Thinking About Movement: Support your weight with your bones

I have been asked by several people if I have written down any of the ideas I have that have come up in FI lessons, and up to this point I haven’t really. I am starting here with a series of posts focused on ideas that I have applied with many people that are places to begin when wanting to develop one’s own understanding of how human movement works.

I should say that I am not making any scientific or medical claims here, only logical deductions based on my experience and observations. Much of this comes from my dance training and experience with the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, but also from others, and I will cite sources when appropriate. The purpose of these posts is to help your thinking, and they are meant as educational resources only.

These are also meant as places for people to begin thinking about movement – most of this is a simplification and not meant to be the final truth in any way. Those experienced in movement will recognize that when looked at very closely most of this reasoning falls apart and new complex models need to be constructed that address how movement actually happens – I agree. However, beginning with too  much complexity can be counter-productive. These are presented as options for how to begin thinking about movement and nothing more. So, to begin…

Every event in our lives has a physical aspect. Whether the physical aspect works well influences how the whole event goes. I understand that “well” is subjective, but even so our subjective values can be better materialized when our movement improves. We can affect the success of the physical aspect through our skill in movement. Skill in movement is complicated, but it stands to reason that even an improvement in a single aspect of movement could cause a noticeable change in many life events, including walking, sleeping, and sexual activity.

So what are some ways that movement can be improved?

Increase the proportion of our weight supported by bones

One way to think about support is that 100% of our weight is always being supported, unless we are in free-fall (this is a simplification, but it’s useful to make this point). This weight is being supported through a combination of the work of bones and of muscles, so the sum of the work done by bones and muscles is 100%. The proportion of work done by bones* or muscles is constantly changing, so that while lying down much of the work is done by bones, or while running while more work is being done by muscles. When we feel that lying down is more restful, that is because our muscles are given the opportunity to rest from work that they normally have to do while standing, walking, etc.

*We don’t normally think of bones doing work, but what I mean by this is that bones are resisting gravitational force, which if unresisted would bring the body toward the ground. While this work does not create movement, it is stopping movement that would otherwise be created by gravity, so that is measured as work (and is actually a significant part of all the work our bodies do as a whole).

Think of standing up – there is some amount of resisting gravity done by muscles and some by bones. Wherever you imagine the feet to be, now imagine them significantly farther apart – in the position a greater proportion of the work has to be done by muscles (you can try it out for yourself to see that this is true). Now split the difference and you will see that the amount of work done by your muscles is also somewhere in between.

This brings up an important point: what we feel as increased work is actually the increased burden on muscles. This may also seem obvious, but it’s important to realize that the actual work is the same – it’s the burden that has changed and this changed what we feel. What we are hardwired to prefer is that the maximum amount of the work is placed on bones and the minimum placed on muscles.

Even though the proportion of muscle-work to bone-work is constantly changing, it can be changed overall as well. In the example above the way that the proportion could be improved is through adjusting the positions of the feet to be closer to the middle. What this does is puts the legs(and their bones) in a direct line in between the weight of the trunk and the ground – this is a general rule that can be applied to many actions:

We can often reduce the burden on our muscles by putting the bones in direct line between our weight and the ground.**

**It is not quite true that they have to be in direct lines, because bones are not exactly lines. They are curved, and so this is only true up to a point. What we want is for force to follow the “lines of stress” in our bones, which is the path through which the structure is strongest. (see Mabel Todd’s The Thinking Body)

For some movements this is easier than others, but even small improvements in this factor can make a difference. And this again might seem like something obvious. The way we actually support our weight is more complicated that this – see Dr. Stephen Levin’s Biotensegrity model, which he discusses in the Liberated Body podcast episode, “Dr. Stephen Levin: Biotensegrity”, but this is a good place to start.

The key here is that we feel the difference. So a good process is to start with a simplified general rule like this, but to test it with your feelings – don’t hold to it like dogma, because you will eventually find that the truth is more complicated. We feel when our movement is inefficient and places too much of a burden on our muscles, so we can use the feeling as a guide to experiment and find out for ourselves what works better and better.

So other than feeling good, what benefit are there for using less muscle?

If a muscle is contracting, it is receiving a signal from the brain. It cannot receive a new signal to create a new action until the other signal dissipates and potential in the nerve is restored (Feldenkrais, Body and Mature Behavior). So while a muscle is contracting it is not available to contract for some new purpose.

In standing this means that any muscles that are being used just for standing cannot be used for some purposeful action – no matter how much effort we expend there will be a biological limit. When too many muscles are needed just to stay vertical, we feel impotent, unable to rally our bodies to fulfill our desires through movement. As we increase the amount of muscle available to receive signals from our brains, our actions become more powerful without any increase in effort. We find in time that the effort necessary for any movement can be reduced and life doesn’t feel so hard.

Other effects of increased muscular availability:

Increased sensitivity: I will discuss this in another post, but basically all our activity creates stimulation for our own nervous system and that stimulation can drown out stimulation from the environment. So when you are talking to yourself you are less able to hear what is going on in your environment. The same dynamic plays out in movement – when we are contracting our muscles more, we have a harder time feeling what is physically happening in our environment. So someone who is too tense will have a hard time feeling what is going on in another person while in physical contact with them.

Better self-expression: Self-expression is often thought of as emotional or verbal, but it is also physical. We instinctively express our thoughts, emotions, and desires through movement, and much of this movement is not done in a calculated way. It is spontaneous. Since it is spontaneous and not premeditated, how full it is depends on the number of muscles available for expression at the time – if we are using many of our muscles already, our spontaneous self-expression only has a limited set available and will feel small. When more of the body is available, our spontaneous self-expressions become more full.

Self-regulatory behavior works better: As with self-expression, many of our movements/actions are not consciously managed. The muscle contractions happen on their own. This is particularly clear if we think about urination, defecation, and sexual activity. Imagine you are trying to defecate – some of the muscles that contract as part of the process are likely not used for regular movement, those of the colon etc. However, there are some muscles that play dual roles. Some muscles of the pelvis that we use for walking, running, etc. also help with changing the shape of the lower body to help with defecation. Knowing specifically how all of this works is not necessary – all we have to know is that there is some connection that can probably be helped if more of our body is available to participate in these activities.

Again I want to reiterate I am not making any scientific or medical claims here, only logical deductions based on my experience and observations. The purpose of these posts is to help your thinking, and they are meant as educational resources only.


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