That is, until late in her first pregnancy, when form and function seemed to fail her all at once. Gokhale, in her fifties today, was a married twenty-something living in Palo Alto as she entered the final month of pregnancy. As any mother knows, sitting, standing and walking for two often creates unexpected burdens; but Gokhale’s burden was sudden and excruciating. As her due date drew closer, she developed sciatic pains, shooting up and down the back of her leg.
“I was told it would go away, maybe this baby’s sitting on a nerve,” Gokhale remembers. “After delivery, the doctors said, it will probably be fine. It wasn’t fine.”
After giving birth to her daughter, Gokhale’s troubles only intensified. At first, she struggled to carry the new child. Soon after, even cooking pots and laundry bins were impossible. She would wake up each night, every two hours or so, with intense back spasms. “I would have to hobble out of bed and walk around the neighborhood in order to get out of spasm, just so I could go to sleep again,” Gokhale says.
A former biochemistry major at Princeton, Gokhale turned first to conventional medical wisdom. She tried everything – except most medications, as she was nursing her newborn child. When the traditional approach failed, she tried acupuncture, exercise, and alternative medicine all without avail. Doctors had diagnosed her with a large herniated disc, and for all of Gokhale’s fixation on the human form, surgery was the only fix in sight.
Of course, Gokhale’s debilitating back pain was no rare malady. Lower back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide. Even in developed countries like the U.S., where medical interventions run rampant, studies suggest that as much as eighty percent of people will live with serious back pain at some point in their lives. In any given year, half the U.S. population will suffer from back issues. Although most of these ailments are not due to serious conditions such as fracture, arthritis, or cancer, the U.S. healthcare system will spend upwards of $50 billion per year in treatment. And these are conservative estimates.
Thus, when Gokhale emerged from herniated disc surgery, her narrative was already weaved into a much larger, cultural matter.
But if Gokhale’s back pain appeared to come out of nowhere, nowhere is where it went after surgery. She felt mild relief following the operation, but soon began having twinges and pains. Within one year, she had re-herniated the exact same disc. Doctors not only recommended another surgery, but told her that she would likely never carry another child. Her future mobility, her quality of life, hung on the balance of scalpel and chance.
“It was a shock to my system,” Gokhale remembers. Still a young, healthy woman in her mid-twenties – and an intelligent, independent one at that – she simply could not believe that this was her life moving forward.
With her world and her options narrowing, Gokhale cast a wider net. Inspired by the Eastern medical traditions of her youth, the young mother was already a Licensed Acupuncturist; that background empowered her to study new techniques, review medical literature, and seek to rediscover her old body as a young woman.
“The approaches that made sense to me were the ones that addressed the ways in which you use your body,” remembers Gokhale. “Most of the measures out there address the symptoms, but they aren’t really looking at the root cause.”
The root cause of most back pain, Gokhale came to believe, was actually quite simple: people were misusing their bodies. The Princeton-trained biochemist now went to study at the Aplomb Institute in Paris, which gave her key insights into the natural state – or “primal posture” – of the human spine. The pelvis, for example, is not meant to be tucked underneath the spine, but rather tilted forward. The spine itself is not designed to be stiff and upright – which promotes an S-shape from sacrum to skull – but should instead form a J-shape, with the vertebral column naturally elongated, and shoulders rolled back.
As Gokhale embraced these insights (among others), she found relief from life-altering back pain. Inspired by this new perspective, she began to travel the world, bringing a camera and notepad to diverse non-industrialized cultures – African villages, tribal groups in Brazil – hoping to learn and document the primal posture in these less-developed populations.
In most of the modern world, Gokhale says, “Back pain is very democratic. It affects everybody – all income levels, genders. It’s ubiquitous.” Non-industrialized people groups, with scarce access to modern medicine, might thus be subject to even worse difficulty. But while travelling to remote villages and agrarian cultures, Gokhale found something quite interesting: individuals in less-developed regions certainly had their troubles (from food scarcity, to sanitary issues, to economic burdens) but posture and biomechanical back pain were not among them.
In a TEDx talk given at Stanford University, she showed pictures from her collection: in one, two young boys point towards a Borneo forest canopy, their backs displaying that beautiful J-shape which Gokhale had learned at the Aplomb Institute; in another, an ancient Greek statue depicts a man standing in piquantly similar fashion.
Gokhale returned galvanized from her studies and travels. After all, rediscovering her natural human shape had been nothing short of revolutionary: “I’ve had no difficulties whatsoever in the last twenty-five-plus years. Not a back ache, not a twinge, certainly not a pain.” With multiple bulging discs remaining – she never had that second surgery – the young woman defied medical expectations and gave birth to two more children without issue. Gokhale couldn’t keep this to herself. She decided, soon after, “To teach other people how to restore their normal structure, and with it, a normal level of function – which is quite high for humans.”
Liberated from back pain and energized with purpose, she formalized what is now known as “The Gokhale Method,” using principles learn from Aplomb, indigenous tribes, and medical research. Within this new method, Gokhale’s lived wisdom was blended into a six-session course, which is now taught in the U.S., England, Germany, India, Australia, and several other countries. Though not a magic bullet, the approach is simple, intuitive, and effective – explaining how it has spread so rapidly, from one woman’s pursuit of a pain-free body: “[The method feels strange at first, but it feels strangely familiar. When we’re positioned correctly, there’s an internal logic to it.”
Gokahle during a class session in Palo Alto.
For Gokhale, whose own instructive work is based in Palo Alto, that simple logic has attracted support from the medical community as well. “Medical professionals are our strongest supporters,” she says. “They know a magic bullet for back pain doesn’t exist. But our method is down to earth, and it works. Physicians like that.”
With a heterogeneous approach – including visual, intellectual, and kinesthetic tools – and an emphasis on real, empirical results, the Gokhale Method Institute has incurred support from medical groups worldwide. In fact, one prominent crowdsourcing website for evaluating medical interventions, “Health Outcome,” ranks postural modification as the most effective back pain intervention by far; and the Gokhale Method is the highest-rated postural modification approach listed on the site, again by a large margin. With thousands of contributors providing extensive data, the site has even led Stanford bioinformatics researchers to publish a study asking, “Is crowdsourcing patient-based outcomes the future of evidence-based medicine? A Case Study of Back Pain.” For Gokhale, the statistical evidence and patient responses are clear: This approach works, and it works well.
But for Gokhale, who raised three children in Palo Alto and lives on Stanford campus, posture is not just about individual outcomes. For her, the Western prominence of debilitating back pain reflects a much larger quandary. It reflects a cultural misconception which begins, as she claims, “With the way babies are carried – poorly-designed car seats, strollers. There’s this learned pattern of tucking your pelvis, the equivalent of putting your tail between your legs.” That misunderstanding continues throughout life, where individuals observe and learn from one another’s postures, propagating a downward spiral from true human form.
As such, Gokhale’s presence in Palo Alto – when she could still be travelling the world, teaching and observing other cultures – comes from a sense of purpose: “I’m focused on creating a ‘Posture Village’ at home. I want to be here, to excite people in Palo Alto to take these things into their lives, grow with it, and not have aches and pains pulling them down.”
Throughout the past twenty-five years, Gokhale’s efficient and effective method has formed into a teachable seedling, and her mission is to plant that seed throughout the region. This focus has earned her a compelling moniker, given by the New York Times: Posture Guru of Silicon Valley. Gokhale’s active planting – everywhere from her studio near California Avenue, to Google, Facebook, and Stanford campuses – is driven by a simple notion: “Posture is a cultural matter. Bit by bit, we’re trying to re-seed the culture.”
Indeed, with a U.S. healthcare system ballooning in cost – in part due to invasive (and often unnecessary) procedures – cultural posture planting has never seemed more critical. Insurance companies still reimburse heavily for procedures like herniated disc surgery, while being reluctant to pay for approaches like the Gokhale Method. In addition, many patients may not understand their alternative options – which might save them time and money, while ultimately being more effective.
“The things we blame a lot of our problems on – sitting, working at a desk – are actually easy to do well,” Gokhale says. But in stark contrast to the invasive and (ostensibly) one-time surgical approach, her method is less of an intervention, and more of a lifelong journey: “It’s like a quest: What’s the best shape of me?” In her simple and personal courses, Gokhale sets the stage for each person to “Solve the puzzle of their situation: The right mix of postures, symptoms, work habits, and how to get those pain-free and re-architected.”
Gokhale with a student.
Living now in her adopted home of Palo Alto, and Western culture at large, Esther Gokhale still revels in the simplicity and power of the human body. What she once thought to be a poorly-designed structure, which caved on her as a young woman, she now embraces for its primal beauty. She takes joy in her three children – two of whom doctors believed she would never have. She finds energy and dynamism in dance, still possible for her, despite those bulging discs.
But most of all, as Gokhale sits, stands, and walks through her Palo Alto studio, there is a palpable coherence to her work. It is not unlike that oddly-familiar feeling which students come across in her class, while rediscovering their proper shape for the first time. The logic of a healthy back, a pain-free dynamism, and a posture-village community remains transfixed in Gokhale’s heart and mind.
“We help people ask, ‘How do I find my best self?’ ” she says, considering the bodies and worlds ahead of her students. “There’s a motherlode of possibilities.”
To learn more about Esther Gokhale and her work, please visit the Gokhale Method Institute website: https://gokhalemethod.com/