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Of Snakes and Men

by Joel Carbonnel(more info)

listed in bodywork, originally published in issue 29 - June 1998

Have you ever wondered how snakes move? The ease with which they achieve their limbless locomotion has puzzled many observers since the beginning of man (in this column the word embraces woman). Even the wise King Solomon was baffled by a serpent on a rock, but could not find any clue to its mysterious and tortuous gliding techniques.

Francoise Mézières, the discoverer of the `Muscular Chains' and founder of the Mézières' Method, could not help but to liken the twisting and wriggling reactions of her patients, when she was stretching them, to the snake's mode of locomotion. This twisting was provoked by the powerful muscles in the back of their bodies, trying to resist the stretching force applied to them. She wondered if the snake's locomotion could not be caused by the same kind of muscles.

The `legless' locomotion of the snake has been scientifically studied now, and the mystery of its gliding unravelled. Mézières learned from these studies, thereby corroborating her initial intuition. Having practically no ventral (front) muscles, snakes rely for their movements on their two long, multi-joint and overlapping back muscles: the transversospinalis and the longissimus thoracis. These are muscles we still have, running along our spines. So, we share the same muscles with our slithery relatives.

The two back muscles of the snake perform the same functions as our own more numerous back muscles: they postero-flex, latero-flex and rotate its long spine. On a hard surface the snake glides along with a succession of bumps and hollows, a kind of up and down bending, the equivalent of our kyphoses and lordoses. The wide scales covering the ventral surface of their body are necessary to exert pressure on the ground. But these scales are useless on a soft surface such as sand. Then the snake adopts the `sidewinding' method in which the body is twisted. The dynamic spiral torsion used by snakes as a mode of progression is the same that becomes frozen in what is called scoliosis in humans.

In the beginning were back muscles, and only later did the front ones develop – in the vertebrate family, the muscles in the back half of the body have always been favoured by evolution. The oldest muscles, in evolutionary terms, are the strongest ones. This explains why, in our bodies, the muscles in the front are predisposed to play the role of the underdog. In other words, this is why flabby tummies, flaccid thighs and double chins abound.

This natural muscle imbalance between the back and the front of the body exists because evolution is, rather conservative, gradually adding new structures to those already existing. As a result we still share anatomical characteristics with many of our vertebrate ancestors. If we leave the snakes and climb further up the evolutionary scale, we see with the saurians (lizards, crocodiles and so on) the appearance of the scapular and pelvic girdles with their associated limbs, and the diaphragm, psoas and abdominal muscles.

The saurians are a clever bunch of animals that invented the legs we now take so much for granted. It is a good thing though that we perfected these limbs, because compared with our more recent acquisitions, they are rather primitive. Their muscles can rotate them inward. Practically speaking this means that a saurian cannot walk backward. Having failed to invent the reverse gear, they have to turn back when they come across an obstacle.

From snakes we have inherited the predominance and superiority (in terms of strength, tone, and readiness to work) of the posterior musculature; from saurians, the stronger internal rotators of the limbs compared with the relatively weaker external rotators. It appears therefore that Nature's tailor has preprogrammed a muscular costume for us which has the unfortunate tendency to shrink at the back and to crumple at the front, when we wear it carelessly. It is as if the back half of our musculature behaves like a dictator, stealing the strength from the front of the body.

The muscular imbalance I am describing is a natural, normal one. I do not buy the current idea that evolution has made a botch of Man, and that consequently, we have to suffer "the scars of evolution" (to use the title of a recent book). Even with our muscular imbalance we are perfectly well adapted to the upright posture. Problems occur when, through misuse (in the widest sense of the term), we transform this normal imbalance into an abnormal, harmful one. The `ancient' muscles start to behave tyrannically and always overpower the weaklings in the front. When you try directly to strengthen them you always end up with more tightening and shortening in the back. In a condition of misuse and misshape there is a kind of muscular tug-of-war in our bodies, where the winner is always the muscle-team in the back.

There is a front and back Man. The `back Man' is generally misunderstood. Out of sight, out of mind. It is incredible that the muscles covering the back part of the body have been found guilty of weakness for so long. As a result, many bodyworkers of various schools are still labouring under the delusion that the back muscles must be strengthened and toned, when the exact opposite is the solution.

Our culture finds weakness everywhere and is obsessed with strengthening and toning up these muscles. The truth is that only few muscles are in need of strengthening. All the others are suffering from hypertonicity, and this means that they are too strong, too short and too toned for their own (and our own) good.

Next time you meet a snake don't be afraid. Remember that you are from the same family and that you can learn from them.

Stop dithering and start slithering!


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About Joel Carbonnel

Joel Carbonnel is unique in combining the disciplines of the Alexander Technique (STAT), the Mezieres Methode (AME), Morphopsychology (SFM), and Natural Hygiene (ISI). From this synthesis he has developed Orthomorphics which is centered around the close relationship of Use, Form and Function. He practises in London and Haywards Heath, and can be contacted on Tel: 020-8747 8583;


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