Posture Paper for IRMA Institute of Registered Myotherapists
I’ve been metaphorically all over the planet with this lecture, I’ve changed my mind literally a hundred times as to what I wish to talk about in this discussion about posture. I realized that there is a vastness to the information concerning the vagaries and varieties of approaches for correcting postural dysfunctions. So where does one begin?
I think one of the first considerations we have when dealing with postural dysfunction is to have an understanding as to why the posture of a particular individual is the way it is and what are factors affecting the individual to create the postural form we’re viewing.
So what I’ve decided to do is to take sort of a peripatetic path so to speak, looking at a variety of approaches that are decidedly alternative to the prevailing paradigm about posture.
So what is the prevailing paradigm of posture? The prevailing paradigm is typically one where we attempt to look at posture according to a vertical plumb line, with any asymmetry considered to be faulty posture and there is an attempt to usually strengthen weak musculature and to adjust and compensate the contracted musculature. We see postural distortion as primarily a muscular imbalance.
As an alternative I will to look at a models that recognize a gravitational approach. These include the views of Ida Rolf, Thomas Myers important Anatomy Trains approach, both, which include another interesting model called Tensegrity, and an authors from the Structural Integration community named Arline Newton, who speaks about Hubert Godard’s model of Tonic Function.
These approaches will take a brief view of how structure and function of the body interact with sensory perception and intrinsic movement regarding conscious and unconscious control of posture.
Ida Rolfs Approach
Ida Rolf (1896-1979) had a decidedly different view of structure and posture.
Rolf states, “…The first question is, what is structure? What is structure in anything? In humans, it is decidedly not posture, although most people seem to think the two words are synonymous. Etymologically speaking, the word posture contains an element of placement. The root of the word is the Latin, ponere, “to place”. The past participle, positum, means, “It has been placed”. Applied to humans, posture implies that something has been placed, or for the most part forced, into a space where properly and structurally it does not belong.”
”Shoulders back, guts in”, is a military adage. It means to force you to do what does not come naturally. The minute you force yourself to maintain a posture of this sort, you betray that all is not well with your world. You show the world that your structure and your posture are at war.
In any plane, physical or non-physical, structure implies relationship. Living bodies are such forceful and intimate expressions of vital energy or the lack thereof that the fact that they are also material manifestations in a three-dimensional world often disappears.
Balance reveals the flow of gravitational energy through the body. Asymmetry and randomness betray lack of support by the gravitational field. All these considerations are inherent in the word structure as it is applied to any three-dimensional system…. In no world can the flow of gravity reinforce imbalanced, asymmetric structure. Since it is segmented, the human unit is more plastic than an inorganic unit, and succumbs more quickly to the unequal torques of everyday life.” 1. (p30 Rolfing) But thanks to the same plasticity, it can be re-patterned.
Rolf viewed the basis of balance in the face of gravitational influence to be best dispersed by the soft-tissue fabric that disperses it-Fascia. Much her life was spent in the pursuit of researching and understanding the role fascia plays in the organization and maintenance of human uprightness.
The gravitational field of the earth is easily the most potent physical influence in any human life. When the human energy field and gravity are at war, needless to say gravity wins out every time. It may be friend and reinforce activity…or it may be foe and drag (a person) to physical destruction. Structure holds the key. 2(p30 Rolf)
Rolf was fond of the metaphor of building blocks. Her example was one of blocks encased in a very thin elastic sack. In this metaphor, the local variations on stretch in the sack serve as a measure of the strain and displacement of the weighted blocks. And when one block shows strain or distortion so will the others in corresponding relationship. It will do so until all blocks are aligned with its neighbour.
Since bodies are designed to contact the earth, of necessity they must stand on their feet and not be attached to the sky. So if you were to lift them by a skyhook and see their more slender straighter beauty, you must put them down again, and then stand them on the earth. Once down again, you would recognize no amount of lift is going to change the built-in structural compensations.
Gravity is with us from the time of our conception to the moment of death. 3(p70)
The inevitable action of gravity anywhere at any time on any soft pliable mass is to bring it nearer to a formless, chaotic, spherical unit. It acts to shorten, thicken and compress.
Flexors Flex-Extensors Extend
Rolf was found of a key concept: Her key to maintaining a balanced body is her concept of ‘when flexors flex, extensors extend.
“ In the conventions of physiology and kinesiology, the basic unit of movement is the paired flexor and extensor. The first member of the pair; which is the flexors, brings the ends of body parts closer together. The second of the pair separates the ends, (extends). A bent body is said to be in flexion; when straightened, it is in extension. Straightened past the vertical line, it is said to be hyper-extended. In as bending body, the flexors have been activated and have ‘flexed’, that is they have shortened and drawn the extremities together? But what of the extensors? When you bend your back, what does it look like? Does it lengthen or shorten? Does it pull into your shoulders? A basic test of body structure is its pattern of flexion. If the body is balanced, not only do the flexors flex, but the extensors simultaneously extend.”
All muscles are covered both individually and as a unit by continuous fascial coverings. In healthy posture this fascial covering has strength and flexibility in the form of deformation and recoil. Elasticity is its quality. “Shortening of a myofascial unit is as important and legitimate a function as lengthening, it is only chronic shortening that causes concern.”
When we look at this concept of Ida Rolf saying that one of the basic tents for uprightness in the face of gravity is how the body is maintaining it’s balance between flexion and extension, she implies that the myofascial has an enormous structural and functional role to play. This fascia fabric is maintained by tension, and that tension is in relationship. Such a concept of this tensional relationship is the term ‘Tensegrity’, or tension integrity.
Tensegrity, is a term coined by architect/engineer Buckminster Fuller, that represents a system characterized by a discontinuous set of compressional elements (struts) which are held together, uprighted and/or moved by a continuous tensional network (Myers 1999, Oschman 1997).
Fuller, one of the most original thinkers of the 20th century, developed a system of geometry based on tetrahedral (four‑sided) shapes found in nature which maximizes strength while occupying minimal space (maximum stability with a minimum of materials) (Juhan 1987). From these concepts he designed the geodesic dome, including the US Pavilion at Expo ””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””67 in Montreal.
Tensegrity structures actually become stronger when they are stressed as the load applied is distributed not only to the area being directly loaded but also throughout the structure (Barnes 1990).
They employ both compressional and tensional elements. When applying the principles of Tensegrity to the human body, one can readily see the bones and intervertebral discs as the discontinuous compress ional units and the myofascial tissues (muscles, tendons, ligament, fascia and to some degree the discs) as the tensional elements. When load is applied (as in lifting) both the osseous and myofascial tissues distribute the stress incurred.
Of Tensegrity, Deanne Juhan from Jobs Body tells us:
Besides this hydrostatic pressure (which is exerted by every fascial compartment, not iust the outer wrapping), the connective tissue framework ‑ in conjunction with active muscles ‑ provides another kind of tensional force that is crucial to the upright structure of the skeleton.
We are not made up of stacks of building blocks resting securely upon one another, but rather of poles and guy‑wires, whose stability relies not upon flat stacked surfaces, but upon proper angles of the poles and balanced tensions on the wires … There is not a single horizontal surface anywhere in the skeleton that provides a stable base for anything to be stacked upon it.
Our design was not conceived by a stone‑mason, Weight applied to any bone would cause it to slide right off its joints if it were not for the tensional balances that hold it in place and controls its pivoting. Like the beams in a simple Tensegrity structure, our bones act more as spacers than as compress ional members, more weight is actually borne by the connective system of cables than by the bony beams.
Oschman (1997) concurs, adding another element:
Robbie (1977) reaches the remarkable conclusion that the soft tissues around the spine, when under appropriate tension, can actually lift each vertebra off the one below it. He views the spine as a Tensegrity mast.
The various ligaments form slings”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””” that are capable of supporting the weight of the body without applying compressive forces to the vertebrae and intervertebral discs.
In other words, the vertebral column is not, as it is usually portrayed, a simple stack of blocks, each cushioned by an intervertebral disc.
Thomas Myers Anatomy Trains
Myers continues the same train of thought by using the metaphor of a brick wall for the old paradigm. The thought that the skeleton provides structural support is analogous to how we construct a wall of brick. One brick rest upon another, that rests upon another until you have several layers of interlacing brick. All support the weight above and transmit that weight through to the earth. Since they are subject to tensile forces as well, that is torque; they now are re-enforced with steel rods. The weight of the brick is minimal compared to the force of gravity through the structure.
Myers goes on to say, “The commonly held impression is that the skeleton is a continuous compress ional structure, like the brick wall; that the weight of the head rests on the 7th cervical, the head and thorax rest on the 5th lumbar and so down to the feet, which bears the whole weight of the body and then transmits that weight into the earth. Accordingly the muscles hang from this skeleton and move it around, the way the cables move a crane around. This mechanical model lends itself to the traditional picture of the actions of individual on the bones, the muscle drawing the two insertions closer together to each other and thus affects the skeletal superstructure. Forces in this model are localized. Something wrong locally, will not damage the entire structure. Most manipulative therapy works off this idea. Local treatment for local conditions.”
A Tensegrity structure still combines tension and compress ional members, but the compress ional members are islands, floating in a sea of continuous tension. The compress ional members push outwards against the tensional members that pull inwards. As long as the two sets of forces are balanced, the structure is stable.
The stability of a Tensegrity structure is, however generally less stiff but more resilient that the continuous compress ional structure. Load one corner of a Tensegrity structure and the whole structure will give a little to accommodate the load. Load it too much and the structure will eventually break-but not necessarily anywhere near where the load was placed.”
Thus this model of load in the face of gravity shows more resilience and actually is more stable the more it is loaded.
Using this model when faced with postural dysfunction and distortion, we can see how a localized injury can set into motion long-term strains in other parts of the body. Injury happens where it does because of inherent weakness or previous injury, not purely and always because of local strain. Discovering the pathways of strain and tension that affect the painful portion becomes a natural part of restoring ease and balance to the whole structure.
The skeleton is a continuous compression structure, eliminate the soft-tissue and watch the bones, which are not locked together, but perched on slippery cartilage surfaces, “clatter to the floor.”
If you wish to change the relationship among the bones, change the relationship through the soft-tissue and the bones will rearrange themselves.
So Myers looks at tension bands in a three-dimensional relationship of fascial organization. His fundamental bands follow superficial and deep lines of tension. To reorganize and correct postural distortions in the whole fabric, we can use Myers model to alleviate tension in these bands.
This is how I proceed when attempting to address postural distortions.
With the flexors flex and the extensors extend concept we can see the relevance of Thomas Myers Anatomy Trains.
Two fundamental myofascial tension bands are known in Myers vernacular as the Superficial Back Line and Superficial Front Line. These correspond to the Flexion-Extension model that Ida Rolf is speaking about. It mediates movement around the sagittal plane.
Superficial Back Line SBL
The postural function of the back line SBL is to connect the entire posterior surface of the body from the bottom of the foot to the top of the head in two pieces, toes to knees, and knee to brows. When the knees are extended, as in standing, the SBL functions as one continuous line of integrated myofascial. Myers p61
This postural function demands very heavy bands and sheets of fascia, such as the Achilles tendon, hamstrings and sacrotuberous ligament, thoracolumbar fascia, and as Myers refers to the ’cables of the erector spinae’. The exception is at the knees, where flexion occurs in this line at the popliteal fossa. However once locked, the line assist the cruciate in maintaining postural integrity between the tibia and femur.
The Heel as an Arrow
Myers imagines the lower section of this fascial line as a bowstring, with the heel as an arrow. Seen from a Tensegrity prospective, the calcaneus is a compression strut that pushes the tensile tissues of the SBL out to create proper span from the back of the knees to the toes.
When this line gets chronically over shortened, it is capable of pushing the foot forward into the subtalar joint or bringing the tibia fibula complex posteriorly onto the talus.
Hamstrings and Sacrotuberous Ligament
Any reorganization along the SBL line of tension it will be necessary to assess and release tension to the hamstring attachments and sacrotuberous ligament as a continuation of several myofascial layers that proceeds through the occiput and over the head via the galeaponeurotica.
Myers looks at general movement considerations for the SBL line as general mobility and motility that allows the trunk and hip flexion with the knees extended ( take a bow) and to create trunk hyperextension, knee flexion and plantar flexion. Thus the various types of forward bends are good ways to stretch the line as a whole and note postural hyperextension as hypertonus or shortening of this line.
Superficial Front Line SFL
The postural function of the SFL is to balance the SBL and to provide tensile support from the top to lift those parts of the skeleton that extends forward of the gravity line: pubis, ribcage and face.
The SFL also maintains postural extension of the knee. The muscles and myofascia are what maintains and defends the soft and sensitive parts of the front of the body, especially the viscera.
This is what is called the AP balance or the anterior-posterior balance of the body. The SFL tends to shift down, whilst the SBL tends to shift up.
The overall movement function of this line is to create flexion of the trunk and hips, extension at the knee, and dorsiflexion at the foot.
Because this line needs to create often sudden and powerful flexion movements, it usually has a preponderance of fast twitch fibres. Myers states that the “interplay between the predominantly endurance oriented SBL and the quickly reactive SFL can be seen in the need for contraction in one line when the other is stretched.
Balance Between SBL & SFL
It is obvious to you that there is a dynamic interplay to balance the SBL & SFL, as they transverse the front and the back of the body. It is this interplay that Myers interjects that by how the fascial tension tends to shift down with the SBL we tend to get a “shifting up” with the SFL. This shifting tends to “lock short” the SBL and “lock long” the SFL.
A commonly observed pattern: the hamstrings and the muscles surrounding the sacrum become shortened and bunched, pushing the pelvis forward. The muscles on the front of the hip become tight as they are stretched and strain to contain the forward push.
It is important to make clinical distinctions between muscles that are tense because it is shortened, and a muscle that is tense because it is strained.
Tonic Function-Theory of Hubert Godard
Much of what I intend to relate to you is excerpt from articles that can be obtained on the world wide web through the website of two advanced certified rolfers, Arline Newton and Kevin Frank, and also the excellent chapter in Deanne Juhan’s Job’s Body on Muscle As A Sense Organ.
Since I had the pleasure of attending a Body Wisdom Conference held on the Coramandel, North Island of New Zealand in February 2003, I was introduced to these concepts that were presented by Hubert Godard with regards to sensory habits and posture. He called the concepts ‘Tonic Function’. This has led me on a bit of meandering path through a host of informative approaches that constellate the theme of posture.
Kevin Frank’ begins his article with a discussion of Goodards work by considering what are the goals of Structural and Movement Integration. He believed that the stated goals should lead to optimum functioning. From the point of view of an athlete, or dancer or actor; optimal functioning should include being able to quickly adapt to changing needs in movement. It may include being able to jump with apparently no exertion. In performance we evaluate capacity of the performer to execute a move accurately, competently and aesthetically. In daily life, the goals may be more simple, to be free of pain, to move pleasurably and without strain, to recover quickly from exertion. In any of these examples, we as somatic therapists claim that an improvement in function is important and possible.
Frank goes on to state, “ we base improvement of function on certain principles that are not explicitly agreed upon, but generally include the following: minimum rigidity of the body, effectiveness of movement and appropriate strength, subtlety of locomotion (i.e. the kind of movement that is difficult to perceive exactly what muscles are performing the movement), contra-lateral spinal function in walking and free full breathing.”
So tonic function for posture as Frank implies, is the qualities of function that has at its core the capacity for successful fully flexible movement.
Arline Newton approaches Godard’s model of tonic function from another slant. Newton says that one of Ida Rolf’s key insights is that appropriate relationship with gravity is basic to our health as humans. In Newton’s article she looks at the premises through which all movement are based. These premises shape a lens through which we look at movement. These include a sense of the’ two directions’, the role of perception and a Neuro physiological basis for movement. This neurophysiologic base is what Frank and many talk when referring to stretch reflex, muscle spindle and Golgi tendon organs and alpha and gamma motor neurons.
Newton says, “From a structural point of view, the relationship with gravity is commonly described in terms of alignment. From a functional point of view, it is biomechanics of joint motion and the study of the impact of forces upon them.
Both perspectives carry a sort of objectification, a denial of human experience. When we feel pain in a particular area, we don’t immediately experience the muscle fibre contractions, or think of ourselves as a collection of neural impulses. Alignment and mechanics leave out what is happening to the Mind/Body connection.
The approach Newton takes is a called a phenomenological approach, that is the study of conscious and perceptual experience in subjective aspect. For a person who subscribes to this philosophy, one does not exist separately from the environment but is embedded in it.”
Newton spoke of a scientist named Edward Reed who took this perspective in the study of motor response. Reed observed that the study of movement typically takes place in a laboratory, under artificial conditions. Often the approach is to isolate specific movements, or isolate the action of a specific muscle. Reed concluded that movement studied outside of the context in which it occurs leads to very little that can be applied to in a rehabilitation setting.
Both authors are talking about how function plays an enormous role in regards to posture.
Godard calls the body’s ability to organize itself in gravity “tonic function”.
Tonic function is considered fundamental. It is at the root of every action, even though we may not realize or think of it.
It takes place below the level of conscious awareness.
You are standing and you raise your arm, what is the first muscle to contract? Most will consider it is an arm or shoulder muscle, but the answer is the soleus, a muscle that is key to maintaining up rightness in gravity. Even before the intended movement occurs, the function is ensured.
Arline Newton eloquently states, “Like the air around us, our relationship with gravity is so basic, so fundamental, that we rarely think of it. Yet it underlies-sets the tone for-every one of our actions and behaviours.”
Thus tonic function or an individual’s tonic organization is what we are working with when we look at the body from a functional point of view.
Anatomically tonic function involves the parts of the body-that include the brain, nerve pathways, fascia, muscle spindles, Golgi tendon organs and tonic muscles, that all coordinate the body’s negotiations with gravity.
Uprightness & Gravity
For human beings, being in relationship with gravity, or how we remain upright or oriented, characterizes the human species. Physically we are formed to be upright, and this differentiation from other animals is what makes us unique as human beings. Thus our verticalility is a key to our humanness.
Erwin Strauss in his article on upright posture says, “Men and mice do not have the same environment, even if they share the same room. Environment is not a stage set with scenery as the one and the same for all actors that make their appearance upon it. Each species has its own environment. There is mutual interdependence between species and environment. The surrounding world is determined by the organization of the species in a process of selecting what is relevant to the function cycle of action and reaction. Upright posture pre-establishes a definite attitude toward the world; (as) it is a specific mode of being in the world.”
As humans, our relationship to gravity is so basic and it significantly and uniquely shapes our relationship to our environment.
Strauss pointed out that being upright is more than a simple mechanical problem. For human beings, “Upright posture is not confined to the technical problems of locomotion. It contains a psychological element.”
Thus Newton states, “For humans, being upright is a problem with significance, it has a symbolic dimension. Our language for one is fraught with metaphor, that link verticality with morality. To be upright and upstanding means to be good.
Because upright posture is the leitmotiv in formation of the human species, an individual who has lost or is deprived of the capacity to get up and keep him or her upright depends, for his or her survival, completely on the aid of others. Without their help, they are doomed to die. A biologically oriented psychology must notice that the upright posture is an indispensable condition for self-preservation.
So when we work in movement with a persons orienting system, their relationship with gravity, we are addressing one of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human.
Each individual must come to terms with gravity and uprightness.
Physiologically this happens through the development of the ability to control movement. The nerves and muscles that make up the tonic system, that register and respond to our changing relationship with gravity-these are the same pathways that fulfil this basic development function.
This theory is borne from the research of Judith Kestenberg, a psychoanalyst who is also trained in Laban movement. She describes the patterns of movement that develop through infancy. The simplest explanation for changes in muscle tension is the physiological interplay between agonists and antagonists muscle groups. A free flow of tension occurs when antagonists do not meet agonists with counteraction. The in movement, called bound flow of tension, occurs when antagonists contract along the agonist muscles.
Newborn infants toes stiffen periodically in bound flow. His legs fling and bicycle in spurts of free flow. As an influx of emerging free flow may bring his fist near his mouth, and the ensuing bound flow may enable him to hold there for a brief moment.
These, movements form the basis for interaction with the environment.
The shape of the body changes during movement. It grows, it shrinks, as does the simple configuration of the amoeba when it extends its pseudopodia and retracts them. We change are shape by al growing and shrinking when we inhale and exhale. We grow and shrink when we expel waste. We grow toward pleasant stimuli and shrink away form noxious…Growing and shrinking of the body shape are the basic elements of shape flow. They alternate periodically, this rhythmic alternation between growing and shrinking is a hallmark to high degree of self-regulation. It provides a structure for the organism’s interaction with the environment.
Godard suggests that tension flow and shape flow that are the basis of movement patterns are related to tonic function. For a baby learning to move and walk requires the development of the tonic system. Through learning to alternate bound flow from free flow, the baby develops control over movement that usually leads to the ability to stand.
Tonic Function, Communication, Expression & Movement
Newton looked at how Strauss and Kestenberg made the connection recognizing the meaning in movement.
“We learn from movement studies that there is not only a correspondence between specific drives and specific objects, but also a correspondence between certain feeling tones and modes of expressions. For instance, annoyance is expressed appropriately through the narrowing of the brow in frowning, while pleasure recognition broadens the face in smiling. The basic movement patterns and expressions allow a growing independence, which forms the basis for the ability to communicate.
Godard suggests that, “In the body, there is no difference between the gravity system and the expression system. They are inseparable. Whenever we work on tonic function, we inevitably work on expression”
Tonic muscles are postural muscles. These are the muscles primarily involved in maintaining the body’s upright stance.
Tonic muscles are differentiating from phasic muscles, which are the ones we use for large motor movement and short intense activity.
Physiologically there are several different ways to differentiate tonic muscles form phasic muscles. Tonic muscles have more red fibres, phasic have more white. Tonic muscles use oxygen more than sugar for fuel. While phasic are the opposite. Tonic muscles are more densely spindles and have a higher proportion of fascia. By these definitions, some examples of tonic muscles would be the soleus, hamstrings and erector spinae’s.
The large number of spindles in tonic muscles makes them an important sensory tool. The spindles send the sensory information back nervous system. The brain uses this information to set the tone of other muscles.
For phasic muscles to work, the postural muscles have to release, thereby, they control and shape movement.
The tonic muscles are like the reins directing the phasic muscles. The order in which tonic muscles release orchestrates the actions of other muscles. In walking, it is the initial release of the tonic back muscles that allow the movement forward, the hamstrings releasing allows the quadriceps to work and coordinate the movement of other leg muscles.
The subtlety of tonic muscles, the extent of their ability to contract and release appropriately, and the order of this interplay creates coordination, which Godard coined the ‘kinetic melody”, the synergy in space and time of all the muscles of the body. Coordination how everything works together is the basis for movement.
Through its role in coordination, the tonic system will be involved in expressing inhibition. If one part of me wants something, but I am blocked psychologically, the block will be expressed by a lack of subtly, or flexible response in tonic muscles.
The tonic system controls movement by appropriate alternation between tension and release. The inhibition will interfere with the timing of the tonic system, and therefore desired expression. To change a movement pattern may necessitate dealing with inhibition. If we only study movement and posture from the popular point of view of economy or efficiency, we may overlook the limitations in expression that may be the related issue that is preventing most economical or coordinated movement.
The tonic muscles play an important role in coordination. This has both a mechanical and symbolic aspect. The tonic system is linked with physical and psychological developmental history as well as a person’s expressiveness in the present. Newton surmises that it is no surprise that when we work with the tonic system we can have a deep psychological change as a by-product.
Tonic Function and the Two Directions
One of the foundations that Newton sees as core to understanding tonic function is the relationship of the two directions.
Remember the example of the conscious initiation of movement by raising the arm? The voluntary command is “lift the arm”. But experiments have revealed the pre-movement of the tonic system involves the soleus. The pre movement is not under conscious control. It cannot be accessed directly by the motor cortex, by voluntary commands. But it can be influenced by what Godard calls the sense of weight and there sense of orientations, the perceptual organization of an individual’s experience with gravity.
“In space, the root of a bean plant will grow every which way, but as it approaches the earth, the roots will grow down. The plant obeys the laws of gravity, but it will also obey the law of the sun. Attracted by the sun, the plant grows upwards. Newton aptly coins a phrase, by saying, “we could say that there is gravitropism and heliotropism, the two directions.
In order to move, the body as a whole or an individual muscle must have a point of support. Newton says that without falling to a typology, there seems to be a preference people exhibit for organizing themselves in gravity more in terms of one direction or the other; either using the earth, the downward direction as their primary support, or using the sky, upward direction.
The two directions can also be thought in terms of the sense of inside space of the body or more of an outside space or environment. The sense of the two directions according to Godard is one of the primary ways to work with tonic function.
The two directions are the symbol of gravity in experience. A pull downward and the resistance to that pull or a lifting. We can describe the sense of the two directions in anatomical terms, from an external observation: the two directions involve a sense of upward and downward lengthening of the spine,
Lift the AO junction (which is the organization of the suboccipital muscles) and an internal sense of weight of the sacrum. Or the body weight distributed on the soles of the feet. At an individual muscle level, it has to do with accessing both the proximal and distal attachment of a given muscle. The concept of the two directions is not intended to imply lengthening only; from down to up or up to down, the two directions allow both gathering-in, a building of pressure, as well as expansion or release.
These directions are a sensation: part of what Strauss would call a body scheme: “the body scheme is not so much a concept or image that a person has of his own body as it is an ensemble of directions and demarcations-directions in which we reach out toward the world and the demarcations that we encounter in contact with the world.
The body scheme is also experienced, therefore, as an I-World relation. Corresponding to our conation (purposeful action)- inclination, drive and desire, space itself loosed its static character, an opens endlessly before us. Expands or represses us.
What this is suggesting, is that the space of the body does not end with our skin. Rather, human beings project their sensory awareness out into the world, to include the space around them.
This perception or relationship with surrounding space will also shape our tonic organization. If we can get a sense of physical support through sensing the two directions in space beyond our body. Our system will no longer need to contract, as many muscles for stabilization and our movements will be freer and stronger.
Action of Perception
So Godard demonstrated a traditional Aikido experiment known as the unbend able arm. With your arm outstretched, hand resting on another’s shoulder, a person is asked to prevent his arm from bending. First with the intension of resisting the outside force as someone leans on it, and subsequently, using an image of energy flowing out through the fingers. Inevitably using an image, with the arm outstretched is much stronger, able to keep the arm from bending with ease. whereas when struggled against the opponent, it was the opponent who was stronger.
Electromyographgy shows in this instance, when a person struggles to keep the elbow joint straight with no sensation in the hand, they are contracting the biceps muscle as well as the triceps muscle-and in so doing, actually working against themselves.
When the subject is asked to image reaching their fingers through to the wall, the biceps remains released, quiet and free, only the triceps contracts. The result is the Unbend able arm.
So Newton goes on to say, “Physiologically and mechanically, one can explain the phenomenon in terms of stabilizer muscles, agonist and antagonist action. But what is more significant is that the perception of these directions that affect movement. The two directions according to Newton “are a perceptual event which profoundly affects motor patterns.” Thus meaning perception is action. Perception is a form of internationality, a movement in a direction. This ofcourse has had profound implications in movement education that, Alexander, Feldenkrais, Pilate’s and Continuum practitioners are all aware of.
Thus Newtons says Godard postulates that movement will be more efficient when we use the unconscious reptilian part of our brain as much as possible; that is allowing the stretch reflexes and gamma motor neuron loop to mediate the initiation of movement rather than using only alpha motor neurons and cortical control. This is the physiological underpinning of the quality of movement we describe as “intrinsic”, that is movement where there is no obvious unnecessary shortening, what Pilate’s refers to as the ‘core’ free during movement.
Interesting enough although the reptilian layer in the cerebellum is in charge of movement, reticular formation is also important in terms of the overall tone of the body. The network of cells dispersed throughout the medulla, the reticular formation is affected by the input of the senses and by the memories and emotions of the limbic system, and thus the reptilian layer has from above.
In practice, what Godard calls impression, sensory awareness, changing perception, will be able to have a profound effect on tonic organization? Since the reticular formation has a strong influence on general tonus of the body, the sensory impression has a powerful affect on reticular formation.
The perception of the two directions accesses a lower brain response that results in better coordination, more strength, a more adaptive response to movement requirements of a particular situation.
In movement work, practitioners are not asking: “how can I do this movement”, but “what prevent me?” Or by using the sense of two directions, it allows us to access the physiological effects that lead to appropriate tonic function. Consciously a willing movement triggers alpha motor neuron pathways that go directly from the cortex via the alpha motor neuron to the muscle. We want to allow the gamma motor loop that is governed by the sense of spatial, thus sensory to mediate the alpha firing.
The gamma group, which is older brain, more reptilian brain function. Asking “what prevents me, rather than triggering cortical alpha motor neurons, allows the cortex to play a more useful role in movement. Actively, the cortex can only slow down the firing level of the muscle spindle response. You cannot inhibit a reflex, but you can modulate it. Rather than getting in the way of the movement we seek, this way, it functions constructively by inhibiting the inhibition that is inhibiting the antagonist.
Evoking the two directions can lower the sensitivity of the stretch reflex to allow more freedom of movement. In a simple demonstration Godard asks someone to lift their leg, generally, the hamstrings restrict movement to 90 degrees of hip flexion. Then he supports the person at the waist-giving sense of the upward direction- and asks the person to feel the weight of the sacrum, thus eliciting the downward direction. the degree of flexion at the hip dramatically increases, until the leg is nearly perpendicular with the floor.. Eliciting the sense of two directions in the spine allows a change in the stretch reflex in the hamstrings, and the leg goes further before the reflex is triggered.
In walking, a sense of the two directions in the spine allows for the small muscles around the spine and the erector spinae, the tonic muscles, to release. These and especially the suboccipital also affect reticular formation. The release in the spine, the change in lumbar lordosis and its contralateral movement create a lengthening of the psoas which automatically triggers a stretch reflex response. Thus the spinal release initiates the basic movement of locomotion. As the psoas flexes the hip, the knee, foot and leg muscles must be free to let the movement occur, phasic muscles, action muscles must not be overly involved in maintaining posture.
Movement work can be understood as the work of organizing tonic function and the thorough use of the sense of directions, the involvement of the gamma loop and the stretch reflex.
Newton goes on to say, “When this occurs, locomotion can be supported by the gravity system. Walking becomes an easy coordinated activity.”
What Newton is conveying is that knowing “perception is an action” will directly influence our techniques. Understanding change in perception-in sensory awareness-evokes change in fundamental tonic response, we can work with dimension, eliciting sensation. We can work with the sense of the two directions in terms of balance between perception of both an internal sensory reality and the perception of the periphery, or the world outside of self.
Newton states, “We often find that the key to evoking intrinsic movement is not focusing the client’s attention inward on sensations in the body, but on the outside-the ground beneath their feet, the feel of the wind on their skin, the sounds and sights surrounding space.”
Working at the periphery, evoking sensation anywhere on the skin, in the palms of the hand and the soles of the feet is a direct link to the gamma loop- to movement less controlled by the cortex.
Movement in Situation
Newton states, “Understanding movement is inseparable from the situation has several implications for working in movement. It implies we cannot teach an ideal form or position. Appropriate movement means appropriate to a specific time and place, a particular situation. There cannot be a right position, what we can teach is adaptability, the sensitivity to respond to the moment at hand, the freedom to move that will allow this response. Trying to imitate a form will activate the alpha motor neuron loop at a cortical level, rather than the sensory activity of finding a way to move that will activate gamma motor loop.
Newton says that in order to give movement a context, rather than isolated movement patterns, we need to work with whole functions- what is termed “foundation movements”. These are learned subroutines that form the basis of actions. They have strong symbolic significance: To throw, to push, to cut, to show (point), to welcome, these are basic movements that also relate to physiological abilities to make contact and to separate.
For example, if you ask a client to push you. You can visually see and get a sense if the person is pushing himself or herself that is contracting or shortening, rather than pushing me, moving themselves away from me rather than me away from them. Or if they lose there centre in the push, going with me in the push versus separating. The movement of pushing is symbolic of saying no.
Rather than getting into the psychological aspect or history behind the movement dimension, we can continue to focus on the sense of the two directions, knowing that behaviour is being affected.
Just as we are not able to study movement in a vacuum, we are not able to work with movement without the understanding of the symbolic realm of the person will profoundly affect our work.
If we understand that movement takes place in relationship with the world outside, we will not just work with clients with their eyes closed sensing just the internal world. We will work with them in relationship. The ability to feel an external object, we develop sensation in the skin, the relation with other, without losing self.
Accordingly, the curves of the spine hold some keys for working with tonic function. Godard, asks, ”Where can you see tonic function? He sees it in the coordination of the three lordoses.
If we think of alignment of the body in terms of masses- pelvis, trunk, and head, we lose the quality of function through movement. Godard says you can be perfectly aligned, but perfectly dead in terms of movement. It is important to look at the motion, not so much the symmetry of the arranged horizontal masses which her terms ‘blocks’ of structure.
He says look to the lordoses. Anatomically, in front of C3, L3 and the knee, you have a bone: hyoid, the umbilicus ( it obviously isn’t a bone, but is an interworking of tissue almost bone-like) and the patella. All three have the same organization: rectus and obliques. The law of moving the three lordoses is the two directions.
The key point for the spinal lordoses will be the apices of the curves: C3 and L3. Eliciting movement at these points, or at the two ends-joints of the spine,
The atlanto-occipital and the lumbosacral, will allow the two directions of the spine.
What Godard is after, is movement at these areas by ‘letting-go’. It is the change or release in the area that results in movement and allows coordination. Functionally the knee acts as a third lordosis, and acts like the spinal lordoses.
Rolfers, myofascial release and craniosacral practitioners have long held the importance of relaxing the horizontal transverse concave and convex planes known as diaphragms. Restriction in the diaphragms-respiratory and pelvic as well as the functional diaphragm of the palate-will interfere with the ability to elicit two-directional movement of the lordoses.
Goodard states, “the freedom of movement and coordination between areas of the spine and the diaphragms will be the basis of movement in the two directions that allows appropriate tonic organization.
What I’ve attempted to do is present differing awareness about the complexity and inter-relatedness of what affects posture.
If we think only in structural terms, and do not account for gravitational effect that is always present and responsible for much our postural condition, if we think in a paradigm that one discounts the dynamic role and relationship myofascial plays with human uprightness, if we perceive that all we need consider is a structural biomechanical model, we really never face the extraordinary complexity of why a person is in the postural form they present at that moment.
Tensegrity allows for us to think about structure quite differently. The skeleton is no longer the sole support of the musculature, but is in relationship with tensional myofascial as a dynamic compress ional unit that creates a separation of space by hydrostatic pressure.
Arline Newton has pointed out, that human experience in its entire internal and external dimension is respected. Mechanical models are simply inadequate descriptors of movement. Tonic function goes beyond postural negotiation, it has physiological and mechanical organization, but also perceptual and symbolic. They ignore the fundamental role of perception has in movement.
Posture is not static; it is the dynamic interplay of body mind organization in which emotion, experience, developmental and psychological manifestations are played out every living moment. And we are privileged to attempt to intervene and facilitate the dance of transformation with our client.
We must become educated to treating and work with our client dynamically. Making use of our space in the session. In stead of just treating in a supine or prone position, but using side-lying, or have the client sit up in verticality, or working with movement. And if we feel we are not inclined, or inadequate to the task, then finding appropriate referral or taking a class ourselves, to give us a better sense the role awareness through movement implies.
1. Frank, Kevin, March 1995 ‘Tonic Function’ ROLF LINES p.3
2. Newton, Arline March 1995 ””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””Basic Concepts in the Theory of Hubert Godard””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””, ROLF LINES PP33-43
3. Rolf, Ida P., 1977 Rolfing, The Integration of Human Structures, Chap 2 Roadmap to Structure p30)
6. http://www.rolf.org 2000 the Rolf Institute, 205 Canyon Blvd., Boulder, CO 80302, USA
7. Goldstein, Steven, 2003, Course Notes on Lecture-Demonstration by Hubert Goodard. February 2003 at The Body Wisdom Conference, Waimana, Coramandel, New Zealand.