Palo Alto Weekly

- August 8, 2007

Oh, my aching back!

Anthropological approach focuses on eliminating pain through posture, roots

by Rotem Ben-Shachar

Ben Davidson, assistant dean of students at Stanford University, has always led an active lifestyle: dancing, running, swimming or hiking on a daily basis. But after straining his lower back in 1989, he began to gradually experience a decrease in mobility due to chronic back pain.

Davidson had tried more than 15 different types of treatment, both alternative and traditional, including physical therapy, sports medicine, acupuncture, shiatsu and applied kinesiology with no success. He also contemplated back surgery.

Then, he met Esther Gokhale and learned her method of using healthy posture to relieve pain.

"Before beginning treatment with Esther, I hadn't experienced a day or night without pain in over a decade," he said.

He never thought the method would be effective so quickly.

"After working with Esther, I saw a remarkable improvement almost immediately. It changed my life. It gave me back my ability to be physically active and live without pain. I have an immense amount of gratitude to her," he said.

Gokhale said she believes the root of chronic back pain, as well as neck, hip, and knee pain, is bad posture.

"Most back pain is addressable, in my experience. The only exception is irreversible genetic abnormalities, which are rare," she said.

Gokhale teaches people how to reestablish their natural posture and maintain it through movement. She borrows ideas from other disciplines including the Alexander technique, Feldenkrais method, Pilates, yoga and dance, among others. Ultimately, the Gokhale method is a way for people to return to the posture they had when they were babies -- what is in their genes, she said.

Gokhale focuses on lengthening and straightening muscles as opposed to shortening and straightening them. Patients focus on simple changes, including sitting with the tail bone out, as opposed to tucking the pelvis in.

Halle Agdassi, a physician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation, has been referring patients to Gokhale for several years.

"It is a tool that people can use on an everyday basis to sit, stand and carry themselves. It's an easy method to use in daily life. All my patients who have had lower back pain and used her method have had success," she said.

Gokhale's anthropological and anatomical approaches set her method apart, according to Agdassi.

Traveling in Africa, Europe, Asia and South America, Gokhale studied traditional cultures that have low incidences of muscle and joint problems, and incorporated her observations into her technique. Clients emulate photographs of people with correct postures from around the world.

"The less industrial a country, the more likely you are to find people with correct posture and movement. In Chad, 5 percent of people suffer from back pain sometime in their lives; in the United States that number is 80 percent. My mission in life is to close that gap," Gokhale said.

She also uses medical literature and anatomical arguments to back her ideas. Western and eastern approaches reflect both her interest in alternative medicine and her scientific background. After graduating from Princeton University with a degree in biochemistry, Gokhale studied acupuncture at San Francisco College of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

But her lifelong dedication to understanding and addressing the root of back pain began when she had back problems of her own. When pregnant with her first child, Gokhale suffered from sciatica, with pain beginning in the hip and continuing down the leg. She underwent back surgery, but for years thereafter she continued to have recurring back pain.

She studied in Paris with yoga teacher Noelle Perez in Aplomb, a French movement-re-education technique that focused on posture; then traveled and studied the various cultures with low incidence of back pain.

"I teach people to return to the normal shape of their spine and preserve it in their movement. Almost every person who takes my class grows one-quarter to one-half an inch from straightening out their spine," she said.

To achieve maximum success, her method must be taught using three components: the kinesthetic, visual and intellectual, she said.

"These three channels allow people to not only feel the difference in posture, but to see the differences in images and understand the anatomy behind it," she said.

Images are vital in learning correct posture, she said. "We're little monkeys, we copy each other," she added.

People are also intellectually driven, and knowing the reasoning behind what someone is doing motivates people to work harder, she said.

"I think her method is very sound anatomically, kinesthetically and clinically. I like that she uses an anthropological basis for her work and incorporates yoga and dance," client Davidson said.

Agdassi believes in Gokhale's method so strongly that she is spearheading a medical study to evaluate its benefits in people who have chronic low-back pain and have failed physical therapy.

Gokhale has written a book "Eight Steps to a Pain Free Back" that she hopes will be in stores by spring 2008. It explains her method step by step, with the aid of more than 1,000 images. Her book is the first in a series titled, "Remember When It Didn't Hurt." She plans other books to focus specifically on sitting and sleeping without hurting the back.

She currently hopes to teach children to develop proper posture at an early age. "Early in life is when the neural pathways in the brain are set for sitting and other important positions. I want people to develop healthy habits as soon as possible," she said.

Her method is effective for people of all ages, she said.

Davidson agrees. "Her work is both down-to-earth and elegant, and has helped me in ways I could not even have imagined. I believe she has the ability to help a great number of people of all ages."

Editorial Intern Rotem Ben-Shachar can be e-mailed at rbenshachar@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Jean Gordon, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Aug 23, 2007 at 9:35 pm

As a patientof Esther, I have seen remarkable improvement in my back Bravo!!


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