In my last 6 years of mentoring with Jeff Haller, I’ve noticed that many Feldenkrais practitioners struggle to understand “support from the ground”—what it means and how it works. The words make sense, but they don’t always manifest in our movements or our teaching. Of all the concepts that we explore in the Feldenkrais Method®—from the sexier ones like nueroplasticity and the Weber-Foechner law, to the brain, novelty, variations, successive approximations and the body pattern of anxiety, etc — support from the ground is the one I think practitioners fail to understand to their own lasting detriment. Support from the ground is the very soil in which healthy organization grows. It is the umbilical cord that connects our embodied organization to the environment that feeds it. Support from the ground completes the picture of human behavior, and prevents us from isolating our perspective to “patterns of movement in the body” as our sole perspective, which is anathema to what Dr. Feldenkrais was describing in his work.
Here’s Robert Duvall explaining it to Tom Cruise, in Days of Thunder. Notice the physics lesson he gives as the pit crew changes the tires. Just like Feldenkrais, he takes an abstract idea and makes it concrete.
If practitioners are ever going to come to terms with Dr. Feldenkrais’ statement, “in FI I become the environment for the student”, we must understand how, through ATM and FI, we help our clients alter their behavior via their support from the ground. That is, not only through their internal organization, but as an individual who derives their support from the surfaces they are on and within the field of gravity.
When I first met Jeff at a workshop in NY, “support from the ground” was the fundamental concept he taught. I was shocked at its obvious importance to our work and at my own ignorance. Those four days contained the most anatomically and functionally clear, the most important, and the most basic moments of teaching I’ve had in my 14 years of experience in the Feldenkrais community.
“Support from the ground” was touched on lightly in my 4-year basic Feldenkrais training program. We were asked to notice how our contact with the ground changed as we moved, with the meta message that this was an opportunity to alternate between “internal” and “external” contact with ourselves. The problem was—and still is, in my observation of practitioners and trainees over the last ten years—that this “noticing” tended to be incidental, rhetorical and superficial. No real time was invested in exploring, testing or exploiting this particular feature of our relationship with the environment either in ATM/FI lessons or out of them.
In this article, I’ll introduce and discuss my main talking points about support from the ground. I use these in my workshops, classes and with individual clients.
- We evolved to move off a surface. Without a surface we can move, but cannot not self direct, no self-propulsion.
The surface is continually providing a reflective push equal and opposite to the weight we put into it.
The nature and composition of the surface changes the quality of support.
To exploit the support from the surface you have to continuously organize for it.
The specific skeletal contact you make with the ground (how you organize) determines the quality of the biomechanical efficiency with which you move and restore your balance from moment to moment.
To continually improve, you must direct the support from the ground up and through (not across) your skeleton in ever more specific and efficient ways.
Your objective knowledge of the skeleton, and how the shape of the bones determine their potential for supportive function, is what allows your ATM study to bear fruit. Without this understanding, you may indeed experience “change” from the lessons, but growth over the long term will be elusive.
Your muscles depend on skeletal support to work efficiently. Without an understanding of the relationship between skeletal support and muscular effort, you will remain ignorant and your muscular efforts will tend to contribute to and exacerbate your problems. Simply put: muscular effort without clear and continuous skeletal support is cart before the horse.
To mature in this work you must be able to measure the difference between the effort to move once you are optimally organized vs. the preparatory effort required to get to the organized state. If you don't understand this difference, it is very difficult to be oriented in your progress.
With this tenet in mind, it is possible to develop a daily ATM practice where your conditioned habits begin to loosen their grip, and better, more functionally precise habits emerge.
It is also possible to see how you might live out your unavowed dreams.
You will also grow stronger. Yes, physically stronger.
Support comes from Latin meaning “to carry from below”.
Support for what?
In the context of functional movement, your bones are meant take weight, pure and simple. This is a more fundamental perspective than the more superficial understanding that “muscles make movement”, because you must have some degree of stability in space (orientation) in order to move skillfully. The deeper, tonic musculature, must perform its duty well or else the outer, voluntary musculature is forced into a compensatory roll. Muscular effort that does not have good skeletal support underneath it creates enormous wear and tear on the soft tissues: the muscles themselves, the ligaments and tendons the fascia, cartilage, discs, and lubricants of the joints. It becomes possible to be upright and yet continuously collapsing into yourself.
Two Types of Support
The first, and the most fundamental, is external support: what you get from the ground and the other surfaces with which you’re in contact. For a racecar the external support is coming via the tires’ contact with the road. For a person sitting on a chair, the external support is coming from the surface of the chair (into your pelvis) and the surface of the ground (into your feet). If you then lean your elbow on a desk, that’s another point of contact from which you derive support. If you’re standing on the subway and you hold onto the vertical bar for balance, that vertical bar becomes part of your external support (via your hand).
Internal support emerges from how we direct the external support up and through our various joint surfaces via muscular effort and sensory and vestibular feedback. Our muscles work more efficiently when the support is guided through the joint surfaces without unnecessary shearing (force going across or at an angle to the axis). Under the shearing load, muscles are recruited into a compensatory “bracing” pattern to maintain our orientation in space. This leaves them less available for moving, and they become stiff and weak. Over time, this sustained burden creates the aches, pains and injuries than can erode your quality of life.
On closer inspection, the internal shearing forces are almost always generated by and coupled with a faulty external support that gets magnified and transformed throughout the skeleton.
What makes skeletal support difficult to perceive?
Understanding static support (or static equilibrium), as with a chair, a stool or a stack of blocks, is more straightforward. Watch a child building a block tower and you can easily predict when the structure is about to fall. The blocks stay in place as they are placed one upon the other. But as the child puts too much weight outside the base of support the tower starts to fall. The last block is placed and becomes the “straw that broke the camels back”.
Human support is dynamic. Moment by moment we must re-organize our weight over a continually changing base of support.
Understanding the sensations of skeletal support is also tricky. You have no nerve endings in your bones. So skeletal support is not something you can sense directly, the way you can when someone pinches your cheek. Skeletal support is an implied sense. And to make matters even more thorny, it is implied through the distribution of muscle tone. The more you feel an isolated effort in your musculature (in one or various places depending on the activity) the worse your skeletal support. The more you feel a distributed sense of effort—that no one place works harder than any other—the better your skeletal support and balance tend to be.
Your objective understanding of the shapes of your bones can help you aim and organize your support more skillfully. Without an understanding of the shape and orientation of the bones, finding accurate support is a little like playing tennis with an invisible racket or trying to hit a baseball with an invisible bat. You hold the “handle” but you can’t see the part that connects with the ball. You must make them visible through imagination, sensation and testing.
Thus the skeletal “self-image” that we are working to develop must be created from the other senses. Just like the square created from negative space in the illustration below. Except that skeletal support is really there. (The square is not really there. It is implied by the other shapes on the page.)
What happens to us without gravity?
Feldenkrais at CERN: watch from 3:30 - 5:30
As gravity is a constant force pulling us towards the ground, we generate a lot of background muscular activity to maintain our upright orientation in sitting, standing, walking, etc.* There’s much to learn about our most basic functions by removing gravity from the equation.
* (“Maintaining strong muscles is a big enough challenge on Earth. It is much harder to do in space where there is no gravity. Calf muscles biopsies before flight and after a six months mission on the ISS (international Space Station) show that even when crew members did aerobic exercise five hours a week and resistance exercise three to six days per week, muscle volume and peak power both still decrease significantly. Overall, the data suggest that current exercise countermeasures are not enough. The addition of a second treadmill and the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) along with more rigorous exercise regiment are giving good results in preventing muscle loss and preserving overall muscle health.” http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/245.html)
Search youtube.com for videos of astronauts in a weightless environment. You’ll find some wonderful footage: effortless somersaults, weightless water globules, long hair standing out in every direction, people euphoric in their first real experience of zero gravity—some of it set to falsetto singing of “In the Jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps at night…..”
Notice the opening shots: the astronaut riding the exercise bike is strapped in to keep him in contact with the bike. In the following shot, the astronaut passing the bundles down the tube has his feet hooked in place so he can be effective.
I would also direct you to the videos of people going up for a ride in the specially equipped cargo jet known affectionately as the “vomit comet”.
Ride the Vomit Comet
James Burk explains weightless training for the BBC.
And just for fun:
The jet flies in a series of parabolas that create negative G forces and allow passengers to be “weightless” for a minute or two at a time. Notice how people move once they become weightless:
once they start floating through the plane, everyone smiles. It’s seems to be an almost universally beautiful and euphoric experience (except for those who get nauseous).
As soon as they start floating they cannot direct their movements through space. They can flail and float, but cannot locomote, and cannot maintain their orientation in space.
They can’t change their basic intentional direction of travel unless—wait for it—they have contact with a surface! That includes the walls of the plane, other people, objects, etc.
No contact with the surface, no control.
The “facilitators” on board (who help newbies in their first flight) have their feet strapped to the floor of the plane. This gives them a constant connection to the surface of the plane and allows them to be grounded, stable, and effective in helping the “floaters”. Otherwise they’d be as helpless as everyone else.
There are similar moments of “floating” to be had on a rollercoaster, usually just after the big drop and come up over the next rise. But they are much shorter, and you are too constrained, or, as I remember, screaming too loud, to soak it in.
Different Surfaces give Different Support
Clarifying What The Ground Does for You
Let’s walk over to this 80 lb. barbell on the ground next to the swimming pool. Go ahead and lift it over your head. It’s heavy. Maybe you wish you had stronger muscles, or better form. People often assume that lifting weight is all about muscles. But before you start to rely too much on pure muscular effort, we Feldenkrais practitioners will tell you you need your skeleton well organized, too.
Unfortunately, a messy conversation then ensues:
But, (they say) the skeleton can’t do anything without the muscles!
Yes, (you say) but the muscles organize and act on the skeleton!
“But, what about the brain!” says a Feldenkrais assistant trainer.
….and round and round we go, all of us “learning” about the wonders of movement and awareness in the most disorderly, disorganized fashion.
Before we get distracted by the inner-workings of the nervous system, let’s get back to basics. Or at least back to high school physics. At fault here is our ignorance of simple Newtonian physics.
If you think muscles are all that’s required to lift an 80 lb. barbell over your head, that the ground isn’t doing any “real” work for you, I have a proposal. Please walk over here to the swimming pool, jump in and tread water in the deep end. Good. Our assistants will now lower the barbell down to you. As you tread water, please lift the barbell overhead again.
It’s the same weight. Is it the same experience?
The environment. The whole context for muscular work and skeletal support has changed. We’ve taken away the hard, supportive ground against which your skeleton could press. With only the buoyancy of the water for support, lifting the barbell in the deep end of the pool feels next to impossible.
Did you hear all that?
No, course not.
You're at the bottom of the pool.
A Walk on the Beach: A Different Kind of Surface.
Now let’s go out to the beach—Jones Beach on Long Island, if you don’t mind. Out here we’ll find a few special moments when your quality of support from the ground changes.
The first moment is when you step off the boardwalk into the sand. I say “into” (not “onto”) because a defining characteristic of moving in sand is that your weight sinks into it. This sagging at each step is the additional time it takes for your body weight to press into and compact the sand enough to get a reflective push back from the sand. This sagging is less efficient than the immediate support of the boardwalk, and it requires more muscular effort.
On your way out to the water’s edge you don’t mind the distance you have to walk (schlepping your umbrella, toys, towels, etc) because you anticipate getting to the ocean. Walking on sand feels new and usual and announces “I’m at the beach!”
The second moment might be when you decide to run on the beach. You can immediately sense the additional work it takes compared to running on asphalt. That additional “lag” in the sand’s support requires more muscular work from you, and makes your skeletal support less immediate and as a result you fatigue quicker. Notice most people will take their run closer to the water where the sand is firmer.
The third moment arrives just after the long slog to your car. You’ve lugged all your equipment back across the beach. The change comes as your foot lands on the boardwalk. Here again you walk on solid ground, where the wood or the concrete gives you much more immediate support—suddenly your skeleton is back in action in a much more efficient way.
These every day moments are happening to us constantly. We need only pay attention to appreciate the work the surface affords us.
I remember a story Jeff told of walking in Paris with Esther Thelen, the developmental psychologist. They had been walking on a wet, stone sidewalk, cautious in the slippery and precarious nature of their support, when they crossed the threshold onto a gravel walkway. In an instant, new qualities in their posture and acture emerged: traction, friction, stability, and safety in orientation. Walking on the more stable gravel surface brought to mind her disagreement with the prevailing view of infant motor development as progressing from “head-to-tail” (or top-to-bottom). She turned to Jeff and said, “You see, it’s not cephalic to caudal. It’s caudal to cephalic.”
Engaging with the Surface:
Getting out of the “Neutral” Mindset and Finding a Gear
In his workshop at the Feldenkrais Institute in 2008, Jeff spoke of his dislike for the word “neutral”. A practitioner in the workshop was talking about the “neutral” position of the spine, or the “nuetral” posture in standing. Jeff said, “I don’t like the word ‘neutral’, and I’ll tell you why. When a car is in neutral, what happens if you step on the accelerator? Nothing. The gears aren’t engaged.”
The word ‘neutral’ leads practitioners to imagine that nothing is happening when people are “standing still” or “just” standing, or “just sitting”. In fact there is a whole world of support, muscular engagement, vestibular orientation that are both continuous and emergent, based on the specific contact the person makes with the ground. And that support, to a large extent, is what creates the potential or the biases in potential for the person to move in the directions, and in the patterns, they choose. It also sets the stage for the aches, pains, injuries and limitations in movement the person may acquire.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
It’s easy to say that a car moves forward b/c its wheels roll forward. But this is inaccurate and unclear. The car doesn’t move forward because the wheels roll forward. There must be a power source that drives the wheels into action. Indeed the tops of the tires appear to roll forward. But the bottom of the tires, where the rubber meets the road, continually push the ground backward.
If our car is out of gas and you and I are pushing the car down the road, then the tires indeed passively roll forward. But then we are providing the power. Without a source of power overcoming the inertia of the car (our pushing, the engine firing, gravity pulling the car downhill) there is no movement of the vehicle.
Our ignorance of how power and mechanics work in the vehicles we drive mirrors the ignorance of the body we move.
Starting in First Gear:
In 2010 I taught a Feldenkrais workshop called “Starting in First Gear”. I used Awareness Through Movement lessons to demonstrate the difference between power and momentum.
In my opening talk, I said that, for most of us, sitting, standing, walking, climbing stairs account for 95% of our day. And these activities are at the slower end of the speed spectrum. The closer you are to zero MPH, the more continuous power (low gear effort) will be needed in your movements. I’m not talking about explosive power, or ballistic power. I’m talking about accurate power, the kind that demands a continuous and precise relationship with the surfaces you're on. Thus most of the improvements we can make in our movement and organization have more to do with how we use power rather than momentum.
In a bicycle or car the power gears are the low gears: first and second gears. They are used at the slower speeds. In a car first gear takes you from 0-15 mph, second gear from 15-30 mph, etc…
If you’re driving slowly through a parking lot looking for a space, you want to be in first or second gear. If you drive around the lot in 4th gear, the car will likely sputter and die. You’ve asked a momentum gear to deliver power.
A bike may be a better analogy than a car, because it’s muscle powered. With your feet pushing the pedals, you directly sense the ratio of muscular effort to work produced. Also, bike’s gears are on the outside, they're not hidden in the engine like a car’s.
If you mount your bike and start out pedaling, you’ll want to be in first or second gear. In those gears, every ounce of pressure you put into the pedals produces a forward movement in the bike. If you’ve ever started pedaling from a stand still on a bike left in a high gear, you’ve felt the pedals (and the bike) move like molasses. That’s because the high gears are the momentum gears. They contribute useful work after you’re already up to speed.
Gears allow us to meet the changing needs of the moment on the bike. Sometimes we’re going up a hill, sometimes we’re going down a hill. Sometimes we’re starting out from a standstill, sometimes we need more and more speed.
How do gears relate to human movement?
Having gears enables a driver to deliver the appropriate amount of power or momentum into the ground so the vehicle can be in his control. In comparison to a bike or a car, our body’s ability to “switch gears” is as infinitely adjustable as the emerging moment. We don’t have 3 or 4 or 5 gears, we have an infinite number of them.
Just as a driver who uses the gears inappropriately creates stress and damage to the engine and transmission, a person who doesn't use support from the ground well creates stress, strain and sharing forces through their joints and soft tissue that corrode their physical function, balance and quality-of-life over time.
Because they have little or no training in this art, many people organize their movements from points that are above the ground.
For example, when a person is standing and begins to walk forward by initiating the movement from their lower back, they set two things in motion. First, they displace weight outside of their base of support, creating shearing forces in several major joints, and they begin to collapse into themselves. They begin to fall. They must immediately engage a compensatory muscular effort to prevent further falling and thus stiffen and collapse their possibilities as they move.
You can see the culmination of this particular habit in people that are very decrepit in their walking. In New York City, where I live, there are certain people on the street and in the subway to whom you intuitively give a wide, protective berth, for if you bumped them even slightly they might easily fall. And that fall would be catastrophic to their health.
This is an entirely different world than someone who generates support from the ground to initiate their movement. When moving skillfully, a person who generates their support from the ground is able both to initiate, suspend and modulate their effort at any moment. They are simultaneously more stable and responsive to the uncertain needs of reality. They are less shockable, less perturbable. The person who does not generate their support out of the ground to move is easily shockable. Their balance can be taken with little effort.
This leaves them working from a place of continual, and accumulating compensation.
A vulnerable state of affairs.
It comes down to balance.
We study our ability to self-correct so that we may be in control in a continuously changing environment.
Our control gets better when we know how to use the resources available to us. If we don’t develop our most fundamental resources—the ones closest to the ground—the other resources will erode.
Feldenkrais was teaching an active literacy in the art of unstable equilibrium: the physics, the math, the neurology, the physiology, the phenomenology. He demonstrated this every time he stood up and sat down during the Amherst training. A man with next to no ligaments in one knee, and a history of injuries in the other, he was able to gracefully rise from his stool and float back down with near perfect counterbalance.
This is called “hiding the secrets in plain sight”.
I’ll leave the last words to a man who’s skeletal support is so finely attuned that he successfully walked on a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center. Here is Philippe Petit, on the illusion of “keeping” balance.
Can't resist also including this. Exquisite support from the ground.
I look forward to your comments and questions.