The Elegance of Movement Intelligence
With a nod to Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind we define Movement Intelligence [MI] as our innate capacity to recognize and utilize the sweet spots of optimal coordination, fine-tuning the process that transforms intention into action. MI incorporates conventional kinesthetic concepts of flexibility, balance, alignment and strength, as well as integration and endurance, but it is something more: it recognizes the human organism’s ability to organize itself “organically” — elegantly and in its entirety, with spontaneously coordinated harmony — for optimal efficiency, maximal efficacy, and pleasurable, sustainable living.
MI's hallmark is an intrinsic sense of effortlessness that comes from having and heeding well-calibrated sensory-motor feedback. In line with the latest research on neuroplastcity, MI recognizes that overcoming physical limitations and dysfunctions is as much a matter of working with the “software” of the brain as with the “hardware” of the body.
Just as infants develop their movement vocabularies while learning to make their way from rolling to creeping to crawling, so too can “grown-ups” continue to expand the range and hone the quality of their adult somatic expression, intelligently cultivating and refining their movement repertoire throughout their lives. With an emphasis on not just surviving, but thriving, our infinite ability to improve in this domain — to mature our “movement I.Q.” — is a lifelong endeavor. It embraces aesthetic as well as athletic pursuits, from “pre-hab” to re-hab, and provides keys to healthy aging and personal fulfillment.
Axis for Orientation, Wave for Locomotion
As an innovative approach to personal ergonomics, MI can take on novel appearances, such as spiraling trajectories which wind along a moving axis, e.g., when weightlifting. However, our primary model for optimal locomotion is derived from the centuries-old Water Carrier’s Walk — still commonly seen in indigenous cultures throughout the world.
Removed from contact with nature by society’s sedentary habits, and curtailed in our walking and running on the earth’s irregular yet supportive surfaces, we often overlook the healthful benefits of full-bodied springy and spiralic movement, whose absence can be seen as the source of many modern maladies, and whose (re)adoption — at any age — can contribute to their cure.
In the context of countering osteoporosis, specific Movement Intelligence strategies entail:
- Heightening intrinsic [“slow-twitch”] extensor tone to improve skeletal alignment, leveraging Kohnstamm’s Phenomenon to elicit these postural shifts spontaneously
- Protecting vulnerable joints in order to reliably withstand the impact of recurrent bone-building vibrations and pulsations
- Gently pushing and pulling on bones [springy compression and distraction] to promote resilient sturdiness and elasticity
- Obviating bone fractures by improving balance [in order to prevent falls] as well as by learning to fall intelligently — spiraling to the ground safely and fearlessly
Some General Principles* of Movement Intelligence include:
Intelligent movement is “reality based” and “gravity adjusted,” i.e., appropriate to the task at hand, with a “Goldilocks” investment of necessary and sufficient energy — not too much effort, not too little. Extraneous tension and motion is ideally eliminated (e.g., unnecessarily stiffening the chest’s nearly 100 articulations) and the resulting full-bodied action is neither forced nor hurried; it follows a trajectory of least resistance without invoking or exhibiting any interfering intentions.
The less excess effort involved, the more you can feel and refine your actions [c.f. Weber-Fechner Law]. Reductions in excessive background force boost the “signal-to-noise” ratio, allowing you to make increasingly subtle distinctions and differentiations. Above all, avoid extremes (everything in moderation); it suffices to have only a modicum of flexibility, provided it is in all directions. If this sounds a little complex, simply follow your innate compass to economic movement: pleasure!
Best movement practices create more space within the body, lengthening the spine’s span by minimizing its curves and truing it to a plumb line perpendicular to the surface of the earth. When a balanced, horizontally “hanging” pelvis efficiently cantilevers a column of vertically streamlined vertebrae, breath is unobstructed, turning economical, and antigravity challenges — like getting up out of a chair, climbing stairs, and jumping — all feel effortless. Intelligent movers orient themselves about an axis, and navigate with reference to it: around it and along it. [On his toes, a matador literally turns himself into a human “spin-dle” — as do martial arts practitioners of Aikido and Capoeira.]
As you better true your axis to gravity the quality of your movement becomes lighter, freer, and easier — a direct result of conserving your angular momentum and decreasing your moment of inertia. The power of movement is such that it reinforces the posture which carries it out, so rather than getting caught in a degenerative vicious cycle of habitual downward deterioration and self-destruction, better to be on an upwardly mobile path — a virtuous spiral of continual improvement of poise and skill, in ever-refining, asymptotic approximations of unattainable perfection. In this direction, one clue is to maintain an easeful span in the nape of your neck; along with the Achilles tendons, the nuchal ligament is “carefully taut.”
Aligned bones allow you to reclaim your innate strength and power in a sustainable manner. They function to transmit force through your limbs, all the way up from the ground through your skeletal axis to the top of your skull — evident when “heading” a soccer ball, or transporting a bucket of water, but also essential in the everyday carriage of your head atop your neck. When bones are not well-aligned, the ascending ground reaction force (GRF) bifurcates and is damped as muscles compensate for misdirected vectors; an uneven distribution of load also creates shearing stresses in the joints that eventually erode their intra-articular cartilaginous surfaces.
Rather than holding rigidly still, stabilizing yourself in gravity paradoxically requires continuous adjustment, facilitated by suppleness at every joint, and thus entails subtle perpetual postural sway. Buoyed by righting reflexes, you remain unbraced and unbiased even at the peak of this physically heightened state — ready to move in any direction in an instant. As you restore your potential energy and home in on an elevated sense of tranquil equilibrium and tensegral balance, you may experience a sense of relaxed alertness along with a serene feeling of dignity, confidence, and calm — like walking a tightrope, or riding a bicycle, horse, or unicycle. Maintaining an unperturbed equanimity, the French say: “Je m’en balance.”
Rather than repeatedly falling and catching oneself, as some would have it, we see intelligent movement as akin to a well-inflated rolling ball: a zero-sum game where upper and lower spines counter each other, leaving your head afloat in the eye of the storm; you are in balance at every instant — ready to slow, stop, reverse, or change speed or direction without any bumpiness, jerkiness, hesitancy or preliminary preparation. While in motion, noiselessly transferring weight to smoothly translate your body through space, your movable parts all continuously counterbalance — maintaining both your uprightness, and the uninterrupted rhythm of your respiration. (For example, when taking a step from standstill your hip withdraws backward, recoiling to counter a forward-lifted leg, leaving you in perfect balance, your breathing unaffected.)
Flow operates at any speed, but moving slowly is initially your best test, and your best teacher. A hallmark of continuous flow is spontaneous, autonomically paced breathing: unfettered, omni-dimensional and omni-directional, and, at the highest level of differentiation, informed by — but independent from — the rhythm of your activity. The trademark human ability to maintain a respiration rate independent from activity contrasts with four-limbed animals whose spines are oriented perpendicular to gravity, and whose inhales and exhales during locomotion are timed with the fore-and-aft sloshing of their viscera, especially when running — where, typically, foreleg support is accompanied by an expanding thorax.
How does it feel to walk with the weight of your head centered over your back heel, rather than over your front one?
The integrated physical body is a sophisticated somatic system in which each part reflects the whole; no local change is possible without affecting the entire network. For example, repositioning the head redistributes weight in the feet, and vice versa. This reciprocal relationship also carries over to other physiological systems, e.g., respiration, circulation, and digestion. Movement is thus our most visible indicator of systemic deterioration, and also provides the most accessible entry point for early intervention [even Alzheimer’s].
In a well-functioning body there is an even distribution of tonus, of weight, of effort, of pressure; there is no over-activation or over-involvement of any particular part — which, if present, signals the need for a rebalancing or readjustment of the entire system as a whole, and is not a call to isolate and over-focus on an already overworked symptomatic area. When you reach down to pick something up from the ground, to what degree(s) do you bend your knees, fold your hips, and angle your ankles?
Integration entails proportional skeletal involvement, i.e., the participation of all joints in every activity, with unfelt [seemingly “effortless”] effort distributed evenly among them. With the whole body involved — including our internal network of sphincter muscles, supported by the pelvic floor — each part plays its role in contributing to our overall intention, without any joint getting unduly bent out of shape. Involvement of our lower limbs — the hips, knees, ankles and all ten toes — manifests as a springiness which can be felt to reverberate freely, echoing throughout the body as do the ripples of our respiration. Performed in moderation, avoiding extremes, our actions reflect our intentions and are carried out without triggering habitual [protective, yet conflicting] internal interference, and without generating incongruent, self-contradictory external behavior.
In healthily integrated locomotion there is an ongoing organic spiraling of one side of the body over the other in an overlapping double-helix that revolves in alternation around the hip-joints. A three-dimensional “corkscrew” trajectory also naturally occurs in all four limbs: internal rotation when extending away from the body’s central core; external rotation when withdrawing towards it. This helical winding and unwinding shapes our bones, which in turn influence the way our movements spiral through space — whether we yield, push [“crouch & spring”], reach, grasp or pull. A preparatory frictional instant of “slippage/grippage” [traction] occurs just before ground reaction force (GRF) kicks in, and intensifies into an equal and opposite reaction. The power of the spiral is evident in slow, mindful movement (“brushing” the air 3~10 inches per second, like Tai Chi) as well as in more rapid running.
With the head directed off the top of the spine, our peripheral limbs may be felt to lead in slow gentle motion; our central core leads in faster full-bodied activity [where the torquing torsion of our torso twists around the hip joint hubs, and is transmitted centrifugally — with a whip-like motion — to the tips of our fingers and toes]. Either paced dynamic is enhanced in quality through a coordinated eccentric lengthening of antagonist muscles, whose passive release accompanies the activation of the agonists, e.g., extensors extend when (or even slightly before) flexors flex, in an elaborate pulley-like mechanism. Integrated full-bodied movement can be sensed as occurring about the body’s center of gravity, an ever-shifting point which circulates within the hub of the pelvic basin, in front of the sacrum (the base of the spine, and “handle of the whip”).
With reference to our orientation in the immediate environment, we can begin moving with a push or reach/pull from either end of the spine, or from our limbs — either singly, or in pairs [homologously, homolaterally or contralaterally]. Overseen and led by the head and eyes, initiations that include rotational “topspin” easily involve our entire selves. This transverse, rotary “dial” style of initiation makes our movement more three-dimensional; it also conserves energy, and preserves upright balance. All these chains of events can be felt as involving — if not originating from — our core psoas/sacrum-sternum connection, whose outward spiraling is modulated, if not initiated, by our centrally located [“filet mignon”] ilio-psoas and internal & external oblique muscles, often in accord with our breath.
With attention to subtlety, an inkling of full-bodied locomotion may be sensed to begin at our deepest core, the pelvic floor — the base station for our internal network of sphincter muscles. The spark of movement ignition there harkens back to, and echoes, the propulsive strategies of our earliest forebears: primeval single-celled and multicellular organisms. It is not unlike a coxswain's call to coordinate all a rowboat's oarsmen (just much quieter).
There are three kinds of waves in nature: transverse, longitudinal, and torsional. When walking forward there is an organic fluctuation of weight, fore and aft, that originates in our center and that can be sensed in the sole of our stepping foot. The definition of “progress” may figuratively be “two paces forward, one pace back” — when walking such directional shifts in pressure occur literally within the span of a single step, as it rhythmically traces partial outlines along an infinitely looping sideways figure-eight. If unblocked, the resulting undulation ripples and ricochets upward, through the chest, and its serpentine echo can be felt to reverberate as high as our spine’s topmost vertebrae.
This sinuous [transverse wave] way of moving harkens back to the caterpillar and fish, but can be found throughout the entire vertebrate kingdom of quadrupeds and bipeds — both sagittally and laterally. And while you walk, if you let your upper arms rotate, and shoulders slightly swing along with your arms — alternately approaching (retracting) and retreating from your mid-/upper-back’s dorsal vertebrae, as energy flows out through your fingertips — you may also feel alternating spiralic [torsional] waves up from your heels and ankles that twist you onto your toes; these spirals also incorporate a [longitudinal] movement up and down along your axis: sprightly springiness on both ends — from tensile pull (coming at the height of our extension) above, and from compression (that bounces us back up from the depth of our yielding into the ground) below. Whichever wave is observed, central activity carries along all four limbs, which amplify its subtle visceral shifts into visible vibrant swings.
This infinitely looping Möebius strip (lemniscate) hints — in an exaggerated way — at the subtle trajectory of the three-dimensional figure-eight traversed by our center of gravity, embracing all three waves, while we walk.
Bones develop through rhythmic pulsations, as a secondary bonus of moving as nature meant: in a dynamic springy fashion, with alternating pressures of body weight thrust down into the ground that then rebound upward with streaming counterpressures whose energetic force lifts the body, and propels it forward. Rhythmic vibrations are the lifeblood of bone building, promoting circulation of cleansing and replenishing fluids, e.g., venous return, as well as a push-and-pull on the bones — whose cyclic compression and tension tugs on their tissues, prompting growth at the cellular level that renders them both sturdy and resilient.
Body-based rhythms useful to explore are those of the breath; the asymmetric, syncopated, iambic (one-two punch) “lub-dub” of the heartbeat; as well as walking, running, hopping, skipping, and jumping . . . All unhurried, and paused at inflection points to enhance awareness and promote choice. Repetition is necessary, but it is important not to carry bone-building activities to the point of exhaustion. Better is to interpose cycles of rest and recuperation, so that sufficient motivation remains for future practice. Without daily reinforcement of bone-strengthening processes atrophy tends to set in [c.f. Wolff’s Law].
Our imagination has the power to influence muscular tone and postural alignment, and to make changes in our self-image and our quality of movement. For example: recalling the touch of soft textures like velvet or silk; picturing melting ice cream or honey; pretending that you are walking on concrete, glass, or grass; or feeling you are falling into piles of leaves, feathers, or felt. Effective kinesthetic visualizations use specific bodily-based locations and directions, and are always in motion; without invoking any voluntary movement you conjure up an image, enter into it, and become one with it. In so doing you may find yourself expanding in all directions into your surrounding space.
When you attend to the world with half-open “soft eyes” — sensing the space you are in, and the space within you — you may better notice the three-dimensional interrelationships in, around, and between objects, others, and yourself. This shortcut to transpersonal presence through attending simultaneously to your somatic self and your peripheral vision — a “double-arrow” Gestalt of attention — can evoke a transcendent state: a relaxed-yet-alert awareness (“a-where-ness”) of, and blending with, your surroundings. Rather than employing narrowly-focused concentration, you are now/here yet nowhere in particular, merged with and absorbed into your immediate environment, in a receptive and regenerative mode which transparently fosters instinctually integrated coordination.
As Movement Intelligence unfolds in us, our growing mastery of weight, space, time, and flow gradually comes to embody a self-directed physiology of physically enlightened living. With our personal biomechanics better calibrated, we become refined instruments of somatic sensitivity and expression, and can begin to claim our birthright to elastically sculpt time and space, playfully improvising as artists of life. Phrasing our movement with pregnant pauses . . . and other appropriate punctuation, we are ever engaged in the process of living — the journey, not the destination — yet our perpetual earthly dance is attuned to the music of the spheres; we are both in the world and of it, and as much as an inch or two taller from the ground. The presence and vitality we sense is the basis for an internally felt “Biological Optimism” as well as a poised, potent, externally recognizable self-directed body language of mastery and leadership.
Lasting neuromuscular repatterning best takes place on life’s sidelines, under “greenhouse conditions” provided by a safe learning environment, where our organism is given a chance to mindfully explore and map out movement variations [permutations & combinations] — particularly previously unused options (diplomatically allowing yourself to be “sloppy” and make deliberate “mistakes”) — conducted in slow motion, with open, non-judgmental awareness. A pleasurable, comfortable quality imprints upon our consciousness the feasibility and desirability of more optimally engaged patterns.
Back out on life’s playing field, we trust our “procedural” memory’s autonomic moving centers [cerebellum, somatosensory cortex, etc.] — enriched with these newly acquired patterns [reinforced by myelination] and continually updated with moment-to-moment real-world feedback — to spontaneously coordinate appropriately integrated responses, autonomously making course corrections, as necessary, to accurately, pleasurably and powerfully leverage the ever-shifting “sweet spots” that actualize our intentions.
Your ever faithful — if initially elusive — touchstone and guide is “effortless effort” (the Chinese “wei-wu-wei”). Toward this end, don’t do the right thing (lest you turn into a human “doing” rather than being a human being); this kind of “doing” tends toward exaggeration. Instead, allow the right thing to do itself. How? You might knowingly exaggerate; then allow and observe. Yet another effective — if paradoxical — strategy is to first intentionally block / constrain your body’s full participation in a particular movement (i.e., doing the “wrong” thing), thereby bringing to awareness areas whose involvement your habits may already have been inhibiting — albeit unintentionally. Proceed slowly and methodically, segment by segment. Then all you need do is let go, giving the reins of coordination over to your procedural memory’s freshly awakened and stimulated movement center. Be prepared to surprise yourself with some amazing grace!
There is a non-trivial distinction between getting the feel for something, and talking about it. Somatic learning — the reprogramming of the brain and the repatterning of the neuromuscular system — requires direct experience, not verbal description. With skillful means, avoid invoking obedience to external authority, or imitating idols or ideals; instead of imposing, value and evoke uniqueness, self-reliance, and autonomy. Guide your students’ explorations with hints of what to pay attention to, notice, and listen for, as they make their own way and find out what is true for them. Without directly teaching, set up conditions for learning; if at all, give explanations only after an experience.
Remember that words, at best, can only report experience; they may motivate us beforehand, and remind us later — but the map is not the territory, the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon! So don’t explain it, be it; serve as a serene model for others’ mirror neurons. Show a restraint that honors the learning process, allowing your students the dignity to make and own their own discoveries. (You can point out the door, but you cannot go through it for them!) First learn to see yourself, then learn to see others; finally help others to see themselves. Ignite their imagination. Cultivate a climate of curiosity, not authority, in which students sense that there are secrets hidden that they must discover for themselves; find ways to convey insights so that others may achieve their own. Rather than providing answers, inspire people to live — and love — the questions.
In short, your ever-present aim as a teacher is to cultivate self-reliance: to have your students, by themselves, and at their own pace, refine and mature their innate, autonomous, spontaneous, self-regulating, self-correcting feedback mechanisms. This is the most intelligent approach to developing Movement Intelligence (others’ as well as your own).
Artfully parking verbally-based cognitive processes “offline” (i.e., preoccupying them with a task) can help create space to experientially solve the movement riddles you pose, granting students full ownership of solutions, and rendering their learning more potent and enduring. We may find ways to occupy conscious working memory (e.g., with a song) and foster an abiding state of nonreactive awareness, in which less-conscious procedural memory is more easily updated. As FMI Founder Ruthy Alon has observed, succinctly summarizing this process of playful exploration — which opens up endless pathways for incremental improvement — “Health is search.”
* Learning to embody these principles in your everyday activities and practices — getting them “in your bones” — is the essence of Movement Intelligence conveyed by Bones for Life® and its sibling MI programs