Back pain is a common and often disabling problem, affecting most Americans at some point or other in their lives. For a third of people with chronic back pain, treatments will prove ineffective – something that seems to be tied to not only obesity but socio-economic status as well(1).
But there may be cultural elements at play in the development of chronic back pain, as well. In 1965, a comparative radiological study of the spines of an unnamed “primitive tribe” and the spines of selected groups of North Americans and Northern Europeans found that their spines differed significantly, mostly due to the difference in lifestyles between the groups(2).
While that study had obvious flaws, some researchers believe that the authors may have been on to something.
The Gokhale Method
Accupuncturist Esther Gokhale is one of those people. After having surgery for a herniated disc, she was intrigued by different approaches to back pain exhibited in different parts of the world. After traveling to to Ecuador, Portugal, and West Africa, she wrote a book on back pain(3) that purports to teach people how to realign their spines naturally.
Gokhale has built a prominent reputation on being a “posture guru”, teaching workshops at Google and Facebook and taking on clients like the CEO of Youtube. And every year, doctors in the Bay Area refer hundreds of patients to her for back pain treatment.
But despite all this, Gokhale’s methods have yet to be put to the test in a clinical trial – meaning there’s no hard evidence to explain why and how they work, or even if they work consistently.
Does It Work?
There are, however, several explanations as to why people in Western cultures might experience more back pain than those in non-Western, indigenous cultures.
One popular theory has to do with weight – specifically the weight of Americans, and the stress it can put on the spine(4). Then there’s the factor that people in Western countries are more likely to live a sedentary lifestyle than those outside those countries, which can weaken muscles and posture stability(5).
Still, the theory that indigenous communities have less back pain than non-indigenous ones is not entirely accurate. Many studies have been done on the prevalence of back pain in indigenous Australian communities, back pain is a major health concern(6).
A Common Sense Approach
However, Gokhale doesn’t seem concerned that her approach may not be politically correct, and neither do the hundreds of people she treats every year. And most of her instructions seem to be ultimately rooted in common sense. Her website offers courses and products to help improve posture and reduce back pain(7).
Esther Gokhale’s Five Tips For Better Posture And Less Back Pain
Try these exercises while you’re working at your desk, sitting at the dinner table or walking around, Esther Gokhale recommends.
- Do a shoulder roll: Americans tend to scrunch their shoulders forward, so our arms are in front of our bodies. That’s not how people in indigenous cultures carry their arms, Gokhale says. To fix that, gently pull your shoulders up, push them back and then let them drop — like a shoulder roll. Now your arms should dangle by your side, with your thumbs pointing out. “This is the way all your ancestors parked their shoulders,” she says. “This is the natural architecture for our species.”
- Lengthen your spine: Adding extra length to your spine is easy, Gokhale says. Being careful not to arch your back, take a deep breath in and grow tall. Then maintain that height as you exhale. Repeat: Breathe in, grow even taller and maintain that new height as you exhale. “It takes some effort, but it really strengthens your abdominal muscles,” Gokhale says.
- Squeeze, squeeze your glute muscles when you walk: In many indigenous cultures, people squeeze their gluteus medius muscles every time they take a step. That’s one reason they have such shapely buttocks muscles that support their lower backs. Gokhale says you can start developing the same type of derrière by tightening the buttocks muscles when you take each step. “The gluteus medius is the one you’re after here. It’s the one high up on your bum,” Gokhale says. “It’s the muscle that keeps you perky, at any age.”
- Don’t put your chin up: Instead, add length to your neck by taking a lightweight object, like a bean bag or folded washcloth, and balance it on the top of your crown. Try to push your head against the object. “This will lengthen the back of your neck and allow your chin to angle down — not in an exaggerated way, but in a relaxed manner,” Gokhale says.
- Don’t sit up straight! “That’s just arching your back and getting you into all sorts of trouble,” Gokhale says. Instead do a shoulder roll to open up the chest and take a deep breath to stretch and lengthen the spine.