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Is All Body Tension Bad? How to Use Body Tension to Your Advantage

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

Most clients come to me with a desire to get rid of too much tension in various parts of the body, especially the shoulders, legs, arms, and neck. But often times, the very idea of relaxing and/or letting go of tension results in slumping, inactivity, collapse, and contraction in the body.

For example, maybe you start "dropping your shoulders" down to release tension, but find that soon the pain has shifted to your neck, middle, or lower back!

Or you decide to sit in a "relaxed position" and find that you have completely lost the support of the spine and are now slumping.

Here are a few Alexander Technique concepts that I like to discuss with my clients that help to show that releasing tension in the body can result in a holistic use of the self that respects the entire structure of the body, rather than a manipulation and collapse of the parts.

1. The Body Has Tensegrity!

The body is a structure that has tensegrity (a portmanteau of tension + integrity) which refers to structures that use "simple tension and compression, in a self organizing, hierarchical, load distributing, low energy consuming structure" (Steven M. Levin MD). Originally coined by R. Buckminster Fuller as an architechtural term, it has been used since the 1970s as a model for looking at the structures of the body, creating a whole new field of biotensegrity.

In their book Fascia - the tensional network of the human body, Dr. Steven M. Levin and Dr. Daniele Claude Martin describe the important positive role that tension has on the body when we look at the body (and particularly the fascia systems) as a holistic structure:

Biotensegrity model in the human body Photo Credit: Tom Flemens
Biotensegrity model in the human body Photo Credit: Tom Flemens

"The stability of a tensegrity structure is due to the equilibrium between outward pushing of the rigid elements that tense the tension network, and inward pulling of the tension continuum that compresses the rigid elements without letting them touch each other: tensegrity structures can be seen as restrained expansion. Expansion (or space) creates tension. An increase of tension in a tensegrity structure lets it resist and become stronger...

Central to this concept is the understanding that the fascia imparts a continuous tension to the system. Fascia displays the nonlinearity characteristic of all biologic tissues. In nonlinear tissues, the stress/strain relationship never reaches zero, (a characteristic of linear materials), and there is always tension inherent in the system. It gives the ‘continuous tension’, an essential component of tensegrity, that helps set the tone of the organism. There are active contractile elements in fascia { (Schleip et al 2005)} and the fascial network is intimately bound to muscle { (Passerieux et al 2007)}. Muscle also has intrinsic ‘tone’ and is never completely lax, and the entire fascial network is continually tensed, by both intrinsic tension and active contractions that can be ‘tuned’."

So truly, tension is a necessary part of the holisitic structure...but we have to learn how to reorganize the body so that tension is distributed equally, and this is where Alexander Technique is very beneficial.


2. Oppositional Forces in the Body

As seen in the structure above, oppositional forces within the body work to help us from collapsing and to keep us from giving into the force of gravity.

Within the body, which is a multi-dimensional structure, there are many elements of opposition that all work together to keep us in good working order.

Alexander's discovery of the primary control found that the head opposes the back forward and opposes the ground up from the feet. The direction of forward and up is in itself multi-dimensional. This basic relativity within the body allows for all vertebrate mammals to oppose the force of gravity without collapse.

Another oppositional force Alexander discovered within the body is that the limbs (arms and legs) oppose the torso. In other words, the direction of the limbs is always centrifugal away from the torso (outwards from the shoulder towards the hand/outwards from the hip towards the feet). This opposition of the limbs results in expansion in the back and limbs rather than contraction and collapse.


3. Redirecting Tension

When we find tension in a particular part in the body, it is always important to relate it back to the whole use of the self. So let's say you notice that your shoulder habitually locked and tight. According to Alexander principles, you can "not-do" the activity of clenching the shoulder muscles.

That inhibitive action results in a release of the shoulder. Some people may experience an opening sensation or dropping. It is very important in that moment of release to make sure that you are then redirecting the primary control.

We want to release tension in order to redirect back into the primary control by simultaneously re-issuing the directions for allowing the neck to be free, etc. In this way you are both releasing tension and re-routing it to the structures that actually use tension to support the body (the the spine, the core, the body in opposition to gravity).

Tension release then becomes a cycle of release and re-direction for expansion in the body rather than release and collapse.

When we begin to think about the body and tension in these ways, we have the tools to get rid of "bad" tension in the body while not sacrificing the tensegrity structures in the body that are necessary for optimal use and opposition to gravitational force.

Cover Photo Credit: Kenneth Snelson's “Needle Tower”

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