It's a common misconception that we're built like a house or some other man-made structure, with a foundation (our legs and feet) supporting the parts above it. During Alexander lessons, students frequently reveal that they think of "good posture" as the act of holding their body parts neatly stacked, one on top of the other, in some kind of straight line only they can imagine.
Setting aside the issue of "posture" (which is not what we're after in Alexander work), see what happens when you think of your body as a series of blocks that must be held in a vertical stack, and try moving as you attempt to hold this arrangement of parts. Is it possible to maintain this? If so, how does it feel? Is it easy and fluid? Expansive or restricting? Can you breathe?
Tension and Integrity
The truth is, we don't have to hold ourselves together to maintain balance and ease, to be coordinated and powerful. Our bodies are not constructed like a building, we're designed for three-dimensional movement, continually balancing and rebalancing, whether in stillness or in motion. This is possible because we are suspension structures, living tensegrity beings. Tensegrity is a term coined by Buckminster Fuller, a blend of "tension" and "integrity," also known as the "architecture of life." My colleague and teacher Sandra Bain Cushman describes it like this:
Tensegrity, simply envisioned, is a system of upright support within which compression members (in our case, bones) are released into a network of elastic or tensile tendons (in our case, muscles). The result is a system of uprightness that is release-driven, rather than rigidity-dependent. Picture the difference between a spider's web and a brick wall. Our bodies have more of the resilience and dynamism of the spider's web. Even in stillness, the breath moves in a strong rhythm up and down through the core of the body, the bones and muscles responding to each other in a wave-like way to keep us in free balance. (Mind Body 40 Days)Release-driven. I just love that. Letting go and opening up is how balance is achieved. The minute you grip and get rigid, you lose your balance. My mentor Alan Katz used to demonstrate this by simply holding a long pillow bolster in the palm of his hand, where it would delicately balance. Then he'd grab the base with his fingers and we'd watch it topple over.
Try This Bodymind Experiment:
1. Sit in a comfortable upright position without using the chair or sofa back to support you and without slumping forward. Let your feet rest on the floor under your knees. Or sit on the floor in a cross-legged position. Notice how your weight is supported.
2. Begin to notice the subtle swaying or back-and-forth movements in various places in your torso, neck, and head as you sit. Notice that even in stillness there is movement.
3. Now observe your breathing, without changing it. Allow yourself to exhale completely, without pushing the breath out. Then watch as an inhalation occurs. The breath just naturally drops in, doesn't it? Keep breathing in this way--let a breath drop in and drop out.
4. As you allow your breathing to flow in and flow out, notice the movement of your torso -- the ribs, the belly, the chest and shoulders -- whatever you can observe. Don't forget to include your sides and back. Notice the whole round structure moving in and out with each breath, the "bones and muscles responding to each other in a wave-like way," as Sandra says.
5. Picture your three-dimensional rib cage and sense its expansion and contraction as you breathe. Tensegrity. Like this:
Ride the Wave
The breath is a very good way to reconnect with our all-encompassing, resilient, responsive inner spring system. Any time you feel excess tension, and the discomfort and pain that goes with it, just pause and breathe. The wave of your breath can help you let go of this unnecessary tension and ground you in the present moment. You'll "spring back" to your more authentic self, a little more awake, a little more aware, a little more alive. Then the tension that is necessary (and some is required to maintain uprightness, after all) will have integrity: "the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished; a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition."