A New Understanding of the Human Physical Body
Research in evolutionary and adaptive anatomy tells us that the human body was designed on the savannahs of Africa. Indeed, every muscle, joint and physical mechanism functions the way it does because hunter-gatherers in Africa needed them to function that way in order to survive and reproduce in their environment.
Only when used in the same manner will the human body work and maintain itself properly.
Modern humans display greater levels of chronic physical problems than people in hunter-gatherer tribes or in undeveloped societies, ranging from common lower back pain to neck and shoulder problems, knee and hip dysfunction and joint inflammation. We also quickly become inefficient in our movements and progressively inflexible, reducing the distances we can effectively run and making simple physical exercises increasingly more difficult.
But paradoxically, despite these problems, we’ve never had so much help and advice available to us; from physical therapists to masseurs, from gyms and personal trainers to Yoga and Pilates classes, from occupational therapists to orthopaedic consultants, and yet the number of physical problems and amount of time people suffer from them continues to grow.
Indeed, once the first chronic problems start, they now often signal the start of a predictable cascade of physical dysfunction, that no one discipline seems to be able to stop.
Perhaps then, we don’t yet fully understand how to properly look after our physical bodies.
The Evolution and Adaptations of our Human Body
Some six million years ago, at the start of human evolution, our ancestors were semi-bipedal creatures not unlike the apes of today. But when they first ventured out onto the savannahs of Africa, their method of walking on four limbs would have been too inefficient for moving swiftly on the open plains.
Archaeological records show us that humans thus began to favour walking on two legs, (which additionally freed their upper limbs for conducting useful tasks), and over the next four to five million years the rest of the human body gradually adapted in order to better suit savannah life.
Although these first humans were principally gatherers (and probably scavengers) they eventually used their growing ingenuity to hunt other animals. It is thought that they adopted a unique hunting strategy that involved tracking herds of land animals over long distances, keeping them moving until the weakest one got tired. They would then surround it and pick it off.
To be able to track these animals, it is thought that humans developed not a method of sprinting like other predators (chickens are faster at sprinting than humans!), but a gait cycle designed to conserve energy. To do this our bodies became imbued with elastic tissue so that as we completed a stride, we bounced easily and efficiently into the next, thereby conserving up to ninety-five percent of the energy from one stride to the next.
As well as this efficient recoil mechanism we also evolved a more efficient cooling system so that we did not overheat on long journeys. By standing upright we already exposed less of our surface area to the sun, but gradually we also lost hair and replaced it with pigment, gained more skin pores to sweat better and slowly migrated blood vessels to the surface of our skin to allow for better convection.
With these evolutionary mechanisms in place we eventually became supreme endurance athletes and our stamina became one of the main reasons for our success as a species.
The Problems of Standing Upright
But this new posture wasn’t all good. As former four-legged creatures our spines were designed to be horizontal. The change of posture therefore created increased weight bearing on our lower spinal segments, leading almost certainly to disc compression and lower back problems.
Furthermore, the organs that on any other animal would have hung down from a horizontal spine (like washing on a line), now hung one-on-the-other, with the lower organs being additionally compressed within the bony pelvic bowl. The ribs and thus the lungs were also compromised by this posture and the diaphragm was forced to press against the stacked organs in order to fashion a full breath.
Standing upright also exposed our delicate underbelly to our enemies, creating vulnerability and the tendency to use extra muscle contraction around our chests to physically and mentally protect ourselves from danger.
Our legs and feet had to adapt too. Carrying the body’s weight on two feet instead of four must initially have been very challenging (notice how a human infant must learn to walk whilst nearly all other mammals can walk at birth) and required much more intricate muscle contractions in our legs and feet, plus extra sensory nerves to keep our balance.
Finally our neck and shoulders needed to adopt new convoluted positions and thus acquired new vulnerabilities and our upper limbs twisted and shortened in order to adjust to their new use.
All of these changes would have compromised the efficiency of the human body and undoubtedly led to multiple vulnerabilities and physical problems. Millions of years of adaptation have certainly improved some of these, but tolerance levels in some parts of our body still remain small and thus maintenance of a healthy body still requires considerable care.
How Hunter-Gatherers Looked after their Bodies
Hunter-gatherers, like other animals, needed to retain their full physical abilities throughout their lives; otherwise they would not have been able to keep up with the rest of the tribe and could easily have been picked off by predators.
One way of retaining good functionality was to constantly use the body’s full abilities and thus keep it in good shape. Lack of use would have led to weakness in associated muscles and allowed stasis and thus congestion to accumulate in unused joint space. They would thus have maintained an active life and regularly worked all of their joints through their full range of movement.
Regular walking and running would also have been essential to good body maintenance. The recoil motion of the hips, shoulder and ribcage during walking and running has a pumping action on all the stagnant tissues in the physical body and the organs. It also helps to pump blood up from the feet, back to the heart, stretching and thus maintaining health in the veins.
The deep breathing associated with running would also push toxins out of the lungs and exercise the cardiovascular system, flooding the body with oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide and thus helping the body to rid itself of over-acidity.
A Growing Problem with Our New Brains
But as we evolved and the compromises of our upright posture gradually became less onerous, so a new challenge to our physical health started to emerge, mental tension.
Mental tension is unique to humans and is felt physically as muscle contraction that restricts full movement (flexibility) and squeezes associated joints and body tissues so that they function inefficiently, become dehydrated and thus become prone to injury. Holding on to too much mental tension would thus have reduced athletic performance and led to disease.
To combat this it is thought that tribal people created elaborate cultural ceremonies in which freely expressive, trance-like dancing around a hypnotic fire, accompanied by clapping and thumping music would enable people to escape from the tense thoughts of their increasingly rational brains and thus free their bodies of the accompanying tensions.
It would also have shaken out any accumulated compression in their discs, organs and soft tissues.
Physical Problems in the Developing World
But the physical limitations and tensions that challenged our hunter-gatherer ancestors now seem relatively modest compared to those created by modern society.
Firstly, when humans took up farming some ten thousand years ago, their lives became much more sedentary and they would have spent much more time standing in one spot performing repetitive tasks. Some muscles would thus have become overworked (and strained) whilst others would have become under-worked and thus inefficient.
The emergence of settlements created specialised jobs and subsequently even more sedentary and repetitive activities, whilst the industrial revolution virtually turned people into automatons.
Continuously societies were becoming ever more sophisticated and they steadily became imbued with increasing amounts of rules and social conventions. This led to increasing reliance on the rational brain and thus increasing amounts of mental and physical tension.
But of all the physical changes brought on by social development, none have had quite such a quick and dramatic effect as sitting at desks and working on computers.
We already know that societies where people typically squat or sit cross-legged on the floor have eighty to ninety percent less hip problems than societies where people typically sit in chairs. We also know that people who walk bare-footed have far fewer knee problems than people who walk in shoes. What is now becoming abundantly clear is that people who sit at desks and particularly those who work on computers are far more prone to neck, shoulder and back problems than those who don’t.
But desks and computers aren’t the only problem of course, simply sitting for long periods of time in vehicles, watching TV or reading books can also lead to physical stress, with the playing of computer games becoming another growing concern. People, it seems, are becoming stuck to their chairs.
Sitting of course puts extra pressure on the discs of the lower back and fixes one’s gaze at a static point in front of us, keeping certain muscles under constant strain. Furthermore, when these fixed activities are accompanied by tension the effect can be multiplied many times.
But these effects can’t be all that’s behind the growing epidemic of neck, back and other physical problems, so what else is happening?
The Office Worker’s Posture
When we sit at a desk or look at a book or screen, our head drops forward from its normal balanced position. Being heavy, the neck and upper back muscles have to constantly contract to hold the weight of the head in its fixed position. When contracted, these muscles cannot efficiently exchange fluids and gradually they develop fibrosis, becoming taught, like guy ropes holding up a tent. And like guy ropes need a peg in the ground, so part of the upper back becomes stiffened in order to act as an anchor point.
Gradually, these pressures cause the upper back to start to become permanently stiff and rounded (a kyphosis) and the shoulder blades start to migrate out to the sides, causing the shoulders to also become rounded and the chest to become closed (restricting rib movement and lung expansion).
For the first few years of desk-life this posture remains relatively dynamic such that normal posture is regained once we stand up again, but gradually it becomes fixed, forcing other parts of the body to have to develop counter-compensations so that we can continue to walk properly and have our eyes level.
Firstly, the dropped head position causes us to extend our neck when standing in order to look straight ahead. This correction usually happens towards the bottom of the neck and causes one or two sections to become compressed, reducing space for the nerves and squeezing out fluid so the discs and soft tissues become brittle. As such, this part of the neck is then prone to local pain, nerve problems (experienced in the arms and hands) and is predisposed to injury during accidents (particularly to whiplash).
The second change is a need for the lower body to make a counter-adjustment for the permanently forward-leaning upper body. To do this the body typically adopts one of three compensatory postures:
- An increased extension in their lower back (lumbar lordosis)
- A long forward bowing of their back and legs (sway back)
- A general stiffening of the spine allowing the head to hang off the top like a lamp-post (flat back)
(Which of these postures a person adopts is usually down to their personality, with fast-paced, ‘future-driven’ people adopting the sway back, ‘cautious’ people adopting the flat back and more flexible people adopting the lumbar lordosis).
Each of these compensatory postures has consequences on physical health, ranging from low back pain to tight hamstrings and disc compression.
The third typical change in a desk-worker’s body is compression of the collarbone by the increased rounding of the shoulders. Because the collar bone is fixed at the middle where it meets the breastbone, this build up of compression forces the outer joints to become stretched and leads to wearing of the joint surfaces. Ligament stretching, irritation and calcification eventually results, causing local pain and forcing the rotator cuff muscles to contract in order to offer protection. Eventually a syndrome of problems emerge leading to ailments such as tendonitis, a painful upper arm (or painful elevation of the arm) and in extreme cases, a frozen shoulder.
In fact, many supposedly unconnected physical problems can be traced back, one way or another, to sitting at desks and using computers, problems that even the most expensive office chairs and the best work stations rarely have any effect over.
Aside from typical postural problems associated with sitting and computers, some people also have additional areas of tension associated with organ protection and mental tension.
Whilst our physical body is largely symmetrical, our internal organs are not, and irritation in an organ can lead to a pattern of protective muscle contraction that pulls the body to one side or the other. Common organ problems involve the stomach, the gall bladder and the liver, all of which are more on the right side of the body and thus cause asymmetrical contraction patterns.
Additionally, because our left-brain (the one responsible for tense thinking) controls the right side of the body so we often find more mental tension on the right side too. This is especially prevalent in people who rush around a lot, with a long list of things to do (future-driven people). Because these people constantly want to be in the next place or doing the next thing before the last one is finished, they tend to hold permanent tension around the hip joint of the leg that takes the first step and around the shoulder joint of the arm that normally acts first (all usually on the right side).
Increased tension on one side of the body is often visible because it tends to pull the shoulder down on that side and pull the leg up, creating compression in the trunk and a slight bowing of their body. These kinds of asymmetries add extra pressure to back and neck problems and force the knees to compensate for weight imbalances when walking. Physical problems are thus much more common.
Eighty-five percent of the time a person’s main contraction patterns are on the right hand side of their body.
The Problem with Sports
Whilst playing sport offers much needed cardio-vascular exercise, it also produces some unique pressures that require a person to be in good physical health to endure. People with desk-bound postures and left-right asymmetries are much more prone to getting injured when playing sport.
In fact, almost all injuries in sport occur not because of a sudden impact that would have injured anyone, but because of a weakness or predisposition that a person has started with that greatly reduces their tolerance for the forces they are exposed to.
Indeed, whilst getting in good shape is a prerequisite for playing sport, sport is not a particularly good way of getting in shape.
As well as predisposing people to injury, asymmetries and tensions also make people less efficient in movement. Without flexibility these people cannot access the elastic tissue at the end of range of their movements and the imbalances mean they have to compensate every time they move. Consequently these people are less agile, less durable and tire more quickly.
Undoing the Patterns
Ridding your body of its inherent tensions and therefore its asymmetries and postural torsions is like wriggling out of a straight jacket, one that has gradually taken a firmer grip on you throughout your life.
Undoubtedly the first step in the process is mapping your tensions, acknowledging the problem and then adopting the right routine for releasing them.
Nearly all people are born flexible and nearly everyone should be able to be as flexible as a dancer (don’t believe anyone who says they were born inflexible!).
The amount of inflexibility a person has in any one stretching position is therefore equal to the amount of permanent muscle tension they are carrying in that muscle chain. The degree and location of their inflexibility thus offers an idea of the type and extent of physical limitations and thus problems they are likely to encounter.
Whilst stretching is an obvious starting point for dealing with these inflexibilities, undoing particularly stiffened areas such as the upper back often requires more than stretching, as fibrosis and sometime mineralisation have occurred and first need to be mobilised away.
Similarly muscular protection around irritated organs or an inflamed area of the body will not be amenable to stretching until the underlying problem has been addressed. In these cases stretching and exercising this part of the body is more likely to aggravate rather than improve the situation.
Letting Go is Easy
To return a body back to good health requires an ordered approach that embraces many disciplines.
In most cases, the first step is to reduce muscle tension and increase flexibility. The second step is to then re-educate the body’s posture and the third is to strengthen the newly balanced frame and prepare it for action.
Because muscle tension and thus compression is the major problem for most people, letting go of this should be their first priority. Where postural tensions have accumulated, an antidotal stretching regimen should be learned and regularly applied to stop it from progressing.
Mental tensions should also be worked on either through forms of relaxation or through a mindfulness-based Yoga class.
(The good news when it comes to mental tension is that these muscles are being sent signals every millisecond to remain tight and all it takes is deciding to stop sending those signals for the tension to disappear! So in effect, you could let go of all the tension in a millisecond if you just knew how to ‘turn your brain off’.)
Once your body is more flexible and your posture has been released from its straight jacket, then you can start to re-educate your movements. For this we usually recommend Pilates.
Finally, once better flexibility and posture have been achieved, you are ready to prepare your body for action by working out, playing sports and building strength where it is needed.
(It is worth noting that trying to strengthen a tense and unbalanced frame may add to the compression already there, whilst attempting to strengthen ‘weak’ muscles to compensate for tight muscles elsewhere will have the same effect. These muscles are generally weak because they are required to work out of their normal range such that they cannot contract properly and do not have their natural mechanical advantage. Releasing associated muscle tension to restore the normal joint position is thus a more logical approach. Strength will then return to the muscle.)
So What Can I Do to Get Going?
The Light Programme teaches you how to sequentially and progressively undo the physical tensions in your body and return it to a more relaxed and balanced state. On one of our 12-week programmes you will:
- learn to reduce the negative effects of sitting at desks and using computers
- reduce the amount of aches and pains you experience
- improve your flexibility, suppleness and ability to move freely
- improve your posture
- improve your balance and reactions
- reduce the compression on your internal organs and free them to function better
- improve your breathing pattern and capacity
- reduce your stress levels
- increase your energy levels
- improve your self-image
- allow you to play sports more efficiently and with less injuries
All of this is what the healthy body part of the Light Programme is about. When you join a 12-week programme you will be taking the first steps to a healthier life.
Join a programme at the Light Centre today and redefine who you are……….