Spine Mobility

horse-430441_1920In her book, Mindful Spontaneity [1], Ruthy Alon describes the organization of the spine in detail, here I will limit myself to briefly discuss  some ideas about the spine.

As we know, the spine is composed by 24 vertebrae usually divided in 3 areas, 7 cervical, 12 dorsal and 5 lumbar.  The head is directly supported by the small and  very mobile cervical, whereas the pelvis are hanging from the lumbar also very mobile. Most people suffering from back pain usually refer to the lumbar area.  The dorsal vertebrae in the middle provide the attachment points for the ribs forming the thoracic cage.   Beside its structural function the spine also includes a variety of muscles, joints and nerves, what can make back pain excruciating.

When a good intentioned physical instructors or parents tell us to straighten our backs, what is the image of the spine formed in our mind? If we look at pictures of the spine from the side, it is far from straight, it has two pronounced curves.

In reality,  an healthy spine is constantly adjusting when we move around; if the flux of information is free to travel along the spine  a position change in the pelvis is transmitted up to the neck and modify the head position;  changes in the ankles and feet are reflected in the pelvis. The whole body is connected. If the spine is intentionally or unconsciously held in a given position the flow is interrupted and the vertebrae community does not work together.

In such situations some of the vertebrae, usually the cervical or the lumbar have to overcompensate the loss of mobility of other parts of the spine.

Why some parts of the spine suspend their contribution to the community? It is probably not possible to enumerate all the reasons; some can be related to medical conditions , others to habits,  others to psychological conditions.

Thomas Hanna in his book, Body of Life [2], discusses the “red light” reflex as a possible cause of alteration. The general idea is that a body organization having a specific purpose is constantly maintained,  regardless of muting circumstances.  Moshé Feldenkrais discussed the specific organization associated with anxiety, Peter Levine more recently discusses trauma and its relationship with the body.

The vital organs need to be adequately protected in dangerous situation, the thoracic cage protective role is elicited in all these responses. Muscle contraction is useful to protect the vital organs, on the other hand flexibility is loss when muscles are permanently tense.   In the long run, any change in the body has its counterpart in the somatosensory and motor cortex.

The brain needs to experience  again alternatives to give back the freedom to the dorsal vertebrae and a correct range of movement to the other vertebrae. An headstand is a powerful way to change the usual arrangement of the spine, however it can be perceived as dangerous, so it can be difficult to relax unnecessary muscular contractions.

This consideration holds for all the situations perceived as dangerous,  a very important aspect of a successful Feldenkrais lesson is the creation of a safe environment where learning can take place, so each lesson is an unique exploration that needs to be adapted to the person receiving it, staying close to the present range of possibilities and offering alternatives.

[1] Mindful Spontaneity: Lessons in the Feldenkrais Method by Ruthy Alon
[2] Body of Life: Creating New Pathways for Sensory Awareness and Fluid 
Movement by Thomas Hanna


Is muscular strength important in headstand?


This is the picture that probably gave M. Feldenkrais his fame: Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion performing an headstand in 1957. Mistakenly this picture is often associated with Ben-Gurion doing Yoga. In reality, Ben Gurion suffered from extremely painful back pain and Feldenkrais became his teacher. Feldenkrais realized during conversations with  the Prime minister  that he had never been able as a child to do an headstand and he thought him to boost his confidence and also to relieve the weight on his lumbar vertebrae.  According to the date of the picture Ben Gurion was about 70 years old when he learnt his headstand.  Apart from  leaving me with hope about my own ability to learn to perform an elegant and effortless  headstand, such as the one in this video,

the image raises a question about what is really necessary in order to perform and headstand.

Ben Gurion does not give the impression of a very strong man in this picture, but he can stay there in this awkward position; once he learnt it, apparently he used to practice this posture every morning as it gave him relief from his back pain.

My yoga teacher always points to “core strength” as a key feature to achieve this position.I think that the same concept applies to many motor ability where we use strength as a poor substitute for lack of coordination.

Strength is needed if you want to really push toward the sky the legs, whereas the key mechanical requirement is the correct alignment of the vertebrae and the rotation of the pelvis to lift the legs, once you learn this aspect you reach the position effortlessly. Part of the weight is transmitted through the hands but the alignment of the vertebrae is fundamental as the cervical are much smaller than the lumbar vertebrae and a transverse component of the force can result in an injury. Psychologically the difficulty is related to the instinctive fear of falling that can cause unnecessary contraction and unwillingness to rotate the sacrum.

In fact the headstand in Feldenkrais view seems to me achieved through a controlled fall as can be seen in some lessons preparing for the position, where the final part of the fall is also practised in a reversed way. The idea is to perform a “carp” jump from standing with the knees bent where the whole of the spine moves up and if enough momentum is given we can find ourselves almost on the head.

Reflecting on headstand is another way to explore conceptual differences between Yoga and Feldenkrais, I discuss the different approach to breathing here. Whilst Feldenkrais always looks for paths of effort and pain minimization, extreme postures in yoga are achieved in some instances despite pain and muscular effort and, in the specific case of headstand, extension of the muscles is searched in the position. This is a consequence of a desire to achieve an “ideal” posture. The very definition of ideal posture is, in my opinion, wrong in Feldenkrais, as the status of the neural system determines the distribution of tonus and the posture. Creating options in the motor cortex via neuroplasticity can improve the posture only if the posture is compatible with the absence of pain and strain in the individual.

In the initial learning phase strength can help to achieve the desired result and it can be useful, however to achieve improvement the unnecessary effort needs to be reduced over time and when strength is not readily available the movement needs to be learned in the most efficient way.  This feature is common to elderly people and children, a baby learning to sit has reduced contractile strength in his muscles compared to an adult and the head weight is massive compared to the rest of the body, so he has to organize the whole of his body to reach the sitting position and he will fall hundreds of times before he learns to recognize the vertical alignment that provides support for his heavy head.