NPR recently featured a story on Esther Gokhale’s method for helping people uncover their “Primal Posture™ for a Pain-Free Life”.
Since its publication, this story, entitled “Lost Posture: Why Some Indigenous Cultures May Not Have Back Pain”, was sent to me so many times by members of my community, a thoughtful response from my perspective as an Alexander Technique teacher seems appropriate and hopefully useful.
Ms. Gokhale’s method aims to relieve back pain by using exercises and anatomical education to restore the shape of our spines to what is widely observed in some indigenous cultures, and ancient artistic representations of the human body. From an anatomical perspective, much of her information is useful, and it’s wonderful that she’s helping and getting her message across to so many people.
The method pays attention to things like optimizing the position of your pelvis in order to avoid sitting on your tailbone. It offers tips on how to utilize your major hinge joints for easier bending. There are exercises designed to stretch the muscles of your back while sitting and sleeping, which help to decompress your cervical, thoracic, and lumbar vertebral discs.
All of these elements are also directly and indirectly present in the Alexander Technique, which Ms. Gokhale studied in her research phase. My aim is to offer insight on the overlaps and differences for the purposes of education and future discussion.
Positions and Parts vs. Wholeness in Relation
- The Gokhale method appears to deal in positions and parts, looking at posture as an arrangement of our bones and muscles.
- In the Alexander Technique we approach posture as an ever present, ever changing expression of how you carry and support yourself, influenced by our past and present experiences, emotions, and thoughts.
- As opposed to dealing with different parts of the body in isolation, Alexander Technique is constantly monitoring posture as an amalgam our Whole selves: body, breath, mind, and spirit in relation to gravity and the world around us.
- While our sedentary lifestyles and poorly designed furniture are not particularly useful in helping us achieve our full upright potential, posture is most effectively considered through an anatomical lens alongside all other factors influencing it in contemporary Western culture.
Pain relief vs. Freedom
- The Gokhale Method and Alexander Technique both relieve back pain. (Very helpful!) However, while the Gokhale Method uses exercises to relieve pain as a direct end goal in and of itself, Alexander Technique relieves pain indirectly.
- Rather Alexander Technique provides us with a sense of agency over our mind-body responses to the world at large. The pain relief experienced when we alter our usual responses by reducing extra tension is more of a fortunate byproduct of the freedom cultivated by having a choice in our postural organization.
- Once you learn the process for cultivating this freedom it’s yours to use as you wish. This is what makes Alexander Technique applicable to anything, like washing the dishes, yoga, running, public speaking, etc. while the Gokhale Method's apparent lack of focus on process renders it just another method for pain management.
Stacking vs. Suspension
- The Gokhale method, like many other movement practices, talks about properly stacking our bones for good alignment, but in reality, our bones do not stack upon each other at all. Our bodies actually function as a suspension system. This means that our muscles control the alignment of our bones, and when our muscles are released into length, we function and balance more optimally. A great description of this can be found in The Actor’s Secret by Betsy Polatin (North Atlantic Books, 2013) pp. 46-47.
Pelvis vs. Head
- The Gokhale Method stresses having a well positioned pelvis. Alexander Technique teachers agree balancing on your ischial tuberosities (sit bones), as opposed to bearing weight through your tailbone, is optimal.
- However Alexander Technique recognizes it’s ultimately how the head is balanced on top of the spine that determines how our pelvis sits. The head and pelvis are two ends of one unit. You cannot alter one without effecting the other.
- In order for our suspension system to function optimally, in the Alexander Technique we release our head away from the top of our spine, and allow our neck and back muscles to release into expansion. This gives our spine, ribs and pelvic girdle, the opportunity to be suspended from our cranium.
What you DON'T do matters.
- Like many pain rehabilitation methods I know (PT, OT, etc.)The Gokhale Method focuses on proper positioning, movements, and exercises. In other words, what you need to do in order to relieve back pain.
- From an A.T. perspective, what you need to do must first be laid upon a foundation of what you need to stop doing. Only when you stop doing what’s unhelpful is there room for a new way to emerge. Otherwise habit will just be built on top of habit, and extra tension will be built on top of extra tension.
While I ultimately agree with Ms. Gokhale’s observations that a less “S shaped” spine is more beneficial for back health, my thoughts on why we came to be this way, and how we are best going to get out of it, differ widely.
Your questions, feedback, and thoughts are all welcome in the comment section below this post. I look forward to hearing from you.