Whole Body Connecting Force: Biotensegrity Model for Movement
We are always in motion. Even when we are still, the breath is circulating, as well as other internal functions flowing within us. And the earth we stand on is in motion. Human movement is time, space and rhythm. We are in a constant process of time. We move through space in changing time. The muscles and connective tissues, yes our fascia, are the rhythm of the body in motion. Movement is changing our body form rapidly in space. Our form is a whole body architecture made up of billions of cells, also moving! A movement challenge for our body is to stop. Stop and go motion is the changing of the body’s architecture, morphing its form. We physically train our continuous tissues, fascia, muscles, bones, and all connective tissues by moving our whole body in space, through time with varied rhythms. There are many movement methodologies that challenge our body to improve health, strength, and adaptability to our environment. Do these current methodologies address the whole body connectedness in physical training? Or is there an opportunity to create new movements and fine-tune our current systems of physical training with a perspective of the body as a biotensegrity whole? These are my thoughts as I synthesize my experience of participating in the “Biotensegrity Focused Human Dissection” seminar I attended at the University of Dundee, Scotland led by John Starkey and Joanne Avison in June 2017. As a dancer, movement teacher and physical trainer for most of my life, the language presented here around human movement resonated with me. In any movement we perform, we are shape- shifting the body through the myofascial system. We are hearing and reading about the term biotensegrity. Biotensegrity is a biological-tension-integrity model, a term credited to Dr. Stephen Levin (1) , who saw that living structures demonstrate similar qualities of the tensional integrity being used in architecture and engineering since the mid twentieth century. Today, biotensegrity is a useful model for a different perspective on human anatomy and form. It intuitively feels like a metaphor for whole body connecting forces effecting our movement potential. This is how we dance, move in Gyrotonic®, yoga, Pilates, sports and all human movement.
Which system gives us a sound movement training effect for the myofascial system? Shall we shift how we are training our clients? Does a new paradigm of movement necessary to better address the biotensegrity concept? Or are we already moving with the biotensegrity concept?
First, we have to understand the principles of tensegrity (tensions and integrity) and relate this to movement. The principles of the tensegrity concept are that a structure is a tension-compression network with connectedness of all parts supporting discontinuous struts. This definition in the human body looks like this: the myofascia is the continuous connectedness and the bones are the struts. Our bones are not in direct contact with one another, or shouldn’t be and thereby discontinuous. The bones are suspended or appear to be floating supported by the connective tissue. The myofascial connective tissues are the web of tension and compression suspending the bones.
Another principle is that each part is reliant on the entire structure for its ability to move. There is a parsimony nature to biotensegrity, doing less for more, efficiency of movement. Tensegrity models have no lever arms or fulcrums. This challenges our idea of stability and disassociation of limbs moving in relation to the pelvis for instance. Forces are transferred globally throughout the entire structure. The whole body is dynamically linked so that forces are instantly translated everywhere. You raise your arm up, the trunk shifts, and the weight changes on the legs. A movement has an associated response body-wide. It is not an isolation of one muscle or bone.
The tensegrity models are geometric forms that use triangulation, triangle shapes. In engineering, to stabilize and constrain a structure triangulation surfaces are utilized. I am not a geometer or engineer, but I do work with forces and anatomy that seem to have many triangles. Imagine the inlet of the pelvic bone for example.The thoracolumbar fascia can be seen as triangular, especially at the sacrum.
And it is helical in nature. Movement is also helical, a spiraling in four dimensions, the fourth dimension of time. The tensegrity forms show how forces act upon the body and can help explain function and dysfunction in movement.
My focus when working with a client is to restore better function and increase the person’s movement potential. To do this, the myofascial system needs a balance of the tensile structure with stability and mobility. Let’s define stability and mobility in the tensegrity model. Stability comes in the form of two forces, the tension or traction and compression. The tension and compression pairing is a polarity or “contrast” occurring during movement. Sound familiar? We move with contrasting forces coming from inside and outside of us. In movement, our shape morphs as we move, changing the contrasting poles. Is there a point of stability from where we move? If one uses the tensegrity model for movement, the answer is no. But there is stability created by our structure using dynamic movement to maintain the balance of tension and compression. It is not holding or bracing a part in order to move but the use of the economy of movement. Strength comes from the ability of adapting and diffusing force impact. This form of resilient strength maintains our balance in any shape-shifting (movement).
A mechanical analysis of movement defines that a joint has a number of degrees of freedom to move. Controlling the degrees of freedom of movement increases stability. The leg range of motion comes from the motions at the hip, knee and ankle. Each joint is necessary for a whole leg movement. Each joint has its own tensegrity model within the larger tensegrity of the whole body. Tensegrity has a fractal quality to it. A tensegrity shape, the triangulations, bends and accommodates the force vectors by morphing its shape. It becomes an articulating tensegrity. The stability comes from its ability to be mobile and change its shape responding to the force vectors.
In the body, we find more stability in the proximal location of myofascia. I see this as the center of the trunk, the spine and pelvis. These bones are the struts that are discontinuous. Every vertebra is floating within our tissues. They are suspended in the connective tissues (fascia and muscle). There is no one attachment point, but a location. The proximal location in the body is more stable than the more distal location such as our hands and feet. The distal parts of us are disconnected and able to have greater ranges of movement, mobility. There is more stability toward the center with greater mobility at our ends, the hands, feet, top of the head and tail. This gives us six poles, or struts with the connective tissues as the tensile components acting together creating a stable form, our whole body. With our conscious awareness of the dynamic contrasting poles presetting its tension prior to performing a movement provides the articulating stability for movement. This six pole image is a larger field and we have the same possibilities at every juncture of bone and tissue. Each vertebrae has its own energy of suspension as well as our whole. The potential of dynamic and articulated movements at this level is possible with consciousness.
Stability and mobility are polar properties that are required for strength resiliency. When we think about the joints and stability, we know that our ligaments help stabilize our joints or if there is laxity it creates hypermobility. Keeping with the principles of tensegrity, the ligaments are part of the fascial elements and play a roll in the tension-compression necessary for stability and mobility. Jaap Van Der Wal called ligaments “dynamits”. They are dynamic and also inform us of all positions of the joint at all times (2) . The dynamits (ligaments) are automatically tensed throughout the whole movement, not just at the end range of the joint. If the muscles are tensed, so are the dynamits.
Fascia has different qualities depending on its location. It may be more fluid with great mobility in one area, such as the loose connective tissue situated just below the hypodermis and above the deep fascia that surrounds muscles, and tendons. The ligaments also have a stiffer quality from the densification of the fascia. Fascia facilitates muscle contraction and sliding movement (3) . Fascia has contractile properties.
Fascia research led by Robert Schleip has shown that fascia contains myofibroblasts that have the ability to contract (4). See study here. The myofibroblasts are necessary for wound healing. As they contract the myofibroblasts pull the wound together. And the myofibroblasts are found in areas of the fascia under greater physical stress. In younger subjects, their cells contain alpha smooth muscle actin and a collagen crimp.
Their fibers have a clear lattice orientation with a strong crimp shape. Older subjects, however, lacked the density of intrafascial contractile cells and collagen crimp. The orientation of the older subjects’ fibers is more irregular. The irregularity of the fascial fibers will affect the transmission of forces through the lower back necessary for stability. There has been evidence that application of proper exercises can change the architecture of the fibers and crimp. Now, we have to understand the relationship of the muscles and fascia when moving.
What about the length changes of muscle fibers and fascial components? Are there no eccentric and concentric muscle contractions? The fascia researchers are discovering how the muscles and fascia behave differently depending on what type of movement is being performed. In conventional physical training, the length changes of muscles do shorten the muscle fibers without much length change of the connective tissues. The connective tissues are the tendons and aponeuroses, which are similar to broad flat-like tendons and are fascia. The shortening (concentric) of the muscle without length of the connective tissues occurs in steady movements such as riding a bicycle. In steady movements, the fascia stays passive (5) . In conventional weight training, sitting on a bench performing bicep curls is not training the whole complex of the myofascia. It serves no functional purpose except shortening the muscles fibers of the biceps.
Movement is the change of the whole shape in time and space through the tension and compression elements of the fascia and the bones. So, if we are moving with the concepts of changing the tension length of the fascial components, it changes how we perceive movement. This is a different way of conceiving how we move from the conventional study of muscle physiology.
In a healthy individual, fascia quality in movement is springy and elastic. The muscles fibers change their length slightly, in an isometric way while the length of the fascia changes and recoils back to its original shape. Movement is created by the fascial components lengthening and shortening and the muscles are stiffening to support the movement of the fascia. The recoil and tension changes of the fascial components create movement not the muscles. Shall I say that again? The muscles do not create movement, instead movement occurs through the length changes of the fascia.
Quality of movement is showing to be important to how fascia responds. The fascial elastic movements are jumping, dancing, hopping or small bounces performed very softly and quietly. Have you ever heard someone running with heavy and slapping feet? This sound tells you there is no spring and absorption of the forces of the body and ground. The fascial components are not performing properly. To train the elastic quality of the myofascia, encourage springy type movements, such as bouncing with soft and quiet landings. A sensual movement while being kinetic gives resiliency to the tissues. Imagine running and feeling the movement as sinewy rather than hard hitting.
Preparatory movements or stretch-shortening cycle improves the recoil effect of the tendon and aponeurosis (fascia). A recent study by Fukutani et al, February 2017 was published showing joint torque was enhanced by a stretch-shortening cycle. See 2017 study here. There is slight pre-tensioning in the opposite direction before moving into the actual movement. In Gyrotonic® for example, performing the arch curl series, there is a pretension of the back (arch) prior to moving forward (curl). Timing is most important so that the body is not relying on the muscles but invoking a fascial recoil effect. This happens by finding an ideal motion that is fluid and pleasurable.
Stretching is a broad term and interpreted many ways. The days of holding a static stretch, such as using a long belt to hold one’s leg up for a “hamstring stretch” is not useful or effective. Dynamic stretching in multiple directions, and changing angles focuses on the whole dynamic tensegrity shape rather than one isolated muscle. Moving slowly through various diagonals, spiraling rotations utilizing the limbs to change the traction (tension) of the trunk effectively change the compression and tension felt in the body. A sinew wave is an ideal motion for fascia movement. If however, someone stretches beyond their boundary, it causes a reduction in the hydration of the fascia and subsequent stiffness. Dynamic stretching helps rehydrate the fascia.
Proprioception is necessary in order to move our body. We “feel” our body move. Bringing the client’s attention to the felt sense of movement is training their proprioception. Touching the body with one’s hand, or using a prop can stimulate a sensation bringing their attention to a place that maybe has “amnesia”. Our skin and surface tissues are more effective in detecting and regulating movement than joint receptors. Tactile cues as well as verbal cues that evoke sensory feelings encourage the client to tap into their proprioception. We use all of our senses for proprioception. Draw the attention through the eyes, sound and smell.
One very interesting quality of fascia is its ability to distort and return to its original form. In movement and our anatomy, form follows function and function influences the form. Many aspects of our life, such as stress, emotions, long term sitting or repetitive movement may cause a distortion that is not being restored. If one tension member becomes tenser than the others, it will distort the shape into a form that is not functional. For an example, in the pelvic diaphragm, if there is a change of tension in only one component of the structure, then a distortion occurs in all three planes. There will be a change in either an increase or decrease of mobility or stability of the pelvis. Through specific movement protocols and techniques such as muscle energy techniques, we can affect the distortion and restore the functional form. Seeing the body as a whole tensegrity shape and understanding how to alter the distortions, increases elastic recoil and use the nervous system for dynamic responses (motor control). We can increase our client’s ability to actualize their movement potential, become pain-free and be mobile into the later stages of life.
The biotensegrity model is one of strength, resilience and weight. I believe cross training with Pilates, Gyrotonic®, yoga, cardiovascular work will help balance your structure and lessen distortions so that you body will move with resilience and strength. As we age, we want to keep those fascial fibers lattice-like with a nice crimp. Seeing a movement practitioner with the skills to help restore your structure as written in my book “Centered: Organizing the Body through Kinesiology, Movement theory and Pilates Techniques” is part of a healthy whole body including fascia focus training. Find book here I have posted short movement videos on my member’s blog exploring ways to incorporate the biotensegrity into movement. Click here
- Facial Refinement Training Summary (not in any particular order) • Multi-directional movements • Rapidly changing positions in space smoothly • Tensioning Motions • Varied movements • Creative experience • Extreme slow-motion • Very quick micro-movements • Large macro-movements involving the whole body • Unfamiliar positions • Awareness of gravity • Proprioception fine coordination • Introception • Pleasurable experience • Preparatory counter movement, recoil concept • High kinetic activity with quietness of landing • Dynamic stretching • Hydration of tissues through squeezing water out and the release to refill fluids. I didn’t address this important aspect. Manual work and use of props help with a sustained pressure on the tissue for rehydration.
Special Note: Fascia is continuous and connecting. The world of fascia seems infinite in the role it plays in the body. Beyond movement there is healing potential, consciousness and communication. When I have my next time period for writing, I will explore my synthesis of how I experience the healing wonders of the body.
Resources Television documentary on fascia click here Dr. Jean Claude Giumberteau Strolling Under the Skin click here Handspring Publishers, current books on fascia and more click here
Books Black, Madeline, Centered Organizing the Body through Kinesiology, Movement Theory and Pilates Technique, Handspring Publishers 2015
Giumberteau, Jean Claude, Architecture of Human Living Fascia, Handspring Publishers 2015
Meyers, Thomas W., Anatomy Trains, Churchill Livingstone, 2001
Schleip, Robert, Fascia: The Tensile Network of the Human Body, Churchill Livingstone 2012
Schultz. R/.Louis, Rosemary Feitis, D.O., The Endless Web, North Atlantic Books, 1996
- Jaap Van Der Wal, lecture : “Architecture of the Fascia as Complementary Notion to Understanding the Organization of Proprioception Continuity and Connectivity” Dundee Biotensegrity and Human Dissection course June 2017
- Architecture of Human Living Fascia by Jean-Claude Guimberteau and Colin Armstrong, 2015 Handspring Publishing, page 38, 39
- Schleip R, Klingler W, Lehmann-Horn F: Active contraction of the thoracolumbar fascia - Indications of a new factor in low back pain research with implications for manual therapy. In: The proceedings of the Fifth interdisciplinary world congress on low back and pelvic pain. Melbourne. Editors: Vleeming A, Mooney V, Hodges P. 2004; ISBN 90- 802551-4-9
- The Tensional Network of the Human Body, Robert Schleip et al, Churchill Livingstone Elsevier 2012 pages 466-469