Add as bookmark

Born to Walk: Myofascial Efficiency and the Body in Movement

by James Earls

listed in bodywork

[Image: Born to Walk: Myofascial Efficiency and the Body in Movement]

In his delightful  Théorie de la Démarche (Theory of Gait), the French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac wrote:  “Is it not truly extraordinary to see that, ever since  Man has walked, he has never  asked himself why he walks, how he walks, if he walks, if he can walk better, what he is doing while walking, if there could not be a way of imposing a means of changing and analysing one’s gait.”

James Earls is a man who has asked himself how we walk and how we could walk better, and has put his thoughts about the subject in a comprehensive book entitled  Born to Walk, Myofascial Efficiency and the Body in Movement. Some time ago I read with pleasure Born to Run but since one must know how to walk before one can run I thought it would be a good idea to read James Earls’ book which I did with great interest.

James Earls, a writer, lecturer and bodywork practitioner specializing in myofascial release and structural integration is certainly well qualified to write such a book. His effort, abundantly and beautifully illustrated by Amanda Williams, has now been published by Lotus Publishing and North Atlantic Books. The book presents a painstaking description of the act of walking. It takes you step by step (no pun intended) into the various phases of walking or, in James Earls’ words, into the sequence of “essential events” which characterises the human gait.

In Chapter 1, James Earls, with some poetic license, introduces us to what he calls the “walking system”. He warns us that his main focus will be on the myofascial elements of this ‘system’ but he shows a bias for fascias. Later in the same chapter, the author says that: “The myofascial tissues are not always consciously directed (as most anatomy books say they are) but are often reactive in behaviour.” This is hardly news since the conscious brain deals with movement, not with individual muscles. It is a good thing too because if we had to be aware of and consciously direct every single muscle required for the act of walking we would never be able to put one foot in front of the other.

In a section of Chapter 1 called “Our Relationship With Gravity”, Earls says that gravity is both our friend and our enemy and mentions the strains that gravity causes when body segments are imbalanced. This is a common but mistaken idea because gravity is not the cause of our strains and our misaligned bodies. The fault is not outside but inside us: the hyper-tonicity of what F. Mézières called “Muscular Chains”.

The author uses comparative anatomy and evolution to support his views. For example, still in Chapter 1, James Earls says that if our primate cousins such as chimpanzees and gorillas have to use a variation of the bent hip/bent knee posture for movement, it is not due to limitations in length of the hip flexors but is caused rather by a limitation in the lumbar spine which does not allow for enough extension. First of all, for clarity’s sake, I would replace the word “extension” with “postero-flexion”. Secondly, I would argue that the psoas muscle is indeed too short and this is why humans have had to develop a lumbar lordosis to compensate for this lack of length in the upright posture. Furthermore, since our upright stance is relatively recent, the psoas muscle is often the cause of a lot of lower back problems due to its still imperfect adaptation to an upright posture. Instead of concentrating on the role of the psoas as a stabilizer of the lower spinal segments, it would be more beneficial to study its pathogenic effect on the lower back and pelvis.

The whole book tries to merge orthodox gait and movement theory with an alternative one. From the very outset we are introduced in Chapter 1 to this alternative approach with the Anatomy Trains of Thomas Myers, a concept which, Earls tells us, was modelled on the work done by anatomists such as Raymond Dart, Vleeming and Busquet. Apart from the fact that Busquet is not an anatomist, it is curious that the work of Francoise Mézières, the originator of the revolutionary concept of “Muscular Chains” in 1947, is conspicuous by its absence.  Earls and Myers don’t know how much they are missing! Without realizing it, they come close to discovering the existence of Muscular Chains when, in the section “The Skeletal Chain” of Chapter 2, James Earls writes: “When the knee is extended, the tissue of the gastrocnemius and the hamstrings will interact with one another.”

I have to admit that I have a problem with the hypothetical myofascial links. For a start, fascias do not contain any actin and myosin, and therefore cannot contract - they can only adapt to and follow the changes in the muscles which are the motor of our movements and distortions. Furthermore, since, as Myers says in his book Anatomy Trains, “A tug in the fascial net is communicated across the entire fascial net like a snag in a sweater, or a pull in the corner of an empty woven hammock”, then the ‘creation’ of imaginary lines knows no bound. Myers recognizes this himself when he invites his readers to construct additional trains or lines. Earls has done just that in his book when he disagrees with some of Myers’ lines and proposes adapted ones.

As an example of these myofascial links, James Earls gives in Chapter 1 an exercise which involves what Myers calls the “Superficial Front Arm Line” (SFAL).  James Earls writes that Thomas Myers “Showed how, when the fascial tissue is stretched over joints, it can transfer force across the joint from one myofascial unit to another.” But there is no need of a line of fascial tissue to explain the transferred force and the stretch felt during the exercise given by James Earls. It is simply caused by the fact that in the arm runs a Muscular Chain (the “Brachial Chain” of Mézières) running from the shoulder to the tip of the palmar side of the fingers and in which all the muscles are flexors and pronators, apart from the short head of the biceps which is supinator. And since Muscular Chains  always end up with hypertonicity, the dependent arm, in the standing position, is always a bit flexed and pronated. The transferred force is due to the fact that most muscles in a Muscular Chain are polyarticular and overlap like tiles on roof. Muscles which are contiguous or which are “myofascially continuous” cannot transfer muscle tone as do muscles within a Muscular Chain.

Chapter 2 is titled “The Mechanical Chain” and contains a part called “The Skeletal Chain” in which the Anatomy Trains appear again but I must confess that I was left somewhat confused by the meaning of these terms.

The subsequent five chapters are devoted to the different ‘trains’ or ‘lines’ of Myers, with some adapted by Earls, and their hypothetical relationship and role in the act of walking. James Earls is well aware of this hypothetical nature of these links as revealed by his liberal use of the verb ‘may’: I have counted about 13 usages of the word ‘may’ in Chapter 6, and 3 in Chapter 7.

Chapter 8, the final one, is entitled Spring Walker and contains 9 illustrations as a resumé of what is supposed to happen to the various hypothetical  myo-fascial ‘lines’ during walking. This chapter ends with a short section on footwear which gives a good description of the ideal shoe.

As is usual nowadays  in books about physical therapy or exercise, the word ‘core’ crops up in several times with various and vague meanings.  It is unfortunate that “core” is such a trendy word and that most authors appear unable to resist using it because it encapsulates a system of physical rehabilitation which focuses on strengthening the stabilizing muscles of the lower back and abdominal region and which, according to E Lederman and other experts, could damage the spine.

As a fan of head-carrying, I was happy to see, mentioned in chapter 1, the studies from McArdle and Maloiy et al about the walking of some African women who carry heavy loads on their heads. The researchers were amazed to discover that these women could carry up to 20 percent of their own weight with no increase in energy expenditure; in other words without using more oxygen and burning more calories than when they carry nothing at all. I have some years ago read about these feats from the studies of two other researchers, NC Heglund and GA Cavagna.

The explanation given for these surprising findings does not seem to be related to elastic energy as proposes James Earls but has to do with the fact that we walk like an inverted pendulum. A normal pendulum transforms kinetic energy of motion into gravitational potential energy and back. In a good pendulum, the conversion is almost 100 percent.  The inverted pendulum of our walking is only 65 percent of a perfect pendulum, so that 35 percent of the energy for each of our steps must come afresh from our calories. During walking, there is a point when we move through the top of one stride and then start to fall into the next stride. At this crucial stage, we pause for a very short time and lose potential energy. The Kenyan women in the study showed that they were able, without exhibiting any visible change in their gait, to shorten and even eliminate this pause enabling them to  convert more of their potential energy into forward motion rather than muscle work. Their conversion rate rises from 65 percent to as much as 80 percent - they become more efficient inverted pendulums than the common mortal but only when they carry a load on their heads.

I think these studies are very important and could be exploited as an important step to learning how to improve the human gait. They support, in my opinion, one of the essential aspect of the Alexander Technique known as the “Primary Control” which is a specific relationship between the head, neck and back. It’s as if the load on the head of these women were acting like a very skilled Alexander teacher.

Even more intriguing is the fact that women who carry loads supported by a strap looped across their foreheads which requires a forward-leaning posture achieve the same result. This gives the lie to the assertion that “our alignment with gravity...has also given us the ability to use forward movement to load the fascial continuities with elastic energy.”

In chapter 6, James Earls says rightly that our “...many different moods... are reflected in our body use.” He adds that if we were “ walk with a sense of depression or sadness...that internal deflation would rob something from the spring in your step.” I would add that studies done at the Hopital de la Salpétrière, Paris, have shown that people suffering from clinical depression see their speed and stride decreased on average by about 20 percent.

For Honoré de Balzac and the French ethnologist Marcel Mauss, everyone has his/her own style of walking. Even the Kenyan women, who do not know how they become better up-side-down pendulums when walking while carrying heavy loads on their heads, have all an individual style of walking. I don’t particularly want to spoil the fun of the study of walking but there is a grim aspect of our unique style of walking. The serial killer Ted Bundy said that he could recognize a ‘good’ victim just from the way she walked. An experiment has shown that psychopaths are especially ‘gifted’ in detecting weakness from the way people walk.

To distract us from these sordid thoughts I will put forward an argument: it seems to me that James Earls studies walking mainly from feet to head. Thus he writes that: “The medial rotation of the tibia will draw the femur into a medial rotation as well, and the femur’s rotation - along with the reach of the step - will cause the pelvis to rotate in the same direction.” This is, in part, because he erroneously sees gravity as an enemy (“...the strains that gravity causes.”).  I would argue that the poise of the head is an essential element of gait and that the distortions in our lower limb (and the rest of the body) depend upon the hypertonicity of our Muscular Chains, starting from the head. Hence, due to retraction of the posterior Muscular chain, the femur always rotates inward which forces the lower leg to compensate and which, in turn, will give rise to flat or hollow feet with all sorts of toe deformations. Likewise, a pseudo-short leg is in fact a leg which is ‘lifted’ from the pelvis, shoulder or head. All of these distortions will obviously interfere with normal walking.

All in all, Born To Walk is of broad content and is certain to keep you busy reading for days as it is very detailed and, at times, bold in some of the theories which it offers. I am sure many curious and adventurous body-workers will find the Anatomy Trains concept exciting but I personally cannot see how they can be exploited for therapeutic procedures. This book is mainly about theory, not practice. The only pieces of practical advice you’ll find are about stretching, strengthening (unfortunately) or tissue manipulation, the latter of which would have to be done again and again since it does not tackle the primary cause of our distortions – the hyper-tonicity of our Muscular Chains.

Further Information

Available from Lotus Publishing and Amazon

Joel Carbonnel
Lotus Publishing
978 1 905367 47 4

top of the page