or “Could you show me how to Bend?”
This request can never be satisfactorily addressed in a direct way. Feeling that you do not know how to bend means that reaching downward has become painful or at best uncomfortable or difficult for you because your joints feel stiff. That is the first misunderstanding that needs to be tackled: it is not generally the joints themselves, but the condition of the muscular rigging of your whole body which allows or prevents the smooth movement of one part upon another at your joints. Only when the whole body is operating satisfactorily will bending be easy. You cannot bend well unless you stand well. When you can do that, bending is as simple as it was when you were a year old.
The holding patterns and co-ordinating mechanisms of the whole body need to be understood before we can make the changes in our manner of use needed for the restoration of smooth movement. Being shown how to bend by simple bend-here-and-not-there instructions has proved less than adequate for addressing the current pandemic of musculo-skeletal malfunction. Good use of the whole self must be taught; and learning does not happen in a two-hour workshop – especially not when it is re-education in something as fundamental as the way we move.
It is helpful to approach the business of bending by looking at our origins as mammals constructed for living on all fours. The shift onto two legs was a major event in our evolution. Adaptation of the basic vertebrate design – of a head and trunk slung across four limbs – into a head and trunk now being supported on only two limbs, certainly incurred modifications to, and changes in the disposition of, several body parts. Yet the fundamentals of structure and function have remained the same. Both four-legged and two-legged creatures primarily need to move forward.
In contracting her musculature for movement the four-legged creature is stretched along the same trajectory that she travels in, the trunk being held horizontal to the ground as she moves forward head leading. For good co-ordination in a two-legged animal the same principles apply, except that the lengthening of the musculature of the trunk now occurs vertically, at a right angle to the ground along which the creature is yet propelling herself horizontally. Movement has become less concordant on two legs, requiring more careful management to avoid mistakes.
Our fellow primates came part-way to a vertical orientation. But as tree dwellers they mainly use their limbs for holding onto branches. We alone have managed to completely free our forelimbs from their former supportive role by balancing fully upright on our hind legs.
Whether these variations in the vertebrate format were selected for, or were accidental, or were ordained by a Creator, undoubtedly the homo sapiens design variant is supreme in its wealth of permutations. No other creature can manipulate its environment so comprehensively. The trouble is, our superior abilities have inherent pitfalls. We can be too clever by half. Where a chimpanzee spreads leaves and twigs across branches to make a simple nest to rest on, we make ridiculous furniture that supports our body mass in ways that harm us. Our ability to act on our world seems to have outstripped our ability to encompass in our thinking the likely effect of our actions. By the time we have evidence of it, a lot of damage has too often been done.
So to learn how to bend without harm we need first a better understanding of how we can most efficiently manipulate ourselves in our fancy up-ended version of the vertebrate body.
All other mammals have a head at their front end with a trunk behind it spread across four legs, sometimes with an extension of the spine forming a tail. Movement is initiated by a release of the head whose weight, as it drops, causes the spinal muscles to contract, to prevent the weight of it tearing tissues as it falls, and to keep it safely attached to the body. It is worth taking a look at police mounts clopping gently along, heads nodding as they go. Contracting spinal muscles alter the relationships of the vertebrae to one another, effecting a reduction in its overall curvature, and thereby giving the whole a greater length. This stretching out of the torso tugs on the muscles and tendons of a hind limb which is drawn under the body to a position from where it can push on the ground and propel the trunk forward. Because the trunk lengthens out along the same trajectory that the creature is travelling in, movement for the tetrapod body is a self-sustaining procedure, providing its muscular wrapping with all the stretch and exercise needed to maintain it in good condition.
[To get an idea of how important this lengthening of the spine is, get onto all fours and allow your trunk to collapse down between them. Then try to walk forward on your limbs while they carry your unsprung or ‘dead’ weight. You will discover that a contracted or ‘tense’ trunk is a lot easier to move than a ‘relaxed’ one!]
But if our tetrapod should lift her front end upwards, holding it at a right angle to the ground, and start tottering around on her hindlegs, movement becomes more complex – and, as we shall see, packed with potential dangers.
Although several helpful changes to the basic design have evolved – such as the flattening of the thorax, the straightening of the hind limbs and the development of rotating knees, and the curtailed length of the pelvis – balancing at such a height on such a relatively narrow base is still precarious.
The other primates did not make those facilitating changes. A chimpanzee’s femur falls straight from her pelvis to a non-rotating knee. Combined with her longer ischeal bones restricting the flexibility in her trunk, her uni-directional knee joint means that to place a foot forward for bipedal walking her whole flank and shoulder must turn as one. She cannot transfer her centre of gravity medially to balance on one leg while her pelvis swings the other leg forward and inward to place a foot centrally in front, counterbalancing the manoeuvre by twisting her upper torso in the opposite direction. But we can. Our shorter pelvis allows the increase in torque that makes for efficient forward movement on two legs.
Luckily or, as F M Alexander believed, of necessity for management of this more precarious bipedal orientation, humans simultaneously underwent big changes to the cortical brain. Not only was there a lot more of it, but the whole extraordinary organ also became capable of thinking about itself. As we shall see, this development of self-consciousness was essential for re-establishing good co-ordination in an organism prone to damage from its own refinement. The more complex and delicate the apparatus, the greater the potential for going wrong.
As far as we are presently able to perceive, we are the only species capable of garnering our knowledge and understanding in the fantastically manipulable memory banks that our new cortex has bestowed. Only we can reason and can question our own responses. Perhaps it is this uniqueness that persuaded our natural historians to consider our amazing selves unsuitable for classification alongside other biological beings. Certainly we can claim superstatus when it comes to making art or playing the piano, but when it comes down to it, our bodies are made of the same meat, and to the same plan. And it is the meat which does the moving, that wields a paintbrush or manipulates keys.
We do refer to ourselves as bipedal , but we have not yet endowed ourselves with an elegant adjectival-adverbial ending to describe our very special type of movement.
The panther as it streaks across the African plain on its long legs and relatively short trunk, with its shoulder blade lying alongside a deep narrow chest and rotating with each stride, is called a cursorial – that is, built for running; the saltatorial kangaroo bounds through the spinifex on elongated tibias that give it extra spring, using its elevated tail as counterbalance; then there are the scansorial monkeys scrambling through trees everywhere; and the good old fossorial moles with their purpose-built broad paws and massive shoulder muscles that dig their way through the food-rich topsoil, ruining our lawns.
One reason for not categorising ourselves in Modes of Locomotion and Propulsion may be because our unusual upright stance renders us capable of doing almost everything everyone else does – and more. We can dig for food, climb trees to reach interesting dietary supplements, leap out of danger when we upset a snake; and, remarkably, we can keep our balance while running with the best of them. We can even outdo all other species when it comes to performing a pirouette on one toe – although our reasons for wanting to do so may not be so obvious as is the clear benefit of functioning well as food gatherers or escapees. Indeed, human manoeuvrability is as greater in relation to all other species as is our distinctly more powerful brain.
We are so plastic we can almost turn ourselves inside out. And correspondingly, our brains can perform quite dazzling feats of insight and computation to make useful deductions amounting to leaps of genius; or to extend into imaginative creativity that can lead us around the bend. We are wonderful indeed. But as an aid to understanding movement, it is helpful to step away from our magnificent exclusivity and allocate ourselves a place in the box marked Locomotion and Propulsion.
All species display a dominant mode of locomotion. It is the one it will be basically designed for, even though it may employ other modes for specific or occasional purpose. Zebras mainly stand and run, but they can also leap over obstacles when they are fleeing. Seals mainly swim in the supportive medium of water. But they can shunt themselves around on rock to rest and feed their pups.
We can do just about everything from swimming to walking on our hands incredibly well. But the one thing we have to do constantly, and that nobody else has to do except occasionally, is bending.
As long thin creatures sticking straight upwards, all interaction with our environment occurs at an infinite number of points between our highest reach and the ground. We are benders. We spend our lives moving our bodies groundwards and straightening ourselves up again. In medical parlance this is called flexion and extension. So we can call our dominant mode of locomotion and propulsion flectorial – from the Latin verb ‘flectare’ – to bend.
In classifying ourselves thus, we do not even sacrifice our singularity, as there is no other mammal who does as much bending as we do. The big cats flex and extend as they run – that is, they scrunch up the torso to bring their hind legs forward, stretching themselves out again as far as they can with all four legs extended to cover as much distance as possible per stride. They are bending and unbending. But that is not quite what we do. Our joints have a greater range of movement than theirs which we use for our particular sort of bending that involves lowering ourselves to various points groundwards.
We are better off maintaining maximum extension of our torso as we lower ourselves, especially as we also uniquely must hold ourselves in bent postures for considerable amounts of time. If we flex the torso to lower ourselves – or, in more everyday Alexander Technique language, if we shorten down in front – we displace our body weight onto areas of our joints that are not designed to bear so much. It is not a balanced way of bending: the body is mis-shapen, unable to effect a natural counterbalance in the distribution of parts, so that strain will be felt throughout the whole body as it struggles to keep its awkward shape from falling. The joints will feel ‘stiff’, but it is not really the joints, but rather the musculature of the whole trunk that is having to work too hard, having to over-contract so that movement becomes difficult.
A particular advantage of our exceptional manoeuvrability is that we can also twist as we bend. A horse can extend her neck a great length to get her jaw down to grass level, but she cannot twist much. She needs to go into reverse to see behind herself. You can imagine the potential for damaging ourselves when we simultaneously twist and bend badly.
There are many bending variants in the natural world, not least of which is the ability to unbend. The gerenuk, for instance, balances on her hind toes while reaching high into the bushes for the best bits. But she cannot stand there for very long. We, on the other hand, provided we are well balanced and poised, can stand fully unbent behind the customer service counter all day long.
But mostly we are up and down like yo-yos, not even noticing how much to-ing and fro-ing between the ground and our highest reach we perform in a single day of ordinary living. From rolling out of bed – to squatting on the toilet, to reaching for the cereal – to leaning over the basin and the never-quite-at-the-right-height sink – to getting the underwear and socks on – to getting into the car and climbing the stairs to the office where it is get up and sit down all day long, punctuated here and there with reachings and leanings for more paper or a cup – to driving back home again and bending to fetch a saucepan from the cupboard below the sink, and so on, and so on, until finally the socks have to come off again and the damn toys need picking up from the floor.
Some bending is essential;
other bending can have a spiritual purpose;
bending is used for communication – our flexible faces and figures are very expressive;
and then some bending can be for no reason at all, except that we can. We love to move our bodies every which way. It is what we were born to do.
What we are not designed for is holding ourselves in rigid military postures. Goose-stepping, for example, has to be the daftest corruption of walking ever devised. But equally unpromising is collapsing our bodies in front of a screen like jelly beans. Either extreme renders the human body unfit for bending. What we need is the reflexly held uprightness we still find in the poised strength of an infant. We should not lose that.
Our growth and development can be viewed as a partial re-enactment of our evolution. In utero the foetus is suspended in fluid where she twitches from time to time, but does no muscle building; in the gaseous medium the baby is born into she spends many months wriggling around on her back and her front, growing the muscle and neurological
equipment she will need to lift her trunk off the ground for creeping. You could call this next stage her tetrapod phase, although you would draw back from classifying her mode of locomotion as cursorial as she will not get up much speed. Nor does she need to bend much. More like a wombat ambling close to the ground, it becomes apparent that she is planning on a different tack, because she constantly stops and rocks back into a sitting position on her pelvis. She balances on her sitting bones to examine things closely with eyes and hands and, to the exasperation of her parent, usually with tongue as well. But also, surreptitiously, by-the-by, she is getting in more practise at balancing her brain-laden head on the end of her upright spine. None of her fellow tetrapods does that. Neither their heads nor their spines are suitably shaped. When a dog or an elephant has been trained to assume a human sitting posture, the strangeness strikes us as comical. The strain inherent in the conflict of design and function is apparent. We feel relieved when they return to their proper animal shapes.
Then, at around one year old, as the infant imagination glimpses that there may be a more exciting world up where her immensely tall parents hover, she begins the big heft into the most extraordinary orientation that any mammal has tried. She finds she likes it up there on two legs. It is a thrilling sensation when her abundant postural muscles send her soaring upwards on reflex contractions like a myriad tiny springs. As her lumbar and leg musculature strengthens, she becomes more stable. Her hands that were once needed for creeping and clinging, can now be used to explore further for what she can derive from her surroundings in the way of satisfactions.
Now she has mobilised and fully unravelled, for the next eighty-odd years she will be moving not just forwards and backwards, but also ever more frequently downwards and upwards. She will sit down and stand up, lift objects and replace them; she will lean and reach out, touch and withdraw and turn, and bring food to her mouth; and one day after she has attained the desired great height of her parents, she will be bending back down to the floor again to pick up someone else’s toys.
As we age and become less resilient and more vulnerable to wear and tear, it becomes even more important to use our bodies well, to be performing our constant flexing and extending movements with ease and pleasure. There is no sense in swapping our wonderful advantages for the orthopaedic department. To prevent this sad outcome we need also to make the most of that other advantage, our self-consciousness. We must be aware that the harm we do to ourselves with poor co-ordination is as important a fact in our fund of common knowledge as that sugar rots our teeth and that cigarette smoke kippers our lungs – especially in regard to our children who are still growing their future adult shapes.
F M Alexander described his discoveries about human movement as the use of the self. He considered that self-consciousness was necessary for the successful performance of locomotion on two legs. Paying attention to the prevention of bad habits in ways of moving formed the foundation of what he named his technique of non-doing. He discovered that trying to do the right thing – trying to teach people how to bend – did not work. On the contrary, he needed people to become aware of what they were doing that was interfering with Nature’s machinery. His theory was that if we learned to prevent wrong action, the organism would move itself well by default.
So what are the wrong things we do that make bending no fun any more? In fact it is just one thing that we do that stuffs the works when it comes to moving: we shorten – or in Alexander Technique parlance, we pull down. We become overly keen on flexing, whether it is undertaken to flatten our tummies or to grow bigger biceps. Whether we collapse the trunk onto the pelvis and legs, or tighten our musculature in an attempt to stretch out, both will compress the joints and make bending difficult.
So we must learn to keep our muscles long. Lengthening the postural musculature is not achieved by stretch exercises. Length has to be indirectly sought, by means of a combination of sensory perception, understanding and desire. That is a long-winded way of describing education and training. And as with all learning, it takes time and help from a teacher.
Alexander Technique teachers are bending specialists. They are trained to use their hands in a way that helps their pupils recover a sense of wholeness in moving. With F M Alexander’s unique Technique they help muscle to lengthen so that the postural muscles liven up. It is a subtle process which is not achieved by pulling. If you were attempting to stretch a flower stem you would have to be a bit subtle about it. Pull too hard and it will break. In Alexander Technique language this effect has come to be called ‘disconnecting’. The voluntary musculature responds to it by tightening instead of being persuaded to release and lengthen.
Good bending begins with unbending, that is, by lengthening the musculature to open out the whole body to its greatest volume. This maximum size is determined by habitual use; muscle only grows as far as it is required to, so that if you have spent years working yourself into a shortened shape, it will take time to re-grow the potential length of your musculature. Correspondingly, it will take time for you to become better at bending. It is definitely not something that can be achieved in a workshop.
As the mistakenly shortened muscle groups release and lengthen, a reflex contraction in the postural muscles is triggered so that they can perform their job of reducing the spinal curves and of holding the body fully opened out. This kind of holding, when the body holds itself up without interference from inappropriate muscle activity, feels light and easy, apparently effortless. But of course it is only an apparent lack of effort due to there being no direct proprioceptive feedback from the postural muscles. We only get proprioceptive feedback – or feel muscle contraction – from the voluntary muscles, the ones that are mainly on our fronts, generally referred to as the flexors. They are the ones we see and feel when we lift weights.
But of course all movement and flexibility and bending are also dependent on firm holding. Each time a part of the structure moves away from base, another part has to firm up to keep the whole steady, to prevent the creature from overbalancing. When the knees bend, quadriceps and calf muscles must contract to limit the degree of release, to prevent the knees from bending further than we want them to, and to keep the trunk balanced above them. Bending a knee to lift a foot off the ground is gentle on that knee joint while it can be murderous on the opposing hip if the body weight is not supported with good springing – in other words if the person is tightening her trunk down onto her pelvis to take a step. Bending both knees at once, if not performed thoughtfully, can entail their taking more than their fair share of the load. Standing on one leg, which we do almost half of the time, requires pretty powerful holding structures around its several very mobile joints. Humans have large gluteal muscles to cope with having fewer legs to distribute their weight between when walking.
Bending involves the whole body. The action cannot be broken into components and learned in bits. Lesson plans that are divided into separate parts and delivered in discrete sections, can never apply when we must send instructions all over, all at once, to inhibit the temptation to grip or collapse while encouraging the postural musculature to keep the body in good shape and balancing with least effort wherever, within our reach and our circumferential range, we may choose to halt. Being self-aware is no small part of the process.
Sitting down and standing up involve bending and unbending and counterbalancing as we do so. There should be no shortening in the trunk. The body should lower itself gently by flexing the joints of the hips, knees and ankles while maintaining the full length and width of the torso, and maintaining the forward relationship of the head to the spine. If we flex the torso too much to sit down, the hips will lock up and the head will be pulled back on the neck. When we allow these interferences of natural movement to occur, counterbalance between head and pelvis is lost, the whole body tightens to keep from falling, and in the process the joints are subjected to grinding weight. Bending well can never be a matter of just bending the knees . If you are loading your trunk badly onto them, you will end up ‘saving’ your back at their expense.
When we sit down and stand up with good use, we are bending in accordance with our design. Sadly, this is rarely seen in fully grown humans. In fact, it is so rarely seen that an upright adult looks as strange as a damaged animal. Young bodies subjected to unsuitable furniture and a singular lack of intelligent thinking about this aspect of their well-being has produced whole nations of poor benders to be sacrificed to a corresponding boom in remedial therapists. No other creature distorts its shape to the extent that we do when performing everyday tasks. One reason for this is that it is harder for them to do so. They are not as flexible as we are, and are therefore not so liable to go wrong. Their joints do not have the same range as ours. We would think it very weird to see a cat performing a back-bend. It is because we are able to assume such questionable shapes, that we need to be all the more conscious and careful of our use. We need to know what we are doing.
Once we are sat, the only places where we should be bent are at the hip and the knee. If our clothing does not allow room for the femur to lie at a right angle to the upright pelvis, the pelvis will be pulled backwards and will drag the lumbar spine with it, distorting the sitter into a slumped posture. Before we had elasticised fabrics, jodhpurs for horse-riding had ballooning sides. The extra fabric allowed room for a satisfactory angle between the leg and the pelvis when sitting astride the trunk of a tetrapod. Bad sitting damaged both parties. We have always thought about the way we use our animals, and ourselves in relation to them; but somehow we still set ourselves apart from our fellow muscle and bone brothers and sisters when it comes to thinking about everyday use of ourselves. We might look good in a fashion magazine in a pair of jeans, but if they are tight around the pelvis and thighs we will not be able to sit properly in them. Before we are thirty years old we will be creaking and groaning as we push the vacuum cleaner around the room in poor shape. Why does Granny struggle so to pick a bit of fluff off the carpet? How come Grandad needs an applicator to get his socks on? Bending was once so natural to us that we have failed to recognise the enormous and disastrous change that has occurred as our ability to fully extend has deteriorated. Often we are barely even able to flex any more. We have become so collapsed down that we are shunting dead weight along the ground as best we can, grossly over-spending our energy resources.
You can get some idea of how energy expensive a pulling down way of using ourselves is by placing a foot behind you as far as you can, and then moving your body weight back onto it. The effort is considerable. This is how we have come to walk forwards. We stick out a foot in front, collapse the trunk entirely onto the pelvis, and then have to haul our weighty trunks onto it. The dead-weight is not so readily experienced in walking forward as it is when we do the back foot experiment, because our neurological apparatus has become so accustomed to our habitual way of using ourselves that we no longer feel the harm it is doing. As any smoker or boozer or biscuits and chips eater will tell you, whatever you are used to doing feels fine, no longer registers as harmful at all. It even feels good.
It is understandable that medical personnel faced with the queue for hip replacements, can be of the opinion that we should be better off back on all fours. They reckon we are not well designed for bipedal living. But in the light of F M Alexander’s insights into human movement we can dismiss those notions and more usefully learn to deploy our evolutionary perquisites intelligently. Bending well makes things easier. Bending for normal everyday purpose will not strain the human vertebrate structure one bit. On the contrary, bending is precisely what it is designed to do.
Not all humans unbend. The so-called “wolf girl” supposedly found in the Indian jungle in 1920, never learned to walk competently, and in their tetrapodal awkwardness they support the case for our being designed for bipedal living. If they were in fact nurtured by wolves, they would have lacked bipedal role-modelling at a crucial stage of their development. Then again, they may have lacked the gene for standing on two legs. Nor could they make the sounds needed for human speech. That is another skill that it appears our brains can only take on board at a certain stage. Those of us who were helped onto our hind legs could also have benefited from on-going education in the care and management of our advanced posture.
All creatures extend their normal range of movement for extraordinary purpose, whether it is to escape sudden danger or to reach that bit of food tucked around the corner. Birds perform bizarre swayings and bobbings in the competition for egg-minders. Other species lock horns and even kill each other to demonstrate the quality of their genes. But none of them makes movements beyond the natural capacity of their structures more than occasionally.
Without doubt our lives are enriched by extraordinary bending. Dancing can reveal to us fresh realms of unarticulated experience. Aboriginal stories are communicated in telling shapes. But whatever we do with our superior plasticity we must always return for normal use to an arrangement of our parts in relation to one another that will maximise the reflex response of the postural maintenance musculature and minimise profligate expenditure of energy in damaging moves. We should not be inflicting extraordinary stress on our lumbar spines when we put on our socks. Whether our bending is everyday or occasional, skill in execution should rank in importance alongside our needs for nourishment, language and clean air.
With good bending habits, we might even justify an additional adjectival-adverbial appendage to our classification. We might become flecto-sapiens-orials.
© C Ackers Sydney 2006
Drawings by © Jing Sheng Wang
16 Paterson St Carlingford NSW 2118
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