“In poor posture the muscles are doing a part of the job of the bones.”
Moshe Feldenkrais in “Awareness Through Movement”
Correct “Posture” versus Dynamic Stability
I started using the term dynamic stability many years ago to describe the fluid relationship with gravity that is the birthright of all land mammals.
If you look for information about good posture on the net it is easy to get the idea that it is something you need to achieve and maintain by conscious effort; in fact the muscles that stabilise our skeleton to keep us upright – in defiance of gravity – do so with no sense of effort, whereas the muscles whose main purpose is to organise us for any specific action work with less efficiency and tire quickly if they are engaged in a futile struggle with gravity for which they are poorly evolved. Moshe Feldenkrais – very much an engineer – did not like the rigid connotations of the word “posture”. He stated that having good posture meant being able to “move in any direction without preparation”. To understand what he meant by this, come to standing and lock your knees – by which I mean, move your knees backwards until they cannot go any further in that direction (for many people this is a habitual standing position). Now take a step forward. Did you notice that you had to unlock your knees first? – this act of preparation could waste vital seconds when escaping from a faster predator. The most obvious advantage of our bipedal stance is the availability of our hands, but do not discount the survival value of the speed with which we as a species are able to turn tail and run!
Of course when we do stand for any length of time we are not actually static – our whole self performs constant subtle adjustments in order to maintain our balance, and the closer we are to ‘good posture’ the more lightly poised we are on our feet. The constantly shifting and adjusting dance with gravity that we experience in standing or sitting is what I mean by dynamic stability.
Experience this internal shifting for yourself…
Stand with your arms hanging and your feet unshod; close your eyes and let your attention focus inwards on how you are standing. As you get used to paying attention to the signals coming to your brain from all over your musculoskeletal system you will feel yourself shifting and adjusting subtly and constantly to maintain your balance.
Once you are acclimatised to these sensations, slowly drop your head forward from the base of your neck and notice how your whole self sways backwards on your feet to keep your balance. Repeat this a few times until it is really clear and then experiment with what you can do to prevent this gentle backward shift in weight – notice that you have to actively interfere with some of your muscles to prevent this spontaneous adjustment. Where do you “fix” yourself – buttocks? Knees? Lift your chin and drop your head backwards a few times – what happens this time? These adjustments are automatic now, but as a toddler you spent a lot of time calibrating your vestibular mechanism so that you could bring your head to vertical and organise yourself to keep it balanced there, allowing you to use all your external sensors – eyes, ears, nose – effectively to navigate through your ever-expanding environment.
Dropping your head to either side will produce the same subtle adjustments – notice that the more slowly you move the more subtle the shifts you can become aware of.
Proprioception and Hypermobility
What helps us develop these skills as toddlers is the “design” of the skeleton itself. We are naturally unstable with a high centre of gravity and the feedback system from our muscles and joints that enables us to refine our balance is called proprioception. It relies on clear signals from every part of the musculoskeletal structure – so it can be much harder to develop good balance and efficient coordination if we are one of the many people with some joints that are hypermobile, i.e. that move further than is efficient for transmitting force through the skeleton. I recently met an expert on the subject of hypermobility in all its variants. Isobel Knight has a severe form of the condition and has written a comprehensive guide to Hypermobility Syndrome, but for many people it simply means that some of their joints move more freely than is the norm, and that can make efficient self-use harder to develop as a child. Of course now I am more aware of the condition I am noticing that there is quite a lot of it about, and once I discovered that the condition has links to fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue I was not surprised to discover that my clicky lumbar joints are so noisy not because they are inflexible but actually because they are moving a little too freely.
Here is a wonderful example of dynamic stability in action – watch this amazing hypermobile Gymnast:
How does Awareness Through Movement make a difference that makes a difference?
The Feldenkrais Method is essentially a tool for developing the kinaesthetic sense and we tend to talk about this sense more than we talk about proprioception, but clearly better kinaesthetic awareness will naturally enhance your proprioception, and anyone who has attended a ATM class will know that we always begin and end by spending time observing our level of whole-self awareness lying still on our backs (proprioception) as a way of noticing and maintaining any changes we may have achieved by exploring a carefully designed Awareness Through Movement sequence with constant attention to our sensory-muscular feedback (kinaesthesia). The more I understand about hypermobility the more obvious it becomes that our method is a great tool for helping anyone with this condition.
Overusing the muscles: in both group and individual lessons we teachers are strongly focused on helping individuals recognise their tendency to push themselves beyond their natural boundaries and to enable those who are stuck in compulsive patterns of excessive muscular effort to move their attention deeper inside into a better-organised skeleton.
Better cooperation between different muscle systems: our group lessons and homework practice movements are designed to re-organise the various muscular systems to move in a more coordinated way so that it becomes easier to do more with less effort. With practice this can begin to happen spontaneously.
Pacing ourselves: many of the people who find themselves drawn to Feldenkrais acknowledge an inability to pace themselves in everyday activity. We are often the people who derail ourselves when healing from an injury by attempting too much too soon, and many of my students arrive at a lesson feeling guilty because they were doing so well and then they did six hours of gardening and their condition has worsened accordingly. Learning to stop before it hurts too much to continue is a valuable life lesson in so many areas – it is perhaps the life skill that people struggle with the most…
Relaxation: ok, this is the hardest one for me! But when I do need to relax I have a lot of tools at my disposal from my years of locating and releasing muscle tension in every part of myself. I am working on a set of bodymindfulness techniques designed to refine the Feldenkrais approach into a specifically meditative process, so watch this space.
Also, check out this new book from Norman Doidge on Neuroplasitic Healing, which includes two chapters on The Feldenkrais Method in action:
*This is a reworking of a previous post focussing on Hypermobility Syndrome – you can read the original here.