.

Don't Forget the Neck

The neck may be an afterthought (the last step in most of her instructions) but it is not unimportant. Use her techniques (p. 83) to elongate the neck when sitting, standing, or lying, and do a few shoulder rolls each day.

Expand Your Breathing Horizons

Breathe normally in the chest and back. Stomach breathing can also be used, as in meditation and aerobic physical activity, but the chest and back should be able to expand significantly for normal breathing.

How to do these things is not easy, and Gokhale does a tremendous job of teaching most of it in book form. There is also a DVD, which is too rich for my blood at the moment.

I hope this list of concepts fills in some gaps for some newer readers of her book and followers of her method. I have been doing the program for less than three weeks, so I still have an enormous amount to learn and hope to update everyone with what I do find as time goes on.

Disclosure

These are my real opinions. I wasn't given any freebies and my review wasn't solicited. I do earn affiliate commissions from certain purchases made from this page.

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