Clare Chapman is a postural health and Yoga teacher in Bristol. This is the second of her guest features and is part of her innovative work over the past 5 years with Californian natural posture teacher, Esther Gokhale. Gokhale’s inspirational book ‘8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back’ recently reached No.2 on Amazon.com. I think you will be as fascinated as I am to read what Clare has to say about something we really take for granted – walking…
Walking the Talk
Have you noticed how some people have a highly distinctive walk? In show business a ‘signature’ walk is often cultivated – you might think of John Wayne’s swagger, or by contrast, Alan Carr (Chatty Man) doing a camp wiggle. Some stars are clearly defined by their walk – just think of Charlie Chaplin’s comic waddle. Then there’s the cool walk that says ‘streetwise dude’, and another that oozes sophistication on the fashion runway. Most of us can recognise someone we know at a distance, not only by their silhouette, but also by their walk. Next time you are out enjoying a coffee, try watching the people as they pass by and you’ll be both entertained and amazed by how varied the human walk is.
in the UK back pain affects over 80% of the population, and back, hip, knee, neck, shoulder and foot problems are affecting people at an increasingly young age
Now, as well as walking actually being great for a bit of people-watching, we also know that it is good for
our quality of life. We can go for afternoon strolls or weekend hikes, alone or with family and friends. Walking around our cities, towns and villages enables more social interaction in our communities than being in a vehicle, and of course being on foot brings huge environmental benefits over car use, from lowering emissions to creating safer residential areas. In terms of our health, just take a few significant walks per week and you have maintained a good base-line fitness. We have known for years that reasonably brisk walking with a few inclines along the way will benefit our cardio-vascular fitness, boost our circulation and burn calories. So, where should we start?
With the toddlers!
One of the amazing things about walking is that it is something our bodies are designed to do for virtually a lifetime, from our early years well into old age. Now, we all love to see a baby take its first steps, but if you are a parent, it is important not to put your baby in to any type of ‘walker’. If they need the support of a walker, then their postural muscles are not ready for sustained standing, and this will encourage them to feel the ground from a slumped, semi-seated position. This completely interferes with their natural ability to find their balance by aligning their body weight perfectly over the heel bone. It also by-passes the vital synchronization of arm and leg movement obtained by crawling, which is instrumental in proper gait development. As they get to the toddler stage, avoid any pushchairs where concave bucket-style seats and saggy footrests encourage the hips and legs to internally rotate, which sets children up to have knock-knees and fallen arches. Also, watch out for children outgrowing the deep, padded side panels to their car seats, which will prevent them from resting with their knees naturally apart- you can find out more about the postural development of children in my previous article.
As your toddler begins to walk, he/she will use a natural reflex that allows their feet to play an active part in this new skill. The grab reflex babies are born with remains in place for the first 20 months of life, and this ability to use their arches and foot muscles will give them the power and control to walk in balance. If shoes are put on babies’ and toddlers’ feet this foot coordination can become inhibited or lost altogether. Whenever possible, let your toddler walk barefoot. If the floor is cold, find flexible socks/slippers that have some non-slip finish on the sole. Whenever possible, let your baby work his feet in sand, soil and against contoured surfaces when crawling to build up his foot action for walking. If you are a parent, encourage your infants to walk once they are naturally ready to do so, and build it in to daily life as they grow up.
Due to industrialised lifestyles, poorly designed furniture, fashion and mistaken notions of ‘normal’ posture, modern populations are actually losing the ability to remain structurally healthy and enjoy pain-free walking
Keeping it natural
Walking is our natural method of locomotion. This means we have not only evolved perfectly to do it, but that doing it well actually helps to maintain the health of our entire anatomical and physiological system. While skateboards, scooters, treadmills, bikes and cars have their place, we are not designed to live on wheels, and these machines do not allow our muscles and joints to function in the way they have evolved and need to. Good walking is both an essential and a therapeutic action. On the other hand, poor walking form is actually doing a lot of damage…
As a postural health teacher working with people to address their back pain and other musculo-skeletal problems, I see a lot of potential for people to walk better. One of the most helpful things we do on the Gokhale Method Foundation Course is to analyse students’ standing posture and their walk, and help them to rediscover and move towards a more natural gait and better biomechanics.
Unfortunately, by the time most people are teenagers they have already learned some bad postural habits. A common pattern is to sit, stand and, of course, walk, with their tail tucked under and their legs pushed forward. This photograph of a mannequin captures this problematic stance quite well:
A walking action like this typically results in:
- Lower back problems
- Weak core/postural muscles
- Tight hamstrings and psoas muscles
- Poor glute action and wasted muscle
- Protruding abdomen
- Tight hip joints, leading to restricted range of movement, wear and tear
- Wear and tear on the knees
- Tight calf muscles
- Weak foot action – plantar fasciitis and other problems
Due to industrialised lifestyles, poorly designed furniture, fashion and mistaken notions of ‘normal’ posture, modern populations are actually losing the ability to remain structurally healthy and enjoy pain-free walking. Instead, we are seeing soaring demand for pain relief, physical therapies, orthotics, disc repairs and joint replacements. The NHS cannot keep up with demand, that’s for sure, and while physiotherapists, osteopaths and chiropractors can all do wonderful corrective work, we should be asking, what are the reasons for this epidemic of problems; what basic rules of physical health are we contradicting, and how do we address the root causes of this problem?
Californian posture expert Esther Gokhale found compelling evidence that the loss of traditional body wisdom in our modern industrialized societies has resulted in a much- diminished level of musculoskeletal health. For example, in the UK back pain affects over 80% of the population, and back, hip, knee, neck, shoulder and foot problems are affecting people at an increasingly young age. On the other hand, the traditional communities she researched extensively in parts of Africa, India, Brazil and Southern Europe report an astoundingly low (5% – 7%) incidence of back and joint pain despite long hours of manual or sedentary labour.
This is the reason she founded the Gokhale Method and wrote the best-selling book, “8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back”. Through her book she is reaching out internationally to demonstrate that traditional societies around the world can still show us the way we were truly designed to walk, bend, sit, sleep and carry. I’ve studied with Esther for over 5 years, and offer you, the Anything Goes readers Five Tips for Walking Well:
1. Stand with a small ‘zigzag squat’ as your starting point. Make sure your behind and your ‘tail’ relax out behind you, not tucked forward and under. This is how we learned to stand as toddlers – relaxed, balanced and ready to go! Feel your bodyweight go through your heels, not into your forefoot. This pattern primes your ankle, knee and hip joints for correct movement.
Get in the habit of retaining subtle traces of this squat action when standing, avoiding ‘lock out’ at the hips or knees. Make the back of your neck very long, lifting the crown of your head to the sky/ceiling and relaxing your chin down.
This stance avoids compressing your spine by either arching your back in a military manner or by slumping forwards. You might imagine carrying a weight on your head, encouraging the deep muscles of your torso to support you through a long, straight spine.
2. Taking steps – smoothly squeeze your upper outer buttock muscles (gluteus medius) on each side in turn, as that leg is in contact with the ground. This upper section of the buttocks should work to power your stride from behind. Activating the gluteus medius is also key to your balance. As the back leg comes behind you, straighten it as much as possible.
Leaning forward slightly helps you find this buttock-engaging action of the back leg.
3. Bend your front knee slightly as you come to land – this natural pattern avoids the jarring and damage through the knee of landing on a straight leg.
4. Get your back heel to stay down towards the ground for a long time. This lengthens the calves and tendons, makes muscles on the sole of the foot work, and brings length to the psoas muscle.
5. Push off from your back foot with your toes active and with your whole foot engaged, not limp and bent at the base of the toes. The Gokhale Method teaches foot exercises to restore this correct muscular action if your arches have become weak.
When you walk well, your buttock and foot action combine efficiently to propel you forward; you are stronger, well balanced, and land softly. This is why Esther Gokhale calls it ‘Glidewalking’.
Walk before you Run!
Finally, a word about running. Most people take up jogging without a moment’s thought about their walking style, yet good walking form is a fantastic support, indeed a prerequisite, to running efficiently and safely. It is a major factor in why so many runners from rural Kenya and other non-industrialised cultures are so accomplished – they have been walking, and walking well, since early childhood. Good walking involves the healthy alignment of the whole structure, and in particular establishes propulsive strength in the feet and gluteal muscles, stability and lift in the torso, and avoids the soft tissue tightness and weaknesses which result in so many ‘sports injuries’. If you want to run, or need help with your running, first establish a natural, strong, smooth walking action that will sustain you comfortably for miles and well into old age, pain-free and with healthy joints – walk this way!
Clare teaches the Gokhale Method to groups and individuals, and offers free workshops to companies and organizations. For course details see: http://gokhalemethod.com/clare_chapman or call 07982 231317