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How Misuse Misshapes Us

This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 61 – February 2001

To a Mézièrist, the primary cause of musculo-skeletal disorders is the departure from a normal, healthy body shape caused by the hypertonicity and shortening of some groups of muscles termed ‘muscular chains’ (MCs). An MC is made up of a minimum of two polyarticular muscles (extending over a minimum of two joints) banded together in an overlapping fashion. Because of these anatomical characteristics, the MCs tend to ‘accumulate’ too much tone and to shorten unduly as a consequence. So far, so true.

The rub is that, according to Mézières, both the shortening and hypertonicity of the MC are inescapable and inevitable. In this respect, I dare to beg to differ with my mentor. Mézières asserts that beauty or normal shape is our birthright, that we are all beautiful to begin with. Then, in the same breath, she says that the shortening of the MCs, and thus the deformations of the body, are inevitable. If this is so they must also be natural or physiological. Is Nature so greedy and vicious that it gives us with one hand a healthy and beautiful body, only to snatch this precious gift back with the other? Beauty under a short-term lease! (Let’s admit it, beauty has a distressingly short shelf-life.) Unless we are prepared to agree that Nature is a negative and pathological force, Mézières’ views should strike us as contradictory.

According to Mézières, one of the main causes of the shortening of the MCs is our standing posture. Although she admits that the vertical standing posture is possible and does not require any muscular effort, she thinks it is an unnatural one due to the exiguity of the base of support, which, in this posture, is reduced to the perimeter of the heels.

She concludes that the normal standing posture uses the whole surface of the feet as a base of support. This requires that we bring our gravity centre forwards and this inevitably brings about a series of compensatory displacements of the body’s masses: the head and neck go forwards, the head backwards in relation to the neck, the upper back backwards, the pelvis forwards, and so on. Obviously, this so-called normal posture, which I call slouching, accentuates the curves of our spine and shortens our stature. The back muscles subtending these curves shorten as well, adaptively. For Mézières then, the normal standing posture is a source of shortening and distortions. In other words, the normal is pathological!

Mézières was a genius in the field of bodywork, but I think, in this instance, she was mistaken in believing that the shortening of the MCs is inevitable and that the slouching standing posture is the normal one. Abusus non tollit usum (misuse does not nullify proper use). In other, non-Latin, words and broadly speaking, it is not because something is misused that makes it intrinsically bad. What Mézières calls the normal standing posture is a blatant form of misuse; what she calls the vertical standing posture is the only normal one.

Nature didn’t deal out beauty in one hand and ugliness in the other. “We should all be beautiful,” says Emerson, “if our ancestors had kept the law. But, alas they have not always kept it.” I don’t know which law Emerson is talking about but, regarding beauty, I know that the following law does not suffer exceptions: ‘use conditions shape’. The fault is not in our upright posture, or in any other natural posture or movement, but in the way we use ourselves while holding or making them. Misuse is the primary cause of our misshapen and painful bodies.

The work of Magnus (1924)[1] and others have showed that the position of the head in space, and in relation to the rest of the body, has a reflex action on posture. In the reflex balance of the head lies a mechanism that exerts a powerful influence on the distribution of muscle tone throughout the body. Unfortunately, under ‘civilized’ conditions, we tend, unconsciously, to interfere with this precious but fragile mechanism. Under these conditions, muscle tone is distributed in the body in a disordered fashion. But the uneven distributions do not follow a random pattern. It is always the MCs that become hypertonic, leaving the rest of the musculature flabby.
Altering the optimal relationship of the head to the body is the number one feature of misuse. The muscles at the nape of the neck tighten excessively and tilt the head backwards. These muscles are part of an MC, the largest one of the four we all have in our bodies.

Now the shortening of a link in an MC automatically results in the shortening of the entire chain. Since, on the spine alone, this chain has three actions (twisting it, and bending it backwards and sideways), it is easy to figure out how, once hypertonic and shortened, this chain will distort the body in a three-dimensional manner. Sway-back, dowager’s hump, scoliosis, kyphosis, lordosis, round-shoulders, knock-knees, bow-legs, flat feet, every and any distortion, bar the congenital one or those caused by fractures, are brought about by the disorderly pull of muscles invested with an excess of power, an excess of tone.

Misuse misshapes us by pathologically increasing the tone in the MCs, which then shorten and pull us out of shape. It is a paradox, then, that almost everybody is obsessed with the idea of toning up!

1. Magnus R. Körperstellung. Berlin. 1924.

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