If we look at the origins of our movement as humans, it seems that our entire developmental journey is a quest to navigate the ever-present pull of gravity.
We begin lying around a bit helplessly. As we begin to engage more and more with our environment, looking around and reaching through space, we rock, roll, creep, and crawl. Through some miracle of self-organization we learn to stand on two legs and walk about.
Many folks in the somatic community look at this as the pinnacle of our motor development, but of course we know that our capacities are far more marvelous than that. Somehow we learn to run, leap, take to the trees, and interact with the world in ever more complex ways.
And at the root of it is our relationship to gravity. It's the foundation of our physical development (and as we'll see, our social growth too). At this point it's important to clarify that we're never overcoming gravity. We're learning how to navigate it more and more effectively.
Your Body On Gravity
There are some fundamental physical truths that make more sense out of this relationship between the body and gravity.
When we think about what makes up a body, we often fall back to the neuromusculoskeletal model. The nervous system organizes our movement via coordinated contractions of the muscles. The muscles in turn move our skeletal structure through space. The skeletal structure is there to give us clarity of form and act as a compressive foundation, resisting the stress of gravity. The bones are a clever arrangement of mechanical levers held in relative alignment by a web of tension. This complex interaction of tension and compression is called tensegrity.
Here's the really interesting thing: your body doesn't care about any of that. What it cares about is accomplishing tasks (orienting, acquiring food/water/shelter/mate) within complex environments subject to gravity. So this neuromusculoskeletal organization occurs beneath the level of conscious processing. Barring specific ailments you probably don't have to think about how you walk these days. Or how you balance when standing. Or even how you sit upright.
See, your relationship to gravity is just like any other: if you have to constantly think about it for fear of it falling apart, it’s not healthy.
As you can imagine there are many different ways to interact with gravity. I find the work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen particularly useful to understand these relationships because her language is so meaningful. We generally fall into one of three categories:
At the risk of painting with broad strokes we can use three postural archetypes to visualize these different relationships. As you read each description I recommend "trying on" each posture to get a visceral sense of it.
Imagine someone with the weight of the world on their shoulders. They have a sunken chest, and seem to be sinking into themselves. You can tell that gravity is pulling them further and further downward. It's as if they have no internal sense of support.
Contrast that way of being with somebody who has something to prove. They puff their chest up and try to look bigger than they are. It's like they don't think they're good enough as they are. They're hoisting themselves up, and it seems like they just can't relax into themselves.
Now imagine somebody with a gentle confidence. They're rooted in their own selves, effortlessly centered. They have nothing to prove and nothing to hide.
Now it may seem like we took a strange turn. How did we get to talking about emotional states? If you tried out each posture, you can likely sense how different they feel and how you feel as a result. And you of course know people who fit within each of those broad categories.
So why do we have such a hard time linking the physical to the social and emotional? It's a question I continue to grapple with as I develop this ecosomatic framework.
The unavoidable truth is this: the ability to yield into our supports is a sign of maturity. Whether those supports are gravitational or social, we need to be able to give ourselves up to them if we want to fully engage with life and the world around us.
Now for most folks it's easier to address the physical practice as a bridge to the "whole-life practice". With that in mind we can fine tune our physical relationship to gravity to begin improving our ease and alignment. As we do, we may notice shifts elsewhere in life as well.
Start with these gravitational awareness drills:
- Begin in a standing position. Notice where in your feet you feel your weight. Does one side carry more weight than the other?
- Tune in to your sense of verticality. Do feel a sense of connection from feet to head?
- See if you can pinpoint where your center of gravity lies in standing.
And after you check in with gravity you can explore this yielding concept further:
- Imagine your center of gravity melting down through your feet into the ground, rooting you more into the earth.
- Let yourself find a sense of upward levity as if a string attached to the topmost part of the breastbone were gently guiding you up. This will naturally help you maintain buoyancy and length in the spine.
- Imagine the shoulders and arms growing heavy and hanging from the sternum. In a skeletal sense they do just that.
- Allow the jaw bone to sink into gravity, as if it could hang from the skull. We often carry excess tension here which ripples throughout us.
As you practice these visualizations tune in to what else you notice about yourself. Do you feel taller? Do you feel more centered and more confident? As you open to new ways of organizing your body, you may open to new ways of being as well.