Back pain is an epidemic. It could be caused by our more sedentary lifestyle, a few extra pounds around the middle or looking at the phone for hours each day. But Silicon Valley posture guru Esther Gokhale says in non-industrial cultures, back pain is practically non-existent. Why?
She thinks is because our spines have recently changed shape, so she has created an entire method to change that shape and reduce pain. Gohkale says it’s a method for sustainable posture that could lead to a reduction in back pain. Her fans are legion and the medical community has taken note as it searches for alternatives to pain pills, surgery and braces.
The problem, Gokhale says, is that modern life takes the top part of our back and curves it forward, creating an “S” of “C” shaped spine. Plus, she says, we’re told to tuck our pelvis and push out our chests, to create a perfectly straight spine. That differs from non-industrial cultures like Burkina Faso, Borneo and in remote parts of Brazil, where Gokhale says she observed “J” shaped spines; the base of the spine curved out to the buttocks, while the rest of the spine stacked vertically straight up to the shoulders.
She says children natively have this posture and before the industrial age, so did our great-great-grandparents. But then something changed: Activity lessened, our gaze moved to small tasks with our hands and our idea of sitting and standing properly morphed to something more erect. Gokhale channels my grandmother: “’Sit up straight.’ That’s what moms have been telling their kids for decades; usually in a frustrated way, because it clearly doesn’t work. Maybe for 10 seconds and then the kid goes back to slumping."
So Gokhale says “Sit up smart.” She has seminars, videos and books that espouse her techniques and the traditional medical community is taking note. Dr. Praveen Mummaneni, neurosurgeon and co-director of the UCSF Spinal Center says that while no studies of non-industrial populations have been done to directly support Esther Gokhale’s research, the techniques resonate. “It's a very good visual. The J-shape is a very good visual that I think a lot of people will recognize, looking at that from the side and in thinking about their own posture, and it's straight forward to remember,” Mummaneni says.
In our posture session, Gokhale taught me some basic ideas that have helped me focus on my posture. As she says, “My methods are simple, but not easy.” I agree: in the days following our session, I try to put her ideas into practice; posture is a discipline!
How to sit in a chair: the behind goes behind Gokhale says we were taught to tuck our pelvis when we sit, “imagine you have a tail. The way we’ve been instructed to sit is to tuck that tail under our behinds. But I want you to push the tail out and let it go out the back of the chair.” I find this pelvic tilt is freeing, and Gokhale says you can reinforce it if you sit for long periods by using a pillow to wedge your pelvis forward and force your behind, behind.
Power your posture from the rear Gokhale coaches her students to access the muscles of the gluteus maximus to hold the ”J” shape in their backs and stack their spine in vertically. “Make every step a rep.”
Gokhale says strengthening the posterior chain of muscles in the gym is good, but if you can recruit those muscles with every step, clenching the upper outside quadrant of your backside as you walk, you will do much more for your overall posture and pain reduction.
Lengthen the spine and hook your mid-back on a support Whether it’s typing at a keyboard or holding the steering wheel of a car, when our arms go forward, our shoulders follow and we end up in a “C” shape. Gokhale says to use a towel, a jacket or she sells tethered pillows that fasten on. She says lean forward, use your arms to push down and lengthen the spine as you then lean back and hook your mid-back onto that cushion.
This move was enlightening for me. I felt like it created a stacked spine that rested comfortably. More than traditional good posture, I found this easier to maintain over time.
Roll the shoulders back As I spoke with Gokhale the first thing I noticed was that every five minutes or so she would roll her shoulders back, one at a time. In the past I thought of good posture as lifting the entire rib cage and pushing it forward.
In truth, my posture came slouching down seconds later when my attention turned elsewhere. But if I just focus on my shoulders, I find that I have a little more hold time before they drop forward again.
Gokhale has free videos on her website demonstrating some of these techniques and she also sells her book, pillows and chairs there.
If there’s one thing I learned doing this assignment on posture, it’s that improper posture can lead to pain, but the feedback loop is delayed: The pain occurs too long after the bad posture happens to truly influence our behavior. So I also tried a few devices that provide more immediate feedback for bad posture.
Posture Shirt Alignmed: $95 The Posture Shirt looks like a cycling jersey: fitted to the body with short, tight sleeves. It costs $95 and it’s a biofeedback device to help you sit up straight. One of the biggest problems of poor posture is we lose focus, slouch and forget our goals. I wore the posture shirt for three days and this was a consistent cycle: Sit properly, unconsciously slouch, wonder why my shirt felt tight on my shoulders and arms, remember that it feels good when I sit up straight, correct posture. If you suffer from pain and have been trained in proper posture, I found this to be a helpful biofeedback mechanism to remind you of your goals. That said, I would have to be in serious pain to want to wear this shirt habitually. Alignmed also has a bra version if the shirt is too much to wear under tailored clothing.
Lumo Lift: $79.95 This wearable device snaps magnetically onto your lapel, T-shirt or bra. You need to calibrate the Lumo, telling it what you deem proper posture. Then when you slouch, the device on your clothing vibrates.
You can dial its sensitivity up or down, basically making it more forgiving or more strict when you deviate from your upright position Simultaneously, the Lumo connects via Bluetooth to your phone and uses an app to track your posture. It creates detailed reports about your total time in correct posture, then offers goals and coaching points to help you improve.