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Reading and Misreading the Body (part 2)

by Allan Rudolf(more info)

listed in bodywork, originally published in issue 26 - March 1998

In my previous column I suggested there are too many pitfalls (at least for me) to make informed judgements about a client's psychological condition or spiritual state from their physical structure and I also pointed out that, in all likelihood, this type of body-reading will often lead to mistaken interpretations.

However, there is another type of body-reading which I find extremely useful. The purpose of this other way of looking at the body is not to reach conclusions about the non-physical states of the client but to see, feel and analyse the patterns of holding and compensations; it is a way of organising and noticing the key patterns that have developed. There is little room for guess-work. This type of body-reading is about discovering the salient features of the body.

I call a particular model of this form of body-reading that I often use as Red Light – Green Light. Red Light refers to the light which tells pedestrians and automobiles to stop and Green Light refers to the light which means "Go". This model is a variant and generalisation of one developed by Thomas Hanna in his insightful book Somatics (Addison-Wesley, 1988). Thomas Hanna was a leading figure in the field of somatics and was a student of Dr Moshe Feldenkrais. The Red Light – Green Light model he developed was based on the work of Feldenkrais and involved faulty patterns of neuromuscular behaviour (and, conversely, Hanna's "solution" involved neural re-patterning a La Feldenkrais).

When a person is stopped suddenly or gets scared or is startled there is a reflex action which involves, among other things, a contraction of the muscles and connective tissues of the front upper body. There is nothing wrong with this; it is a natural response.

However, when this is repeated over and over again and it changes the body structure then we have an unbalanced body which we call a (pure) Red Light. In more detail, some of the major characteristics of a Red Light person are tensed jaw and face, neck pulled forward, shoulders lifted, flattened chest, tightened abdominal muscles, contracted diaphragm and contracted perineum, anus and urethra. This tensing reflects a shortening of both muscles and fascia (connective tissue).

Now let us turn to the Green Light. If you take a two month old baby, lift it with your hand under its belly while the baby's front is facing the floor the baby will basically curl around your hand. However, if you do this to a six month old baby the most likely outcome is the baby lifts its head, arcs its trunk backwards and straightens its legs. This is known as the Landau Reflex which asserts itself in healthy babies around the third month. That is, the extensor muscles in the neck and trunk kick in. Of course, these muscles in the back are the muscles of "doing"; they are the anti-gravity muscles which hold us up and allow us to get up out of bed. Analogous to the Red Light person, there are people that over-contract these extensors and the extensor fascia which fixes the body in a hyper-extended mode.

A typical example of this is the caricature of the soldier with his shoulders thrown way back. In more detail, some of the major characteristics of a pure Green Light person are neck pulled backwards, jaws opened, shoulders pulled downward and chest lifted up. (For more details of the traits of Red Light and Green Light people see Somatics.)

Working with people using the Red Light – Green Light framework would be relatively simple if people were pure Red Light or pure Green Light. For example, if a client were pure Red Light then among your goals with this client would be to lengthen the shortened flexor-connective tissue matrix. If you achieved this you could be certain you have helped your client to be more balanced. However, in the real world it is not that common to come across a pure example of Red Light or Green Light. I find it useful to divide the upper body into three separate areas. (Dealing with the legs is too complicated to discuss in a short article.)

Area one is the head-neck. It can be Red Light (forward) or Green Light (backward) or neutral. The second area is the shoulder area; round shoulders mean Red Light, shoulders pulled backwards and down is Green Light and there is neutral. Finally, there is the abdominal-lumbar area. If the abdominal area is short and tight then we have Red Light and if the lumbar area is shortened this implies Green Light and the area can be balanced (neutral). All combinations for these three areas are possible which means there are nine possibilities; a slightly more detailed approach would involve dividing the head and neck into two separate areas.

I find using this simple model of body-reading gives me lots of information on the state of my client, gives me ideas of where to work and what to do and allows me to monitor my client's progress.

Of course, this model is far from complete. There are at least two important areas of body structure which are not considered. The Red Light – Green Light model does not concern itself with left right imbalances which are quite common. Neither does it deal with twists of spirals running through the body. Some people are literally screwed. The best source about spirals can be found in the work of the anatomist Raymond Dart (Skill and Poise STAT Books 1996).

I've just scratched the surface of the intricacies of the Red Light – Green Light model. Maybe I will return to it in another article. Hopefully there is enough material in this column to allow you to start applying it and maybe even developing it further.


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About Allan Rudolf

Allan is a Rolfer and Feldenkrais practitioner and trained with both Dr Rolf and Dr Feldenkrais. He now lives in China and is not contactable.


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