We talk about knowing something with such certainty that we know it “in our bones” but how well do you know your bones? Pause for a moment, close your eyes, and focus your awareness on your internal sense of your skeleton – what is it that you feel when you listen to your bones? Maybe you can actually sense a dense, stabilising core within? For most of us this vital part of ourselves goes on doing its job, unrecognised and uncelebrated, until an injury draws it to our attention.
Our bones developed their unique homo sapiens form over millions of years of evolution, to enable us to withstand the pressure of our planet’s gravity with minimal effort and thus free our muscles for purposeful action. Simultaneously our skeleton is also protecting our most vital and vulnerable structures – our brain, nervous system and internal organs – from injury. Thus our bones are ‘working’ all the time, just as our internal organs are, and consequently, as with our organs, we do not easily bring them to the forefront of our sensory awareness.
Form and function…
They are beautifully evolved to survive the stresses and strains of life – stress being “a measure of how hard the atoms and molecules which make up the material are being pushed together or pulled apart as a result of external forces” (or you could say the thing that is being done to the substance), whereas “strain” is the resulting distortion of that substance in response to the stress.
These useful engineering terms are now thoroughly integrated into the metaphorical language we use to understand our neuro-somatic self – the self that is constantly divided into “body” and “mind”, and sometimes clumsily glued back together again as the “bodymind”, but still not fully understood as the indivisible life process we actually experience. (As Exhibit [A] I will offer the constant and unhelpful use of the term ‘psycho[-]somatic’ to mean that an illness is “only” in the mind).
“Bones are the densest form of connective tissue in the body… Although the mineral content of bone is similar to marble it also contains collagen fibrils for elasticity.”
If you cook bone it loses this elastic element and becomes more brittle than living bone – if on the other hand you extract the harder, calcium-rich bony structure (it will dissolve in vinegar if left for a while) you are left with recognisable bony shape that you can twist and tie into a knot, but which will spring back into its original form on release.
The wonderful efficiency of bone in daily use is based on this combination of strength and flexibility, however this flexible nature is not so obvious, until you compare bone to steel, or concrete – and when you do, you discover that bone can withstand astonishing levels of pressure without breaking when compared to our strongest man-made materials!
Back to Franklin:
“Bones are not at all fixed in shape. Depending on the forces they are subjected to [my italics] they can change in contour in and remodel themselves…according to compression and pulling. A furniture mover’s bone mass increases; the bone in a ballerina’s second toe thickens”
He points out that when our bones are examined closely they reveal the spirals that are a central element of moving efficiently and well by forming into spiral structures within us. These spirals are most outwardly visible in actions such as throwing, batting, punching and kicking, where the power comes from the centre to the periphery. Once you begin to look you can easily see spirals in the movements of dancers, athletes and acrobats too. Here is a great film of Shaolin Monks in action on YouTube which highlights many human movement spirals in slow motion:
The importance of impact…
Your skeleton needs the ongoing impact from the ground provided by daily activity in order to maintain its strength, and when we are out of gravity for any length of time we quickly lose bone density, a constant issue for astronauts, as adult bones take a long time to recover. This is also an issue for anyone confined to their bed for any length of time.
Your bones actually grow from the inside out, in response to the stresses generated by their use; they are continually – if slowly – adapting to what I hope is your constantly-improving self use in relation to gravity. This responsive ongoing adaptation means that your skeleton reveals the unique individual you are as it adapts to the way you function – for a Feldenkrais geek such as me the joy of a show like Bones is that it highlights the way you can read a person’s life in the skeleton they leave behind.
If you cushion yourself against the impact your bones naturally expect as you walk, you may find that you compensate unconsciously by hitting the ground a little harder with every step – certainly that is what the evidence suggests. Once you are aware of the importance of impact for maintaining the strength and density of your bones then hopefully you will begin to question our current world-wide experiment with constantly wearing heavily-cushioned footwear. It is one thing to protect yourself from injury when exercising – although some people are keenly embracing the barefoot alternative in running and are finding that they are actually experiencing fewer injuries as a result. It is quite another to wear that kind of shoe all day every day, and I cannot help but wonder what the osteoporosis statistics will reveal when the running-shoe-generation reaches old age.
The definitions of stress and strain above are taken from Structures, by J E Gordon – a fascinating and comprehensive examination of all sorts of structures both natural and man-made from the point of view of an engineer. I heard about this book from one of my original trainers, and I recommend it to you if you have any interest in engineering and “why things don’t fall down” at all. In the context of bone and its deterioration in old age, Gordon backs up Ruthy Alon’s assertion that efficient self-use is possibly even more important than maintaining optimum bone density for avoiding breakages in old age.
“It is well known that old people are particularly liable to break their bones, and this is generally attributed to a progressive embrittlement of bone with age. No doubt this embrittlement does play some part in causing these fractures, but it does not seem as if it were always the most important factor. As far as I know there are no reliable data on the change of work of fracture of bone with age, but, since the tensile strength is only reduced by about 22 percent between the ages of twenty-five and seventy-five, it does not look as if there were a very dramatic reduction. Professor J P Paul, of the University of Strathclyde, tells me that his researches seem to indicate that a more important cause of fracture in old people is the progressive loss of nervous control over the tensions in the muscles. A sudden alarm may cause a muscular contraction which is enough to break off the neck of the femur, for instance without the patient having experienced any external blow. When this happens the patient naturally falls to the ground – perhaps on top of some obstacle – so that the fracture is blamed, wrongly, on the fall rather than on the muscular spasm. It is said that a similar fracture can occur in the hind leg of certain African deer when they are startled by a lion.”Structures–Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, by J E Gordon, Penguin Books, 1978 [Chapter 5–Strain energy and modern fracture mechanics]
In my Bones-themed workshops – and indeed in pretty much every Awareness Through Movement workshop! – we put this information to practical use, increasing our sensory and motor awareness of this wonderful inner structure, exploring the way force can travel most efficiently through us, in order to abandon habitual excess effort in our muscles and reveal the natural and youthful spring in our step that may be forgotten but is certainly not lost!
Daily Immersive for October 2023
Building Strength & Skeletal Integration
October 2nd – 6th
Online + Recordings & Notes
2–3.30pm BST ~ 10–11.30am EDT ~ 6-7.30am PDT
Please note we start one hour earlier on Tuesday
£90 (suggested fee, or any donation welcome)
One of the joys of the concept of yin and yang is that we can experience the interplay of these two primal forces within our own being. Our bones are yin – solid, deep inside us forming our true “core”, dense and stable; our muscles are lighter, more dynamic, the activators of our more stable bones, the natural instigators of change – and thus more yang. The clearer our relationship with our astonishingly strong bony skeleton, the freer and more responsive our elastic outer layer of muscle can be – and when we learn to let go of excessive muscular effort, balance becomes light and fluid, and our bones respond to this regular good use by becoming even stronger. This course will demonstrate and develop this dynamic interrelationship, so that you can begin to flow naturally through life to your own inner rhythm.
In this daily immersive we will explore every aspect of bone health, bone function and the capacity of our skeleton to give us instant access to a sense of ourself as a whole integrated system, rather than a thing of isolated parts as anatomy imagery so often implies. We will be increasing our sensory and motor awareness of this wonderful inner structure, exploring the way force can travel most efficiently through us, in order to abandon habitual excess effort in our muscles and reveal the natural and youthful spring in our step that may be forgotten but is certainly not lost!
For information on all workshops currently scheduled click here.