CAPA si_okt_1986_1.pdf

In Search for Integrity and Lift in the Human Structure or: Tensegrity Revisited

Pages: 24-29
Year: 1986
Notes on S.I

Notes on Structural Integration – May 1986 – 86/1

Volume: 86/1

Rolfing – ist is said – attempts to develop integrity. The word is so rich in moral, psychological, social and other meanings that it would be folly to venture a definition other than the obvious one: Integrity is the opposite of falling apart. Therefore, a theoretical model for integrity in the human structure must first answer the question: what keeps us from falling apart?

The traditional answer is expressed in the Rolfing logo or in the picture drawn from an illustration in Ida Rolf’s book (Figure 1).

<img src=’https://novo.pedroprado.com.br/imgs/1986/1018-1.jpg’>

As in the logo, the visual image is that of nicely stacked blocks, one above the other, an arrangement which will reinforce the tendency not to fall apart because the resistance of the ground to the downward sweep of gravity is communicated as an upward thrust evenly without distorting angles from one solid block to the next one. But that unbroken upward communication of the resistance of the ground to gravity still is the simplistic model of the pillar. Furthermore, it employs rigid and compressive images of the body. In the caption of that picture, Ida Rolf therefore tries to explain the ?skyhook? as the ?co-operating balances of myofascial spans?.

If we look at how ?myofascial spans? are to produce a ?skyhook?, the explanation we find in Ida Rolf’s book is the following analogy: ?Ask a city man what holds a tent upright, and he answers, ‘Why, the tent pole, of course’. But the woodsman knows that in a properly stretched tent, it is the downward pull of the left side that upholds the right side, and it is the right side that upholds the left. The function of the tent pole is to ensure appropriate spatial balance for the two sides.

So it is with bodies. Bones determine spatial position of attached muscles and thereby also the efficacy of the agonist-antagonist balance.? (p. 65)

Naturally this analogy, as beautiful as it is for the explanation of balance, as absurd it is for the explanation of the ?skyhook?: increase the tension of the strings of your tent and all you get is a bent or broken tent pole instead of thrust or lift. All the strings do is to give lift to the sides of the tent but not to the tent itself or even the pole, which they can only balance by their tension. There the force involved still is compression, not lift. So, the need for a theoretical model of the human structure incorporating integrity and lift remains, for a model that can answer the question ?what keeps us from falling apart?> together with the question ?what gives us lift from below?

Tensegrity seems to be the perfect answer to both questions. In Buckminster Fuller’s architectural constructions, the compresssive weight of a solid structure does not rest on the resistance of another solid, but as with a tight-rope dancer, the weight rests on a string stretched out between independent solid structures below. What keeps it from falling apart, and down, is the tension of that string, and – as the answer to question two – if the tension of that string is increased, say by a muscle, the structure resting on it gets lift from below.

Unfortunately, as far as I can see, there are only three structures in the human body which correspond to this tight-rope dancer:

1. the long ligaments and muscles spanning the gap between the calcaneus and the forefoot, i.e. especially the lig. plantare longum, the lig. calcaneonaviculare plantare – the spring ligament-, and the plantar aponeurosis,

2. the pelvic diaphragm,

3. the urogenital diaphragm.

<img src=’https://novo.pedroprado.com.br/imgs/1986/1018-2.jpg’>

In all other cases, the part that is to be supported and given lift to by the tension of the strings or myofascial sheets is not independent from the part that holds the strings or sheets which is an essential condition for tight-rope dancing to work. Take for example the knee: it is true that the femur rests in multiple myofascial slings suspended from the pelvis. But since the pelvis above is attached to the femur below, an increase in tension cannot give lift, it can only increase compression of the two. With the exceptions I gave, wherever slings or sheets of ligaments of myofascia exist in the human body, they come from above for the lower structure to rest in them and not the other way around as would be demanded by the tensegrity model. And just as Baron von Munchhausen was not really able to pull himself out of the swamp by his own hair, we cannot hold our own ?sky hook> or stand onto a rope and get lift by pulling on it ourselves. So, the need for a theoretical model incorporating and explaining integrity and lift at the same time still remains.

Allow me to direct your attention to a course of reasoning by which the problem might eventually be solved and which has been implied by Ida Rolf herself in a drawing in her book just one page before the ?skyhook?.

?Blocks in a sack? do not fall apart because of the tension of the sack itself. And if you put muscles into the lining of the sack which can increase tension evenly all around on the sides, they squeeze lift into that structure from below the same way as you squeeze paste out of a tube.

Like the tensegrity model, this simple concept uses tension instead of compression to keep things from falling apart. So In a way, the sack model IS ?tensegrity revisited?. But more m accord with the work Ida Rolf so ingeniously developed, the sack model makes integrity a precondition of lift: only if the tensional forces that keep up or squeeze the contents upwards are perfectly balanced all around, the resulting pressure can point upwards. Any unbalanced tension or pressure will shorten and bend.

But let me develop the model step by step from the sack to a more convincing likeness of the human structure. To do so however, I must go back to the beginnings of life, to the amoeba, for all cells, including those of the human structure, still live the life of the amoebic single cell floating in the salty waters of the primordial oceans from which they receive their nutrients and to which they pass their wastes. All living cells have to be at least partly immersed in liquid, a fact that gives truth to the joke: man is a bag of ocean walking on the shore. It is the tensions of this bag that keeps the water from spreading all over and from flowing back into the sea. In that respect, the bag is much like a balloon – as Hans Flury pointed out to me -, only that the specific weight of the human body is much higher. But both structures are kept from falling apart by the tension of the skin against the internal pressure, which in the human body is rhythmically changing with breathing and heart beat.

<img src=’https://novo.pedroprado.com.br/imgs/1986/1018-3.jpg’>

However, a ?bag of waters? is as inadequate a model for the human structure as ?blocks in a sack?, for only a fraction of the liquid in the human body is free to float. As can be read in any good book on histology and microanatomy, most of it is caught up in the entangled threads of macromolecules that make up the ground substance of all human tissues. These long chains of glycosaminoglycane molecules are like tiny balls of bunched up wool soaked full of water and ions. Thus, each little ball has an electrical charge by which it defines a space or domain into which no other macromolecule can enter. Instead, when under pressure from other macromolecules, it moves away from that pressure but keeps its domain intact. Therefore, it exerts a similar displacing pressure on the domains of other macromolecules. Only when the original external pressure is released, the macromolecules will slide back into their original relative position. (That viscous propensity may account for some of the Rolfing changes when the angle and direction of the gravitational pressure changes in the tissue and things slide back ?where they belong?.) The salty sea of the amoeba loses its similarity to water even more as it is incorporated into the ground substance of the human body: an intricate network of microtubules, microfilaments, microtrabeculae, and intermediate filaments extends throughout the ground substance as an ubiquitious microskeleton that is quite flexible but still limits displaceability of the macromolecules (see the diagram that I have taken from the beautiful article by James L.Oschman). Thus the statics of the human bag of ocean walking on the shores are not determined by the laws of thermodynamics like in the balloon or, to a lesser extent, in a water bag. Instead of the absolute mobility and independence of each particle, which is the basis for thermodynamics, the mobility and independent of the structural elements is limited even further by the fact that in the human body there is not only the one containing sack at the outside, the skin, but the superficial fascia, the compartmental septa, the fasciae of the muscles and organs, and a multitude of containing walls down to that of each single cell and its nucleus. There is a connected, Interwoven network of bags inside bags on top of and under bags on top of and under bags inside bags inside bags…a bit like the famous Russian dolls. In that intricate structure, the viscous parts can only give way to the compressive forces of gravity and spread until they are checked and balanced by the tension of the intricate system of containing sheaths and their microskeletal interconnections.

Therefore, the statics of such a structure must be somewhere in between that of a solid whole on the one extreme which can be treated as one piece and that of the water bag (or balloon) on the other extreme where each particle will move and shift until an equal and random distribution has been reached in the whole structure.

Being both bad at mathematics and rather ignorant of statics, I speculate – and therefore may be way off the mark how such a boneless zombie would behave in the gravitational field. I imagine that in its statics it might behave much like a pile of rough sugar or sand. I gather that the elements of such a pile cannot give way to the pressure of gravity like water molecules, but on the other hand that they are mobile enough to be displaced by gravity in a limited range until they are checked by surrounding pieces of sand. I also suppose that in both the zombie and the sand pile the elements are randomly distributed enough to make it an exception that two or more elements are so perfectly placed upon each other that they share the same line of gravity (fig. a). Normally their plane of contact is not horizontal, which would be the precondition for common gravity line, but at an angle to the horizontal. Then the vector of gravity is split up into a parallelogram of forces with one vector following the plane of contact and the other at a right angle to it.

So most elements tend either to slide down to the outside or inside exerting a pressure on the element they rest on in the opposite direction. Only the elements at the outside of the pile can really follow their outside vectors and move down and out until stopped by the wall or the ground. Now elements farther inside can move outside until they in turn are stopped by those which have moved before. There will be inside shiftings too, but since the overall privileged direction is to the outside, the farther inside you go in the pile the more accumulation of inside vectors will exist. And since that differential grows from all sides, there will be more and more stability the farther you come to the center until finally in the central gravitational line the resistance to outside displacements is highest since all inside vectors meet from all sides. In that center line, the compressional force is highest as well, but with the stabilizing force of the neighbouring elements all around, still the elements in that line have the least possibility for displacement and therefore pile up highest forming the tip of the sand pile, or in the boneless model: the high shoulder opposite to the short leg (fig. c).

Now let me introduce muscles into the model. They are of prime importance because soft tissue is not very highly predetermined by genetical information: the fibroblast cells expel tropocollagen, as elements of the fiber similar to the pieces of a puzzle, into the intercellular spaces where they ?float? until they are drawn into line and united by the energetic patterns of stress (probably electromagnetic charges). Thus they unite longitudinally inside the muscle and at its end as sinews against the stresses of the shortening muscle and transversally in the fascia against the strain of the bulging of muscular tissue. Their length, density, and direction obviously vary with different uses of the muscles. This explains why people in countries where chairs are rarely used have much longer hamstrings than in our ?chair countries?

<img src=’https://novo.pedroprado.com.br/imgs/1986/1018-6.jpg’>

So even in the relaxed state, the length and form of a muscle can vary in one person over time – as we Rolfers well know because of the plasticity of the soft connective tissue. On the other hand, it is exactly this plasticity which gives to the contractile tissue its prime importance in my model, for without its active tension the force of gravity would continue to lengthen the soft connective tissue until the whole structure would fall apart. Thus the tone of all connective tissue is dependent on the action of muscles. But not their uninterrupted action is called for. While in the sack model the muscles in the lining of the sack would have to work continously to keep up the lift of the structure, in the living tissue it is enough if they again and again cover the whole range of contraction and relaxation to keep up the tension, length, and form of the soft connective tissue which in turn keeps not only the structure from falling apart but also keeps its lift.

If my model is correct up to now, we would need two kinds of muscles, one kind to squeeze lift into the baggy structure and another kind to balance it. The first must be large sheets encircling the structure as completely as possible. In the trunk these are obviously present in the abdominal muscles continuing into the intercostals, the pectorals in front, and the large loop of the serrati anteriores and rhomboids to the back where the sheets of the latissimus, trapezius, and quadratus lumborum are the counterparts.

The balancing kind of muscles should be more narrow and stringy and should take a longitudinal course paralleling each other on opposite sides to act as intermittent agonists and antagonists (while the squeezing muscles act in unison). Naturally there are muscles that meet this qualification, especially in the extremities and along the spine. Many muscle groups even follow the gravitational vector of the sand pile model. But most muscles are both balancers and lifters. For example the muscles of the lower leg only act as agonists and antagonists (?when flexors flex, extensors extend?) in the first half of the movement range. Then, the antagonist group invariably – even in people who have been Rolfed a lot starts to spring into action as can be experienced by any Rolfer in any second session. This is simply so because the stretch receptors inside the extending muscular tissue trigger the muscle into contraction. According to the textbooks, this is to prevent overstretching and rupturing tissue. However, it could also be interpreted as a combination of balancing movement and lift.

If you take the human anatomy without bones, a zombie of the second kind evolves. Just imagine the squeezing and balancing action of the contractile tissue acting on the connective tissue of bags inside bags. Again, you only can attain lift and balance if the central gravitational line runs right through the middle of the masses with an equal distance to the balancing and squeezing tissues. Whenever it is off center and approaches the muscles of one side only, their action is transformed from balance into bending and from lifting into shortening.

Finally, let me introduce bones into the model. It is very much on purpose that I introduce them last, although in anatomy and especially in the orthopedic view they always come first. In that view, they bear the weight and are the decisive factor in keeping us from falling apart. By developing the model so far without the necessity of bones to keep the structure from falling apart, I believe to have given further credibility to Ida Rolf’s dictum that bones are spacers more than weight bearers. Obviously they are both, as all other tissue is. Their trabeculae follow the lines of tension, their solid outside walls the lines of compression. The difference to other connective tissue is primarily a statical one: they deform much less easily than other tissue. Therefore, they function as stabilizers of form. As such they are indispensable because with the small base of support under our feet we would have a hard time keeping upright by the squeezing action of our muscles alone.

Because of their much higher resistance to deformation, bones cannot distribute compressive force to the sides as soft tissue does. So once bone gets into line with the central gravitational line of compression, they pass on that compression in one vertical vector. If however bone ist out of the line of compression or at an angle to it, the compressive force turns the bone into a lever which transforms most of the compression into rotation which can be balanced by the tension in the soft connective tissue and muscles. When bone is in line with the ?line?, no such transformation can take place and any soft tissue the bone rests on is exposed to the whole load of compression and will suffer in the long run as lower backs and knees prove over and over again.

With these reasons in mind, it becomes understandable why Ida Rolf insisted that the central gravitational line should come down in front of the spine. In an ?integrated? person standing on both legs, the central gravitational line never touches bone except in the cervical spine.

By the way, looking through my anatomy notes from old German volumes on the neck and throat, I discovered that the line could pass in front of the cervical spine, too. According to Lanz/Wachsmuth, the center of gravity of the head must be in front of the flexion/extension axis of the head because when under general anaesthesia or in a state of unconsciousness the muscles relax, the head falls forward, while normally it is balanced by all those muscles that insert in back of the ear. Now, if the center of gravity of the head is brought into line with the central gravitational line, in the neck and throat that line would traverse the visceral spaces in front of the spine, and the muscular network would exactly follow the course of the vectors pointing to the outside of an imaginary sand pile.

If this is so, the discs of the spine are never exposed to compression and the whole spine can act like a long flexible resilient spring built into the linings of the body bag to stabilize its form and give leverage to the tension of the soft tissues that are ultimately responsible for the integrity and for the lift in the whole structure, as they balance it against the rhythmical changes of breathing and blood circulation. So, ?the line? is actually a space in the mediastinum and the bowels which is rhythmically moving in and out of the line of compression causing recurrent waves of displacement and weight distribution and counterwaves of changing tensions m the containing layers of soft connective tissue and muscle.

In this model – just as Ida Rolf decribed it without giving reasons for it -, every inhale would give lift to the structure because with the ribs as stabilizers of form, the thin thoracic walls still can function as a continuation of the system of bags inside bags which keeps up the integrity of the structure by its containing tension against the pressure from the inside. So inspire of the large holes in the structure: the lungs, it functions via the mediastinum, the thoracic walls, and the autochthonous system of the thoracic spine as a continous system of pressures and countertensions. Therefore, any increase in internal pressure as happens with every inhale must be initiated and counteracted by increased muscular tension which results in the squeezing action on the whole system that in an integrated structure gives lift, while in a tilted structure it can reinforceg. a hyperlordosis. I therefore believe that at least for the trunk this theoretical model is much better suited to explain most of the remarkable improvements in health and general well-being that Rolfing sometimes can attain by changing the central vertical axis by only a few millimeters than the theoretical models the Rolfing community traditionally works with.

In the legs, things are however much more complicated since bones as stabilizers of form are much more necessary there. But even there, if you take the volume of each leg separately and determine its central line, that space is free of articulating bone except in the junction of the tibia and the talus (which is a rounded junction, and so the compressive vector is split up into two tangential vectors which are kept in check by a network of ligaments). In the knee, the central space is taken up by the ligamentum cruciatum and the articulations on both sides are rounded junctions again which transform compression into sideway vectors kept in check by ligamentous tension. Similarly, in the subtalar junction right in the middle where according to Ida Rolf ?the lines> should traverse the calcaneus, there is a tunnel between the talus and the calcaneus, the sinus tarsi, which is filled with the intricate ligamentous system called ligamentum talocalcaneum interosseum. And again, both articulations of the talus with the calcaneus are rounded – there is no horizontality in any of those joints! – to split up the compressional vectors into sideway vectors which are then kept in place by the network of ligaments.

So ?the line?, as Ida Rolf prescribed it, can easily be in the same plane as all the long bones of the leg without turning the model into a compressional one. They even have to be there because only if the main joints of legs, arms, and the head are in the line of gravity, the work of balancing them can be done by tiny intermittent actions of deep muscles. But in the front view, it becomes obvious that all of the bones of the leg except the tibia – where I am in doubt – do not follow the gravitational line be it in standing or in walking, but are at an angle to it and are therefore not bearers of compression but distributors of it for the soft connective tissue and muscles to counteract it.

<img src=’https://novo.pedroprado.com.br/imgs/1986/1018-4.jpg’>

In the foot, a purely bony view compels the central gravitational line to come down through the lateral junction of the navicular bone to the cuboid bone about two inches in front of and lateral to where Ida Rolf put it. The talus rests on the calcaneus at a point where there is no bony support from below – which to me proves my point but is viewed as impossible in the bony compressional model. This balcony of the calcaneus jutting out medially, the sustentaculum tall, could never carry the weight of the body without collapsing. The calcaneus, on which the talus rests, has no articulation with the navicular bone at all. The talus does, but only in its head which on the skeletal architectural level is too far forward to be of relevance. So the weight of the body would have to rest on the calcaneus and therefore crush down anteriorly and laterally on the cuboid bone, the only bony articulation of the calcaneus toward the front of the foot. And only with that forward collapse of the calcaneus, the head of the talus and the lateral navicular bone would be able to take part of the load.

In reality, the malleoli rest in a double sling on both sides: the peroneals laterally and the tibialis posterior medially, reinforced on both sides by the pull of the dorsal muscles from above via the retinacula. More important: the balcony of the calcaneus is supported from below like a suspension-bridge, held up from above by the sinews of the flexor hallucis longus and the flexor digitorum longus. And in additon, it gets traction and tonus from the quadratus plantae and the lumbricales in the longitudinal expanse of the foot. The gap between the calcaneus and the navicular bone towards the medial anterior foot is spanned on three tensional levels like in a tensegrity mast, as I have pointed out before:

1. the plantar aponeurosis,

2. the ligamentum plantare longum,

3. the spring ligament -lig. calcaneonaviculare – which forms part of the joint capsule of the anterior talar joint with the navicular bone.

<img src=’https://novo.pedroprado.com.br/imgs/1986/1018-5.jpg’>

So, very much in accord with the model I wish to propagate, the bony architecture of the foot is reversed in its statical significance by the soft connective tissue and the reinforcing action of the muscles, and it seems much more logical for the line to come down through the area of the malleoli into the tensional network of ligaments, sinews, and muscles that can distribute, counteract, and balance the compressional forces throughout the foot and connect it to the forces of lift in that overall hydrostatic tensional structure. And then the squeezing action of every step would give lift to the whole structure as every breath would if it is integrated around this central vertical axis.

So I believe to have shown that this theoretical model for integrity and lift in the human structure is better in accord with the realities of the human body and the goals of Rolfing than either the traditional block model or Buckminster Fuller’s tensegrity model.


Lanz/Wachsmuth – a German compendium on practical anatomy encompassing now 8 gigantic volumes. The quote is taken from the volume on the neck, p. 350 ff.

Oschman, James L.: Structure and Properties of Ground Substances; American Zoologist, Vol. 24, No. 1,1984

Robbie, David L.: Tensional Forces in the Human Body Orthopaedic Review, Vol. VI, No. 11, November 1977 Rolf Ida P.: The Integration of Human Structures, 1977, Harper & Row, New York etc.

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