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This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 47 – December 1999
Surprisingly, the study of the locomotion of snakes can help us to understand how Man uses himself. Imagine that you had to move a long and thin body consisting of between one hundred and four hundred vertebrae and that you only possessed back muscles to shuffle these numerous vertebrae. How would you move such a long bag of bones?
Snakes manage this feat very well without getting into a tangle. They don’t even have to worry about sciatica and you never hear them complaining about back pain. It has been said that snakes can travel faster than a horse, and if this is certainly an exaggeration, there is no doubt that they do travel at great speed. How do they do it?
Snakes are versatile in the way they move. They can choose between four main types of locomotion known as the serpentine glide, the concertina motion, the rectilinear glide and the side-winding movement. With the exception of the rectilinear glide, favoured by boas and pythons, where some minor ventral (front) muscles are used to move the ventral scales, all the other methods of locomotion are achieved solely with back muscles. They cannot do otherwise as they have practically no front muscles. A simple muscular system that connects hundreds of vertebrae in such a fashion as to allow for creeping, gliding, undulating, slithering, and shuffling movements has to be very strong.
Take, for example, the concertina type of movement because it is relevant to the way we sometimes, wrongly, move our relative small number of vertebrae and the body that goes with them. On a hard surface, snakes use some of their vertebrae in their ‘neck’ as a fixed point for the back muscles firstly to raise the head off the ground and, secondly, to pull the rest of the body towards this same fixed point. The result is a gliding movement made of a succession of bumps and hollows or up and down bending, hence the term concertina applied to this type of locomotion.
The design of our back (the spine and its muscles) has been modelled upon a plan copied from the reptiles. OK, it was a long, long time ago and since then many adjustments, additions and finishing touches have been made. Nevertheless, shockingly for some, we still have some muscles in common with these primitive creatures. This explains why we too can, sometimes, use a variant of the concertina movement. But when we do so we lose some of our status as Homo sapiens and revert to a more reptilian behaviour. In other words, we misuse our musculature.
It is mainly when we get up from a sitting position or when we climb stairs that we are the most susceptible to ‘concertina-ing’. As many people adopt the concertina way of getting up from their chair you won’t have any difficulty in observing this reptilian behaviour. Look carefully. First, the head is pulled back, arching the whole neck and upper back, and then the pelvis is pulled up towards the head, arching the lower back. It is as if the person standing up in this manner is literally trying to lift his body up from the chair with the back muscles pulling from a fixed point situated somewhere in the upper back. The same happens when climbing stairs.
This way of moving the body is blatant bad use. Make a habit of it and your back muscles will quickly shorten and tighten while your front muscles will become disused. No wonder many end up with backs like corrugated iron and with flabby tummies, wobbly thighs and double chins. Because we mustn’t forget the front muscles! Unlike our distant relatives the snakes, we do possess front muscles.
The normal length of our spine is maintained by the synergistic action of the front and back muscles. If you let your back muscles become greedy and hyperactive, as in concertina use and other forms of misuse, you will shorten your spine and give your front muscles the permission to become lazy and flabby. The perfect recipe for a bad back.
The fixed point we create in our spine when we mimic snakes is situated in the upper back, much closer to the head than to the pelvis. This is why our deformities and imperfections start from the top of the body. Thus, a shorter leg usually originates from a faulty position of the head or of the scapular girdle. You can test that on yourself. Lie down on the floor and flex you neck to one side, i.e., move your head towards one shoulder. You will notice that the whole spine is affected. If you’ve moved your head to the right, your torso protruded to the left and your spine became concave to the right. Your pelvis followed this general movement and became slanted: inevitably, one leg is now momentarily higher than the other.
The lateral flexions of the spine described above are also perceptible during walking. Whatever movement we chose to make, our spines wind down from head to ‘tail’, an atavistic trait we got from the first vertebrates. All these undulatory reactions are expressions of the activity of the back muscles and are normal – up to a certain extent. But when we misuse ourselves and shorten our back muscles we are forced to twist in a snakelike manner when making any simple movement, instead of keeping our spines straight and lengthened. It is amazing how, after millions of years of arboreal apprenticeship to attain the upright posture, we still so easily revert to an archaic way of moving our bodies.
Don’t twist again. Don’t creep and crawl. Forget the concertina fashion. We do have muscles in common with snakes but we also have a beautiful neo-cortex. If we use it properly we can stop using ourselves snakewise. The secret is to not put one’s head back.