Where does ‘I’ finish, and ‘We’ start?

May 23, 2020 — Leave a comment

An argument for using a wide-angle lens in a person-centred approach to teaching movement.

 

Anatomy is ‘the science that studies the structure of the human body’. If we’re teaching movement we probably had to learn anatomy at some point. Depending on our teaching style and priorities our anatomy knowledge may be at the forefront of our teaching. It may feel important to ensure that the person we’re teaching is using the ‘correct’ muscle/s; it may feel important to know that agonists and antagonists are co-firing appropriately; or that their stabilisers have fired prior to their mobilisers.

Ideas like these above are typically based upon a conceptualisation of the human body in isolation, constructed in layers:

Bones form the stiff structure, they meet at joints, held together by ligaments, crossed by muscles that are attached by tendons, wrapped up in skin (perhaps with some fat padding).

For classification and quantification-loving creatures like humans this can be a very satisfactory model. We can apply Newtonian mechanics to this structure, giving us ‘biomechanics’: “the study of the structure, function and motion of the mechanical aspects of biological systems” In other words, we have decided/accepted that biological systems can be analysed and understood according to what we view as their mechanical aspects. It’s worth mentioning that much of the information that this relies upon is gathered from studying dead bodies rather than living ones.

This approach to studying and understanding human bodies may be useful but, as Andreo Spina says “the complexity of what we’re dealing with exceeds our mathematical knowledge”. He uses the term ‘Bioflow’ in preference to biomechanics, to include the flow apparent in human movement (compared to, say, a robot controlled by mathematics) and also to “describe and conceptualise the extent of continuity found in human tissue at a microscopic level”. Specifically he refers to the impossibility of exactly defining where muscle becomes tendon, or where tendon attaches to bone.

Embryologist Jaap van der Wal takes a similar view and argues against viewing tendon as distinct from ligament. If you have heard or read much about fascia you will be familiar with these ideas. Anatomist John Sharkey, who has performed over 1000 dissections says that no two bodies have looked the same when he has ‘looked inside’.

Perhaps we do best to consider that the structures we see in handbooks of musculoskeletal anatomy or really rough guides, or represent loose similes for the living organism. I doubt that is a cognitive stretch to recognise that bones are not shaped the same from person to person (get into a debate about the best way to squat with anyone on the internet and differences in shapes and angles of femurs will quickly be deployed in evidence). Surely then it is reasonable to suppose that our muscles and connective tissues are not shaped the same. We might say that muscles respond to the thought of an action of a joint, or joints. The muscles will form according to the shape of the bones and joints, not according to the pictures in our text books.

I much prefer to view bones and muscles as variations on tissue types that give both stiffness and extensability/elasticity to the matrix of fascia that actually forms our structure but this model still fails, I believe, to allow me to fully understand myself or anyone else.

Tom Myers is renowned as the ‘cartographer’ of Anatomy Trains – mapping “the longitudinal myofascial connections – how the muscles are functionally linked in ‘myofascial meridians’ through the fascial webbing”. Clearly there are connections to the continuity of human tissue in the Bioflow model and the popularity of Myers’ work shows how appealing this integrated view of human movement is to many of us.

Yet this view of our bodies, that allows for the spirals that exist throughout nature and biomechanics seems to make less allowance for, still views the human body in isolation. It stops at the skin. While this may seem entirely reasonable to our ‘civilised’ minds, it is at odds with indigenous societies conceptualisation of ourselves, and perhaps at odds with almost every human spiritual tradition. We are very literally products of our environment and therefore we need a good understanding of the nature of our environment to understand ourselves.

We have probably all heard of the human microbiome. We can view our gastrointestinal tract as a tunnel through our body so that, in a way, it is actually outside us. At the very least it is a very direct connection to our external environment, and the variety and amount of bacteria, viruses, fungi etc that constitute our microbiome is determined by our environment. Is it a stretch then to say “We are our environment”? Indigenous people apparently recognise this without knowing the details of the microbiome that we can see thanks to our technology.

I was introduced to the Native American concept of the Long Body by Frank Forencich. In this view the self is not seen in isolation and only exists in the context of environment and tribe. As he puts it, when we zoom in on the body, as Western science is inclined to do (and develops increasingly sophisticated means of doing), it is useful but makes us short-sighted, particularly to the life-supporting relationships that exist outside of us.

If we are concerned with teaching anyone to move well/better, can we do this job well if we see only their ‘short body’, and fail to consider how their environment and their ‘tribe’ (family, friends, social network, society as a whole) are influencing them? If you are a Pilates teacher and embrace this practice as being for mind, body and spirit can you hope to address all three without seeing the people you teach in the context of their four or five dimensional selves?

We need to understand the inner workings of the body, certainly, and to recognise that the inner workings are manifestations of a much bigger picture.

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