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

by David Gorman

Part 2. The Nature of the Torso

Reprinted from The Alexander Review, Vol.1, No.2, May 1986,
Subsequent editing, June 1993

LAST ISSUE WE BEGAN TO LOOK at your general physical organization; how you have an endedness, a length; and how that length has a bias to it, a direction towards your head end. We looked at how that length is embodied in your spinal column and saw also how your limbs (in a very general sense) have a structural organization for doing, whereas your torso has a general organization of simple being as a container for your life-support organs.

Let us now proceed to probe further the nature of this container. There is more to the difference in character between your limbs and your torso than just the structural arrangement of the bones and connective tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia, etc.). The limbs and the torso also have a major functional difference in the way their parts are connected and move about on each other. That is, they have very different kinds of joints.

When we think of movement and joints, the limb type of joints are the most familiar to us: the elbow and hip joint, the finger joints and so on. While these differ in shape and range of motion they are all the same basic kind of joints — synovial joints. The joint surfaces where the bones meet each other are covered in smooth cartilage and the entire joint is surrounded by a fibrous capsule lined with a membrane (the synovial membrane) which secretes a very slippery lubricating fluid. In these sort of joints, bones move with little resistance on each other to take up new relationships. In consideration of how we normally think of them, I call these simply moveable joints because they allow free movement much like a door moves on its hinges throughout its range and can easily stop anywhere within that range.

Torso movement is not at all like this. However much your torso is a container it is obviously not rigid like a tin can (unless you hold yourself stiff). You are designed to be able to bend and turn while at the same time allowing your organ systems to carry on their functions inside. To say that we are capable of this, however, does not mean that we are always able to do it. To understand the joints which allow this torso flexibility let us first delve into the organization of the parts concerned. These parts include the central length of your spine, the strong pelvic bottom of the container from which your spine arises, the volume created by your ribs midway up your spine, and your head containing your brain and framing your major senses.

The bony vertebrae that make up your spine are separated from each other by thick intervertebral discs. These discs are made of a compliant and elastic cartilage reinforced with connective tissue fibres and bonded very firmly to the vertebra above and below. Your ribs are connected together in front to the bones making up your breastbone by bars of pliable cartilage resulting in a flexible chest volume. The two halves of your pelvis are joined together in the front at your pubic bones by a disc of cartilage. At the back they are joined to the base of your spine on either side of your sacrum by what are technically synovial joints but which are so strongly bound by ligaments as to not be moveable in the same sense that your fingers are moveable. At best the slight give and take possible in these sacro-iliac joints could be called resilience. A similar situation of limited but elastic movement is present in the three bones making up your sternum (breastbone). The dozens of bones fitted together with suture joints in your cranium also partake of this resilience though on an even smaller scale that that of the pelvis and sternum.

Thus your torso is primarily a distortion structure. There is no movement of your torso, be it turning, bending or straightening, without the discs in your spine being elastically distorted in some fashion. You can bend over forwards because each one of the discs involved in the movement can be squashed in front and stretched out behind to allow the bend. Most movements of your torso will also involve the resilience of your chest and likely, to a smaller degree, a give and take in your pelvis. Thus, these torso joints I call distortion joints (with no particular negative connotations to 'distortion'). They give you a kind of movement that might best be termed flexibility. They have the pliancy to allow you to bend and turn like a young willow branch, but as you do so, elastic resistance to distortion increases and they always want to recover their shape and return to where there is as little distortion as possible.

In your torso this inherent shape is where there is the maximum volume for the container. In terms of the spine it is where the discs are neither squashed nor stretched, neither twisted nor bent; where the spine is in its natural curves and at its natural length, neither over-bent nor over-straightened.

A glance at the spinal column shows that it curves back and forth. These curves are not there because it is like a strand of limp spaghetti buckled under the weight of years; they are built into the shape of the bones and the discs themselves. This does not mean, though, that whatever curves are in your spine will necessarily show up as corresponding outwardly visible curves of your back. A simple exploration will show this well. Touch your spine in your lower back. Note that the columns of muscle on either side bulge out farther than the prongs in the middle. Those prongs are just the tips of bony projections from the vertebrae; the actual bodies that form the lengthening device are at least two inches deeper inside your back. But farther down, above your tailbone, the bony base of the spine (your sacrum) is right under the surface, and farther up between your shoulder blades the vertebral bodies are only about one inch from the tips of the prongs.

You can appreciate from this that if someone is sitting and their lower back looks somewhat straight you are seeing only the profile of the muscles covering quite a substantial curvature of the bones inside. I have had just as many students tell me they have arched their backs because they've been told their spine is 'supposed' to be curved as I've had students who tried to force their curves straight because they think of that as good posture. In either case they have only been able to get themselves 'right' by what they look like in a mirror which, unfortunately, reflects back not at all what is going on under the surface.

The whole point of this is that the spine is a curved structure as well as a distortion structure. The curves are important to give strength to the spine and resistance to deformation; they provide a springiness and a shock absorbing effect simply not possible were the spine straight. But most of all the curves provide a resolution of any conflict between the need for a lengthening device and for volume of the container. In your neck the spine moves forward to be as central as possible under your head. There are not many sizeable organs in your neck and the need for volume has become secondary to providing mobility and range for your head. There is even an elaborate arrangement of synovial joints between your head and the upper two vertebrae, the significance of which we will explore in future issues. Your spine moves back in your chest to allow room for your heart and lungs then moves forward again in your abdomen to be more central for the mobility of that area. Finally it moves sharply back to fit into the pelvic bottom of the container and to be out of the way of the outlets of your digestive and urinary systems and reproductive system (particularly for giving birth).

This leads us back to the reason for the distortion joints. The torso is first and foremost a volume for your organs. These organ systems — your respiratory and circulatory systems, digestive and excretory system, etc. — merrily breathe, circulate, digest and excrete away without us having to do much directly to help them. They are not an activity to be done but a response to the activities we do. These systems work together to provide the energy and vitality for your activity. The best you can do for them is to ensure that they have the optimal environment for their various functions and then let them get on with it. That is to say, your job is to find how you interfere and get out of the way.

This optimal environment has two major characteristics: lots of room and lots of freedom. The bony arrangement of your torso is designed to afford the room; the distortion joints are designed to afford the flexibility. They will let you move about but always want to return to their inherent shape — where you have the maximum length and the maximum consequent width with maximum freedom. Now this doesn't mean that you should always stay close to home and never bend; the mobility is there for you to use freely. If you use yourself freely and openly to go off into movement you will be more free and open wherever you go and you can certainly use yourself freely and openly to come back. The pure fact of it is that free bending and turning is a response of your torso to your activities and will occur naturally unless you stop it by stiffening yourself.

As an aside here... the major problem with excessive torso movement arises when we don't have the skill to use our large synovial limb joints (hips, knees, ankles, shoulders, etc.) openly and so force ourselves to compensate by using our distortion torso joints for active movement. Skill is the operative word here because the torso was the original and entire body of the early fish vertebrates before they put on legs and came out of the water. Distortion movement is much simpler and more primitive than that of the sophisticated synovial joints (which have been proportionately increasing as vertebrates have progressed). If we do not claim our heritage by gaining command of the range and freedom of these synovial joints (including the ones between your head and the upper vertebrae!) we have no option left but to shut them down by locking or fixing them with muscles and to fall back by default on simpler distortion movement which is neither designed to nor capable of doing the same job as the freely moveable joints.

In any case, all your organ systems must still go on working for you even if you restrict their space. They simply go on working under pressure. Each of your organs has a specific form inseparable from its function. There are no empty spaces where organs can go when you squash them. Your heart has to pump just as much blood, it simply has to pump thousands of times a day that much harder, and since it has to work from a cramped and distorted space, it will pump that much less efficiently. It may take years, but sooner or later this will lead to a breakdown in function.

However, it is not so much your organs that directly bear the brunt of a slouching squash or a straightening squeeze, it is the flow between your organs. Your life ultimately depends on the flow of air in and out of your lungs; the flow of blood carrying oxygen around your body and picking up wastes, the flow of food through your digestive system so nutrients can be absorbed, and so on. If there is ongoing distortion and pressure you are sitting, not at all figuratively, on your metabolism and squeezing the life out of yourself.

It is easy to appreciate how constriction and compression of the container can adversely affect the health of your organs and your state of vitality. It is not always so easily appreciated how lack of flexibility is its accomplice. Respiration is the best example. Breathing is the most noticeable rhythm in your body. It is literally the breath of life; its freedom and depth the most direct measure of the liveliness and energy available to you. Unfortunately (in some ways), it is also the one of your life-support organ systems with which you can most directly interfere, since it must make use of much of your voluntary musculo-skeletal system. Its major requisites are just the same as those of your torso as a whole — a volume that is free to move.

One of the most common of interfering habits, right up there with bad posture, is good posture. Bad posture most often means some version of slouching or collapsing forward with obvious consequences of cramping and jamming up your breathing. Good posture is usually the opposite, with attempts being made to straighten up and lift your chest, pull your stomach in and shoulders back and all that. The way most people get their chest up in the front is to pull down on their back with those powerful muscles that run up either side of the spine. These muscles do not just attach to the vertebrae, they also spread out to attach several inches onto the back of each of your ribs. Thus any pulling down to raise up your front and hold it, pulls down on your ribs and holds them down losing some volume and freedom. Since your ribs slant downwards from your spine in the back, not only are they pulled down but they are also pulled in towards the spine, narrowing your chest losing more volume and freedom...

If this isn't enough, any thoughts about your abdominal muscles being strong in order to hold your guts in only add to the problem. These muscles all pass between your pelvis below and your chest above. So when you try to flatten your stomach and narrow your waist you are shortening these muscles strongly and tending to pull your chest to your pelvis. Of course the pull down in your back is then partly to hold up the pull down your front so you don't bend over forward. But now you have two downward pulls and breathing is even less free. This is not the end of it. Of the abdominal muscles, only the one in the front actually goes up and down between your ribs and pelvis. The others run obliquely and criss-cross from the ribs on one side down towards your pelvis on the other so that their tightening not only pulls your ribs down but also pulls them together in the front — all of this the opposite of free, open breathing.

I could go on, bringing in how tension in your shoulders clamps your breathing in a vice or how holding your hips joints stops the flexible breathing rhythm dead at the bottom of your torso, but the point is clear. It is the freedom of the parts that allows free breathing and free breathing is the opening of your torso into volume. Free breathing is also openness to what's around you. It is you letting the outside into you and allowing what's in you to go out. It is animation and activity, expression and response.

The openness and expansiveness of your torso as a whole vitalizes you and liberates your energy so that it rises up in you. And that, more than anything else, is what gets you up and keeps you up, not bones and muscles, or balance and posture.

Next issue we'll begin to look at how that energy keeps us up.

...continued in Part 3, From the Ground Up...

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.


Purchase in one of two new e-book formats !
Also published in print paperback format

This article (along with the rest of the
series plus 9 others) is available in
the new 2nd edition of the e-book,
Looking at Ourselves - buy it now.

Or buy it in its original printed
176-page paperback format.

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


Read other articles by David Gorman and other LM teachers
Return to the LearningMethods home page


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.

For the last 6 years, 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 and work, as well as a group for those who want to go on to train as LearningMethods teachers.

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