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Teaching Desmond Tutu the Gokhale Method

May, 2017

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to teach Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South African social rights activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. He was recommended to my care by a common friend. His wife Leah had faced some lower back challenges, as had he. We exchanged emails and arranged a meeting during his visit to San Francisco in 2009.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

When I first saw him in the lobby of his hotel, he struck me as a very unassuming, grounded person, perfectly content to be one among many in a common area.


We went up to his room where several members of his family were gathered. My daughter Maya, the lead Gokhale Method teacher in Palo Alto at the time, was also there to assist me.

In addition to Father Tutu and Mama Leah, their daughter Mpho, who had a history of low back pain, joined the lesson. Between the props we brought along and the hotel room furnishings, we were well-equipped to teach stretchsitting, stretchlying, and more. A hotel room is a very conducive place to teach Gokhale Method principles, if you are willing to stand up on a bed, gather extra pillows from the closet, and push furniture around a little.

At one point in the lesson I inquired of Father Tutu if he was feeling stiff. “No,” he said with a twinkle, “I’m not feeling stiff; I’m just feeling stupid!” It’s a common juncture in our teaching for people to feel this. Our teachers are trained to offer some help here, interpreting what’s going on in a positive light. We might say “It’s like learning a language and no one is fluent at the get go.” Or “Our students are used to being very competent in what they do. Here you’re going back to being a baby - you’re learning to sit and walk! So it’s natural to feel out of your element.” But I didn’t say any of this to Father Tutu. It didn’t seem necessary. He was able to step outside himself and enjoy a little joke about it. 


Mpho was catching a plane later that day and we gifted her a Stretchsit cushion to make the plane journey more comfortable. This is what they wrote to me a few days later:

Hello Esther,

Thank you, thank you and thank you again. I have lived with back pain for so long that I had come to believe that it was and would be the one constant in my life.

Yesterday I had the most comfortable flight from San Francisco to Washington DC that I have ever experienced. I sat in economy class with little leg room and minimal space and got off the plane feeling rested. I had learned how to sit!

I can not thank you enough. I am toting around your book re-learning how to be in my body. It is a glorious thing!

Thank you and bless you.


The Rev. Mpho A. Tutu

The Tutu Institute for Prayer & Pilgrimage

118 N. Washington Street

Alexandria, VA 22304


From Desmond Tutu:

We can never hope to express our deep appreciation to you adequately at all. So I’m afraid you will have to settle for the hackneyed ‘thank you’. Our daughter experienced such immediate relief that, as you saw, she broke down with tears of joy and relief. Thank you so much for that too.

May God continue to bless your healing hands so that you may make more people get slightly taller as they also experience relief from what had seemed chronic pain.

God bless you richly always,

+Desmond Tutu.


Here are some warm thoughts they left me with.

  • There’s very little that is as satisfying as shoring up people who then shore up others. We all need those who help others to remain healthy, pain-free, and vibrant.
  • A lot can happen from a single Gokhale Method lesson.

Doug Abrams, a Gokhale Method Foundations course alumnus who introduced me to “Arch,” as those close to Desmond Tutu affectionately call him, was also instrumental in bringing Arch and the Dalai Lama together.

The Dalai Lama, Doug Abrams, and Archbishop Tutu

How marvelous that these two great people get to share a friendship in their old age!


They recently co-authored a book called The Book of Joy,. Here is a picture of Arch teaching the Dalai Lama how to dance! Does it get any better?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama learning to dance for the first time from his friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu 

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Thank you for sharing this beautiful inspiring story, dear Esther! I feel deeply grateful for being a part of the Gokhale Method team and experiencing the wonderful transformations our students go through - some after a whole life of being in pain - in just a few days. It will be my great pleasure to meet you again soon in Germany. In fact, I'm dancing in my seat as I write this :)

As always, your wisdom, inspiration, knowledge and experiences you continue to share makes us all grateful to have you and The Gokhale Method as part of our lives.   I'm so looking forward to learning more from you & The Gokhale Method Team in the upcoming teacher Continuing Education weekend next month and for years to come!  Thanks for all you do Esther!  

This is lovely and very inspiring, thanks Esther :)


I'm so glad to hear from our teachers in the comments on this post. There are only so many people I can lay my hands on in a lifetime. Our teachers reach the techniques to a much wider group of people.

We are fortunate in the quality and dedication our teachers have. We have over 50 teachers around the world able and eager to teach this approach. They participate in ongoing rigorous training, they travel where there is demand, they help improve our offering, they love their students. Here is some feedback from a student in the most recent teacher training "guinea pig" class in Palo Alto:

I hated the idea of being photographed.  I completely understood the value of it.  I've been having some issues with my body.  I've almost always carried more weight than I would like.  When I started traveling, then when I fell, it got worse.  Through most of my rehab, I've felt like it was in someone else's hands.  I'd reached the point where I was afraid of my body because it seemed like everything I did hurt it.  During a PT assessment, I was told that I had something like PTSD with my body.  It made sense, but I wasn't given a solution to it (for the record, do more squats was NOT the answer.  Timing the squats made the anxiety even worse.). There's a light touch around body acceptance.  I think you should pull it out more.  Maybe not as a topic, but definitely as a part of the class.  There's nowhere else I can think of that has instruction and unconditional acceptance like I found in the class.  Esther and the student teachers genuinely loved us (the students).  I think that helps allow and cement the changes.

Esther,  I knew your method was very, very special so it is lovely to get confirmations and learn of others thinking so too - especially the illustrious "Arch"!  Thanks for sharing this.  And yes, thanks for all the Gokhale Method teachers too - soooooo hoping to get a Foundations course soon.  Meanwhile, I just keep re-reading your book.  I pick up new things every time.

We'll reach the course to you sooner or later! If you would like a teacher to travel to your area, here is the form to fill out: http://gokhalemethod.com/request_classes_your_town. It doesn't oblige you in any way, while letting us know you have interest in the course. When enough people express interest, one of our teachers who is able to travel will reach out to confirm interest and come to you! n the meantime, glad the book is helpful.

Esther, such a heartwarming photo of Archbishop Tutu teaching dance to his dear old friend the Dalai Lama (who was born three weeks before me.)  I have loved sharing it with friends and family along with information about the Gokhale Method. Thank you yet again for what you bring to the world and to my health through posture.  OX  Anne Gauthier Evanston, IL 

Hi Anne, 

I remember you well! Nice to hear that you are sharing the joy, as Archbishop Tutu proposes!