Can we break our slouching habit by reclaiming our ‘primal posture’?


    Our lab rat thinks the Gokhale “back” story stretches credibility. 

    Hoping for relief from aching backs, tight shoulders and stiff necks, some people are spending hundreds of dollars to learn better body alignment.

    Maybe you’ve heard of the Feldenkrais Method or the Alexander Technique. Both are movement re-education training methods that promise to release tension or make you more mindful of your posture.

    A newer approach called the Gokhale Method [pronounced go-clay] was founded in 2008. Gokhale teachers guide students to use their muscles differently to sit, stand and walk in ways that are supposed to be better for the body.

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    I tried it.

    After getting into my yoga pants, I start the lesson by complaining to movement teacher Roberta Cooks. My back doesn’t hurt but I worry about what my long commute is doing to my health. I sit on an Amtrak train for an hour and 40 minutes and lug a laptop and 13 pounds of recording equipment up and down subway steps.

    In the morning, I begin my commute with that load balanced across my body, but I’m right handed and somewhere on the trek, my shoulder bag and purse end up piled high on my left shoulder.

    Cooks, who is a psychiatrist by training, now teaches movement. After listening patiently for a bit, she takes pictures of me with her phone. She seems a little surprised my shoulders aren’t lopsided yet but does notice a sway in the middle of my back.

    She says lots of people stand that way.

    The human spine is shaped like an ‘S’—that’s just normal anatomy. But, Cooks says that despite that s-curve, for thousand of years humans held our bodies with a much straighter back. Modern, Western people have lost that ‘primal posture,” she says.

    Look at old photographs before 1920, she said.

    “Think of your ancestors from that time, you probably look at those photos and think: ‘those people look so stiff.’ But actually they were showing good posture, that’s how they were,” Cooks said.

    Today it seems our habit is to hunch and slouch through life.

    “Coco Chanel made it fashionable to slump,” Cooks said. “Think of her with the cigarette and this sort of magnified s-curve.”

    My Gokhale lesson begins with proper shoulder position. Ever the eager student, I shove mine back stiff like a soldier, but that’s wrong.

    Cooks explains that most people use their back muscles to get their shoulders back, and eventually those muscles fatigue sending the shoulders forward again.

    Rotating and re-repositioning the shoulder bones—one at a time–works better, she says.

    Her teaching mantra is: “A little forward, a little up, a lot back, and a lot down. Relax.”

    My arms end up at my sides with my thumbs positioned up.

    Cooks says a shoulder roll is a kinder, gentler way to open the chest and avoid pinching the nerves and blood vessels that send oxygen and nutrients down the arms. She considers Gokhale preventive medicine for all sorts of aches and pains.

    “Things like repetitive stress injuries, and carpal tunnel syndrome and things going on with your elbow,” she said.

    Cooks also believes in the mental benefits something of called ‘power posing.’

    “When you have your shoulders back, you are actually making less cortisol—less stress hormone—and more testosterone. You end up feeling calmer and more confident just by having your shoulders back,” she said.

    A psychologist at Harvard University uncovered that general link between posture and biochemistry. 

    So far there’s no gold-standard research on the health affects of Gokhale. Alexander and Feldenkrais have been around decades longer and there are several studies—with mixed results–on their effectiveness to reduce pain or improve daily living. 

    Gokhale’s backstory seems fanciful to me. (More on that later—we checked-in with a human locomotion expert.) But the actual movement exercises feel like common sense.

    Even without evidence, I’m willing.

    Cooks says many clients find her after trying surgery, massage, acupuncture, cortisone shots and medicine to relieve pain and reclaim their lives.

    “People have to give up things they love,” Cooks says.

    When she works with people with severe or chronic pain, Cooks says her clients often continue to get care from a medical professional. She hears from physicians secondhand: “They might be a little leery, and say: ‘Don’t do anything that hurts you.'” But, she said, no doctor has blocked her from working with a patient

    Small adjustments

    It seems nearly any chair can be comfortable with the right posture—and a bit of a boost. I was sitting on a metal folding chair—similar to the ones you’d find in a church basement–but when Cooks placed a flat rectangle pillow behind me, my upper back felt supported and stretched.

    That Stretchsit cushion is $50. Founder Esther Gokhale’s book is $30, and there is other Gokhale-branded merchandise to buy if you have the money.

    Later, Cooks places a small beanbag on my head and instinctively I push up against it and lengthen the back of my neck. With my ribs tucked, my back seems broader. I’m breathing deeply and sitting straighter.

    All the while Cooks softly strokes my shoulders and arms to prod them back into the right position, and encourages me with praise: “You’re beautiful and regal. Nice. Good. That’s it.”

    I loved hearing that—who wouldn’t?

    Next we figure out how to type at a computer all day and maintain Gokhale’s ‘neutral position.’ Cooks tells me to keep my back straight and pivot forward—hinging at the hips.

    “That’s actually the way I want you to always bend from now on. Not bend from your neck, not curve your back but always make every bend a hinge or you could say every bend is a bow,” Cooks said.

    Next, Cooks gets me up to try “glide walking” which is similar to a graduation or wedding march. The whole movement begins with the muscles in my upper glutes. I push off and pause briefly between each step.

    “Think of people in these non-industrial countries they are often walking like 30 miles or something. And they have stuff on their head and a baby on their back–and it’s just amazing–but because they do this walk, and have a rest in each step, it also gives them this amazing endurance and also ability to feel relaxed in the walk,” she said. 

    Cooks charges $450 for a beginning series of six sessions.

    I’m not sure what the teaching is worth to me, but after all the positive reinforcement, a week later I’m still doing shoulders rolls on my commute to work–stretching my neck tall and making little adjustments throughout the day.

    I feel lighter, but maybe that’s just because I finally cleaned out my radio equipment bag–and dumped the stuff I didn’t need. That, actually, was a suggestion from Cooks, too.

    The “back” story

    The birth of the method begins with founder Esther Gokhale—who grew up in India enjoying yoga and dance. After the birth of her first child she had terrible back pain and a failed surgery for herniated discs. When her pain returned Gokhale went on a quest to figure out what she could do herself to avoid another surgery.

    Cooks relays this story about Gokhale’s beginnings: “Her mother used to always point out that the working people, the people who did heavy labor had great posture, and they could do heavy lifting, they could twist they could bend for hours and they didn’t have pain and they seemed seem to be so nice and straight and tall up until their 60s, 70s, 80s; they were really fine,” Cooks said.

    Gokhale studied and modeled the movements of cultures around the globe where Cooks says people have better posture and have ‘kept the old ways’ including—Portugal, Brazil, and small communities in Southeast Asia and Africa.

    To me, the idea that some non-Western people and ‘laborers’ don’t have the same aches and pains as the rest of us–simply because of posture–seems farfetched. I don’t trust the translation. The Gokhale Method’s interpretation of other people’s feelings and suffering seems prone to be tripped up by the barriers of language and privilege.

    Cooks says, “In other cultures, there are people who sit for eight hours and weave, there are people who bend over picking up rice for nine hours,” Cooks said. “And they are not having the problems that we have.”

    Bruce Latimer doesn’t buy it. He’s an anatomy professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and studies how humans evolved to walk the way we do.

    “If you look up the worldwide distribution of back pain—just Google it, there are several studies by the U.N., all sorts of different NGOs—what you will find out is that back pain is one of the most common if not the most common disabilities that humans suffer from,” Latimer said.

    “It’s a long-standing problem–not to make a pun there–and it can’t be solved by simply saying: stand with a different posture, that isn’t going to work,” said Latimer. 

    What about that idea that there’s a “primal posture?”

    “I’ve looked at lot of pre-contact Native American skeletons and arthritis of the spine is everywhere. It’s not as if they had no back pain,” Latimer said.

    He says bad posture is not the big problem, back pain has more to do with overuse, asking the back to do things it wasn’t made to do—especially when the stomach and back muscles are flabby and out of shape.

    Asked about movement training, Latimer said he guesses that general exercise to strengthen core muscles is probably better, cheaper preventive medicine.

    The s-curve human spine is a ‘mechanical nightmare,’ he said—that’s the big problem.

    Imagine the vertebrae and discs are 24 porcelain cups and saucers Jerry-rigged on top of each other, Latimer said. Then, try to balance your big heavy head on top.

    “That’s what evolution has done to the human spine,” he said.

    Of course, evolution and that s-curve also let us walk around upright and balanced.

    Back pain and herniated discs are downsides we may have to deal with one shoulder roll at a time.

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