An Informational Missive
I spent last weekend in a consummate L.A. way: at a film shoot. My friend/mentor, Mary Bond, is making an instructional DVD to accompany her book, “The New Rules of Posture: How to Sit, Stand and Move.”
Cast and crew spent three days together in a gorgeous old Spanish house with terra cotta tile floors, cathedral ceilings, arched doorways, and a bricked courtyard with fountains. For twelve hours a day, we shot scene after scene, over and again, waiting for airplanes to pass and for the construction next door to stop. I’d never spent time on a set before. I saw how much attention to detail, patience, and concentration are needed to produce a professional film.
The beauty of the shoot was that form and content dovetailed. What Mary teaches–postural awareness–also requires concentration and attention. In thinking about what Structural Integration accomplishes, one of the words that comes up is ‘balance.’ What is balance? How do we achieve it?
What follows are some thoughts that might inspire appreciation for what most of us take for granted: our bodies’ intricate workings that keep us upright.
Structural Integration deals with, among other things, balance: balancing the connective tissue matrix around joints, front to back, side to side, inside to outside. If you’ve had a structural integration series, you know that part of each session is devoted to body awareness and movement. Most of my clients sense a change in their bodies when they stand up from the table. This ability to feel changes in our structure is critical to postural improvement. It is possible to develop this sensory awareness by tuning in and paying attention.
Try this exercise from Mary Bond’s DVD: in bare feet, stand on a flat surface and pay attention to what you feel. Where is the skin at the bottom of your feet making contact with the ground? After a minute, take a folded towel or blanket and place it on the floor. Now step onto it and, after you feel settled, close your eyes. Notice how your sense of balance changes. Let your knees get soft, remember to breathe. Notice what you do in your body to achieve the sense that you are standing upright. After a minute, open your eyes and step off the towel. Tune in to how your feet feel now, on level ground. You may notice a heightened sense of the surface itself; you may feel your feet more accurately, you might feel more planted. This exercise invites you to experience how your body’s sensory mechanisms cooperate to help you keep your balance.
Balance is a choreographed arrangement that takes sensory information from a variety of organs and integrates it to tell the body where it is in related to gravity and the earth. Staying upright involves an intricate exchange of information between:
1) Our vestibular apparatus of the inner ears
2) Our eyes.
3) Our muscles.
4) Our Joints.
5) Pressure receptors in our skin.
The functioning of the vestibular system depends on information from many systems, hearing as well as vision and muscle feedback.
The vestibular system consists of a maze-like structure of semi-circular canals, called the ‘labyrinth.’ These canals are three fluid-filled loops arranged roughly at right angles to each other. They contain sensory hair cells that are activated by movement of inner ear fluid. They tell the brain when our head moves in a up and down, side to side, rotates, or is still.
Our vestibular system works with other sensorimotor systems in the body, such as our visual system (eyes) and skeletal system (bones and joints), to check and maintain the position of our body at rest or in motion.
The eyes provide information on orientation and movement using reference points in the visual field. Tracking movement requires complex integration of information.
When we see something moving, the brain needs to know whether the movement is due to the head moving or to the object moving. Sometimes the brain can be fooled, such as when we’re sitting on a non-moving train next to another train. Because the other train fills up the whole visual field, there are no other clues to determine what is moving and what is not, consequently it feels as if the train you’re on is moving.
Muscles and tendons have receptors which signal to the spinal cord and brain the degree of stretch in the muscle fibres and the tension in the muscle.
This allows the body to constantly adjust muscle length and tension to cope with whatever posture is adopted. With humans posture control is more complex because we stand on just two legs: four-legged beings are inherently more stable.
All the muscles are important in this but those of the legs, pelvis and neck particularly so.
Joints have receptors which tell the brain where the limb is in space. Most people can move an arm or leg into a certain position with their eyes closed and know what that position is. The receptors in the joints of the neck vertebrae are particularly important in balance since these receptors provide information on head position.
The pressure receptors in the soles of our feet play the crucial role in balance by feeding the spinal cord and brain information on different pressures on various parts of the soles of the feet and signal such things as tipping forwards or backwards. When we stand, there is always a small amount of swaying that is recorded by the pressure sensors in the different parts of the soles of the feet. These add to the information on movement from the eyes and ears that the brain receives. Remember Mary Bond’s exercise, standing on the blanket with eyes closed. If you could record the activity in your brain during this exercise, you might be surprised by the amount of continuous, subtle adjustments you make in order to stay upright.
You might remember this the next time you go snowboarding, or bend over to pick up a pen, or look up at the sky.
Human Anatomy and Physiology by Carola, Harley and Noback. Pub. McGraw Hill 1992
Neurophysiology by RHS Carpenter. 2002, WebMD