Dynamic Opposition and the Principle of Effortlessness in Nature
We saw in the last talk that the usual view of muscles is that they pull on bones to produce movement. We have this as a basic mechanical concept, going at least as far back as Leonardo da Vinci, who did beautiful drawings showing how the bones and muscles form a kind of lever/pulley system, and thus opened the subject up to scientific study in a really beautiful way.
If you designed a system of hinged levers and attached a guy wire from one lever to the other so that the guy wire could move the levers, you would have a perfect mechanical means of moving things and producing movement--a concept that to this day is central to how we think of muscles and bones. Yet this view can explain only how one part moves in relation to another, which requires the fixation of one part and a certain degree of immobility. To produce moving animals, nature has to be much more fluid and dynamic than this, since animals are able to maintain complete mobility of all the parts while moving.
So how do muscles and bones actually work together in nature? The answer is that they work with length in a dynamic partnership with bone. The muscles on the nape of the neck, for instance, must maintain the support of the head, which will otherwise fall forward. But they don’t perform this function simply by tightening, which would cause the head to be constantly pulled back and fixed in place. Instead, the head is weighted in front so that it exerts an opposing force on the neck muscles and keeps these muscles lengthened. The neck muscles can then exert pulls but, instead of forcibly pulling the skull back, they are stretched between the skull and the spine so that, even while the muscles contract, the skeleton maintains length in the muscles.
Some variation of this relationship exists in virtually every part of the musculoskeletal system. Muscles everywhere in the body are kept lengthened by the skeletal system. Instead of simply contracting, the muscles are suspended within a latticework of bones while they maintain the upright stability of the trunk. This holds true for our leg muscles, our shoulder girdle, our rib cage—nowhere are muscles simply contracting against the skeleton; instead, they work in a kind of partnership with the bones to produce a network of support that is highly economical and efficient, with all the muscles working together even when we are moving just one part of the body. It is a beautiful synergy, a yin/yang polarity structure for producing the counterbalancing of forces needed to enable the body to oppose the force of gravity, and to produce powerful, forceful movement when necessary, while maintaining optimal effortlessness and mobility in the entire system.
To produce support and movement, then, muscles don’t simply pull on bones; they work in a very dynamic way to produce force. Bones “push” on muscles even as muscles pull on bones. And when the muscles pull, they don’t simply pull; they possess elasticity so that they let go into length and pull only as much as they have to. This is a basic principle in animal movement in which a polarity of forces creates directional support in space with a minimum of fixation and effort. It is nature’s solution to the problem of vigorous and efficient movement, the yin/yang of bodily motion and support.
Because we are concerned with muscle tension so much of the time, it is easy to think that release of tension is the main quality we’re looking for in muscles. But the principle upon which muscles function, the principle upon which reduced effort works, is really much more subtle than this, because we are not just speaking of a reduction in effort, as if muscles are simply happier when they let go than when tightening. We are speaking of an oppositional principle in nature, a dynamic complementarity that is required to produce energy. It sounds very easy and relaxed, as if the point of this is simply to release tight muscles. But it isn’t just about muscle release but about directional energy. When you stop tightening your muscles and restore length in the structures of the neck and back, the head actually goes quite forcefully in an upward direction--something it had better do if it is to counteract the force of gravity and the falling weight of your body.
In this sense, there is nothing easy or weak about anti-gravitational forces, which produce energetic support or movement in a particular direction, through a kind of two-way polarity of tension and stretch. In humans, this force is upward, because that is how we primarily support ourselves; in animals it is horizontal, as we can see when a cat runs and the entire body lengthens with the head leading. In animals, movement takes place in the same direction as the lengthening of the body.
In humans, the oppositional lengthening force is upward, even though we of course still move forward in space when we walk.
Once we understand how this system works—really understand it, not as a gimmick, but as an actual experience of how the back and hip and legs muscles lengthen so that the body naturally maintains support in the gravitational field—we can see that forms of movement or treatment that address muscular tension as a structural problem are not based on the true principle governing animal movement. Structure is important, but the main principle that governs the movement system is the dynamic relationship of muscles and bones, and no amount of structural work can establish these dynamic relations, which depend upon the proper pushes and pulls between muscles and bones as an energized, living system.
The same can be said of exercise, which works on the misguided assumption that the main function of muscles is simply to pull on bones and completely leaves out the dynamic quality of muscle function. Both approaches are uni-directional, mechanical concepts, and nature does not work on the uni-directional principle; it works on the principle of dynamic opposition and polarity of forces. Compression presses outward and muscles pull inwardly, the combined action creating direction of parts with a minimum of effort—a principle we see everywhere in nature, exhibited as litheness and effortlessness in action.