Biotensegrity and the Feldenkrais Method
Anastasi Siotas is well known in the international Feldenkrais® community as one of our most knowledgeable anatomists. Even before he became a Feldenkrais practitioner, Anastasi's background, both as a researcher of cell biology and as a professional dancer/choreographer, gave him a deep understanding of the human body and its functioning from the inside out. Today, in addition to maintaining his private practice, he teaches experiential anatomy to dancers and somatic practitioners at the Laban/Bartenieff Institute for Movement Studies, the New School University and the Feldenkrais Institute of New York, as well as an Assistant Trainer in Feldenkrais trainings and post-graduate workshops.
But even with all this experience, Anastasi is still always looking to deepen his understanding of the human body. He participates in a weekly advanced study group led by choreographer, anatomist and author Irene Dowd and, more recently, has become intrigued by the ideas of the orthopedist Dr. Stephen Levin. Levin's model of biological structures, which he calls Biotensegrity, represents a paradigm shift in our conception of human anatomy. Anastasi notes that Dr. Levin's views are still considered controversial by many, but he feels that they are likely to be confirmed over the course of time.
Meanwhile, in his own practice, Anastasi has found that the view of structure and movement expressed by Biotensegrity provides very plausible explanations for the unique experience of lightness and increased efficiency that result from practicing Awareness Through Movement® lessons. Likewise, he feels that the model can help Feldenkrais practitioners gain a better understanding of the inner structural dynamics at play when they offer a client a Functional Integration® lesson.
Anastasi recently took a break out of his busy teaching schedule to tell me about the workshop he will be offering at this summer's conference of the Feldenkrais Guild® of North America. Feldenkrais Method® and other somatic practitioners are invited to join him to learn more about “The Floating Spine.”
What do you think is the significance of the Biotensegrity model for practitioners of the Feldenkrais Method? How will you be introducing it in your conference workshop?
The way we usually orient our work is around finding more balanced skeletal support. We have a variety of means for creating better alignment to create a streamlined way for functioning in the vertical. But what if the notion of columnar stacking of our bones, like building a tower of blocks, was not entirely true? Biotensegrity offers us a new way to help our clients find better skeletal support where we not only look at the role of compression in our system, but also consider the role of tension elements made up from our soft tissues.
I'm going to propose that we can think more holistically about compression and tension as equal partners in how we do our work, how we work as functional integrators, and how we might consider the effect of ATM® lessons.
What I hope people will take home, from the anatomical perspective, is a new view of how the spine acts, as a moveable beam that can accept forces from every direction (as opposed to a stacked column); and how it isn't reliant on the vertebral bodies carrying a lot of weight. Actually, more weight is borne by the vertebral arch – all the structures behind the spinal cord: the transverse processes, pedicles, facet joints, lamina and spinous processes. All those structures are made of dense cortical bone and, because they have so much muscle attached to them, when the back muscles are working in coordination with the rest of the trunk, it actually lifts the vertebral bodies off of each other. So when this happens, there isn't much compression on the vertebral bodies and discs.
Frankly, with the amount of weight that we carry around (and then add lifting objects and turning while moving) if our structure solely depended on compression being transmitted through the spine, our discs would be crushed! We wouldn't really be able to carry the weights that we do if it wasn't for the power and the organization of those back muscles in tandem with our connective tissues.
How does this way of looking at human anatomy differ from the traditional model? Why have you embraced this new model and how has it changed your practice?
In the Newtonian model (the model that most people are exposed to), there's this idea that the skeleton should be “lined up” so that it can better transmit and carry force. The structure becomes more stable as more weight is applied to it, coming from the top down. So that model is saying “you need a wide base of support so that you can build a tall structure” - but our feet and pelvis are not great candidates for that! The standard model also has a very mechanistic notion of how joints work. There's this idea of leverage; that our limbs are levers that push forces directly into the body. And force transmission is conceived as being something that happens bone to bone.
A very unusual idea in Biotensegrity – and this comes from Dr. Stephen Levin's personal observation after forty years of doing joint surgery – is that our bones don't actually press against each other; there isn't much compressive force at the hyaline cartilage and the synovial membranes. The fluid will get compressed to some extent, but the stronger the muscles are, the more they will actually help the ligaments pull the joint apart.
It's a very radical idea, but I think all of us have had the experience where at the end of a great ATM lesson when you feel so much more graceful – you really do feel grounded, yet at the same time, very light and tall. It's as if you're joints are floating. And I think that's exactly what happens when you balance and coordinate those tensional forces. The compressional elements actually start to pull away from each other.
I will demonstrate this idea with a Jacob's Ladder to model how, with increasing tension, the ligaments tighten, but the space becomes bigger. It's a bit weird – it's not what we usually think of when we look at our plastic skeletons held up by a rod!
When I first encountered these ideas in 2014, I had a gradual meltdown because everything I had assumed as fact was now being questioned. After many years of studying and teaching anatomy, I said, “I can't explain this!” Then, at the end of 2015, I had a serious back injury, which messed up the middle of my spine. I injured discs, pedicles, and facets from T10 to L1. Now I'm using Biotensegrity to think about how I'm using my back – and I believe it is helping me improve how I use myself in our work. Since I now have bit too much movement between those vertebrae, I really have to use my muscles to not painfully collapse into the bones.
My exposure to Biotensegrity has been like discovering a new window that I never imagined existed. Now there's light coming through that window, and I can't ignore it. It's now an integral part of how I view the scenery.
I remember one trainer saying, “our work does not pray to the god of muscles” – like they do in the fitness industry. I'm not saying that this workshop should change your mind about that. But you should know that what keeps your joints healthy is the ability of your entire system to do its job. As Moshe said, the hallmark of efficient movement is coordinated muscle action. That means that the big muscle bellies do more work, and so on, going out to the small ones, which are for guiding. The power comes from the big ones, the direction comes from the little ones.
If you haven't been doing ATM lessons for a few days, you know the feeling when you're following the early instruction and say, “Well that feels pretty crappy!” And then, after a while, you say, “Ah, that's what it could be like. That's easier now...” You follow that process of letting go of unnecessary tensions and, eventually, you say, “It's so easy to do the movement now because every cell in my body participates and moves in this coordinated trajectory.”
It's at that moment that I think you're actually fully connected to the whole Biotensegrity compression-tension story. What was stopping those bones from moving all in a nice sequential whole-body action? It's those tension elements that were over-tense in certain places and not working so much in others.
In Functional Integration lessons, we do a lot of soft tissue work with our hands, addressing tension. We can certainly position the skeleton so that those muscle tensions relieve themselves, or we can use our hands to support that tension directly. You just do that instinctively, but then I think you can also have a larger map about how that support in that local place is distributing and integrating into the rest of the whole body movement.
I'm going to talk about the basic muscle function, specifically how the back muscles can create a “floating spine,” but I'm not trying to sell future anatomy workshops in muscle exploration! I'm just asking practitioners to broaden their view of how we move, how we support ourselves, what is good posture; and to start to think about tension as much as we think about compression.
Do you feel that giving practitioners a better understanding of Biotensegrity plays a role in bringing to life the conference theme of the “Tipping Point” and “propelling the Feldenkrais Method into the mainstream”?
I think my presentation points towards a ‘”tipping point” in the sense of a coming together of looking at systems that we have often viewed as being separate. Instead of saying, “We only look at the skeleton, and we're the only ones that do this,” I see the possibility of marrying different worlds and embracing a more holistic view of the systems: muscular, skeletal, connective tissue and the nervous system. I'm not excluding the nervous system.
Speaking more generally, we really have had some incredible things happen in the last year: Doidge's book, Mark Reese's book...In terms of printed stuff, we haven't had something on this scale since Moshe's books. There's something about an arrival in this era where we have gained legitimacy. We already knew what we had, but it's good to know that now the public is hearing from eminent doctors and authors writing brilliant books that support what we do.
But this also means there are expectations – so we have to act differently. In that sense, I think we are in a different place this year. I think there should also be a tipping point inside us, in terms of how we view ourselves. We shouldn't be surprised when people say they've heard of "Feldenkrais." We should say, “Sure. We're here!” And there are new ideas out there, like Biotensegrity, that we need to relate to.
Just think, if Moshe was alive in today's world, where would his mind be? The guy was so far ahead. If we are only talking about what he said in this current era - when things are changing exponentially - we run the risk of becoming obsolete. I'm not saying we shouldn't study what he said, but we also need to see our work in the light of our contemporaries. We have much to gain and connect to, especially if we want to thrive and be supported by present day discoveries.
I'd like to end with a quote from Freud that sits equally well for Dr's. Feldenkrais and Levin.
"We cannot do without men (who have) the courage to think new things before they can prove them."
From Eric Kandel's book Age of Insight
Find out more about Anastasi's workshop.
Seth Dellinger is a certifiied Awareness Through Movement® teacher, a 4th-year student in the Feldenkrais Training Program of Baltimore with David Zemach-Bersin, central organizer of the DC Feldenkrais Festival, and writes a regular blog at www.MoveLikeAChild.wordpress.com.