Spiral anatomy and movement, continued.

In the previous post I wrote about the spiral anatomy of the heart and major blood vessels, and how a heightened awareness of our insides might lead to sensations of “spiralling energy” moving in the centre of the body. In another previous post I wrote about spiral movement in terms of the body’s innate ability to follow the eyes (nose/mouth) and rotate on three axes due to our fishy ancestry and our vestibular system. In the next couple I’m going to continue with the theme and describe some of the spiral anatomy of the muscular system, with some examples of some of my favourite movement disciplines which really demonstrate beautiful three-dimensional spiral movement.

The Feldenkrais method is awesome. A few years back when I was first getting into brain science, I read Moshe Feldenkrais’ classic book “Awareness Through Movement” and was instantly hooked. I found www.openATM.org and started doing “lessons” every day, at least one but when I could I’d do up to three, four or five per day, and after a few weeks of this I was permanently changed. Feldenkrais described his method as “learning how to learn” – it’s not learning how to move, it’s learning how to learn how to move!

Feldenkrais lessons generally involve lying on the ground and then either looking, reaching, or pressing on the ground with some part of the body, and feeling how this creates a kind of “chain reaction” or linked sequence of movement and engagement of muscles through the different segments of the body.

And as it turns out, pretty much any asymmetrical pressing or reaching movement of any part of the body produces rotation, and any rotation of any body part produces spiral or helical movement (technically, the term spiral is incorrect as it only refers to a two-dimensional shape, but for ease of communication I am using the terms “spiral” and “helix” interchangeably). We can only move like this because most of the muscles in our body are organised to have fibres aligned in diagonals, which spiral around the joints to wrap the torso and the limbs from top to bottom.

Firstly, the torso: If we start at the front, we find the internal and external abdominal obliques running on a diagonal across the centreline.

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Between the individual ribs, the external and internal intercostals are aligned in the same way as the obliques:

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And the external intercostals are aligned with the levatores costarum, which connect the ribs to the spine, the serratus posterior superior, which does the same, and also the quadratus lumborum muscle which connects the pelvis to the spine (and is aligned with the external abdominal obliques). The serratus posterior inferior muscle also connects the ribs to the spine, but is aligned on the opposite diagonal, in the same direction as the internal abdominal obliques and internal intercostals:picture3-141866AB02F37777DB9

All of these diagonal fibres wrapping around the abdomen and ribcage on opposite diagonals then connect with the diagonal muscles of the spine:

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And of course these spinal muscles have to connect all the way up to the head, wrapping around the neck all the way up to the jaw and the base of the skull. On the back:

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And on the front:

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Now unless you’re studying anatomy in order to pass an exam or you need to be able to communicate with physiotherapists or anatomists or some other professional, there’s really no need to remember all of those names. What I’m trying to get across here, which you can hopefully see from the pictures, is that all of these muscles are aligned on diagonals. When viewed in isolation or semi-isolation, as they are usually presented, they just look like diagonal muscles. But when you view them in series, you start to see that they are wrapping around the torso and spine in continuous spirals which cross the centerline on the front and back, thick sheets and ropes of muscle and connective tissue weaving a beautiful crossed double helix all the way from the pelvis to the head.

In workshops I often describe this to people as the “fish torso”, although our muscular system is actually quite different – fishes muscles are organised in sheets, rather than bundles – it helps to get across the idea of the torso being the major source of power in our bodies, like the torso of fish, which is almost entirely muscle.

The crossed double helix of muscles wrapping our spines and torsos is what allows us to flex, extend, and rotate, as they contract in different combinations, so we get much more out of our bodies than the simple side-to-side undulation of most fish. The other metaphor that I like to use for the flexible but (potentially) awesomely strong spiralling muscular torso-tube comes straight from the Chinese martial arts: the “dragon body”. Chinese dragons don’t usually have much in the way of limbs, so they are depicted “swimming” through the air like a snake, or an eel:

This spiral anatomy of the spine and torso is the source of our power and our agility, giving us the freedom to bend and twist and turn, to rotate around our central axis or around any point in space. It is what powers all of our locomotor patterns, everything from crawling to swimming, walking, running and climbing. It is also what gives us our stability, the ability to maintain an upright central axis, or to resist any forces which might bend or twist or turn us in some way that we don’t want.

The following clip is one of my favourite examples of three-dimensional power, agility and physical intelligence. Like the eels in the previous clip, these guys are all spinning and scrambling, blocking and resisting force and then disappearing to slip away and try to spin around behind, underneath, or over the top of their opponent. The snakey-fishy torso and neck power on display is just incredible:

In the next post I’ll describe how the crossed double helix pattern is also found in the muscles of the limbs, how these link with the muscles of the torso to form the whole-body spirals from head to tail and fingers to toes, and some more examples of activities which really use them well.

 

Spiral Anatomy

Our bodies are full of spirals. A friend posted on the Ancestral Movement Facebook Group recently about “cosmomimicry” and her own increasingly strong life-changing experiences with a kind of Sufi whirling practice. She asked about movements embodying the “torus” structure, with a link to an article, and what this all might mean for physical practice. I didn’t particularly like the article (it was certainly well-meaning, but lost me once it started describing the centre of the human body as a “singularity”) but I felt the need to respond with a few bits of under-appreciated anatomy and physiology to back up my friend’s experiences.

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“When I looked at the heart for the first time I saw a circumferential basal loop. And then I saw a descending limb and an ascending limb. And they curl around each other at a helix and a vortex, except for the ventricle. And the angles at which they go is about 60 degrees. 60 degrees down and 60 degrees going up, and they cross each other in that way. For years people had wondered why this happened. I realized this is really a spiral. And I began to think about spirals. And I began to understand that spirals are almost the master plan of nature in terms of structure and in terms of rhythm.… if you pick the middle of the spiral up you form a helix. And of course the heart is a helix.”

-Dr. Gerald Buckberg, M.D.

Firstly, we have the “helical heart”. At the centre of our being we have this huge muscle pumping constantly throughout every minute of every day of our entire lives, and it turns out that it’s fibres are arranged in a complex, and beautiful, spiral or helix.

Helicalheart.com looks to be an excellent website, the video section especially is worth checking out. The mechanics and electrophysiology of the heart are actually a bit different, and a lot more beautiful, than what a lot of us learned back in anatomy and physiology class. For more images, medical illustrator Laura Maaske wrote a great post with lots of her old drawings called “Untying the knot, your heart is actually a spiral“. Anyone wanting to read some of the original research on this can check out “The structure and function of the helical heart” by Dr F Torrent-Guasp, the surgeon who made the discovery.

The heart starts out as a tube, then twists into a helix as we develop. Once we are grown, it has a wonderfully intricate helical structure, and the blood pumping through moves into and out of the heart via a cluster of thick blood vessels (the ascending and descending aorta, the pulmonary arteries and pulmonary veins) which are also arranged in a spiral.

If anyone’s keen to look into the evolution or comparative anatomy of hearts and blood vessels in other creatures, here is a nice thorough article in the encyclopedia Britannica online: the vertebrate circulatory system.

So the heart is a helix, and the major blood vessels emerging from it have a helical structure, and then as it turns out the blood itself moves through the vessels in what is called “spiral laminar flow”:

“Recent work in cardiac and peripheral vascular blood flow has shown evidence for an elegant complexity to flow within the heart and in the large to medium arteries. Blood flow is normally described as laminar in that the blood travels smoothly or in regular paths. The velocity, pressure, and other flow properties at each point in the fluid remain constant, all parallel to each other. Our understanding has revolved around a two-dimensional representation of flow within three-dimensional (3-D) blood vessels. However, MRI and color Doppler flow imaging techniques have demonstrated that there is a spiral/helical/rotational property to laminar blood flow.”Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 5.10.58 pm

“THREE-DIMENSIONAL BLOOD FLOW DYNAMICS: SPIRAL/HELICAL LAMINAR FLOW Peter A. Stonebridge, Ch.M. University of Dundee, Scotland”

So what this means is that interoception – the feeling of physiological activity taking place inside the body – has potential to awaken us to a feeling of “spiralling energy” in our centres, and this might at first seem to be weird and wacky or “cosmic”, but it’s also just a fact of our anatomy. I’m not trying to say this is mundane, quite the opposite! I think it’s incredibly magical. The sensation then of a helical pump pumping a viscous fluid in a spiralling flow through some spiralling vessels could certainly lead to a greater sense of harmony with the rest of the living world, with a felt sense in the body that mirrors the trees spiralling up towards the sky, the spiralling growth of sea shells, movements of the planets and the moon and the images that now fill our heads of planets orbiting the sun and DNA and the beautiful four-armed spiral shape of our galaxy.

3645076“Spiralling energy” is something we hear about quite a bit in certain circles, namely the Chinese (and a couple of Japanese) “Internal” martial arts. In fact the concept seems to show up in all sorts of esoteric and pseudoscientific circles, which is kind of the point of this post – not to say “it’s all true!!” but to show that while the concept might get lumped in with a lot of exaggerated claims, at a basic level it actually has a very sound and solid physical basis.

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For some reason, a lot of people are very attached to the idea of “energy” as being something non-physical – how this is possible is never explained, it’s just felt to be true, often based on vague (mis-)interpretations of words like “qi” or “prana”. If only we could describe an experience as “the pleasant and exciting feeling of spiralling movement within the body”! But, apparently the experience of moving, living flesh and blood by a conscious mind evolved over four billion years is not special enough, or something, so we have to call it “energy”? I know it’s just language, but one of the main reasons I dislike “energy” talk is that I think it contributes to people’s body denial. Living meaty flesh is heavy, gross, icky, wet, dark and completely mortal, while “energy” and “vibrations” are none of those things and more easily associated with “light”. I’m not sure, but I guess everyone is free to call things whatever they want, and describe their own lives using whatever language they choose, and I should stop trying to be the scientific language police or I’ll give myself a heart attack.

So on that note, here are some serious men in hats, spinning around in worship, and let me say for the record that I thoroughly approve.

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A lot of these arts and traditions also emphasise the importance of practicing spiralling movement, for reasons ranging from superior biomechanics to the previously stated sense of harmony with the cosmos. In the next post I’ll give a brief introduction to some of the spiral anatomy of the muscular system, and have a look into some of these movement traditions.

2015 review

2015 was a big year. Action packed, full of travel, teaching, training, learning, meeting and connecting with amazing people. “Movement” is all of a sudden becoming a thing, around the world and especially on the internet. People are starting to think about movement a bit more deeply, and ideas from neuroscience and evolutionary biology are seeping into everything from medicine and psychology and even marketing, to rehabilitation, sports, fitness and martial arts. All things “paleo” or “primal” are gaining in popularity or at least being talked about more, and it even seems like there is an interest in “ancestral skills” or indigenous knowledge of all sorts growing in popular culture. My work in Ancestral Movement somehow spans all of these fields, so over the last year I have been contacted by all sorts of people interested in what I am doing. I’ll try to review some recent developments in this post, to give an idea as to where things are heading from here.

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First, after three incredible years of teaching and training in Canberra, both my co-teacher Craig Mallett and I have moved on. Craig is off to Europe to explore and learn more good things, I am exploring different locations around south-eastern Australia which are a bit more wild than Canberra, but hopefully still not too far away from the larger centres of population. For anyone who is still in Canberra or passing through there and wanting to meet great people or know about good groups to train with, you can still find us on the Natural Movement Canberra facebook group. Anyone who doesn’t already follow Craig’s work, you can find him over at Aware Relaxed Connected.

 

Our retreats have continued to get better and better, over the last year we ran several (the standard is one per season, approximately every three months), featuring incredible guest teachers Shira Yaziv of Athletic Playground in California, Gina Chick and Lee Trew of Bluegum Bushcraft, Jervis Bay (not-so-coincidentally near where I am living now). We have people regularly attending retreats now from Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle, Byron Bay, Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast! And we have covered a huge, huge amount of material, building a strong and nurturing community and a growing relationship to that beautiful place in the process. The last retreat went for ten days instead of the usual five, now that Craig has left we may not be running them quite as frequently, but nine or ten days will be the new normal, although of course people can attend for as few or as many days as they are able. Dates for 2016 will be announced soon on the retreats & workshops, in the meantime you can see some of what we’ve been up to there in the recently uploaded photo gallery.

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From retreats, to workshops! Two highly fruitful and auspicious “Ancestral Alchemy” workshops took place in Sydney, where I taught alongside Craig Mallett and Dave Wardman (of Physical Alchemy, hence the name). The three of us have worked closely together for several years now, and we are in near-constant communication over the interwebs, sharing ideas and research. It is always a pleasure to teach together as well. Craig, Dave and I are all friends with, and have to varying extents been students of and mentored by Kit Laughlin, you can find us all participating over on the Stretch Therapy forums, another online community with a very high standard of discussion and content. Craig managed to catch one of my little preliminary spiels, taken just before we got into doing some movement patterns that highlight what we have in common with worms, fish, lizards, amphibians and various other quadrupeds and mammals:

I taught “Body Mapping & Ancestral Movement” workshops at several events around the country in 2015, with weekend workshops in Melbourne and Byron Bay (a link to the Byron event can be seen HERE). These workshops covered the basic neuroscience of body awareness, pain, rehabilitation, movement, meditation, learning, emotion, memory, empathy, and animal mimicry, and a discussion of evolutionary or comparative anatomy, how anatomical structures evolved in relationship with different environments and ecological niches, and how mind-body practices can be (and in many cultures have been) used to foster a greater appreciation of ancestry and ecological awareness.

I presented similar work in a condensed form at the Somara Shamanic Medicine Forum at Starseed Gardens in Byron Bay and at the Wild Mind and Village Continuum gatherings in Victoria.

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Somara was a gathering primarily devoted to “plant medicine” and shamanism, and was organised by some good friends of mine who invited me to attend. It was an extremely interesting conference, and I was very glad to be there. It seems like there is a growing movement worldwide attempting to reconnect with indigenous methods of consciousness-alteration, for “healing”, “self awareness”, community integration, or what have you. I think there is certainly something to all of this, given that such practices appear to have been ubiquitous in human cultures all over the world throughout history, so they are undoubtedly a part of us. But, I also think that there is a lot of potential for delusion or straight up fantasy in there as well (which is fine, it’s important to have nice stories to live by), and of course we humans seem to have a natural tendency to form cults of personality around charismatic figures, so…watch out, kids! Nonetheless it was a great gathering of incredibly interesting people, fascinating conversations and amazing research, and I got to push my agenda of getting people back into their bodies as the first step to sensing the world more properly, understanding where we come from and what we’re doing here.

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Wild Mind is a gathering of artists, therapists, philosophers, writers, dancers, teachers, activists, anthropologists, and other creative types all working on ways of reconnecting ourselves to the land in which we live. Something along the lines of Deep Ecology or Ecopsychology. It was an excellent, remarkable gathering of people, and it should be happening again in 2016, anyone interested should check out the facebook page linked to above, or the Wild Mind Institute homepage.

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The Village Continuum is somewhat similar in philosophy, but based entirely around what used to be the practical skills of living: gardening, foraging, herbalism, basketry, spinning and weaving and felting, hide tanning, leatherwork (making moccasins), woodwork (making traditional longbows and arrows), natural plant dyes, tiny house building, fire making, even mowing the lawns with a scythe. This too is a wonderful gathering, the second year it has run, taking place at Hollyburton Organic Farm in rural Victoria not far from Melbourne, which is also a hub for the local “unschooled” community. It was extremely uplifting to be around a large community of children of all ages who have only been to school for a few years or sometimes not at all, and yet who are growing up healthy, intelligent, learning to read whenever they are ready, and then going on to study science degrees at university or run their own very successful businesses. Their parents too are all exceptional, brave, switched-on loving people, building community around themselves because I guess they worked out that they really couldn’t possibly raise their kids all on their own.

Which brings me to my final topic for this 2015 review: “bushcraft” or “rewilding”. 12045625_10153220650238123_1108461130024309521_oA couple of years ago I started hanging out with a guy called Jake Cassar. Jake lives in Gosford, NSW, where he is a youth worker, activist for local wilderness and indigenous sites, and where he teaches bush tucker and survival skills (he runs the Central Coast Bush Tucker group on facebook, one of the best groups around for identification and uses of Australian plants). We’ve made it a bit of a tradition to spend new years camping together doing bush tucker stuff – two years ago I even got Ido Portal to come along. Jake watches MMA and after he saw the Irish fighter Connor Macgregor win the UFC title recently he sent me a message saying “and I saw your mate training with him on stage!” – and I basically try to catch up with Jake whenever I can. Since I’ve started putting ancestral movement ideas out in public, more and more people have been showing up in my life who have these sorts of ancestral skills, and so finally, after years of looking, my life is filling up with people who really know things that I have always wanted to know, and who are working to help others reconnect to the earth with the old traditional ways.

12045645_10153220650408123_3809451779708884072_oIn 2015, besides starting and finishing the year camping with Jake, and running three bush retreats with Craig and the gang, I’ve been hanging out with a lot of people doing different variations of this rewilding stuff. My partner Janet and I have been working as mentors with Lee Trew and Gina Chick on the amazing Bluegum Bushcraft kids’ camps,  five day camps with kids and families, hanging out in the bush exploring and playing and coming back to share stories around the fire at night. We got a visit from Rafe Kelley (of Evolve Move Play), who shared some of his own incredible ancestral movement work in Canberra and Melbourne, and went along to support both Rafe and Jake and some other friends on a “survivor movement camp” in central New South Wales. We also went up north to two workshops with Jon Young of the “Eight Shields” institute in the US, in “The Art of Mentoring: Building Nature Connected Communities” and “Bird Language”, which were totally mind blowing and full of all sorts of interesting and passionate people. Like pretty much everything I’ve mentioned here, these really deserve their own post, so hopefully I’ll get around to writing that one of these days.

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I also just finished a bachelor’s degree in Health & Rehabilitation Science, which should hopefully free up some time for me to write and film some more, although whatever free time I might have had may be taken up with the fascinating discussions taking place on the newly created Ancestral Movement Facebook Group! I have become quite jaded about academia recently, while I obviously love learning, I have found the standard of teaching at university to be a bit hit-and-miss, sometimes good but just as often not, and the environment overall to be quite stifling, more about fitting students into already existing professional boxes than about supporting them in their learning or actually encouraging them how to think critically for themselves. I’m still thinking about exciting postgraduate research in cognitive science, evolutionary biology, anthropology or ethology.

So there you go, that was 2015. It seems like we might be reaching a kind of critical mass, where people from all walks of life are becoming interested in movement, evolution, ancestry, food, connection to nature and landscape, and maybe even trying to change the way we live.

EDIT – I have just added a “donate” button to the sidebar on the top of the page. If you have found my work, writing, videos, classes or workshops valuable and would like to donate, you will be helping me with my research and helping to keep all that I do accessible to everyone. Thanks!