Addressing Functional Inhibitions in the Thoracic Spine

Q: I?d like to learn how to work with the relationship between the upper thoracic area and the neck and head, especially with forward-head stance individuals. I?d like to learn how to evoke movement in the thoracic spine when a person is not moving much in spite of having the structural capability.
Pages: 4-6
Year: 2008
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 36 – Nº 3

Volume: 36
Q: I?d like to learn how to work with the relationship between the upper thoracic area and the neck and head, especially with forward-head stance individuals. I?d like to learn how to evoke movement in the thoracic spine when a person is not moving much in spite of having the structural capability.

Q: I’d like to learn how to work with the relationship between the upper thoracic area and the neck and head, especially with forward-head stance individuals. I’d like to learn how to evoke movement in the thoracic spine when a person is not moving much in spite of having the structural capability.


A: This question brings to light the four structures considered in our Rolfing paradigm: the physical, psychological, perceptive, and coordinative structures. Integration is as good as the extent to which each of these is addressed.


When a person has the structural capability to move, yet is not able to do so, then we must consider that the restriction is an “inhibition” rather than a “lesion.” Inhibitions lie within the perceptual, coordinative and psychological structures. Research has shown that the psychobiological or psychoemotional aspects of the person are linked to neurobiology, which underlies our “beingness.” Most Rolfers are not psychologists, but because inhibitions are neurobiological, they can be very efficiently addressed through working with perception and coordination. The magic of working with these structures is that they evoke change in the psychological structure as well. When we work in these structures we affect the historical or psychoneurological aspect of the body known as body image, as well as the body’s implicit neurobiology, called body schema. Change in neural patterning demands a change in psychology.(1)

We perceive the world through a veil of our history, and this carries the psycho-emotional underpinning of our body image. So when we work with perception we reframe history; and when we work with coordination we renegotiate body schema, evoking new pathways through sensations and neuromuscular firing patterns. Sensations are pure information, untarnished by the complexities of individual psychology, something we can never know.(2) During the client’s “altered” state within the context of a Rolfing session, a window of opportunity exists for him to experience a new “felt sense” of neurobiological information that he can then draw upon for processing and integration. Through this experience, history and psychology are transformed through the rewiring of neurobiology.(3)


Using Tonic Function to Address Thoracic Inhibition


Our senses are the mediators of our tonic function. The relationship between the upper thorax, neck and head has to do with the function of orientation. The vestibular system organizes the head and neck in gravity while the suboccipital muscles inform the vestibular system about the relationship of the head with the rest of the body. A primary mode of orientation is the visual sense. When we overuse focal vision, we diminish our use of peripheral vision. Doing this causes global grabbing, shortening and stiffening of our physical structure, and inhibits efficient tonic function.

One way to evoke better palintonic relationship between the upper thorax, neck and the head is to teach your client to engage peripheral vision. To evoke peripheral vision, ask your client to look to the horizon, or use imagery to evoke a sense of the far distance. You can also work with the sense of hearing. Ask the client to hear sounds in the distance like the hum of distant traffic or the sound of wind in the forest. Such perceptions evoke spatial orientation and cause the head and neck to float up and out of the thorax. Evaluate the impact of this piece of perceptual information on the relationship of your client’s thorax, head and neck, and consider whether you now see the possibility of more movement through the thorax.


Establishing Support for the Thorax


If nothing happens or if your client is perplexed by this approach, you may need to consider whether the client has a sense of support or even an awareness of support being available. Support is a prerequisite for movement. To act in our environment we need a direction or vector, or object of desire or necessity. But, in order to apprehend the object we have to accelerate towards it. This requires the impetus of the upper gravity center or G’. To be able to accelerate, G’ must receive support from the lower gravity center or G.

If such support is missing, you can establish it by teaching “supported sitting.” In supported sitting the knees are slightly lower than the pelvis on the seat, and the soles of the feet are in full felt contact with the floor. In this posture, the weight of the torso falls slightly in front of the ischial tuberosities. This puts the lumbar spine in neutral position.

Once your client is able to sit with good lower body support, ask him to let his thorax fully rest into the pelvic bowl or pelvic floor or the lower dan tien. To the client, this may feel as though his chest is collapsing. Both you and the client must fully allow this before the next stage of the process can unfold. Proceed very slowly to help your client fully embrace a new sense of support. If the client holds back, nothing new can emerge.(4)

When the thorax can fully rest and be supported by the pelvis, the client may experience a lot of letting go, expressed as ever-deepening exhalations. You may want to encourage your client’s sounds or sighs. Track the nervous system, watching for gestures or breathing impulses that indicate what wants to happen next. Again, go slowly. Suggest awareness of the coccyx reaching down and the pelvic floor widening. As your client inhales, suggest that the front of the lumbars open forward. Gradually assist that opening to travel up along the whole spine, vertebra by vertebra. You can do this in stages, stopping to breathe and feel where you are several times during the process. When this is successful your client will feel open and spacious, with a sense of rest that is yielding and allowing.

Next, you evoke support from G’ by inviting awareness or presence into the hands. Hands and arms are functionally (perceptually and psychologically) related to the thorax. You may have your client place his hands on his thighs and ask him to feel the whole surface of his palms and fingers contacting the thigh, awakening the sensations by perhaps feeling the texture of the clothing. You could suggest experimenting with the idea of his fingers reaching out slightly or imagining his fingers growing longer. When your client senses his hands opening, he will feel that his thorax wants to open and lift simultaneously, the impulse to inhale along with the impetus to accelerate – reaching up and forward.

Remember, the success of your work with perception depends on your pacing: do not overload your client with new perceptual information. Less is more when you work with subtleties.

You may have to do this work in bite-size pieces over a few sessions. Because you are working with body image, which is subjective and embedded in personal history and beliefs, your client will be vulnerable. He needs to feel safe enough to go to this new place in himself. Some clients must also be encouraged to value the slower pace required for body image transformation. Our society is so much about “doing,” about “getting on with life” or “getting on top of things,” that we are prone to prematurely push and force ourselves out of present experience. We ordinary beings seldom fully embrace the moment, be it joy or tragedy. So, when you are addressing function at this depth, be present as a witness and as a midwife: track and contain your client in loving presence.(5)


Working with Prevertebral Inhibitions


To work more specifically with opening the front of the spine, I have found Hubert Godard’s concept of the “characterological knot” the most effective approach. Characterological knots are functional inhibitions that occur along the prevertebral spaces of the spine. These inhibitions, although functional, may become lesions in the long term.(6) If I had to name specific physical structures to focus on in Rolfing, I would say the longitudinal ligament and related myofascia. When dysfunctional, these areas remain closed instead of opening during inhalation. They may also close when a person relates to “the other.” “The other” may refer to another person, to an object of attention, an activity, or a situation in the individual’s environment.

To understand the workings of the characterological knot, it is useful to distinguish between the actions of grasping and reaching. For example, we may grasp for air instead of opening and welcoming the air – and thus life – into our lungs. When we grasp, we do so because we are withholding some part of our selves. Our psychology prevents us from yielding to the momentum of the impulse to receive and harmonize with “the other,” or with life itself.(7) The physical structure, mirroring the psychological, also holds back, and the resulting inhibition of normal opening and reaching out results in a grasping activity. In this way, the characterological knot limits the spine’s capacity to fully extend.(8)

To work with the characterological knot, have your client in the supine position. Slide your hands under the back along both sides of the spine,(9) and find the spinous process of each vertebra starting at L5. Then, by leveraging at the transverse processes, gently elevate each vertebra one at a time to find the most restricted vertebrae in each of the spinal curvatures – lumbar, thoracic and cervical. You will usually find restricted vertebrae at the transition points between curvatures. For example, you’ll commonly find a restricted vertebra where the lumbar lordosis transitions into the thoracic kyphosis around T8/9/10. However, because human beings are complex, you can expect surprises.

Having found the restricted areas, work as follows: during the inhalation, invite the client to have a sense that the vertebra can float up (forward) as he inhales. Suggest that the front of this vertebra can open. Initially you will feel that the restricted vertebra will actually push back into your hands during inhalation. Help the client become aware that he is pushing back. Then teach him to feel the possibility of the vertebra floating up and forward by using your hands to gently nudge the vertebra anterior during inhalation. Do this process passively at first, while actively engaging your client through imagery. Use language that resonates with your client.(10)

Once your client can sense the vertebra rising, you will trigger further release and opening of the prevertebral space by gently vibrating the involved vertebra while simultaneously lifting it up and forward. Repeat this through two or three breath cycles, and then check passively for the responsiveness in the vertebra. You may have to repeat the process again, but eventually the vertebra will be restored to normal function. Then, it’s time to bring your client into gravity, transitioning into sitting, then standing, as you would in any session. When the client comes into the upright position, you can expect to see what you had hoped for, a freer and more elegant process of orientation in gravity, as well as a reduction of the forward-head habit.

Functional inhibitions of the upper thoracic area – or any other region of the body – are deeply embedded responses. These unconscious and habitual patterns, which may be historical or cultural in origin, are not restrictions in the tissues, but are rather holdings or attitudes of our psychoneurobiology. Whereas lesions are effectively addressed through the structural approaches of Rolfing, patterns within the psychoneurobiology are best approached through the perceptive, coordinative and psychological structures from which the initial inhibition arises.(11)

Within the scope of this column I have been able to suggest only a few ways to work with perception and coordination. However, if you can let yourself be guided by your client’s present experience and your own quiet presence, you will find yourself creating perceptual cues, imagery and suggestions that are uniquely personal and pertinent to your client’s needs.

“Each time you climb to a higher vantage point the range of your vision is enlarged and your understanding of your entire situation is altered. You see things from a more encompassing perspective, which allows you to be less concerned and anxious, and enables you to relate to your environment in terms of how it really is rather than how you imagined it to be from a more limited point of view.”(12)





  1. Louis Cozolino, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002, pg.147.


“The brain’s ability to take our physical experience and use it metaphorically is the basis of imagination. Bungee jumping may serve as a metaphor for falling in love. The child’s experience of emerging from under the covers into the light of day provides a sensory-motor metaphor for religious enlightenment later in life.”


  1. Louis Cozolino. The Making of a Therapist: A Practical Guide for the Inner Journey, New York: W. W. Norton, 2003, p. 135.


“Many times while making an interpretation to a client, I am struck by how much it applies to me, as if I have tossed them…a ball that turns out to be a boomerang. When this happens, I wonder, ‘Who am I thinking about, my client or myself? Do I see him, or am I seeing a projection of myself?’’ I may never be entirely sure. Given the way our brains process information, we can never know others unalloyed by our own inner worlds.

Everyone we know is partly a reflection of ourselves.”


  1. Louis Cozolino, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002, pg.18 “Instantiations are sculpted by experience and encode all of our capabilities, emotions, memories, and dreams. …Once these neural patterns are established, new learning modifies the relationship of neurons within these networks. When we talk of building and rebuilding the brain, neurons are our basic building blocks and neural networks are the structures that we sculpt and resculpt.”


  1. Monica Caspari, “The Functional Rationale of the Recipe.” Rolf Lines, March 2005.


  1. Ron Kurtz, Body-Centered Psychotherapy: The Integrated Use of Mindfulness, Non-Violence and the Body. California: LifeRhythm Pub., July 2007, p. 139.


“Posture, facial expressions, gestures, movement habits – all these have meanings. In short, all experiencing is embedded in and organized by images and beliefs, that is, by meanings.”


  1. Monica Caspari, “The Functional Rationale of the Recipe.” Rolf Lines, March 2005. “Long-term inhibitions often become lesions, which may appear at the site of the inhibition, or somewhere distant from it.”


  1. Ashuan Seow and Garron Billick. The Living Dynamics of Movement. Unpublished manuscript.


  1. Notes from Hubert Godard’s Advanced Movement Training, Maristela, Brazil, 2005.


  1. Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotions: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997, pg. 188.


“But it turns out that in addition to the classical neurotransmitters, all of the known peptides, the information molecules, can be found abundantly in the autonomic nervous system, distributed in subtly different intricate patterns all the way down both sides of your spine. It is these peptides and their receptors that make the dialogue between conscious and unconscious processes possible.”


  1. Monica Caspari and Ashuan Seow, class notes for Movement Certification 2005, Sydney Australia.


  1. Ashuan Seow, “Rolfing Structural Integration -The Neural Dynamics” – teaching notes.


  1. Swami Rama and Swami Ajaya, “Creative Use of Emotion,” Pennsylvannia, Himilayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy of the U.S.A., 1976.





Caspari, Monica, “The Functional Logic of the Recipe.” Rolf Lines, March 2005.


Cozolino, Louis J., The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Building and Rebuilding The Human Brain. New York: Norton, 2002.


Cozolino, Louis J., The Making of A Therapist: A Practical Guide for the Inner Journey. New York: Norton, 2004.


Damasio, Antonio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness. London: Vintage, 2000.


Damasio, Antonio, Descartes Erro: Emotions, Reason, and the Human Brain Quill, 2000


Kurtz, Ron, Body-Centered Psychotherapy: The Hakomi Method. The Integrated Use of Mindfulness, Non-Violence and the Body. CA: LifeRhythm Pub., 1990


McHose, Caryn and Kevin Frank, How Life Moves: Explorations in Meaning and Body Awareness. Berkeley CA: North Atlantic Books, 2006.


Morgan, Marilyn, The Character Book. 2nd Edition, 2001.


Myers, Tom, Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists. Churchill Livingston, 2002.


Pert, Candace, Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine. Scribner, New York 2003.


Seow, Ashuan and Garron Billick, The Living Dynamics of Movement. From Martial Arts, Rolfing and Dancing to Life. Unpublished manuscript.


Siegel, Daniel J, The Developing Mind: How Relationship And The Brain Interact To Shape Who We Are. New York: Guilford, 1999.

Addressing Functional Inhibitions in the Thoracic Spine[:]

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