Seeing the Ground of a Movement: Tonic Function and the Fencing Bear

Pages: 7-8
Year: 2015
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 43 – Nº 1

Volume: 43
Author’s note: The original version of this article was written in 2003 and used as a handout for classes and workshops, but never published, except on the Resources in Movement website. Requests for its usage from colleagues in allied fields suggested publication in Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute®.


This article introduces the idea that movement has two parts – a figure and a ground. Figure means, in this case, the literal action expressed in terms of shape or biomechanics. Ground means the background of the movement that occurs in the tonic system of the mover. In addition, the topic of seeing is considered – meaning the process of seeing the background to a person’s movement. These ideas are illustrated by a very old story about an unusual bear.

To begin thinking about the ground of a movement, consider the observation that we move before we move. The body prepares to do a movement by orienting itself. For example, when I take a breath, before I breathe, my back muscles anticipate the pull down of the diaphragm. If they don’t anticipate the movement, my diaphragm will create some forward collapse of my structure. As another example, before I raise my arm, my calf muscles prepare by anticipating the change in loading. In both of these cases, the body stabilizes itself appropriately to not fall over. An example of counterproductive pre-movement would be when someone tightens his/her belly to stand up from a chair. In this case, stabilization is making it harder for the person to stand up.

In the first brief moments in which a movement is conceived and prepared for execution, the essential story of a movement can be predicted. The quality of movement – the flow, the economy, the effectiveness – is determined by how someone consciously or unconsciously sets the tone in the tonic system of his/her body. Thus, to change structure, to change a person’s postural habits and coordination, we need to be able to see and help change the pre-movement embedded in each of that person’s actions. It appears we can best see another person’s pre-movement in a state of resonant empathic observation. We must know these places of preparation in our own body in order to see it in someone else’s body.

This point is relevant to any inquiry into how one might teach a bodywork practitioner to ‘see’. Teaching seeing means teaching someone to sense his/her own pre-movement, and to find the perception necessary to change it. By learning to work with our pre-movement, we gain access to the gravity response system that governs our quality of movement.

Movement that begins with appropriate pre-movement means movement that starts with dynamic orientation to ground and to space. This is the perceptual state in which observation of movement means primarily sensing the ground of a movement, rather than its shape. Taking this point a little further, we might consider that part of the body practitioner’s education is relearning the capacity to perceive the ground of his/ her own movement and then perceive it in others.

Thus, here is a purportedly true story about a Russian nobleman, and a bear that has been taught fencing (swordsmanship). The story (Kleist 1810) introduces the reader to gravity response as the largely unconscious ground that precedes and determines the shape and story of our movements.

“In this connection”, said my friend warmly, “I must tell you another story. You’ll easily see how it fits in here. When I was on my way to Russia, I spent some time on the estate of a Baltic nobleman whose sons had a passion for fencing. The elder, in particular, who had just come down from the university, thought he was a bit of an expert. One morning, when I was in his room, he offered me a rapier. I accepted his challenge but, as it turned out, I had the better of him. It made him angry, and this increased his confusion. Nearly every thrust I made found its mark. At last his rapier flew into the corner of the room. As he picked it up he said, half in anger and half in jest, that he had met his master but that there is a master for everyone and everything – and now he proposed to lead me to mine. The brothers laughed loudly at this and shouted: ‘Come on, down to the shed!’ They took me by the hand and led me outside to make the acquaintance of a bear which their father was rearing on the farm.

“I was astounded to see the bear standing upright on his hind legs, his back against the post to which he was chained, his right paw raised ready for battle. He looked me straight in the eye. This was his fighting posture. I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming, seeing such an opponent. They urged me to attack. ‘See if you can hit him!’ they shouted. As I had now recovered somewhat from my astonishment I fell on him with my rapier. The bear made a slight movement with his paw and parried my thrust. I feinted, to deceive him. The bear did not move. I attacked again, this time with all the skill I could muster. I know I would certainly have thrust my way through to a human breast, but the bear made a slight movement with his paw and parried my thrust. By now I was almost in the same state as the elder brother had been: the bear’s utter seriousness robbed me of my composure. Thrusts and feints followed thick and fast, the sweat poured off me, but in vain. It wasn’t merely that he parried my thrusts like the finest fencer in the world; when I feinted to deceive him he made no move at all. No human fencer could equal his perception in this respect. He stood upright, his paw raised ready for battle, his eye fixed on mine as if he could read my soul there, and when my thrusts were not meant seriously he did not move. Do you believe this story?”

“Absolutely”, I said with joyful approval. “I’d believe it from a stranger, it’s so probable. Why shouldn’t I believe it from you?”

“Now, my excellent friend,” said my companion, “you are in possession of all you need to follow my argument. We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”

“Does that mean,” I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”

“Of course,” he said, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”

Why isn’t the bear fooled? If we separate the figure and ground of a movement, we could say that the bear is reading the ground of his opponent; the ground is the state of the tonic system, the management of the center of gravity. When the swordsman is not completely committed to his gesture, as in a feint, he holds back a part of his weight – very subtly, but perceptibly. Before any intentional action occurs, there is a pre-movement. Another term for pre-movement is anticipatory postural activity (APA), a regulation of the postural system to prepare and adjust for changes in the center of gravity. The APA, an involuntary and unconscious adjustment, precedes voluntary, intentional actions – it is the ground of the gesture. This is why a given gesture can never be given a consistent particular meaning. The meaning of a gesture depends on the tonic activity underlying it. As babies, we are like the bear: we read the state of our parents’ tonic systems. That is how we learn to hold ourselves, in imitation or response to the tonic system to which we are in relationship. Hubert Godard has organized observations concerning the functioning of the tonic system into a theory that he has termed Tonic Function.

In Kleist’s (1810) story, his character states “Affectation appears, as you know, when the soul, vis motrix, inhabits any other point than the center of gravity.” In other words, our body language gives us away if we are pretending. In this article, body language is defined more specifically as the APA of the movement. Learning to see APA is a central skill for a movement therapist, and is useful to many other fields of human endeavor as well. Dr. Rolf called this ‘seeing’. Another important skill is the capacity to infer the perceptual field of the client – to begin to sense the perceptual habits of a client. It is only by evoking changes in perception that the APA will change. By contrast, teaching movement in terms of voluntary postural adaptations, such as effortful standing-up-straight, interferes with tonic function. At times, we all may succumb to this unfortunate strategy.

The fencing bear reminds us that the capacity to see the movement behind a gesture is not a human-invented skill, but rather a part of how all mammals perceive. Our human preoccupations seem to dictate that we must start by noticing our own tonic function in order to perceive it in another.


Kleist, H. 1810. A selection from his essay “On the Marionette Theatre.” Translated by Idris Parry. Available at

For further references about Tonic Function go to and click on “articles archive.”

In Memoriam

Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute® notes the passing of the following members of our community:

Richard Demmerle, DC

“Dick,” as Dr. Rolf’s elder son was generally known, was in effect the first person Dr. Rolf trained to do the work. He became a chiropractor, and was later made a member of the Rolf Institute® faculty and taught for years. He is survived by his wife Bridget and his younger brother Alan.

In a short YouTube video at, you can see him honoring his mother at the First Fascia Research Congress in 2007. He exhorts us all to “Live the ‘Line’ . . . . If you live it, it will carry you through thick and thin.”Seeing the Ground of a Movement: Tonic Function and the Fencing Bear[:]

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