We Don't Know Squat :

Recovering an Active Opposition Between Legs and Torso


 One of the most extraordinary aspects of my ongoing study of the Alexander Technique is the opportunity it offers me to learn something new each day.  I am immersed in a continuum of discovery and reeducation that extends into every facet of my life.  I have let go of the desire to “know” instilled in me as a result of my past educational experiences and instead I exist in a state of curiosity and wonder.  Recently in my reading I came across a bit of advice from F.M. Alexander to his niece and student/teacher-in-training Marjory Barlow:

             “You know there’s nothing you believe that is your own.  There’s nothing that you think that is your own.  Everything that you say and do is because of other people, the way you’ve been brought up.  What you’ve got to do is find out what is really yours in the way of what you think and what you believe.”

 This was clearly demonstrated to me when I was at the Museum of Natural History and found myself in my favorite spot, the hall of the dinosaurs.  I always end up lingering there when I visit the museum, so as a result I feel I’m pretty familiar with the room.  But when I looked at the skeletons, I saw something different this time, noticed something I had not before:  all of the animals there had different curves to their spines than we humans do.  Because they are quadrupedal, the weight of their heads relates differently to their spines than us bipedal humans, and as a result they have one less curve to their spines.  In quadrupeds, the spine functions as more of a flexible suspension bridge, supporting the body’s organs.  This started me thinking about the adult human spine, and the changes that occur in its structure as we make our progression from quadrupedal infants and toddlers to fully upright adults.

Because of our uprightness, the human spine has been transformed into a weight-bearing column, which puts it under unprecedented stresses, and increases the likelihood of back pain and injury.  There are flexions created in the human spine above the hip (lumbar) and in the neck (cervical) which bring the head upright and over the pelvis and feet, causing the spine to take on an “S” curve.  In infants and small children the spine is similar to a quadruped and has more of a “C” shape to it. As babies (about 3 months) we develop a curve in our cervical spines as we learn to lift our heads, and as we learn to walk and maintain our upright balance (1-3 yrs.) the lumbar portion of the spine curves as well, taking the spine into a sort of “S” shape.   

The human head is a fairly weighty object, on the average between 8 and12 pounds.  (Imagine a 10-pound bag of potatoes!) This is an extremely significant weight we carry around all day.  Because of our upright stature this weight is balanced on top of our 24 jointed vertebrae and the cushioning disks in between them.  There are 7 cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic, and 5 lumbar. It is worth mentioning that our 12 thoracic vertebrae are all fused bilaterally with our 12 ribs, but the 5 lumbar and 7 cervical are basically “on their own” in terms of being fused with other parts of the skeleton.

So here we are balancing our 10 or so pound head on top of our “S” curved spine.  Balance involves movement, yet we all find many ways to brace ourselves against the movement that balance entails, and we end up holding or bracing our heads in all sorts of configurations in relation to our spines.  We clench our jaws, we brace in the muscles of our necks or lower backs, we pull our heads back and down on our spines, pull our shoulders back or we hold our breath and as a result brace in our thoracic vertebrae which are fused to the ribs surrounding our lungs.  All this in an unconscious effort to support the weight of the head.

The fact of the matter is that all the while we’re doing this we’re creating extra muscular tension and causing ourselves a whole lot of unnecessary work in our efforts to maintain uprightness and balance the head.  “Posture” is often approached as static and then a held “position” to be achieved.  We push and pull ourselves into various contortions in our efforts to improve our posture.  Everything extra we do to ourselves in our efforts to maintain uprightness is too much.  We don’t need it.  What we do need is to get out of the way, stop making things more difficult and allow our preexisting postural reflexes and dynamic oppositions to support us.  “Posture” is not a position to be achieved but a movement of our whole structure as it constantly balances and rebalances itself in response to activity.

    It has been ingrained in us that “hard work pays off” so when we feel fatigued after an average day’s work we don’t give it a second thought.  We treat the fatigue as a given and never think that we have a choice in the matter.  It often never even crosses our minds that we could be interfering with ourselves and our easefulness of movement, or that we often carry out our daily activities unconsciously interfering with ourselves.  We hold our breath or excessively tense our muscles as we move.  We respond limited by habits that we are unaware of and so often we are unconsciously overworking.

    There are several oppositional supports built into our structure that we often do not utilize because of our lack of awareness of them.  They are present as we learn to balance upright as toddlers, but as time goes by we forget.  To begin with, we pull the weight of our heads back and down, and as a result we compress our spines and therefore compromise our overall potential length.  This compression translates into extra tension in our extremities, and interferes with the availability of our arms and legs when engaging in activity.  When we release the muscles of our necks our heads are released into forward balance on our spines and then our spines can in turn release into length.  As our spines lengthen in response to the balanced weight of the head, our torsos expand into width and length, and our legs release away from the pelvis and arms release away from the spine.  There is a very active opposition between the balanced weight of the head and the spine and well as the whole torso to the legs.

    These oppositional dynamics are at work as a child picks something up off the floor.  The three joints of the legs all bend, and the legs release away from the torso.  This allows the torso to release into length, the breath to be uninterrupted and to continue throughout the movement.  I’ve included photos of my niece and nephew to illustrate this point.  No matter what degree of squat they’re in you can notice the active dynamic between their legs and torso.  The separation of legs and torso begins at their hips, not at the waist.  They use the three joints of their legs to bring them closer to the floor, leaving their arms available for reaching and grabbing, and the overall length and width of their torso is not compromised.  As a result there is little interference with the balance of the head or compression along the spine.  There is an innate simplicity and efficiency to their movement that often becomes slowly erased as we mature and condition ourselves otherwise.

    As adults we often bend from our waist to retrieve something off the floor.  Perhaps we believe that by bending from our waists we are really making things easier on ourselves because it seems to be less work on the legs, but the waist is not a joint.  We forget to involve the joints of our legs, and we pull our legs up into our pelvises as we bend from our waist.  As a result of this habit our arms pull slightly into our torsos as well, and this creates a pattern of excess tension throughout our whole.  In our efforts to save work on the legs we are actually creating excess work and inefficient habits.   Instead we should remind ourselves to use the dynamic oppositional support available to us between our legs and our torsos.   As the legs release away from the hips the spine and torso can lengthen and vice versa.  By utilizing this opposition the work of squatting down to retrieve is more evenly distributed throughout the whole, and as a result an overall expansion of the system can occur.

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