Tensegrity, proprioception, and pain.

What if I were to tell you that your intelligence lies in much more than the thing between your ears? What if I were to tell you that there is intelligence in your muscles, fascia, and even your skin? These in fact are very important facets of a giant network of information gatherers that allow you to stand and move. You see posture is not a static “thing” that you just have. It is actually a dynamic state that is at every moment making micro-adjustments with the environment. So at every moment gravity is pulling down on each segment of your body. In order to overcome this powerful ever-present force on us we must have a well-tuned highly intelligent network of information gatherers. When there is pain or loss of balance there is often confusion between the proprioceptive senses (the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body) of the nervous system and the corresponding area of the body. A recent study showed a high correlation between scoliosis and diminished proprioception.

What if I were also to tell you that your bones do not hold you up? If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. If joints were cubical or flat they could stack on one another but they are not; joints (diarthritc joints) are round with a capsule and synovial fluid in between. So just standing up in gravity is somewhat like balancing a few basketballs on top of one another. Right? Of course not. That would be silly.

I would like to introduce you to a concept that physicist, inventor, and all around awesome guy Buckminster Fuller created. It’s called tensegrity. It means the structural strength found in the simultaneous tension and compression between different parts of a whole. You can see this when you look at a suspension bridge, a woven hammock, or in Fuller’s case the geodesic dome. Nature figured this out far before Fuller did actually. It can be found in the cellulose of a tree, the structure of a Carbon 60 molecule, or (you guessed it) fascia. In fact it is this tensegrity in our body that makes standing so much easier and why standing, for us, is not like balancing balls on top of each other. When you bend backward using the muscles of your back you will feel a stretch on your corresponding front side. Take that stretch far enough back and you will feel it from your eyes to your knees. Why? Because large movements, especially ones that happen with greater frequency (bending back and forward), tend to happen in pairs with other movements. In this example a giant network of fascia is formed longitudinally up and down the front side of the body to add strength and protect you from falling over or worse breaking in your back! The posterior side of a body has the same thing but it goes over the skull and all the way down the back to the underside of the foot. Feel it for yourself folks. Lie on your back. Now reach down and touch your toes. Reach until it is difficult. Now pull your toes and feet up toward your head (like taking feet off the gas pedal). Harder to reach now right? Why? Because they are neurologically and fascially paired. In other words, in that action they effectively become one unit. And the other side of the body must play along so it also pairs. One side of the body flexes the other extends. In a healthy structure gradual resistance is felt. In an unbalanced body this usually presents as fatigue and weakness in some muscles and tension and shortness in others.

As much as tensegrity protects us it can also become disturbed by trauma and cause problems in the structural balance as well as our proprioception (awareness of spatial position and movement of the body). Tensegrity feeds back into the information gathering system. If don’t have the proper tensegrity to support our bodies we don’t have good proprioception. We begin to think that back is forward and crooked is straight. I have had many clients tell me that they feel self conscious about their rear end sticking out behind them when it is plainly tucked under them and actually causing pain in the back. It is not their brain that misinformed them. It is the information gatherers that feed into the brain. Translation: you may end up with a body that is tired, weak, and literally doesn’t know where its parts are. That person is residing in a body that is not enjoyable to be in.

Hands-on work (Structural Integration) is really the process of going only where the work needs to be done on the tissues and treating them with specificity. As someone who has had a Yoga practice for many years now I will contend that it is the best exercise you can do for yourself. That said you can almost never stretch your way out of the problem. Lifting weights at a gym usually won’t help either. If you think that your body doesn’t have the proper tensegrity that I am talking about then Rolfing may be the answer.