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  Home > Articles > In Our Own Image, pt 1

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In Our Own Image
An 8-part series on Human Design and Function

by David Gorman

Part 1. The General Particulars

Reprinted from The Alexander Review, Vol.1, No.1, Jan 1986,
Subsequent editing, June 1993.

And Man said, Let us know ourselves
in our own image, after our own likeness:
and let us have command of ourselves;
over all the activities of our bodies,
and all the attentions of our minds,
and over all our creations that creep
upon the earth, and all our imaginings
that have yet to be brought forth.

THIS SERIES IS DEDICATED TO EXPLORING how we can constructively think about ourselves. To accomplish this we'll have to take into account not only our physical structure (our design) but also how that anatomy is designed to work (our function) and, most important of all, how we as conscious, energetic creatures go about in the world doing our activities and being aware of ourselves (our use). Our conceptions about ourselves and the way we use ourselves are, of course, the same thing and may or may not be at all in line with the way we're designed to optimally function.

As anyone who is familiar with the Alexander work knows (and especially teachers of the Technique), quite a radical change in our approach to ourselves must be made from our old habits if we are to have any significant improvement. Obviously, along with 'poor use' in any physical sense goes an equally unconstructive habit of thinking. So along with any positive change must come an equally radical shift in our conception of ourselves. I can't reach out of these pages with my hands and deal directly with your physical use at this moment, but I can, with words and ideas, reach into your old habits of thinking where there might be lurking various misconceptions, contradictions, vague assumptions, and murky conclusions and help re-organize them into clearer and more consonant patterns in line with the way you're actually built and in line with the way you'd like to function.

I don't propose to go into much technical detail or jargon for the simple reason that I don't want to discuss THE Human Body as an anatomical, physiological and mechanical entity as it is usually done. For all of its faults, this traditional, objective approach has a great deal of value and is a very powerful tool for a doctor or a therapist to use in order to accomplish healing in other people's bodies. However, it is most unconstructive as information that we might want to apply to our own selves from within.

Here these details only seem to confuse and separate us from ourselves. Instead, I am going to approach this with a more personal, less abstract point of view which includes in YOUR human body, the living thinking you. If we are to learn to use ourselves well in everyday life we need a way of understanding which uses everyday language and which stays within (or at least keeps returning to) our everyday experience of ourselves.

There are many levels over which we will have to range in order to make sense of ourselves. The most detailed is that of physiological mechanisms like the stretch reflex or how muscle is activated. This is not a level on which we actually perceive ourselves in the normal course of things and hence is of little relevance except in as much as we need to understand some of the implications of these details for the larger view.

Next there is the level of the usual anatomical bits — the named bones, muscles, ligaments, etc. like the femur, the scapula, the finger flexors, the diaphragm. We also do not normally experience in a direct and isolated way these bits and pieces, though we will need to refer to them as the constituents of the next level.

Where we do really begin to experience and use ourselves is at the level of parts (your head, your hand, your fingers, your back, the front of your thigh, etc.), and junctions between parts (your elbow, your hip, your knee, your neck, etc.), and at the level of functional areas (your breathing, your voice, your walking, etc.). This is the common currency of how we feel ourselves and talk about ourselves. But as the common currency of our perceptions it is at this level we find the root of most of our common problems.

This is so not only because to concentrate our attention here is to remain a collection of parts, but also because our attention is naturally drawn to those areas where we have problems generally to the exclusion of other areas. In addition, these elements of experience define quite different territory for different people. For some, the experience of their head will extend downward and include part of their actual neck; some have their breathing taking place in completely different geographical areas than others; and some people perceive their hip joints inches higher up in their pelvis. These sort of mismatches between different people or between an individual's perception of himself and his actual structure have immense repercussions at the next broader level.

At the next higher level we begin to enter a brave new domain. This is the level of interaction between our parts and areas — how the use of your arm affects your breathing, the consequences to your walking when you arch your back, how the freedom in your knees is affected by lifting up the arches in your feet — a somewhat intangible level which is not this part or that part but how they get along together. This cooperation or interference can include connections between seemingly distant parts of ourselves — the effect of locking your knees on your voice, for example. It is an understanding of these patterns of interaction that can reduce the mystery of so many of our chronic complaints. We'll spend much time roaming about here.

But there is an even broader and more important level — the level of the organization of these interacting parts and functions into a sensitive, responsive whole. This is, of course, the level of you, the person reading this article. It is this central organization that determines the quality of the interactions spoken of above and the state of health or damage of our parts. And it is the whole person who determines the central organization of themselves by the way they perceive themselves and their activity. That organization can be regarded as our approach to ourselves, our policy of being, our way of working — our Manner of Use. Our use of ourselves can be one where the way we organize ourselves draws together into a harmonious whole all our parts and functions so that they all work well in themselves and actually augment the function of all the other parts—Good Use. Or it can be a way of operating which does not tap into the in-built central harmony of our system so that not only are our parts being interfered with in their own functions, but they in turn interfere with functions around them such that we end up working against ourselves — Poor Use.

Thus we come full circle; back to the way we think of ourselves. We will need to dip into the details to help explain the whole, but we'll always need to keep coming back up to that whole, the nature of the central organization — what Alexander called the Primary Control — if we are to gain a deep understanding of the principle behind the Alexander Technique.

Let us now begin with a look at your general physical organization. The most fundamental of your characteristics is your endedness, your extension in space in a length direction. This basic vertebrate quality of length is a product of your spine. The spine is the primary organizer of the torso. It is, first and foremost, a lengthening device; hopefully also a flexible lengthening device. You are, in a manner of speaking, a flexible torso with appendages.

Furthermore, this endedness of yours is not just an unbiased length, it has a direction to its organization. This in-built directedness is toward your head end. Your head leads and the rest of your body follows. In the embryo, and later as children, development progresses from the head back to rest of the body. Most of your attention to the world is grabbed through the externally-directed senses located in your head; you also search out much information about your surroundings and your own activity by the orienting of these head-located perceptual systems. Most of your intention out into the world is directed out from your head — from your eyes for directing activities, from your eyes, face, and mouth in communication, etc..

In a figurative sense you are like a large arrow with your head being the arrowhead and the rest of you the shaft. A measure of the extent of this head-oriented bias is evident in the feeling many people have that 'they', the point of consciousness, live up in the control booth of their head somewhere behind the TV screens of their eyes whence they operate their body like some large and ungainly machine — there's me, but then there's also my body. While this feeling is an unfortunate separation of the point of the arrow from the rest, it can be seen to have a basis, however extremely exaggerated, in our inherent nature.

There is a very big difference, though, between the general organization of your torso and that of your limbs. Your arms and your legs are much more similar than they are different. They have the same basic patterns of bony structure and muscular arrangement and are so built that most of the bones are long and stick-like. The bones run down the centre of the limb with the soft tissues arranged around the outside. These soft tissues are not organs as we usually think of organs, but mostly muscles, tendons, and ligaments having to do with the operating of the limb. They tend (the muscles in particular) to be long worm-like in shape and run more or less along, or curl around, in the direction of the length of the limb.

Within those similarities, your arms and legs differ in virtually opposite ways. Your arms take their rooting and grounding from your torso and extend out into the world embodying a large number of possible movements that we can put together in various combinations. In the most general sense, your arm is a means of getting your hand around so that you can manipulate things and make changes in the world. Your legs, however, take their grounding and support from the ground. They operate, for the most part, up at their other end to support and move you around. In this same general sense, we could speak of arms as having an active, explorative nature since they are normally used to do things and explore your surroundings. We could speak of legs as being responsive since their activity is usually a response to the activity of the whole of you.

Your torso has quite a different organization reflecting its older origins, evolutionarily speaking. Here the bones are arranged around the outside enclosing a space inside for your organs. The musculature here tends to be broad sheets in overlapping layers which run between the bones to complete the walls of this space. Your torso, in other words, is primarily a volume, a container, for your life support organ systems. While your limbs tend to be about activity and doing (to be even more general) your torso tends to be about being, with your organs providing the ongoing energy and metabolic support for your doing.

Let us look more closely. Your head is clearly a bony container for your delicate brain, as well as a framework for your major external senses and the openings to your digestive and respiratory systems. The ribs in your chest have the primary job, not of protecting your organs, but of making sure there is maintained the important volume for your heart and lungs (even though the whole point is that it be a changeable volume so that free breathing can take place). Down in your abdomen the container has mostly muscular walls for the quite variable volume of your digestive system. And finally your pelvis forms a strong and firm base for the container as well as a framework for your reproductive organs and the outlets of your digestive and urinary systems.

Connecting all these areas is your spine, the major lengthening device of this container. Take away your spine and your head would be inside your ribs, which would be sitting on top of each other, all of which would be piled neatly inside your pelvis. Your spine, in other words, is a spacer that takes care of the expansion of the container in a length direction. From this length the other parts take care of an expansion outwards into width. The length is primary; without it there can be no effective width, as we shall see in future articles.

Figuratively speaking, your spine is the limb for your torso. Those prongs you feel sticking backwards from each vertebra may be right under the skin of your back, but the actual limb-like column of bones runs up inside the centre of you at least as much at it runs up your back. In fact, in your neck the spine is virtually in the centre with your throat in the front half and masses of muscles in the back. It deviates to about three-quarters the way back through your chest then comes forward in your lower back to about two-thirds the way back. The spinal muscles, too, arranged along the length of the spine tend to be somewhat long and limb-like. Indeed, due to evolutionary changes, your neck is not so much an organ container now as it is a limb for your head. It's your head's way of getting around.

If your head leads and the rest of your body follows as an in-built organization, and your spine connects your head to all your other parts, then there are obviously some very important interactions that take place between your spine and these other areas, particularly up at the head end. In future articles in this series I'll look into these interactions and continue to throw light on this inherent Primary Control. Next issue we'll explore the repercussions of the completely different kind of joints in your torso compared with your limbs and what constitutes the optimal environment for your life-support systems.

...continued in Part 2, The Nature of the Torso...

Read the other articles in this series;
No. 1  No. 2   No. 3   No. 4   No. 5   No. 6   No. 7   No. 8


There is a small biography of personal details about the author below.


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176-page paperback format.

This article (along with the
rest of the 8-part series)
is also now available in
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80-page e-book now.


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About the Author

David GormanDavid Gorman has been studying human structure and function since 1970. He is the author of an illustrated 600-page text on our human musculoskeletal system, called The Body Moveable (now in its 6th edition and in colour), and numerous articles and essays, including the book, Looking at Ourselves (2nd edition in colour).

David has been working with performers (singers, musicians, actors, dancers and circus artists) for over forty years. He is a trainer of teachers of LearningMethods and of the Alexander Technique and has taught all over the world in universities, conservatories, performance companies, and orchestras; for doctors in hospitals and rehabilitation clinics; and in training courses for Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, physiotherapy, osteopathy, massage & yoga.

Over the years, his changing understanding about the root causes of people's problems led him to gradually extend his Alexander Technique teaching into the development of a new work, LearningMethods (and an offshoot, Anatomy of Wholeness about our marvelous human design), which is being integrated into the curricula of performance schools in Europe, Canada and the United States by a growing number of LearningMethods Teachers and Apprentice-teachers.

Since 2010, David has been running online post-graduate groups for Alexander Technique teachers and groups for those who want to learn to use LearningMethods in their own lives, as well as those who want to integrate the work into their existing professional work as a teacher, therapist, medical or body-work practitioner.

E-mail:     Telephone: +1 416-519-5470
78 Tilden Crescent, Etobicoke, Ontario  M9P 1V7  Canada   (map)