Biotensegrity

 

Now we come to the paradigm shift in anatomy that has been called biotensegrity. You might have seen the term biotensegrity around the airwaves in recent years. It can seem a little intimidating at first, being as it is a union of three words! Bio denotes the connection to biology. Tensegrity is a portmanteau of the words tension + integrity, and as an anatomy concept gained immense traction with manual therapists in the Anatomy Trains work of Thomas Myers.

Once you see the parts, you can then look at the whole, as it is important to keep in mind that tensegrity is an entity unto itself. Author and biotensegrity leading lady, Susan Lowell, put it to me like this: tensegrity is a “oneness borne of duality which then includes the emergence of the third aspect of the oneness between the tension & compression.”  Tensegrity structures originated in the sculpture of Kenneth Snelson and the term tensegrity was first coined by Buckminster Fuller. Biotensegrity is an emerging science and the term is attributed to Dr Steven Levin.

Quite simply, biotensegrity is a holistic way to look at human anatomy that is gaining momentum with manual therapists, doctors, and fascia researchers. Although it might seem super technical and cutting-edge, the whole idea of biotensegrity is ancient and has its roots in the Microcosm concept of Persia, Vedic culture, and the Greek philosophers. Everywhere we look in anatomy, we can see the same patterns that nature has used in the rest of the Universe from the smallest particles to the galaxies at the largest scale.

These underlying patterns can be understood mathematically through the Golden Ratio (aka Golden Mean, Golden Proportion, etc), which shows us the geometric expression of Phi in many natural forms, such as:

  • array of seeds in the sunflower
  • romanesco broccoli, a cultivar of the species Brassica oleracea L.
  • hurricane patterns
  • nautilus shells
  • horns of ruminants

The reason this number, Phi, shows up so often in nature is because it is apparently the most efficient way of close-packing, where nodules can emerge in space along spiral forms that leave the fewest gaps. This gives an organism the best chance of survival and proliferation. Other related morphological patterns based on iterations of the Platonic solids will follow the same pattern of efficiency in close-packing, minimal-energy, and the geodesic tendencies of spheres in close proximity.

We can see nature’s tendencies to form along simple geometric constants at a molecular level in the proteins that form our extracellular matrix (ECM). The cytoskeletons giving integrity to our cells form in a pretensioned mesh around struts of integrity that keep the cells’ shape and ensure their molecular members can function effectively. These proteins are helical and intertwined, attenuating forces at every scale of experience through our most thoroughly innervated organ: the fascial system.

Biotensegrity is a reformation of how we deal with anatomy in general, especially in terms of yoga practice. It is an interdisciplinary research consortium with its roots in the work of Dr Steven Levin, an American orthopaedic surgeon. However, the spirit of biotensegrity is not new, and can be seen in the work of the pre-Socratic philosophers whose cosmological theories argued for the elemental nature of the Universe and all matter, absolutely including human form.

Plato described the four elements proposed previously by Empedocles as follows:

Earth

Fire

Air

Water

And he attributed a three-dimensional geometric form to each, adding to the Dodecahedron to the list in order to give elemental status to the Universe. Plato’s reasoning for this is that these elements arose in a three dimensional world and must therefore share the properties of 3D matter. In this way, the eponymous Platonic solids were born, arising out of one the world’s first teleological arguments.

 

The Golden Icosahedron. What kind of rectangles are those? If you guessed that the long side is 1.618 (Φ, or Phi) to the short side measuring 1, or a Golden Rectangle, then you guessed right…

The Platonic solids are special as polyhedra due to their ace space-filling talents:

  • each face is the same regular polygon
  • the same number of polygons meet at each vertex (corner)
  • The internal angles that meet at a vertex, it must be less than 360 degrees (at 360° the shape flattens out into one plane)

The last point is brings us home to the sphere, considered by Plato and many other philosophers to be the most perfect basic unit of form. The Platonic solids are important because they approximate the sphere, and are what happens when spheres get together in a close-packed arrangement just as cells do in real life. Because of these 3 special characteristics, the same Platonic solids packed together will fill space without any gaps in the most energy-efficient arrangement possible.

Imagine a massive fish tank full of ping pong balls. Sounds like fun? The prospect of jumping into such a tank only sounds fun because we could “swim” through the space as the spherical shapes will have gaps in and amongst them, allowing for movement as your body tumbles inside the container.

Now imagine suddenly the spheres fell into a geodesic mood, and their sides conformed to one another in the regimented order of, say, the Octahedron. Then, rank and file, the Octahedra all snapped into place, their faces meeting each other in perfect space-filling efficiency. Contained in the fish tank at maximum capacity, would you be able to jump into the mix and expect a soft landing? No, my friend, no space for you. Just stability. No gaps for movement. Just the void, filled.

OK, that’s weird, I thought space and movement would be a good thing? Of course it is, higher up the scale hierarchy of our tissues. As it turns out, atoms and molecules are mostly empty space anyway. But the spheres of structure will always arrange themselves as efficiently as possible and settle into geodesic arrays that minimise “wasteful gaps” between the ping pong balls because that is what will create maximum stability at the least possible energy cost. Same as the apple will always fall in a straight line and not take a trip around the houses first before it hits the ground. What we want at the level of somatic awareness is an endless experience of  surfaces experiencing space and movement as a smooth gliding of layers in closely-packed tissues and NOT any gaps between particles. Unless your aim is teleportation, and that is a much different story.

 

The biotensegrity conversation is a multiscalar one, which can be scaled down to molecules and atoms as well upscaled to muscle systems. It is mostly used in reference to the “fascia revolution” of manual therapists, who are thinking of the moving body as a web of neuro-myofascia and not so much in terms of individual muscles and bones. Joanne Avison has called for replacing the term biomechanics with biomotion, to reflect the growing body of literature surrounding the current understanding of how the human body moves and adapts in terms of its viscoelasticity. Vibing with biotensegrity means appreciating geodesic geometry, which sounds a lot more tedious than it is. Check out this post for some geodesic basics.

In summary:

  1. Yoga practitioners are usually in one of two minds: anatomical or otherwise
  2. Traditionally, the study of Anatomy calls for the memorisation of structures, and this is still probably quite useful
  3. However, the paradigm shift in Biomechanics called Biotensegrity is leading us to a much more holistic view on the human body, harkening back to the roots of naturalism and Greek philosophy
  4. Tensegrity structures originated in the sculpture of Kenneth Snelson and the term tensegrity was first coined by Buckminster Fuller.
  5. Biotensegrity applies geometry to living organisms for a better understanding of morphology and kinematics. It is an emerging science with roots in ancient philosophy. The term biotensegrity is accredited to Dr Steven Levin.
  6. Understanding the whole and not just the sum of its parts = Yoga

 

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