Pregnancy Without Pain
When Esther Gokhale was nine months pregnant, she experienced intense pain along the sciatic nerve in her lower back. Doctors expected it to go away when the baby was born, but it continued, so painfully that she sometimes had to walk around the block in between the baby’s nighttime feedings to relieve severe back spasms.
Gokhale tried acupuncture and physical and chiropractic therapy. She had little success, and a day before baby Maya’s first birthday, she underwent surgery for a herniated disk. But the pain returned, setting Gokhale on a yearlong quest for a solution to back pain.
She literally traveled around the world and found the answer in an unlikely place – in traditional societies, and in the way they stand, sit and position their bodies. Gokhale developed a method to transform posture and relieve back, neck and shoulder pain, which she has taught at the Esther Gokhale Wellness Center in Palo Alto since 1992.
According to the American Pregnancy Association, 50 to 70 percent of pregnant women feel back pain, and many women also develop back discomfort after their babies are born. But, knowing that back pain was common among new moms didn’t make it any easier, Gokhale recalls.
“As the baby got heavier, it got harder and harder to do everyday things, and the pain kept getting worse,” she says.
By the time she had surgery, she hadn’t been able to carry Maya for several months. Maya became very independent – walking at nine months, climbing into a bike carrier without help and entertaining herself. Gokhale was grateful, but it also left her feeling inadequate as a mom, and she suspected that Maya had feelings of abandonment.
“It was subtle, but it took many years to fade,” Gokhale says.
When the pain returned just a year after surgery, she began exploring alternative treatments.
She learned of L’Institut d’Aplomb in Paris, where instructor Noelle Perez taught an anthropologically based posture technique. Perez noticed that certain traditional cultures have a much lower incidence of back pain than those in industrialized countries, and theorized that the latter have lost age-old techniques for using their bodies safely.
Gokhale studied with Perez, learning to mimic the everyday movements of these villagers and tribal members. Her back pain eased. Inspired, she visited India, Brazil, Portugal and Burkina Faso in Africa to observe, photograph and interview people without back pain. She saw that people in these communities do strenuous work, but stay safe due to good posture and skeletal structure.
Many of us in modern societies have lost this natural architecture, Gokhale says. We stand, sit, bend and walk poorly, developing distortions in our backs, necks, hips and feet.
Gokhale believes this is why 90 percent of the U.S. population suffers back and neck pain at some point, according to the World Health Organization, even while spending $100 billion a year to avoid or treat it.
Baby Adds to the Burden
Adding pregnancy on top of these distortions is often “more than our systems can bear,” she says.
Still, pregnancy doesn’t have to be that way. In the traditional villages she visited, Gokhale marveled at how expecting and new mothers carried the extra weight not only painlessly, but gracefully.
“What I’ve realized is that pregnancy and maternity are indeed stresses on the system, but they are stresses that we are capable of withstanding if we have healthy baseline body architecture and movement patterns,” Gokhale says.
Based on what she learned from Perez and her trips, Gokhale created a series of unique posture methods for normal daily movements, including sitting, standing and walking. She recently compiled them into a Nautilus Award-winning book, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back. The book is packed with photos and detailed step-by-step instructions, but the basic tenets are fairly simple to follow.
Standing and sitting up straight are keys to good posture, but many people don’t know how to do it, Gokhale says. An important step is to antevert, or tip, the pelvis and buttocks back slightly while sitting or standing. Many people have learned, incorrectly, to tuck the rear end in and push the pelvis forward, but Gokhale says this can cause us to slump and put undue pressure on the discs of the lower back.
The next step is to hold the shoulders toward the back so that the arms hang near the back of the torso and the thumbs or palms face forward. Also important is to push the top of the head upward to lengthen the spine and decompress the vertebrae. If standing, most weight should be over the heels.
For pregnant women, Gokhale also recommends her “inner corset” method, in which moms keep their belly and back muscles contracted while keeping healthy posture. The inner corset forms a brace to make the torso tall and slender instead of short and squat, much like the support belts that some people wear to move heavy objects. (See sidebar for details on this method.)
While no studies have been done to rate the effectiveness of her methods, the anecdotal evidence is strong. Gokhale includes rave reviews in her book from dozens of clients, as well as doctors from the Mayo Clinic, Stanford University and Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
One of her clients is Carrie Rautmann of Hawaii, who visited Gokhale to prevent back pain when she was expecting her second child.
“During pregnancy and after birth, I really developed my relationship to the (inner corset), how I carried my upper torso to support the extra weight,” she says. “I have deep appreciation for the work Esther did with me. Back pain did not really exist with this second baby.”
Another mom, Charlie Rain Almoney of Colorado, took Gokhale’s classes to heal a disc that she hurt while carrying her twin baby girls.
“The work has really stabilized my core,” Almoney says. “The fact that I haven’t felt pain for eight months since working with her is amazing.”
Gokhale’s methods have had a profound impact on her own motherhood experience. While suffering from the herniated disc following Maya’s birth, doctors advised her against having any more children. However, as she transformed her posture and healed her back, she felt the confidence to have two more children. Both experiences, to Gokhale’s great delight, were pain free.
Angela Geiser is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.
Using Your “Inner Corset”
- Stand in a relaxed, balanced position with most of your weight on your heels.
- Place the fingertips of your left hand on your spinal groove.
- With your right hand, reach upward and a little forward. Lengthen your back and maintain your spinal groove.
- Reach up with your left hand. Keep your arms parallel and stretch upward as far as you can. Become aware of the muscles in your abdomen. Contract these muscles so your abdomen feels sleeker than usual. Don’t sway the back by moving the shoulders and rear too far back.
- Lower your arms and relax your shoulders while maintaining the abdominal support established in step four.
Source: Esther Gokhale