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

by David Gorman

Part 3. From the Ground Up

Reprinted from The Alexander Review, Vol.1, No.3, Sept. 1986,
Subsequent editing, June 1993

IN THE PREVIOUS INSTALMENT we looked at the distinction between the freely moveable joints of the limbs and the distortion joints of the torso. We saw how these distortion joints provide flexibility to the container of your torso as well as allowing the rhythmic change of volume in breathing. If we can develop the skill to allow this flexibility and freedom as well as an openness and volume we ensure that our life-support organ systems have the optimal environment to provide us with the vitality we need to be active and alert.

In this issue I wish to explore how deeply linked this optimal environment is to our characteristic human uprightness — indeed, how dependent our whole freedom, openness and awareness are upon our skill of orienting ourselves to the Earth and the sky. While it is perhaps somewhat of a dubious proposition these days for us humans to think of ourselves as 'the crown of creation' there is at least one aspect of evolution where we have gone about as far as it is possible to go: the development of uprightness.

The earliest vertebrates, the fish, evolved under the surface of the planet and moved horizontally in the water following the direction of their length. The new creatures who emerged from them gradually but unceasingly streamed upward in the world. As life progressed, animals came out onto the surface of the land, long and low with wide-spread legs. From these in turn sprang beasts with their bodies well up off the ground, legs well in underneath them and with longer necks so their heads were raised high up. Some of these even came up off their forelegs to become bipeds though their bodies were still angled forwards with long tails balancing them behind. This tendency to raise up parts of the body over other parts, higher and higher above the ground, led eventually to the primates and us with our long straight legs, our opened-out hips and erect upper body.

From the water in which we evolved we have raised ourselves a full 90o to be stretching up from the earth toward the stars. At the same time we have come a complete circle back to where our whole body extends back from our head just like the fish. It is difficult to conceive what other of our parts could be moved up higher short of growing antennae from the tops of our heads.

Such a sweeping trend toward height would not have been so consistently pursued were there not huge advantages. One of the most obvious is that as the creature's head is raised so are its senses and thus it comes to live in a larger world with larger horizons. It can smell more, see more and hear more. A bipedal creature has the additional bonus of freeing up its front limbs for other functions. A less apparent but much more important benefit of having mass poised up high is the gain in potential energy and hence the ease of initiating and augmenting movement. With this there is however a penalty of sorts to pay. Nothing is so easy or so stable as resting on your belly on the ground. The higher up that animals became the more unstable they became and hence the more complex strategy needed to maintain themselves up there during activity.

In our uprightness we are probably the most precarious of all the creatures with so much of our body so high up over so many free joints. Precisely because we are so much up over ourselves, we also have the possibility of being one of the most balanced of creatures (albeit a possibility more often than not unrealized). In fact, it is this very instability in our balance that enables us to effectively use the potential energy of our height. At the same time it is the balance in our instability that allows us such a potentially low overhead in terms of energy expended in staying upright.

Let us look into this a little more closely. Firstly, to separate somewhat the inseparable, in the last issue I distinguished between doing and being as respective characteristics of the limbs and the torso. Here I wish to broaden this to distinguish between doing in the sense of intended activities and movement, and being in the sense of simply being a creature, living, breathing, aware, and upright, but not necessarily engaged in some actual visible endeavour. In this context your ability to be upright and relatively free is a prerequisite to doing anything you may want to do. Not much can be accomplished in the daily round if you keep falling over. We can go further — the freedom, ease and coordination of movement utterly depend upon your primary skill at maintaining a free, poised and open uprightness. If you can't even stand up or sit up without tightness or collapse, you haven't a hope at ever moving freely. If you can come to a well-supported flexibility and an openly integrated being in any moment in yourself, you have the possibility of taking this free being off into activity.

The whole issue of how we use ourselves in relation to gravity is normally termed posture. It is clear that a large part of any success at being free rests on our ability to use well the support of the ground so as not to be increasing our instability by leaning one way or the other. This is usually taken into account with the concept that 'good' posture has something to do with alignment, which in turn has connotations of vertical and straight. There is much truth in this from the point of view of simple physics, however, there is nothing simple about it. To appreciate the full implications of our relationship with the earth it is necessary to go back to our actual given structure and ask how possible is it for humans to be balanced in the sense of vertically aligned up over the ground? And furthermore, how possible is it for humans to so balanced up over their major joints?

It is certainly possible to achieve this balance between your whole body and the ground. In fact, you are conveniently built so that when you have the planet directly underneath you there is an even distribution of contact on the bottoms of your feet — as much to the front as the heel, as much to one side as the other. There you are totally supported. When you have the planet directly under you there is no way on Earth that you can fall. After all, you are already on the ground and there is nowhere lower to fall to than the ground. Even more conveniently, the bottoms of your feet are extremely sensitive to support provided you are attentive to and able to interpret the information they tell you.

And very important information it is too. All this may seem very elementary, yet surprisingly, so many people consistently carry themselves with more contact on the front of their feet (which means they are leaning forward), or more back on their heels (leaning backward), or even habitually stand more on one leg than the other (with consequent twists all up their body) and then wonder why they have these tensions and pressures which they can't release. They can't get rid of them for the simple reason that the tensions and pressures are all that is holding them up. Were they to succeed in releasing these habits without changing their orientation to the planet, they would simply fall over.

Even more surprising is how many people go into movement by going even farther out of support. They begin to walk by leaning forward or to sit down in a chair by going off balance backwards towards the chair and then tightening and struggling with the imbalance all the way to the chair. More often than not they never regain their balance and would be in big trouble if there was no chair. It is no wonder that many people feel awkward and out of control in themselves (a feeling guaranteed to give one the impression of being separate from one's body and hence rather more refined a spirit than this contrary vehicle in which one finds oneself).

I do not wish to make too much of an issue of this but we too often devote a lot of awareness to what is going on inside our bodies and pay selective inattention to what is going on between our body and the planet — to how well the whole of us is supported. That sensation of contact on the bottom of your feet (or under your seat and thighs if sitting) is your direct awareness of the earth pushing up underneath you and supporting you. It is your tangible appreciation of your relationship to the planet and to gravity. It is very direct and very reliable, it's there any time you wish to be sensitive to it, and it is very easy to respond appropriately to this sensitivity. The more even and broad is your distribution of contact with the ground (with consideration for the circumstances of your activity), the more you are well supported and the more you have a chance of being free. Anything else is just unskilful use. We'll see just how important this is as we begin to uncover how curious a beast freedom can be.

What we have been looking into is not only our ability to balance ourselves on the ground but also to poise ourselves on our feet at our ankle joints. When we look at the uprightness of the rest of our structure we find that very different instabilities exist in our legs than in our torso and, due to the difference between the freely moveable synovial joints of the legs and the flexible distortion joints of the torso, very different strategies of balancing are required.

Since your hip, knee and ankle are huge synovial joints with large ranges of movement it is conceivably possible to balance yourself on your legs by getting your torso exactly up over your hip joints, the rest of you just balanced on your knees, and the whole of you poised over your feet (which are evenly supported on the ground). But these are freely moveable joints and will not stay in that poise unless you can stop your breathing and your heartbeat, neither talk nor move your arms about, and, of course, pray that no wind comes your way. The only way you can stay in such a 'balance' is to regard it as a 'position' and then hold the joints with muscles so that they are immobile and can not be disturbed. There is then, however, no freedom. Thus, in your legs you cannot have a balance as we normally think of it and still have freedom of the joints. But you can have a 'balancing' — an equilibrium — that is gained, lost, and continually restored. In short, a dynamic equilibrium and one which hopefully is gained more or less completely, which is lost only a little, and which is restored often.

The situation is not at all the same in your torso. Here, it is not possible to balance in the sense of getting all the parts up over the ones below. We just happen to be built so that we are inherently unstable. A glance at a skeleton from the side clearly shows that there is more of you in front of your spine than behind. When you think of it, this is quite obvious from experience. When tired you tend to sag and slouch out forward. If you slip off to sleep while sitting up your head nods out to the front. Thus, your head and torso are inherently unstable in a forward direction. In addition, we commonly bend forward in activities or use our arms out in front of us to do something thereby actively de-stabilizing ourselves further forward.

This forward instability is a fact of our structure which we can do nothing to change but, obviously, something must be done to deal with the instability if we are not to be collapsing over all the time. Something must also be done so that any instability above does not overwhelm any poise achieved in your legs below. The traditional solution, as contained in the concepts of good posture and alignment, has been to straighten up, which is to say, to attempt to reduce the instability by doing work to raise each part more up over the parts below. Successful alignment — good posture — is presumably where sufficient stacking up of the parts has been achieved so that you are 'centred' and the amount of effort in holding yourself up can be reduced. You would then be in a state of 'ease' and 'balance'.

There is, however, a major flaw in this system of approach. The major joints of your forwardly unstable torso — the vertebral disks, the rib cartilages, etc. — are not synovial joints which would allow your torso to be easily moved to a new, more vertical position and to freely stay there. They are cartilage distortion joints and while they have a flexibility that allows movement, this very flexion is accompanied by an elastic resistance which increases with distance resulting in a strong tendency to spring back to their previous shape. This means that not only do we have to use muscular work to raise ourselves back up out of our forward instability, we will also have use muscular effort to hold ourselves up there against the elasticity of the distortion joints. This is why 'good posture' is so often hard work and leads to stiffness and tension. It is also why the consequent release of tension and holding when we 'relax' usually means a blessed collapse. The upshot of this approach is that in the attempt to achieve an upright freedom it is all too easy to find oneself stuck between being 'upright' but not very free or free but not very 'upright'.

If we track it down, we find that the flaw exists in the assumption that instability is undesirable; that there is something wrong with the way we are built — perhaps an evolutionary oversight to be corrected in future generations. It is often said in the books that we came upright so quickly (in an evolutionary time frame) that parts of us were left behind. In particular, they conclude the lower back and pelvis area is in evolutionary arrears which is why humans have so many chronic problems in that region. However, the flaw is not in our design so much as in our function, or to be more precise, in our malfunction which, in turn, is the product of a rather simplistic and mechanistic conception of instability.

There are higher forms of stability than a simple and static balance of objects on top of each other where any disturbance leads to a loss of balance and must be resisted. In these higher systems instability is not only an integral part of an organism but is the driving force leading to a larger stability of the organism.

In the next several issues we shall see how this applies to us (and the seeming conflict of being simultaneously up and free) by turning around the premise that our design is a problem to be dealt with. We shall see where it leads if we assume instead that our inherent instability is there for a reason and that to reduce it is to lose the very freedom and liveliness we are after.

...continued in Part 4, Talented Tissues...

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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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)