Thinking About Movement: The Path of Movement through Time

Often when thinking about movement we remove the element of time. I don’t just mean time in the sense of your life history, although that is a significant factor, but the immediate history between one movement and the next. We imagine that when you get to a position you are there, and that the movements that brought you to that position are finished. This way of visualizing movement ignores certain aspects of movement that are important.

When you  come to a position you engage muscles in some sequence. Likely, when you reach the position where you stop, you don’t let go of all of them – some of them continue to be engaged, while new muscles come into play to make sure the movement ends. Finally some muscles usually need to me engaged to maintain the position itself. So there are three phases.

In an earlier post I mentioned that because each motor neuron can only send one signal at a time, so whenever we begin some movement, we can only engage muscles that are available. It follows then that in each of the phases described above, muscular engagement is limited by the previous phase. In this way, when we arrive at any position, be are engaging in a sequence of events, and whatever that sequence was, determines which muscles are active when we become still.

Our bodies spontaneously return to rest

Imagine you are lying on your side, with one leg on top of the other, and your arms extended in front of you with one hand on top of the other. If you slowly slide the top hand forward a small amount, then bring it back to its original position, and repeat this sequence about ten times, you will eventually find that you have to consciously make your hand move forward, but it returns by itself. This is a general principle of human movement that often goes unnoticed, but it is critically important. You only have to do the movement, but your body spontaneously (without conscious effort) brings itself back to where you began.

One important aspect of this is that whenever you get to the zenith of a movement, your body is ready to return to where it just was. At that point your body is carrying the history of the movement, albeit a short history. Until we return to resting position the history will stay in our muscles. So basically coming to a resting position is like an etch-a-sketch for your muscles. The resting position doesn’t necessarily need to last very long – the longer the sequence of actions, the longer the resting period required to unwind.

Movement sequences

So let’s take the next logical step. When you perform a sequence of movement without resting in between, your muscles have to unwind through all of those steps in reverse order. You can try this on your own with the hand-sliding from above. Begin lying on your back, then slowly roll to one side, begin to slide your hand forward. From there, let yourself return to lying on your back and note the path that you take. Do it several times so you can see what happens.

Now try something else. Do that same progression, but when your hand is fully extended, consciously bring yourself to lying on your back rather then letting yourself return without effort. When you find yourself on your back you will likely feel that there’s much more muscular tension this time, even though it’s the same position.

The position alone doesn’t determine your muscular engagement while you are in it. It also depends on the sequence of action that led you there. 

The path back to resting does not always take the most direct route, but something similar to whatever route we took to get there. It does not require moving through the full positions. The muscular disengagement just has to be undone in that order, which produces less movement, so not necessarily any recognizable positions.

Needless to say is complicated why it works this way. It could have to do with how muscles get wrapped around each other in a certain sequence when we engage them, and they have to be undone in the same order because the ones that engaged later are literally holding the other muscles in place. Or it could be for some other reason.

Our movement history in the longer term

When working with clients I often find that there are movements that move forward, but are never really undone. The active element is present, but the resting never really happened, so the action in some sense is still happening. The tension stays and that tension creates a pulling of the whole body in some way, which distorts other movements they try to perform, as well as making resting or sleeping difficult. These tensions can be undone through the resolution of action patterns, for which we can use touch as well as movement practice that brings these tensions into awareness.

This is also applicable to the larger scale. As Bessel van der Kolk describes in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, actions that are unresolved can live in our muscles. In the case of trauma, he believes that there is a way that the experience of trauma does something to our muscles and that body-work (he mentions the Feldenkrais Method along with others) can facilitate a process whereby a person regains agency over their whole body and can finally feel like their old self again.

Through investigating their own movement patterns people often find that memories of significant experiences arise from nowhere, as the related movement tensions are released. It seems possible that muscular tensions can literally be held for decades even though the significant even has passed. In this way, the histories of our lives can be interfering with our movements today much more than any structural issues that we might have. In fact, the unresolved tensions can be what causes the structural issues. It’s hard to know with something as complicated as movement, psychology, and personal experiences, but for many, an investigation of movement patterns through work like the Feldenkrais Method can be worthwhile.

In these posts I am not making any scientific or medical claims, 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. I am not a doctor and this information should not be used as medical or diagnostic information.

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