“Back pain belongs in a museum,” says Esther Gokhale. “And my goal is to put it in one.” Trained in biochemistry at Harvard and Princeton, the San Francisco-based author and pain-management expert went on to study Chinese Medicine and acupuncture, as well as a French movement re-education technique called Aplomb. As she fought her own battles with back pain, Gokhale (pronounced “Go-Clay”) became fascinated with cultures that had low-instances of back problems. She then traveled through Asia, Africa, and Latin America to study the posture, physiology, and even traditional dances of these cultures—extensive field research that eventually led to the creation of the Gokhale Method, a comprehensive plan for pain-free living that’s taught at centers and seminars across the country. (Free sessions are also available online.) Her companion book, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, was released in 2008.
It seems like, at one time or another, back pain is an issue for most people. With your clients, do you see a correlation between back pain, stress, and sleep issues like insomnia?
Esther Gokhale: Absolutely. About 85 percent of people suffer from back pain; that figure should be down around 5 percent. A lot of people misuse their bodies all day long, leading to shortened muscles and misplaced discs. Then at night, we plop into bed in those same incorrect positions, and the mattress just helps maintain the distortions. Ideally, you want to “lose” your body at night—the body should be re-setting at that time, without aches and pains to distract it; night is the time to un-do any “mischief” you’ve done during the day. When you toss and turn, it’s your subconscious looking for something better, for a sounder sleep. After taking my classes, many of my clients are shocked to wake up in the same position they lay down in!
What sort of “sleep posture” is ideal?
By consciously elongating the body when you lie down, you are giving the tissues and spinal cord discs the chance to hydrate, the muscles the chance to breathe, and the lungs the chance to expand. Circulation is restored, so sleep becomes optimal. Think in terms of the J-Spine—the back, shoulders, and lumbar back are straight, the buttocks slightly thrust out. In our society, we tend to do an S–Spine, with the head and spine curved. But in places like Burkina Faso, the J-Spine, with open shoulders, is the norm—they even perform extensive massage on babies to encourage an elongated spine.
If you sleep on your side, it’s a good opportunity to practice being in a J-Spine position. If lying on your back, prop yourself up on your elbows, with bent knees. Dig your elbows into the bed, then roll back on to the mattress slowly, vertebra by vertebra. Slide shoulders towards the feet and stretch out the back of the head and neck, so you are completely elongated. You can put a pillow under the knees to give the psoas muscles a stretch and prevent swaying or arching during sleep.
For information on Gokhale’s book, or to find workshops near you or take free online classes, visit www.egwellness.com.