Don't blame the office for your back pain. The time you spend in your chair is probably not the problem. "Sitting has gained such a bad reputation – it's the new smoking," says back pain expert Esther Gokhale, founder of Palo Alto's Gokhale Method Institute and author of '8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back.' "It's not just that people sit too much," she says. "It's that people don't know how to sit in a healthy way."
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Gokhale (pronounced "Go-klay") seeks to replace the traditional approach to sitting – shoulders pushed back, chest out, butt jammed into the lower rear of a chair – with a posture that she describes as "J shaped," with a straight back and a curve starting at the butt. An acupuncturist and former yoga instructor, Gokhale suffered from back pain since she was young. To learn how to solve her issues, she started studying posture techniques at the Aplomb Institute in Paris, but it was while in places such as Burkina Faso and India that she noticed potters and weavers maintaining straight-arrow posture without the lower-back aches that plague most office types. "That registered in my consciousness," she says. "Here are people who have some sort of body wisdom."
From her field research, she devised an approach to sitting based on elongating the spine and lessening the stress on the lower back. She also discourages lower lumbar support to alleviate back pain – the kind of cushioning that is integral to the design of expensive ergonomic office chairs. "The conventional approach of tucking your pelvis, making an S-shaped spine, putting your chin up and chest out, just doesn't serve people well," she says.
"It's not a new concept; the idea of elongating your spine goes back thousands of years," says physical therapist Mary Saloka Morrison at the Cleveland Clinic. "But she's done a great job of putting together this package. These are fundamentally good skills." Some experts note that taking away lumbar support may not be for everyone, especially those with weak core muscles, but Gokhale points out that you can develop the strength. "It's amazing how resilient the human frame is," Gokhale says, "but people are sitting longer hours and sitting poorly. We have to stop subjecting ourselves to ongoing abuse."
Let your feet sit any way that's comfortable: flat, on your toes, or with crossed legs. Just avoid twisting your spine.
Credit: Illustration by Joe McKendry