“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”(Louis Sullivan, 1896)
In Pilates principles as ‘(spinal) elongation’, ‘integrated movement’ starting from the centre of the body, working with oppositional energy, … are fundamental. Most people understand these principles intuitively. For (classical trained) dancers, these are very familiar principles in creating expression and correct bodily tension.
Nevertheless, these principles are in contradiction with the classical western anatomical and biomechanical view of the human body. The skeleton is traditionally considered a stacking of bones, one on top of the other, held together by gravity (‘continuous vertical compression’) and moved by the leverage of muscles working on joints. Can this view explain how a giraffe holds its head with the long neck, how a flamingo manages to stand on one thin leg. How can it explain the seemingly never-ending lines of a classical trained ballet dancer?
Biotensegrity is a fairly recent biomechanical paradigm that explains the growth, the ‘continuously evolving form’ and the mechanics of living entities (in the context of Pilates, ‘human beings’). It offers a completely different perspective on ‘form’ compared to classical western mechanics. It is essentially about biological structure.
If we consider the study of anatomy, we see that the classical way in which the body is dissected is very analytical. The body is ‘cut’ into smaller, separate pieces that are given a name. The ‘whole’ is the sum of the parts. Classical biomechanics explains movement, based on laws and principles that were developed while dealing with inert materials (buildings, machines, …) and their behaviour towards gravity. This kind of mechanics emphasizes compression to preserve integrity of the construction, the way stacked bricks make a wall. Compression from gravity is transferred from one stone to the next until it reaches the ground. Without gravity, no wall. The weight of the entire structure is hardly taken into account, in opposition to organically evolved structures. This analytical view leaves little space to comprehend the behaviour of organically evolved structures.
The biotensegral approach, developed in the mid-seventies by American orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Stephen Levin, opens a different perspective for understanding the biological form and movement of organic entities. It also offers a different view on behaviour of the human body and it explains behaviour which was not understood when using the old model.
The concept of ‘tensegrity’ was first formulated by American architect, visionary, philosopher, … Buckminster Fuller. He fundamentally disagreed with the classical western mechanical and geometrical approach of reality, which had evolved to an abstract point where it no longer had any attachment with empirical reality. In his major work ‘Synergetics’, he developed a system of comprehensive thinking to explain reality. In this work, he analyses the self-organisation of patterns and systems. Fuller recognises an omnipresent principle in the empirical reality, namely the interplay between ‘tension’ and ‘compression’ as a driving force to generate shapes, forms and patterns. Both forces are always present together and balance each other out (‘Integrity’). Sculptor Kenneth Snelson (1927-2016), a pupil of Fuller, was the first to build a structure materialising these forces (X-piece, 1949) and in doing so, he visualised the balance between compression and tension (‘Islands of compression in a sea of tension’). Snelson, a sculptor, pursued building these kinds of structures for the rest of his life.
It was not until the mid-seventies that orthopaedic surgeon Stephen Levin had the fundamental insight, watching Snelson’s ‘Needle tower’, that this tensegrity model could be the basis for a radically different biomechanical approach. Dr Snelson noticed the similarities in mechanical behaviour between the ‘Needle tower’ and the human spine. More or less in the same period, cell biologist Donald Ingber discovered that a cell mechanically behaves as a tensegrity icosahedron. In this way, the organic seems to behave according to the laws of tensegrity both on a micro and on a macro scale. Dr Levin coined the name ‘biotensegrity’ and has been researching this topic ever since.
Tensegrity is a fusion of the words ‘tension’ and ‘integrity’. The coherence and stability of form in a tensegrity structure is the resulting balance between two basic forces: (continuous) tension and (discontinuous) compression. The prefix ‘Bio’ refers to the application of this principle on biological matter.
Living organisms behave differently from machines and manmade constructions. They display coherence and tone (integrity of the shape from inside out). They developed from a single cell to a ‘whole’ where everything is connected with everything. Evidently, we live and move in the gravitational field, but our body developed structurally from inside out, from the embryonic mesoderm to a full human being. We do not depend on vertical compression to hold the integrity of our form. It is the ‘resilience’ and the subtle balance of the whole that determines whether we can withstand gravity and other external forces. Biotensegrity offers a more thorough explanation for the mechanical behaviour of biological structures. It sheds new light on the growth, the form integrity and the way in which everything is interdependent within the structure, from the smallest to the largest. It explains the manifestation of patterns and the self-organisation of naturally developed forms on every level, from a cell to a fully-grown being.
The research on biotensegrity is closely linked to the evolving field of fascia research. The fascia in the human body form a continuous tensioned web that connects everything with everything and that penetrates every tissue in the body. The study of the fascia was neglected for a long time in the classical medical field.
Fascia wraps, penetrates and connects muscles, and so it forms a continuous ‘myofascial’ web through the body. Optimal placement of the skeleton is only possible when the myofascial network is in balance. When we consider the body as a tensegrity, the bones are the compressional struts. We no longer see muscles as single entities but as entities connected through fascia. Lines of ‘fascial pull’ are for instance defined by Thomas Myers, who calls them ‘myofascial meridians’ (‘Anatomy trains’). They connect top to bottom, left to right, deep to superficial, and form a base for the body as a tensegrity. These lines can offer an explanation for pain or discomfort at a distance from the initial cause. As such, they advocate for an integrated approach towards bodywork, both in a therapeutic context and in movement training.
In fact, it is the delicate balance between tension en compression forces that keeps a structure in balance. Manipulating a tensegrity icosahedron gives a specific tactile sensation and makes tensegrity more comprehensible as a principle. In the human body, the subtle interplay between strength and flexibility, none of them dominating, is all important. When muscles become too weak or too strong, when ligaments are weak, or when bad postures settle, we lose tensegrity. The loss of tensegrity is an important cause of many complaints.
‘Needle tower’ Kenneth Snelson
BIOTENSEGRITY & PILATES
A biotensegral structure always aims for maximum balance in the whole structure, with balance between tension and compression, and will aim to divide external forces over its tensional web, thus ensuring its integrity. This holistic principle is very consistent with the Pilates principle of aiming for balance.
The biotensegrity model offers a frame to look at relationships within the body. And this is exactly what we do in Pilates, continuously looking at and becoming aware of relationships within the body and how they influence posture and movement. We constantly aim for the most balanced and symmetrical posture, supported from the centre. By training strength and flexibility, we intend to enhance overall resilience of the body. Naturally, this requires a deep mental focus.
This view offers an optimal theoretical framework to understand the principle of ‘spinal elongation’ in Pilates. Ideally, an optimal tension of the deep myofascia that allows for optimal spacing of the bones (of the spine).
It is equally important to mention the kinaesthetic factor, the link with the mind. The fascial web is extremely richly enervated and of great importance for proprioception. This is the ability to sense oneself in space. The gradual development of proprioception is fundamental to Pilates and turns it into a never-ending story. It is fundamentally important for a better posture and a more balanced myofascial tone; it is a ‘mindful movement factor’.
Building resilience of the body (both mind and body) against external forces is our ultimate goal in Pilates. We use gravity on the mat, the springs when we are on the equipment. The springs have a ‘tension’ quality with endless possibilities to train the myofascial web, looking for a perfect balance between strength and flexibility. Using the springs, we can assist in the direction of the myofascial pull or, when the body is strong enough, to add extra compression and enhance the challenge. Pilates training offers endless possibilities to train the body’s tensegral qualities. This adds extra depth to the method.