Over the last year, I have dealt with chronic back problems for the first time in my life.
Over the last three months I have, for the most part, solved those problems with the help of a miracle-working book and its miracle-working author, Esther Gokhale. So this week’s column is not a call for sympathy, but rather a sharing of information in the hopes that it could help you if you are feeling limited by an aching back.
With every shovelful of soil, with every trug jammed with weeds, we work our backs and our bodies. But whether we strengthen or abuse those bodies is not something I think most people know how to meaningfully affect – consequently, we abuse them.
One day you can work outside all day, the next you’re crippled in an easy chair – and the easy-chair odds increase the older we get. Excess weight can surely play a large role, but overall we can no longer ‘get away’ with poor habits, long periods of little exercise, or conversely, short bursts of extreme work. There are pain pills to pop and interim surgeries to be had, but after decades of abuse and no real solution, our aging bodies begin to give out much sooner than they should.
I’ve dealt with temporary back soreness and a bit of wonkiness in the hip department due to breaking my sacrum in a riding accident, but when I started to have real problems, things were different. Cripplingly different. Any exertion in the garden digging holes, weeding or lifting exacerbated underlying chronic pain that made me feel old and tired and full of sleep and certainly not qualified to lecture on the importance of getting out there and feeling the soil between my fingers.
Gardeners put a great deal of stress on their bodies and soreness is to be expected, but if lycra-suited gym-monkeys pay good money to routinely lift the equivalent of a five gallon pot and work their obliques harder in 30 minutes than it is possible to do armed with a hoe and a bandana, why don’t they hurt as much?
Because they’re doing it right.
And what’s more, someone makes sure they’re doing it right.
No one walks around with you on your first day in the garden and gently corrects your posture, or tells you to hinge your hips when you bend, or even yells at you when you reach three feet to pick up a cinder block. You’re on your own out there, and your doctor or chiropractor usually deals with your poor decisions much later when you can no longer ignore them.
I’m not completely stupid. I know not to reach, I know to bend with the knees, I know to make my husband lift the 15 foot banana and stow it in the garage. Yet last year I found myself almost crippled.
And it came to a head when I went back to California in February to check in on my parents and found myself begging for a wheelchair at the airport. My (retired) chiropractor father watched me with concern for a couple of days, had me visit his chiropractor, and when nothing seemed to help, one night handed me a book: 8 Steps to A Pain-Free Back by Esther Gokhale. It had helped him tremendously he said, why didn’t I give it a try?
It was the subtitle that got me – “Remember when it didn’t hurt?” Well, ‘when it didn’t hurt’ wasn’t that long ago. I was still confused by what was going on with me; so with nothing to lose I leafed through it. I bought it shortly afterwards.
Gokhale’s method is based upon a premise taught by Noelle Perez of the Parisian L’Institute d’ Aplomb: that people of less industrialized cultures who often spend many hours doing hard physical labor do so with little or no reported pain well into late middle age and old age. After much anthropological study of these cultures and the way in which they sit, stand and work in contrast to our own, Perez taught her students a ‘posture modification technique’ that, at its core, teaches the student to antevert the pelvis and allow a natural stacking of the vertebrae – instead of tucking the pelvis under and creating tension and bulging of the disks.
After studying at the Institute, Gokhale did her own extensive field research and came up with a method that can be incorporated into the simplest of actions: walking, sitting, standing, bending and lying down – and she copiously illustrates the book with photos of people in other cultures instinctively doing the right thing whilst performing tasks that would cripple many of us in the Western world.
I had to re-train my brain quite extensively to benefit from this ancient wisdom. In my early life I trained as a dancer. A tucked in pelvis has been my idea of standing straight ever since. Not so, says Gokhale. An anteverted pelvis is where it’s at. Don’t focus on the knees, think about the hips as a hinge. I could go on, but Gokhale is so much better at explaining it than I am.
Bottom line? I and thousands of others like me have managed to break that pain cycle and feel in control again. In February I looked at the garden and felt desperate at the work that needed to be done. Here in May I feel the excitement I used to feel.
If you’re suffering, what do you have to lose? There’s a lot of work that needs to be done out there, and we’ve got to be at our best to do it. Gokhale gives us our best back, back again.
A version of this column first appeared in The Frederick News Post. It is posted here with kind permission.