The shapes we make with our bodies as we go trough life are not something we have to think about but seem instead to be influenced by deep preconscious survival systems which respond moment by moment to the spaces we inhabit and the situations we encounter. These continual shape adjustments made by the musculoskeletal system but involving also the respiratory, nervous and endocrine systems are not necessarily confined to what is happening in the present moment but can be conditioned also by events from our past and also by ideas we have, hopes and fears perhaps, about the future. Furthermore, to a trained observer these unconscious signals open a window into the deep enduring belief systems and fleeting emotional filters which effect how we posture in life.
In this article I want to share some of the interesting new (and not so new) discoveries in science, movement and mind/body/body explorations which seem to be unveiling an ever more intricate and subtle symbiosis between mind and structure, the spaces we inhabit and how we interact with each other as a species.
Mary Bond a Rolfer and Movement specialist writes in her book “The New Rules of Posture” (1) – our shape, how we hold ourselves, isn’t a fixed thing “posture is in fact, a response,” a response to “where am I and what is happening here?”
Ron Kurtz (2) the founder of the Hakomi method of body centred psychotherapy remarks that “Our habitual gestures and even fleeting facial expressions can give very accurate clues about the beliefs that condition that persons’s way of being in and responding to the world.
Hubert Godard, Scientist, Dancer and Rolf Movement Faculty member: We are affected physically, and psychologically by the world around us – but the spaces we share are not homogenous. (3)
One of Ida Rolf’s key insights was that appropriate relationship with gravity is a fundamental necessity to our health as humans on planet Earth.
For a long time we have traditionally observed this relationship in two ways. From a structural point of view, we use the terms of ‘alignment’ or ‘posture.’ From a functional view point, studying the movement of various joints and the impact of forces upon them we have developed the science of ‘biomechanics.’ However, both of these perspectives carry a kind of objectification, a denial of human experience. For instance, when pain brings our attention to a particular area of the body, we do not experience this as a collection of muscle fibre contractions, boney side bends and rotations or hyper aroused nerve impulses. Dx
and Biomechanics completely leave out what we as individuals are ‘feeling’ and ‘experiencing.’
Ida Rolf in developing her 10 session Structural Integration series in the 1930’s was acutely aware that for her method to be truly wholistic it had to take into account the person’s perceptual experience too and the ten session Rolfing series that she devised pays attention as much to the clients internal feeling state as it does to inviting change in the physical structure. We know that some of her ideas came as a result of cross pollination with her contemporaries, Mosche Feldenkrais, Mabel Todd and Lulu Sweigard who where developing exciting new ways to see and interact with the body in the fields of movement and dance. All were perhaps influenced in tern by the newly emerging philosophical approach known as phenomenology.
Phenomenologists do not accept the traditional division of subject and object and instead attempted to study human beings in-the-world, as experienced. For a phenomenologist a person does not exist separately from the environment but is embedded in it
Edward Reed (4) (a leading Scholar in the field of ecological psychology) has carried the phenomenological perspective into his work with motor responses. Reed points out that movement never takes place in a vacuum but always in context and that lab studies that attempt to isolate and analyse movement do not yield very useful information and lead to very little that can be applied to the problem of rehabilitation. He suggests that to be useful, the study of posture and movement must be looked at in terms of functions that he calls Action Systems. Reed’s list of action systems include, among others, the locomotion system that gets us around, the expressive system that allows us to look and listen the semantic system that lets us speak and represent. Seeing movement as purposeful activity through which we establish a relationship with our environment and each other begins to contribute to our understanding of actual behaviour.
The basic movements of lying, sitting, standing and walking are fundamental to our ability to function in the world. Underlying all of these is the even more basic necessity of establishing a viable relationship with the gravity field.
Our upright posture also defines us as a species bringing with it a specific set of gravitational challenges. For humans balancing on such a narrow base of support, constantly negotiating between stability and movement is a problem with significantly psychological meaning. Our language reflects this in words that link verticality with morality and even more fundamentally, uprightness is a condition of survival.
Hubert Godard has revolutionised the way Rolfers think about how the body functions in gravity. (and Rolfers do spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about this !) Godard calls the body’s ability to organise itself in gravity, “tonic function.”
Anatomically, what Godard has named the Tonic system includes the brain, nerve pathways, fascia, muscle spindles, golgi tendon organs and postural muscles. Godard divides the individual fibres which, in bundles come together to form the skeletal muscles of the body into two distinct groups. Those that we have conscious control over – the movers – he calls “phasic” and those that keep us stable and upright in gravity, “tonic.” Most muscles in the body contain both types of fibre but all muscles depending on their function show a preponderance of one type or the other. So generally speaking and for the purposes of understanding how these two systems work together we can say that muscles are either tonic or phasic.
In very simple terms Phasic muscles move us, Tonic muscles keep us upright and balanced.
Tonic muscles like Hamstrings, deep abdominal core and the deep spinal erectors are slow twitch muscle designed for endurance. They are the red meat in our bodies because they burn oxygen for fuel and therefore need a rich blood supply to deliver it.
Phasic muscles like the biceps, pectorals and quads are fast twitch, they burn sugar as fuel and can deliver huge amounts of power very rapidly but only for relatively short periods.
In order for the Phasic (movement) muscles to move us, the Tonic (stabilising) muscles which act like brakes, must first relax. This “letting the brakes off” is known as a “pre movement” and is part of and must precede every action we make.
Imagine you are standing and you raise your arm, the power for this action comes from contraction of the phasic muscles at the front of the shoulder. But the first muscles to respond as soon as we even think of making this movement are the tonic or gravity muscles. Guess where? Not in the shoulders or arm but way down at the back of the leg. The soleus muscles act as stabilisers preventing us falling forward under the gravitational weight of the cantilevered arm.
The degree to which we can relax the tonic system and allow “in-stability,” conditions the quality and efficiency of the movement that follows. Because we ordinarily have little conscious control of the Tonic system it is difficult to simply ‘will’ the brakes to release and would anyway, be way too slow and cumbersome. It has to be automatic to work efficiently.
If you imagine the action of writing your signature on a cheque. This seemingly simple task actually requires the coordination of muscles in the hand, forearm, upper arm, shoulder, neck, face, eyes and so on. Some of these muscle will move the fingers, hand and arm, some to will need to let go, lengthen to allow this and some will be asked to switch on only partially to support, stabilise and maintain focus etc. If you now think about the thousands of individual motor and sensory neurones supplying each muscle which must be excited or inhibited by the brain like a conductor coordinating huge complicated orchestral piece, you will begin have some idea of how much computing power is needed for every movement we make. Actually, we know that to do all of this whilst maintaining all the other systems, which keep us alive at the same time; circulation, respiration, digestion etc, would be beyond even the 80 billion or so neurones in our huge brains.
So, the clever nervous system learns the movements we most often perform and writes automatic programs which it runs to tell the muscles what to do and in which order.
These programs have been named Engrams by author Deane Juhan (5)
The amazing thing about these programs is that they are elastic and can adapt to the almost infinite positions and environments that we find ourselves in. So that for instance, whether you are writing your signature on a small piece of paper, on a blackboard, or in the sand at the beach the engram for that task will organise the muscle actions needed to allow your signature to be recognisable at every size.
These wonderful programs however, can be fragile and although operating for the most part beneath our every day awareness, are never the less listening to, influenced, changed and disrupted by what we think, feel and believe. Recognising when there is a glitch in an engram and knowing how to bring it back into balance with sensitive movement cues has been one of the most important evolutional changes in the work of Rolfers since Ida’s original pioneering start and much of our new understanding of how to work with perception and coordination has been thanks to the inspired research and generous sharing of Hubert Godard.
To understand more fully how all of this links with an individual’s mental and emotional state we have to look to MacCleans model of brain functionality which he named the “Triune brain.”
MacCleans’s model divides the brain into three layers classified according to function and age in terms of evolutionary development. The first and oldest layer is the reptilian brain, it takes care of the basic functions of survival including the fight or flight response. It is also from where the tonic system receives its instructions. Emotional associations take place in the paleomammalian or limbic level, a more recent evolutionary development. The third and most recent level in MacClean’s model is the neocortex which we share with only the higher primates and whales and dolphins. This layer gives us the ability to rationalise and find meaning.
So in simple terms, any unresolved trauma, deeply buried belief systems or unconscious emotional habits associated with certain movements or situations, will alert the body’s older and more primitive brain centres and the fight/flight system will be activated telling the tonic tissues that it is not safe to move. Because these muscles are stronger, more durable and controlled by the primitive, subconscious brain, any ideas that you may have about “letting go.” are easily overpowered.This situation ignites a kind of myofascial civil war. Muscles fibres which want to move you pitted against muscle fibres which want to keep you still. This is “Stress” it wastes energy, feels terrible and often leads to one or more secondary acute and then chronic stress related syndromes. With the body fighting itself in this way, movement of any kind will feel awkward and uncoordinated and will naturally burn far more energy than you need to. Is it any wonder that many of us feel exhausted just getting through a normal day?
Ida Rolf and F. M. Alexander were among the first to devise ways of disrupting this cycle of activation. Recognising that the most profound changes come from the deepest psychological levels. By addressing the tonic function we can effect the basic senses of support and orientation without needing to talk about the associations involved. If we can help build a sense of support in the body (instead of breaking down armour as in the Reichian model) we will create deep change without ignoring the psychological significance and without going off into emotional history.
So as a Rolfer when I work in movement with a person’s orienting system, their relation to gravity, it is useful to remember that I am addressing one of the most fundamental aspects of what it is to be human. I am tapping into something primordial, instinctive, pre-verbal a part that is constantly looking for reassuring answers to two simple questions, “how safe is my ground?” and “what are the possibilities of movement in this space?”
The concept of safety is of course relative. Part of being a human is to be dependent upon other humans. Similar to most mammals, we come into the world with great dependence on our caregivers, and that need to connect and be connected to others remains throughout our lives. As we mature, we need to find safe environments so that we can sleep, eat, defecate and reproduce. We create the safe environments by building walls to create boundaries and privacy. Or, we may get a dog, which will guard us, so we can sleep. The point of these strategies is to create an environment in which we no longer need to be hyper-vigilant, and to allow us to participate in the life processes that require “safe” environments.
Social engagement behaviours—making eye contact, listening to people—require that we give up our hyper-vigilance. This requires that we be able to quickly distinguish between friend or foe? But how do we do this ?
Experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has enabled researchers to observe neural activity uniquely associated with perception of biological motion. With specific brain centres seemingly dedicated to detecting familiar faces, familiar voices and familiar movements.
The recent work of Dr. Stephen Porges, Director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago (6) has added considerably to our knowledge of how we interact with each other and our environments.
Dr Porges has proposed and developed what he has termed the Polyvagal Theory. Which specifies two functionally distinct branches of the vagus, or tenth cranial nerve. The branches of the vagal nerve serve different evolutionary stress responses in mammals: the more primitive branch elicits immobilisation behaviours (e.g., feigning death), whereas the more evolved branch is linked to social communication and self-soothing behaviours. These functions follow a phylogenetic hierarchy, where the most primitive systems are activated only when the more evolved structures fail.
So hand gestures, facial expressions and vocalisations that appear “safe” turn off the brain stem and the limbic areas that include fight, flight and freeze responses. Furthermore, embedded within the lining of the gastrointestinal wall itself there is a massive plexus of nerves. This complex network of sensory, motor and interneurons (those nerve cells that connect between the sensory and motor neurones) integrates the digestive and eliminative organs so that they function coherently. The “gut brain” is an intricate system has about the same number of neurones and white matter as does a cat’s brain. Because of this complexity, it has sometimes been called the second or enteric brain; a forth to the other three layers described earlier.
The enteric nervous system is our oldest brain, evolving hundreds of millions of years ago. It produces many beneficial hormones, including 95% of the serotonin in the body, and thus is a primary natural medicine factory and warehouse for feel-good hormones. Amazingly, as much as 90% of the vagus nerve that connects our guts and brains is sensory! In other words, for every one motor nerve fibre that relays commands from the brain to the gut, nine sensory nerves send information about the state of the viscera to the brain. The sensory fibres in the vagus nerve pick up the complex telecommunications going on in the gut and relay them, first up to the (mid) brain stem and then to the thalamus. From there, these signals virtually influence the entire brain, and subliminal “decisions” are made that profoundly influence our actions. Many of our likes and dislikes, our attractions and repulsions, as well as our irrational fears, are the result of these implicit computations in our internal states. Additionally, the linkage between the nerves that regulate the face and the nerves that regulate the heart and lungs implies that we can use the facial muscles to calm us down. Think about it: when we’re stressed or anxious, we use our facial muscles, which include the ears. We eat or drink, we listen to music, and we talk to people to calm down. The power of the social engagement system is amazing both in terms of its effects on behaviour and mental state, but also in terms of the speed with which it works
In this article we have looked at phenomenology, action systems, tonic function, engrams, the triune brain, the ‘gut brain’ and the polyvagal theory all in an attempt to understand how we humans maintain a healthy posture as interact with our environments and each other. But perhaps when all is said and done it could have been more simply stated with the phrase,
Smile and the world smiles with you
Mary Bond – The New Rules of Posture
Ron Kurtz founder of the Hakomi method of body centred psychotherapy – www.hakomi.com
From an article on Hubert Godard by Aline C. Newton published in a Rolf Lines March.1995
Edward S Reed – The Necessity of Experience – Yale University Press (1 Sep 1996)
Deane Juhan – Jobs Body, A handbook off bodywork – Station Hill Press (Aug 1989)
Stephen W Porges – The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology)
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