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  • Writer's pictureAndray Voronov

The Hierarchy Of Systems According to C.H.E.K.

Back in 2008, when I was a personal trainer, I was introduced to the ideas and concepts of the C.H.E.K. totem pole in a book, "How to eat, move and be healthy," written by Paul Chek. Since then, it has been a concept that has guided the way I see the body. Not only that, it aligns with the osteopathic principle that the body is a "system of systems" that is interconnected as a "whole" unit.

The CHEK Totem Pole presents an innovative approach to understanding the body's hierarchy in dealing with stress and allocating its energy resources for healing. In the context of injury recovery, risk mitigation, and the pursuit of overall health and well-being, the principles embodied in the CHEK Totem Pole offer invaluable insights.

Understanding the CHEK Totem Pole:

At its core, the CHEK Totem Pole is a representation of the body’s hierarchy of needs, resembling the order of importance of physiological systems as they relate to stress and survival. According to Chek’s philosophy, the body responds to stress based on a priority system; certain functions or systems take precedence over others when it comes to allocating resources, especially in stress response and healing processes. The hierarchy, from most to least critical, according to Chek, is as follows:

  1. Respiration

  2. Jaw mechanics (TMJ, biting, chewing)

  3. Eyes and their movement/coordination

  4. Inner ear balance (vestibular system)

  5. Upper cervical (neck) spine

  6. Digestive system

  7. Emotions

  8. Pelvis and sacrum

  9. Slave joints (limbs and everything else)

    1. Gait (movement mechanics during walking or running)

    2. Arms (movement and coordination)

    3. Upper body posture and function

    4. Lower body posture and function

This hierarchy implies that a problem or stress at a higher level of the totem pole will override issues at lower levels, dictating how the body allocates its healing energy and resources.

Implications for Injury Recovery:

When it comes to injury recovery, the CHEK Totem Pole illuminates several critical aspects. Traditional approaches to injury often focus on the site of pain or dysfunction directly, potentially overlooking root causes emanating from imbalances or stresses higher up the body's priority list. For instance, a person experiencing lower back pain might not achieve long-term relief by targeting the back alone. If there's a fundamental issue with respiration or inner ear balance, the body will likely prioritize resources there, perpetuating a cycle where the root cause goes unaddressed and the back pain persists.

Applying the CHEK Totem Pole principles means that an assessment would consider the whole person. For instance, in rehabilitation settings, a holistic practitioner might assess and address breathing patterns before moving to direct interventions for back pain. This approach acknowledges the interrelatedness of bodily systems and the body's intrinsic logic in prioritizing healing.

Furthermore, by understanding this hierarchy, individuals and practitioners can better identify the actual sources of stress that may be contributing to pain or injury. For example, chronic stress can impact breathing and posture (as one holds tension in the chest or shoulders), potentially leading to other complications or injuries. By recognizing these patterns, appropriate strategies, like stress management techniques, breathing exercises, or even changes in exercise and movement habits, can be implemented to facilitate more effective recovery.

Risk Mitigation and Injury Prevention:

The principles behind the CHEK Totem Pole also play a vital role in injury prevention. Understanding that the body operates on a system of priorities allows for the development of training and wellness programs that consider the whole body's needs. For instance, individuals who place heavy stress on their bodies, such as athletes, could benefit from training programs that incorporate not only strength training and skill development but also strategies to optimize breathing, manage stress, and improve gait and posture.

Additionally, for anyone engaged in physical activity, recognizing signs of stress and imbalance in the body is crucial. Regular assessments of factors like respiration, balance, posture, and gait can help detect potential issues before they lead to injury. This preventive approach, guided by the CHEK Totem Pole, encourages ongoing attention to the foundational aspects of health within the body's hierarchy, potentially warding off injuries that might otherwise occur due to neglect of these fundamental elements.

Achieving Overall Health and Well-Being:

Beyond recovery and prevention, the CHEK Totem Pole methodology contributes profoundly to the pursuit of holistic health and well-being. By recognizing that elements like proper respiration, visual health, and a balanced vestibular system are at the top of the body's physiological hierarchy, individuals can adopt lifestyles and practices that continuously support these systems.

For example, incorporating mindfulness and breathing exercises into daily routine can enhance respiratory function, reduce stress, and support the body's uppermost priorities, according to the CHEK hierarchy. Similarly, regular breaks from screens and activities that challenge and support eye health can be vital, considering the emphasis on eye movement and coordination.

In terms of mental health, understanding the body's survival reflexes and their priority in the bodily hierarchy can guide individuals towards practices that reduce chronic stress. This understanding underscores the importance of a supportive environment, healthy relationships, and stress management in achieving overall well-being.

Additionally, the CHEK philosophy, with its holistic emphasis, encourages an integrative approach to nutrition, sleep, physical activity, and mental health, supporting the body's interconnected systems. By aligning lifestyle choices with the body's intrinsic priorities for health and healing, individuals are better poised to maintain balance, resilience, and vitality.


The CHEK Totem Pole represents a paradigm shift in understanding the body's complex responses to stress and injury, offering a holistic roadmap to recovery, health, and well-being. By acknowledging the body's inherent wisdom in prioritizing its healing processes, individuals and practitioners alike can approach health issues with a more nuanced, effective strategy. Whether it's facilitating recovery from injury, preventing future harm, or enhancing overall health, the principles of the CHEK Totem Pole serve as a comprehensive guide in the journey toward optimal health. Embracing this holistic philosophy empowers us to live more in tune with our bodies, making choices that support our deepest needs and pave the way for a balanced and thriving life.

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