This year I have been delighted to sit on the panel for two of the Wild Oats Health Connect talks. In May I joined the team for the ‘Diseases of Civilization’, and in September returned for the ‘Musculoskeletal Disorders’ discussion.
Like the other speakers and participants, I share a deep interest and enthusiasm for exploring and pursuing natural health. My contribution however is not in the area of food and nutrition, but in postural health, a component of health which is barely on most people’s radar.
You would not be alone in asking me to explain what is meant by postural health, or even asking, why does it matter? The very word ‘posture’ seems to conjure up stiff and outmoded notions of ‘deportment classes’! Actually, that is not altogether off the mark, but I will reclaim the word to simply mean how, as physical beings, we habitually arrange ourselves in gravity.
We have choices. We can stand, sit walk and bend in a way that is harmonious with the structures of our body, or we can adopt postural patterns that are likely to get us in to trouble. In the latter case, the stresses of gravity will be borne by areas of bone and tissue never designed for such use and which will struggle to respond adequately. Typically, these areas will suffer excessive compression, wear and tear, or distortion – respectively to discs, knee joints and big toe joints, for example. Meanwhile, areas that actually need certain forces to be stimulated and develop healthily will be bypassed – resulting perhaps in a localized lack of bone density, or chronically tight hamstrings. These are just a few examples, but, as the whole body exists in the field of gravity, you can see that every part of our structure and physiology is affected in some way.
Think of posture as a ‘snapshot’ of our movement patterns. In this way you can see it is a useful indicator of our biomechanical functioning. Working with posture can transform previously tiring, painful and inefficient patterns into pain-free every day movement, not to mention sports, dance and rehabilitation work. For example, I frequently see joggers pounding the ground with virtually no engagement from their feet, buttocks or the deep spinal muscles that could propel, lift and protect them. These actions are our birthright, and should be familiar to us through the natural postural patterns in standing, lifting and walking. We need to raise the bar of what we consider normal, healthy activity.
So where do we look to find natural posture? Six years ago and after two decades studying and teaching various approaches to yoga,one of my students lent me a book called ‘8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back’. I was sceptical about the title, so I confess it was not until I had to return the book that I actually read it! It articulated much of what I had experienced through years of practice. To my surprise, I was transfixed by its content.
The book is the work of Esther Gokhale. Imagine being a young mum, and being told, after unsuccessful back surgery, that you should not have any more children. Esther was determined to find a solution to her pain, and undertook extensive research among traditional communities in parts of Africa, India, Brazil and Southern Europe. These populations reported an astoundingly low (5% – 7% compared to 80% in the UK) incidence of back and joint pain, despite either manual or more sedentary labour. Gokhale found that, while culturally diverse, these people had something striking in common, young or old, male or female – and this was their posture. And it was markedly different from what is now regarded as ‘normal’, or even ‘ideal’ in the industrialised world.
Esther Gokhale’s background was in biochemistry at Harvard and Princeton – the scientist in her needed to understand exactly how postural alignment made such a difference to our structural health. She investigated its effects on our anatomy and function, and she saw that, while the modern world had drifted towards a very ‘S’ shaped spine, often with the pelvis and tail bones tucked under, indigenous tribes and non-industrialised cultures had preserved what Gokhale called their ‘primal architecture’.
This image shows an anteversion of the pelvis at the lumbar-sacral junction, allowing the spine to remain aligned in a more ‘J’-shape with the pelvis and buttocks further behind, not tucked under. This alignment is maintained while walking, sitting and bending. This was the ancestral way, how the human body has evolved, and how we all are as young children. The Gokhale Method is not based on abstract theories, but on respecting a blueprint that has worked for our species for thousands of years.
Rediscovering a ‘natural blueprint’ for health is not an altogether new idea. Some Wild Oats readers will be familiar with the pioneering work of Weston Price, an early-C20th American dentist who questioned why his patients’ teeth were so decayed and overcrowded. He noted back in the 1930s that the refined western diet was causing nutritional deficiencies and also a poorly developed facial structure. By contrast, he found that people in aboriginal cultures who ate a traditional diet had none of these problems.
What is new about Gokhale’s work is that she has identified the vast cultural blind-spot that is postural health. Commonly, we attribute the nation’s rising tide of back pain, joint problems and other musculoskeletal dysfunction to three main causes: being sedentary rather than active, increasing obesity, and having an ageing population. I believe that even if we could address all three of these culprits – and wouldn’t that be wonderful! – we would still be left floundering because our culture has lost sight of what a healthy human structure actually looks like. Gokhale’s answer is both radical and inspirational – to look at how we raise our children, re-examine our notions of fitness, our furniture and fashion, and revise our ideas about what is actually ‘normal’ for our species.
It occurs to me that improving both our nutritional and postural health requires two basic things:
- Avoid what does us harm! Understand that many common so-called foods are not health supporting. Understand that most modern ideas about posture, furniture design, shoes etc, will not serve us well.
- Give the body what it truly needs.
And this is why I feel very much at home among the Health Connect community. In the past few years this series has provided a fresh platform to challenge the conventional wisdom concerning diet and nutrition and the causes of modern disease. It is providing new perspectives and answers to people who understand that there is a better way. Let’s embrace and embody that with healthy posture too.
Clare Chapman studied with Esther Gokhale in the US, and teaches the full 6-lesson Gokhale Method Foundation Course in Bristol. She offers Free Workshops and gives talks to a variety of groups and organizations. This year she is developing a Posture Project in Bristol schools, with INSET training for teachers and talks to Parents’ organizations. Find out more at:
or contact Clare on 07982 231317