The polarities of energetic forces–attraction/repulsion, expansion/contraction, push/pull, resistance/release–are the essence of all organizations of matter, from atoms to molecules to cell membranes to complex life forms. Virtually all our varieties of activity, from simple sensorimotor reflex arcs to our most complicated behaviors, are the results of shifts in the balances of push and pull, resistance and release. This dynamic interplay is the process that underlies the formation and interactions of the elements, of solar systems, galaxies, and of our bodies and our psyches. Opposing forces are what sculpt our being, that unify form and function, and that constantly evolve new forms and new functions.

Resistance and release are the primary activities of our muscular system. Their more enduring balances form our postures and our habitual movements and reactions. Challenges to these balances continually oblige us to adapt–one way or another–to the ever-shifting foundations upon which our mercurial lives depend.

The pervasive force field in which our bodies exist is gravity, a medium that we cohabit with the entire cosmos. Gravity is the as-yet-inexplicable force that mutually attracts all masses toward one another, and, more deeply, toward an invisible and shifting center of relations that no single mass occupies but around which all masses orient.

On Earth the dominant force of gravity is its pull on all things toward its core, a global contraction and compaction. Life is an organization of energy that, on the contrary, is expansive, upthrusting, a push away from gravity’s pull. Between this expanding upthrust and the Earth’s contracting pull, the form and function of all organic growth and development unfold.

Roger Sperry, who won the Nobel prize for his neurological research in 1981, estimated that 90% of our central nervous systems activity is devoted to managing the structural integrity and movement of our bodies in the field of gravity. The first and most continuous function of our sensorimotor systems is structural integrity–maintaining sufficient tonus throughout the body to prevent our joints from dislocating and our organs from collapsing. The secondary, and no less important function is to produce our movements, to shape-change and extend ourselves into the field of gravity. Every shift of our torso and limbs changes our bodies’ relationship to gravity and alters the angles of its force pulling on our flesh. Extended limbs and a bending spine create cantilevered weights that must be firmly anchored, and muscles that are moving joints must at the same time secure them throughout their motion.

The force of gravity–acting on our bodies and on all objects we encounter–is the primary element around which all our muscular postures, patterns and movements are developed and organized. It is to us as water is to the fish: the surrounding and penetrating medium that defines the dynamics of our every movement, and provides one of our most reliable tethers to the realities of our bodies and the world around us. And the nervous system’s calibrations of our muscular efforts define for us crucial properties of all objects: their mass, weight, density, inertia, momentum-in-motion. These are invisible properties, but their assessment is of vital importance to all our activities. They are the resistances that must be met and matched by all our muscles and coordinated in all our efforts, great and small. This is why applying calculated resistance–which mimics gravity’s compressions and tractions–and asking the client to meet that resistance with movement is such a powerful tool for re-coordinating muscular response and developing new, more efficient, wide-ranging and pain-free patterns of movement. And one of the great benefits of better-coordinated effort is the deeper and freer release that occurs when the work stops.

In addition to the physics of gravity and mass, there are of course other forces at play in our psyches and our spirits which materially manifest themselves in our physical organization and behavior. Feeling states (both chronic and transient), shifts in our attention and intention, adherence to socially acceptable norms of appearance and behavior, along with a cornucopia of memories and imagined realities all play formative roles in our muscular lives. All of these psychological influences–which are as invisible as gravity and every bit as compelling–contribute to our physical forms and patterns of movement. We experience these forces as pushes and pulls on our consciousness, contractions and expansions of our perceptions and our moods, balances and imbalances in our psyche’s equilibrium. We have psychological and spiritual centers of gravity as well as physical ones, and each plays its part in shaping our structure, defining our capacities and limitations, developments and degenerations, pleasures and pains. The resistances and releases of our thoughts, feelings, memories and beliefs play themselves out in our muscles as constantly as gravity.

I understood the complimentary actions of push/pulls and contractions/expansions in the realm of physics long before I grasped their significance in therapeutic practice. I spent many years developing my ability to “relax” clients, to “melt” blocks, to reduce the over-excitation of nerves and muscles and to relieve stress by alleviating exertion. I now see that all of this–as effective as it was in its way–was involved in addressing one half of the picture, one polar element of our bodies organization and our behavior. If the heart were to simply relax, we would die. It is the rhythmic alternation between contraction and relaxation, between effort and the release of effort that makes it a life-supporting organ.

And it is the same with all muscles. No living muscle ever remains at a stable resting length. All of its overlapping myosin and actin filaments are constantly oscillating between a little shorter and a little longer, never remaining any exact length. These rapid and tiny fluctuations persist, no matter how inactive a muscle appears to be. And the collective tension (tonus) they maintain may be high–“tight”–or low–“flaccid, or any value in between. Superimposed on these tonal flutters are all of the larger re-arrangements of muscle lengths that we observe in posture and movement. The capacity to fully contract and to completely lengthen is essential to our healthy muscular activity, not only providing for the happy marriage of strength and flexibility but also for the rhythms of compression and release that are vital to the circulation of all our bodily fluids, and for the crucial metabolic rhythms of the expending of energy and periods of restoration.

The large majority of our postures and movements take place within intermediate ranges of muscle length. We seldom lengthen our muscles to the limit of their range, and–just as importantly–we seldom shorten them in maximal contraction. Our activities become habituated largely in a mid-range of our possibilities, and become accustomed to an underlying oscillating tonus setting to accommodate the degrees of resistance our normal lives present to us. Once habituated, these prevailing limits of use and levels of tonus become the boundaries of our capacities, beyond which we do not usually operate. These normalized limits become our zone of safety and competence, and we become less and less likely to stray beyond them in either direction.

Our functional muscular activity does not resemble the mechanics of a robot, with its cables, pulleys and levers, as much as it resembles the dynamics of an amoeba. By virtue of our muscles’ plasticity, we are shape-changers. (Amoebas, by the way, construct and deconstruct their shapes and organize their movement with the same myosin and actin filaments that we utilize.) To grasp the full significance of this conceptual shift, we need to take a fresh look at some of the operative myths that many of our anatomy and kinesiology textbooks tend to perpetuate when we imagine how movement–and how blocks–take place:

  • Muscles are not attached to bones at discreet points of “origin” and “insertion.” Contractile force may be concentrated where tendons meet bones, but the structure and dynamics of movement are far more complex than this model is able to suggest. Tendons fuse into periostiums, which fuse into ligaments, which fuse into adjacent bones, and all of these fuse into surrounding connective tissue structures in which they are all embedded. A contraction of any muscle distributes its pull throughout an extensive network of webs and attachments, not just at points of “origin” and “insertion.”
  • No single muscle ever accomplishes any single action. For movement in any area to take place, some fibers must shorten, some fibers must lengthen, others must anchor extensive parts of the skeleton for an organized movement to occur, and they all must coordinate to support the joints throughout the movement’s shifting forces of gravity and resistance.
  • “Agonist” and “antagonist” is a hopelessly oversimplified model of how these coordinated actions take place. No one muscle ever directly opposes the action of another. All muscles, taken together, are synergistic, interacting with one another in an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of force vectors of shortening, lengthening and anchoring in their constantly changing relations to gravity and to objects we are handling.
  • The brain and its sensorimotor organizational systems do not map our musculature in discreet packages of “tricep,” “bicep,” “deltoid,” or “trapezius,” and so on. For any given movement, the brain apprehends and organizes a wide distribution of muscle fibers that extends throughout a whole group of muscle compartments. The simple act of raising an arm out to the side involves shortening here, lengthening there all the muscle fibers directly related to the shoulder; a firming of the spine and pelvis to support the cantilevered weight of the arm; and a contraction of the fibers in the same-side leg and foot to support the body’s shifting center of gravity as the arm extends further and further. And this is a very abbreviated inventory of muscular responses to this simple gesture. Ultimately, all of the body’s muscle fibers respond in one way or another to both the intention and the physics of raising an arm out to the side. The sensorimotor system must map and organize all these adjustments of length and tonus across extensive areas of synergistic coordination.
  • No movement is ever purely “voluntary.” Most of the events involved in raising an arm take place below our normal levels of conscious guidance. The specific groups of muscle fibers the sensorimotor system deploys in this way or that have been habituated by past repetitive usage, and conditioned by past events and current expectations. Current possibilities are both initiated and constrained by habituated patterns, and most of the events that constitute a pattern occur unconsciously.
  • No habituated pattern can simply be “erased.” New, more functional patterns must be actively learned and reinforced until they become more dominant than old ones.

The therapeutic insight that a more organized resistance to pushes and pulls leads directly to a more complete release and an immediate increase in range of motion came to me quite by accident. I was doing a demonstration of relaxation technique for a class, showing the methods I had learned for releasing the restricted movement and pain of a problematic shoulder. But no matter how I applied what I had learned to bring “relaxation” to this shoulder, nothing I could do was succeeding in freeing the shoulder muscles and increasing the range of pain-free movement.

Stymied and abashed, I stepped back from the massage table. Why were my tried and true methods not working here? What was this barrier that I found myself–and the student on the table–up against? Pressed by my need in front of the class to somehow get on with it and hope for the best, I once again picked up the arm and gave it traction, trying to lengthen the shoulder muscles. Suddenly, in response to a thought only half-formed, I found myself saying to the student, “I want you to do something different here. Resist my traction and pull your shoulder blade closer to your spine.” At first nothing happened; the two of us were caught between my traction and her immobility. Then I felt a counter-pull on her part begin to gather. As it got stronger, she began to pull me toward her spine. Then after an inch or so of progress, her effort weakened. “I am going to continue giving you traction,” I said, “but I am going to let you win as you continue to pull me toward you.” Her contraction gained strength again, and she shortened the active muscles to their limit, bunching them tightly between her shoulder blade and spine. “Now,” I said, “let that effort go.” Immediately her shoulder softened and her shoulder blade floated freely away from her spine. When I once again applied traction, her arm extended two inches farther than it had been able to do must moments before.

Unsure of what had just happened, but fascinated, I continued to explore different vectors of traction through her arm and shoulder, asking for her contracting resistance, letting her win each tug-of-war until she had fully exerted her available strength and shortened her muscles as far as she was able. Each cycle resulted in stronger and more organized resistance, followed by further softening, lengthening, increased ranges of motion, and lessening pain. After twenty minutes or so of this, I had her stand an try her shoulder out. Her eyes widened, then filled with tears as she explored her movements. Not only were her ranges of motion dramatically increased, but there was also an altogether different grace and ease in her movements. And no pain. Amazement went through her to me and around the observing class. This student and I had stumbled onto something together, and it had worked spectacularly.

For the remaining days of the class I dropped the agenda I had carefully prepared and began helping students explore vectors of traction and compression with their partners, coaching them to organize resisting efforts to their limits, and elongate chronically shortened muscles with each release of effort. The process proved to be quite simple in its principles, but infinitely variable from body to body and from repetition to repetition. A collective excitement began to grow that I will never forget as dramatic results continued to manifest at table after table. I was not yet really sure what had happened, but I knew that my way of working with clients had changed forever.

We are not fully aware of our bodies and their parts until we actively move them. The full parameters of movement restrictions are not really clear until they are actively challenged. And freedom from restrictive habituated patterns is not possible unless new and extensive coordinations of muscular efforts are consciously experienced and actively developed. Chronic blockages and weaknesses in our movements are the results of our forgetting how to coordinate our rhythms of resistance and release in new and more effective ways. Limitations appear where active learning has ceased, and established habits have prevailed. Constraints on our movements, and their accompanying discomforts and frustrations become the boundaries of our possibilities of action. Wider, stronger, easier and more pain-free ranges of motion can be discovered and developed only by learning to do things differently, by learning new patterns of coordination.

Rarely–I almost want to say never–have I encountered a singularly “tight” muscle, in the sense that a piano wire is “tight.” What I observe when I try to move a restricted shoulder, hip, ankle, what have you, is a general immobility of an entire area, a solidness, a density, and unyielding quality. It is not that this or that muscle is tight; it is rather that none of the muscles in an entire synergistic group change length. In order for a limb or a spine to mobilize, some muscle fibers must shorten, some must lengthen, and others must adjust actively to support the movement throughout is trajectory. All these events must happen simultaneously and in concert with one another for free movement to occur. It is never a matter of “relaxing” this or that muscle, but of re-coordinating an entire group, of reorganizing a shape-change that involves synergistic lengthenings, shortenings and bracings of extensive groups of muscles.

Furthermore, muscles that need to be lengthened for a movement to take place cannot be “stretched” to a new length by external force I apply as a therapist. Muscle cells do not stretch like rubber bands. They must be actively lengthened, and this is internal neural event in the sensorimotor coordination of the client. In fact, a primary defensive motor reflex–crucial to our survival in the field of gravity and amid the bumptious pushes and pulls of the world around us–is to resist change imposed by outside forces. I cannot make a restricted shoulder move; I can only seek ways that will help the client to allow it to move.

There are many angles and variations through which vectors of traction or compression can be applied through the body, and many layers of organized resistance and release that an be evoked. The variations of angle and degree of resistance call into play innumerable combinations of motor units distributed through large groups of muscles, challenging their responses and coordinating their potential synergistic actions. How many motor units are fired, the specific sequence of their firing, which muscle groups are recruited to combine their efforts in order the achieve the wanted movement, how much collective strength must be generated to meet any given resistance, what delicate adjustments must be made as the resistance varies–all of these factors must be juggled by the nervous system to meet the challenge of any particular movement encountering any particular resistance. It is the orchestration of many synaptic events–in the brain, the spinal cord and the junctions between motor neurons and muscle cells–that control all our movements, and the rapid shifting of neuromuscular responses cascades through our bodies like the tumbling of a kaleidoscope, with each shifting element generating changing patterns in the entire gestalt, from head to toe and from surface to depths.

Specific vectors of resistance created by the weight of our body parts and the mass of any external object are the dynamic entities around which these synaptic events are organized. Resistance against traction–pull–deals with one set of vectors. Resistance against compression–push–deals with another. Controlled contraction against a steady resistance organizes in one way. Controlled lengthening while maintaining a steady resistance organizes in another. Varying the resistance while a pull or a push is in progress calls for rapid and complex shifts in the coordination of these events. Varying the angles of resistance randomly challenges coordination even further.

In all of these coordinated action, several fundamental operations can be observed in any gesture:

  • Some muscle groups shorten
  • Some muscle groups lengthen
  • Some muscle groups stabilize the skeletal frame to provide secure anchorings from which movement can operate
  • The same muscles that are lengthening and shortening must simultaneously provide an ongoing dynamic support of joints as the movement proceeds
  • Other muscle groups, far removed from the immediate task in hand, also have to respond to maintain balance as the body’s center of gravity shifts during the movement
  • And still other muscle groups react extraneously (Feldenkrais referred to these reactions as “parasitic contractions”), such as a facial grimace, a clenching of the jaw, squeezing a fist, tensing a right leg when the left leg is efforting, and so on.

It is the ongoing and constantly changing patterns of overall coordination of all these synergistic muscle groups–and the equally important elimination of extraneous efforts–that results in smooth and efficient movement. So much involved in the simplest gesture! The art of Resistance Release Work is the sorting through of all these variable factors and refining their organization, creating patterns that meet resistance with more strength, more ease, wider available ranges of motion, and decreased pain and frustration.

Copyright by Deane Juhan, January 10, 2013