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The Art of Falling

This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 68 – September 2001

Recently, on a trip to the tropics, I was foolish enough to sit on an irascible water buffalo. Zoological books don’t tell you, but I have discovered the hard way that water buffalos are camera-shy. And so, when the owner of the prize beast recorded this memorable event for posterity, the said buffalo got scared by the noise of the camera zoom and took to his heels! I don’t know if I fell or jumped, but one thing I know for sure is that when I hit the ground I hurt myself – badly. The result: a fractured 10th right rib.

In the past, doctors used to strap up the ribcage of people with this kind of injury as if they wanted to mummify them, the logic being to reduce the movement of the ribs to a minimum and facilitate the mending of bones. But this treatment was quickly abandoned when it was discovered that patients cared for in this manner tended to develop infections of the lungs. Good breathing, it emerged, is essential for healthy lungs! People with broken ribs were needed to demonstrate this simple physiological law. Nowadays, doctors tell their patients to take a few deep breaths regularly, even though it’s painful for them. Of course, doctors also prescribe the inevitable painkillers but, being a killjoy, I don’t recommend them. Better to experience the pain than to deaden the nerves.

In spite of the constant movements of the ribs, broken ones usually heal beautifully. The case of the broken rib exemplifies the awesome healing power of the living body. Naturally, time is of the essence and, in a typical case, the pain is likely to be severe for two weeks and it will take two to three months before it subsides completely. The best thing to do in order to reduce the pain and to ensure a relatively speedy recovery (under proper supervison) is to fast.

But when it comes to the art of falling, cats are unbeatable and we could all learn a few lessons from Felis catus. Cats make the most of their righting reflexes – reflexes that allow an animal to return to a normal posture through the redistribution of muscular tone throughout the whole body. The position of the head in space and in relation to the rest of the body plays a crucial part for their smooth operation. If you hold a cat in the air with its back facing downwards and suddenly let it go you will see that it will land feet first (please take my word for it and leave your cat alone). The head always turns first, which then effects a change of tone in the muscles of the neck, back and limbs. The happy result is that the body of the cat twists around so that it lands on its feet.

This falling feat perfectly illustrates an important postural principle, which says that ‘the head leads, the body follows’. Although they are not so conspicuous, masked as they are by an important voluntary activity, human beings also possess these neck reflexes.

Unfortunately, under civilized conditions, they seriously interfere with them.

But there is more to it than that. Two vets, Wayne O Whitney and Cheryl J Mehlhaff, collected data about the falls incurred by cats that were brought to them. First, it was found that there was a correlation between the height of the fall and the gravity of the injuries sustained. But above a certain height – eight storeys, to be precise – the correlation broke down: cats that had fallen from eight or more storeys suffered fewer injuries than the ones that had fallen from a lower height!

Apparently, it has to do with terminal velocity – the speed at which a body falling through air stops accelerating. To reach terminal velocity, an average cat has to fall at least seven storeys. The hypothesis put forward by our curious vets was that once a cat has attained this stage, i.e., when the sensation of acceleration stops, it starts to relax and to spread its body in the manner of a flying squirrel, thereby decreasing the force of the impact and distributing it more evenly throughout the body. This could explain, for example, why a cat that once fell 32 storeys onto concrete was found to have suffered only a mild pneumothorax and a chipped tooth. If it had been a water buffalo falling from this height – an unlikely event – the result would not have been the same: it would have splattered!

How do human beings fare in falling? In Human Potential,[1] Raymond A Dart writes that: “Most accidents causing broken limbs are due in the last resort to the faulty postures that occasion or accompany the impacts.” I am glad he wrote “broken limbs” and not ‘broken ribs’, as I would hate to admit to less than perfect attention to my posture!

According to Louise Morgan, FM Alexander knew how to fall intelligently. In Inside Yourself,[2] she relates an incident when Alexander fell down the cellar steps with a bottle of burgundy in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other (apparently, Alexander was a bon vivant!). Reportedly, Alexander said, “…in that split-second of time I was able to plan my fall in such a way that I would take the impact on my shoulder on one of the steps and get only a few bruises. And so it happened.” Boasting? In any case, Louise Morgan remarks that “It is by the constant quickening of the conscious mind that such remarkable escapes from injury occur.” Nevertheless, we will never equal the falling skills of cats.

The great ability of cats to defy death may be the origin of the belief that they have nine lives. In my next life (?!) I will come back as a cat, not as a water buffalo.

1. Dart Raymond A. The Attainment of Poise, Human Potential. 3. Autumn 1970.
2. Morgan Louise. Inside Yourself. Hutchinson. London. 1958.

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