The LearningMethods Library
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
Copyright © 1986, 1993 by David Gorman, All rights reserved world-wide
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
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
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
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
...continued in Part 4, Talented Tissues...
Read the other articles in this series;
No. 1 No. 2 No. 3
There is a
small biography of personal details about the author below.
About the Author
David 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.
Telephone: +1 416-519-5470
78 Tilden Crescent, Etobicoke, Ontario M9P 1V7 Canada (map)