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By Pat Buchanan, PhD, ATC, PT, GCFT Chair, Esther Thelen Research Committee
Seriously, for a Moment
For many of us adults, standing and sitting upright are such routine functions that we don’t put much thought into how we do them. That wasn’t always the case. If we followed a typical course of development as infants, it took us about six months after birth to figure out how to sit up on our own without support. We did lots of experiments and explored many variations of sitting with decreasing support from caregivers and chairs. In the process, we developed and pulled together balance, strength, and flexibility with other aspects of our rapidly growing bodies that were and are shaped and supported by skeletons. We likely gained pleasure and motivation from being upright as it allowed us to see, hear, smell, taste and notice our position and place in the world from a whole new perspective. Notably, we had to discover how to orient and hold a big head (that was proportionately much larger than it is now) on top of a spine (with over twenty moving pieces) that merged at the base with a pelvic bowl that attached to long legs. This is a very abbreviated inventory of the pieces within the puzzle box of the independently sitting baby.
So many new opportunities for learning came along with solving the sitting puzzle! Innumerable, amazing possibilities appeared as we moved up in the world and figured out how to stand. Most of us needed a few months to figure out this puzzle that had many more pieces in the box. In addition, the supporting pieces shrank when we moved from sitting on the big pelvis along with parts or all of the legs to standing on our own, much smaller, two feet.
If we were more like the stick figures I often draw to represent a person, we could have figured out these puzzles much faster. Fewer pieces would have meant less to arrange and control. At the extreme, one piece—like a post—would have been a simple if unreal puzzle. Imagine for a moment life as a post. Fortunately, you and I are not posts. We have many moving parts. Our moving skeletal parts allow us to act from different orientations to our world with flexibility and adaptability. Moshe Feldenkrais preferred the term acture for these orientations (or attitudes) as opposed to posture. In his book, The Potent Self, he wrote: “The human frame is essentially an unstable structure fitted for continuous change, and it functions smoothly and at its best only when maintained in a state that makes all attitudes equally realizable.”
As adults, with years and years of experience, we are masters of sitting and standing. We hardly put any attention into these postures or actures. While we share features of sitting and standing that are common to being humans, we’ve developed our own styles that often make us recognizable as distinct individuals from a distance. Our styles carry information about who we are, including many of the habitual feelings and beliefs we have about ourselves.
I invite you to look at some photos I took of people in standing and notice what these images suggest. (I emphasize suggest; more data is helpful to come to reliable conclusions versus assumptions.) The first pairing of photos is of girls and boys about eight to twelve years old at a summer basketball camp.
Perhaps you are struck by the different attitude, bias or expectation for what it means to stand and observe the action if you are a girl versus a boy. Of course, not all girls and boys stand like these campers, but they do suggest that gender roles can impact our choices for acture/posture.
The second photo shows a man and a woman waiting to board an airplane.
In your experience, how likely are you to observe women standing in the manner of this gentleman? Conversely, have you commonly seen men standing in the fashion of this lady?
Gender is just one of many factors that can influence posture/acture. If you engage your Superman power and turn on your x-ray vision, you can imagine the skeletons of these people. Draw them as stick figures in your mind. Now, add in a line that represents the ever-present (while on the surface of the Earth) vertical pull of gravity. To help you clarify that image, here are two pairs of photos with vertical lines representing the line of gravity. The first pair shows me before and after I got a few minutes of verbal feedback on my alignment. The second pair shows one of my students at the start and end of her fourth individual lesson. You can use your x-ray vision to draw stick figures on these photos, too.
Now, compare your stick figure skeletons with the lines of gravity. Whenever the sticks through long parts like the trunk and legs are not parallel to the gravity lines, ask yourself, so what? Here are some “so whats” to consider.
So what happens when the stick above doesn’t line up with the stick below? Does that change how the weight or force travels from one stick to the next? What difference does that make to the surfaces and shapes of the sticks? The pictures of the basketball campers make me wonder whether the gender differences suggested here partly explain why girls and women are at greater risk of injuring the anterior cruciate ligament of the knee. When the bones of the leg do not line up for the efficient transfer of forces from one bone through to the next, strain increases on other tissues, including ligaments. Other tissues that take on greater loads include the cartilage covering the ends of the long bones. When loads are unevenly distributed over time (note the uneven loading through the legs of the girls, the man, and the woman), the overloaded surfaces can wear down and wear out. Arthritic changes can result that may lead to pain, limited function, and the decision to have joint replacement surgery.
So what muscles have to work harder to hold a stick figure in a shape that doesn’t parallel the line of gravity? What happens to muscles that have to work harder? Here’s an example using my photos. I became aware from my short lesson that I had been leaning forward with my whole body in standing. This meant I used my calf muscles a lot more than necessary to keep me from falling forward and likely led to me developing pain in my Achilles tendons. With this increased awareness, I’ve altered my standing acture. My calf muscles are no longer overworking and my tendons are feeling much better. As for my student, she has stopped overusing her low back muscles. A surprising benefit of our lessons has been that she is now sleeping on her back for the first time in over twenty years.
Moshe Feldenkrais had this to say about our habits of acture in The Potent Self:
What does such a standing acture look like? Well, it depends on the act related to the standing orientation. And, as I tried to illustrate with my descriptions of solving the puzzles of sitting and standing, it is complicated. Feldenkrais offered three criteria for a potent state of acture in Body and Mature Behavior:
If I understand that I am not a post and that sitting and standing are actures, I can choose to tune into my self-awareness to help me find my potent state and be a skillful puzzle solver throughout my life. I can honor and marvel at what a genius puzzle solver I was as an infant. And, I’ve learned so much more since then. Notably, I have refined my understanding of the process of learning through my Feldenkrais Method education. I am confident in my ability, whether independently or by periodically inviting the guidance of another Feldenkrais teacher, to identify the best solution for the action puzzle in front of me at this moment.
Pat Buchanan, PhD is a Feldenkrais teacher, physical therapist, and athletic trainer in Toledo, OH.