What’s Excess Tonus, What’s it Got to Do with Posture and Why Do I Have It???

by Vicki Robinson, Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner

Vicki Robinson,  Untitled,  oil on canvas, 2015.

Vicki Robinson, Untitled, oil on canvas, 2015.

Several years back I was working individually with a dancer who was having shoulder and back pain. My client had a very rounded upper back, a pattern that’s referred to as kyphosis. Somehow this client—I’ll call him Pete—was able to draw his shoulder blades together to improve his dance frame. Try this yourself: let yourself slump, round your back, and then draw your shoulder blades together in the back. Challenging, isn’t it? Yet it’s amazing what we can will our bodies to do. Pete was working extra hard to create this position of his shoulder blades, and he didn’t even know it. He was doing his best to have an ideal dance frame with good posture and in doing so had excess tonus in his musculoskeletal system.

I recalled my own experience as a teenager to solve this mystery. I was a very insecure, shy teenager and attempted to make myself invisible by going into a folding, or flexion, pattern, just like Pete. My back was quite rounded in my body’s attempt to retreat from the world. My gym teacher—who I really avoided like the plague—would round a corner, come up behind me and grab my shoulders. "STAND UP STRAIGHT!" she barked. My upper spine was very committed to its folded position, and so my solution to appease the teacher was to tilt my pelvis forward, referred to as an anterior tilt. This dramatically increased my low back curve, called the lordotic curve—and this created more height and the illusion that I wasn’t "slumping." I really had no way of knowing how to "straighten" my spine. Decades later I would come to understand that this is a misnomer—the human spine isn’t designed to be straight, but my curves needed to be less dramatic. For years I suffered from low back pain because my pelvis was so tilted to give me this upright posture.

It’s a challenge to change how we move in the world. Just recently I watched a yoga teacher with a dramatic movement pattern that was destined to cause problems: her knees were drawn together, and not stacking up efficiently over her feet. At 28 years old, she was free of pain. Eventually this would catch up as a problem in her knees, hip joints, feet or back. I suspect even having someone correct this would result in her only correcting her stance in the context of the class.

So what’s the solution? In each of these cases an outsider can correct the inefficiency, but more often than not we find ways around this by over-compensating in another area.

Pete first had to learn what he was doing with his spine, his pelvis, and his shoulder blades. We explored this with touch and I directed him into some small, specific movements. This was approached with a sense of curiosity, lightness and exploration. The slow pace allowed for new attention and new movement possibilities to arrive. Just like my barking gym teacher, he needed to set aside the "barking master" in his head that insisted on correct dance form. The human will to excel has to be set aside for a desire to learn and be open to new possibilities. This state of curiosity and play lives in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is where we can best learn. Every time my gym teacher barked at me, I would immediately go into a state of fight or flight in the sympathetic part of my nervous system. This environment created rapid, compulsive behavior of "fixing" my body so I could feel safe. The "fixing" wasn’t efficient, but it soon became my pattern of complying to the "correct" way of standing.

It’s been a remarkable practice as a Feldenkrais teacher to learn how to let go of "fixing." When I take a tango class, I continuously have to remind myself to bring my attention back to myself, and slowly explore the new dance lesson. Often I’ll find a Feldenkrais lesson which will guide me to better experience a dance step.

There are always going to be times of high stress, such is life. Sometimes I can go back into my spinal folding. Then I remind myself that I am simply behaving like a human, attempting to protect myself as I did as a teenager. This protective armoring, with its excess tonus, is often referred to as a protective motor pattern.

I then set aside that old familial pattern of self-criticism, bring out the self-compassion, lie on the floor and experience a lesson.