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:
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,
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