“In poor posture the muscles are doing a part of the job of the bones.”
Moshe Feldenkrais: Awareness Through Movement, 1980
Correct “Posture” versus Dynamic “Acture”
When I first started using the term dynamic stability to describe the fluid relationship with gravity that is the birthright of all land mammals, I soon discovered the term was not as original as I hoped! Of course I am by no means the only movement teacher using this term as a metaphor for well-organised self-use.
If you look for information about good posture on the net it is easy to get the idea that it is something you are required to achieve and maintain by conscious effort; in fact the muscles that stabilise our skeleton to keep us upright–in defiance of gravity–do so with no sense of effort, whereas the muscles whose main purpose is to organise us for more conscious activity–lifting, manoeuvring, running, for example– work with less efficiency, and tire quite quickly, if they are engaged in a futile struggle with gravity for which they are poorly evolved. Moshe Feldenkrais–an engineer by training–did not like the rigid connotations of the word “posture”. He coined the term “acture” and describe having good acture as being able to “move in any direction without preparation”.
A quick ‘Awareness Experiment’ for you to try
To understand what he meant by this, come to standing, and lock your knees – by which I mean, move your knees backwards until they cannot go any further in that direction (for many people this is an habitual standing position). Now take a step forward. Did you notice that you had to unlock your knees first? This act of preparation could waste vital seconds when escaping from a swift-footed predator. The most obvious advantage of our bipedal stance is the availability of our hands, but do not discount the survival value of the speed with which we as a species are able to turn tail and run!
Of course when we do stand for any length of time we are not actually static – our whole self performs constant subtle adjustments in order to maintain our balance, and the closer we are to ‘good posture’ the more lightly poised we are on our feet. The constantly shifting and adjusting dance with gravity that we experience in standing or sitting is what I mean by dynamic stability.
Experience this internal shifting for yourself…
1. Stand with your arms hanging and your feet unshod; close your eyes and let your attention focus inwards on what you can sense about the way you are standing now. As you get used to paying attention to the signals coming to your brain from all over your musculoskeletal system, you will feel yourself shifting and adjusting subtly and constantly in order to maintain your balance.
2. Once you are acclimatised to these sensations, slowly drop your head forward from the base of your neck and notice how your whole self sways backwards on your feet to keep your balance. Repeat this a few times until it is really clear and then experiment with what you can do to prevent this gentle backward shift in weight – notice that you have to actively interfere with some of your muscles to prevent this spontaneous adjustment. Where do you “fix” yourself – buttocks? Knees?
3. Lift your chin and drop your head backwards a few times – what happens this time? These adjustments are automatic now, but as a toddler you spent a lot of time calibrating your vestibular mechanism so that you could bring your head to vertical, and organise yourself to keep it balanced there. This organisation allowed you to use all your external sensors–eyes, ears, nostrils–to navigate efficiently and effectively through your ever-enlarging environment.
Dropping your head to either side will produce the same subtle adjustments – notice that the more slowly you move the more subtle the shifts you can become aware of.
Proprioception and Hypermobility
What helps us develop these skills as toddlers is the “design” of the skeleton itself. We are naturally unstable with a high centre of gravity, and the feedback system from our muscles and joints that enables us to refine our balance is referred to as ‘proprioception’. This sensory-motor system relies on clear signals from every part of the musculoskeletal structure – so it can be much harder to develop good balance and efficient coordination for the many people with some joints that are hypermobile, i.e. that move further than is efficient for transmitting force through the skeleton.
I have been fortunate to work with an expert on the subject of hypermobility in all its variants. Isobel Knight has a severe form of the condition and has written two books to date; a comprehensive guide to Hypermobility Syndrome, and a detailed description of her own condition Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. While the condition can be severe for some, for many people it simply means that some of their joints move more freely than is the norm, and that can make efficient self-use harder to develop as a child. Of course now I am more aware of the condition I am noticing that there is quite a lot of it about, and once I discovered that the condition has links to fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue I was not surprised to discover that my clicky lumbar joints are so noisy not because they are inflexible, but in reality because they are moving a little too freely much of the time.
Here is a wonderful example of dynamic stability in action – have a look this amazing hypermobile Gymnast:
The “difference that makes a difference”
Amongst many potential applications, the Feldenkrais Method is most obviously a powerful process for developing our kinaesthetic sense – and we teachers tend to talk about this sense more than we talk about proprioception, as kinaesthesia is the scientific term for our internal perception of movement, whereas proprioception is more usually used to refer to our sense of ourself in one position – i.e. our postural awareness and sense of balance. Obviously improving our kinaesthetic awareness naturally improves our proprioceptive abilities at the same time. In a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement class we switch between these two modes; we focus our attention on our whole self in motion throughout the active part of the lesson, and between each sequence we pause, resting in stillness, usually in a comfortable position on the floor, and scan ourselves to recognise any changes in sensation. This constant self-observation is the main tool for maintaining and enhancing any improvements we experience during the lesson, and the better we get at noticing changes, the more we continue to benefit from a lesson once it is over.
…The more I understand about hypermobility, the more obvious it becomes that our method is a great tool for helping anyone with this ‘condition’.
Overusing the muscles: in both group and individual lessons we teachers are strongly focused on helping individuals recognise their tendency to push themselves beyond their natural boundaries, and to enable those who are stuck in compulsive patterns of excessive muscular effort to move their attention deeper inside to connect to, and begin to move from a better-organised, more integrated skeleton.
Better cooperation between different muscle systems: our group lessons and homework practice movements are designed to re-organise the various muscular systems to move in a more coordinated way so that it becomes easier to do more with less effort. With practice this can–and usually does–begin to happen spontaneously.
Pacing ourselves: many of the people who find themselves drawn to Feldenkrais acknowledge an inability to pace themselves in everyday activity. We are often the people who derail ourselves when healing from an injury by attempting too much too soon, and many of my students arrive at a lesson feeling guilty because they were “doing so well” and then they did six hours of gardening without a break, and their condition worsened accordingly. Learning to stop before it hurts too much to continue is a valuable life lesson in so many areas – it may well be the life skill that people struggle with the most…
Relaxation: ok, this is the hardest one for me personally! But when I do need to relax I now have a lot of skills at my disposal from my years of locating and releasing muscular tensions in every part of myself. The growing popularity of mindfulness techniques has made me aware of just how elegantly the Feldenkrais internal focus practice dove-tails with learning meditation, and I also recognise how many of the benefits I experienced early in my training came from releasing chronic tensions I had been living with since childhood without ever becoming fully aware of their presence.I began to feel happier and more at ease in a vague, hard-to-pin-down way. Now I am more conscious of how naturally holding yourself together becomes chronic in a hypermobile nervous system I have developed a comprehensive sequence of bodymindfulness-focussed Awareness Through Movements lessons and I am planning to make these available to purchase at some point in the near future. In the meantime do get in touch about any of this – I am always happy to chat, and these lessons are very suited to distance learning, so I can also teach via platforms such as Skype.