Basic Anatomy and Physiology


Basic Neuroscience


Neuroplasticity and Mirror Neurons




Integration, and a Call for Research


FlexAware applies basic science we learned in school but often neglect, plus science that’s new, even revolutionary.

This applied science is what makes FlexAware uniquely effective for helping people of all ages and health conditions.

Basic Anatomy and Physiology

First: Fundamental to anatomy and physiology – more than that, fundamental to life and the universe – is gravity.

Gravity affects the shapes of our bones and joints, the location and size and strength of our muscles, and all other aspects of our physical structure. It affects our behavior, too, every movement at every moment. Our heads, hands, feet, and pelvises – every bone and every muscle and everything else – are constantly pulled toward the center of the earth.

Normally, however, we take gravity for granted, neither sensing it consciously nor thinking about it. We also tend to resist it. That’s partly because we take it for granted and overlook it, partly just habit. One sign of resisting gravity is the way many of us hold our shoulders up near our ears. Another is poor posture. Resisting gravity is wasted effort, and a significant factor in stress, strain, fatigue, premature aging, and almost all instances of chronic pain. Fighting gravity is futile; gravity always wins.

Young children naturally align with gravity. They move efficiently, with no wasted or excess effort, and this innate skill is fundamental to their flexibility, strength, and stamina. We adults moved efficiently when we were young, before we acquired habits of straining and stiffening and resisting gravity.

FlexAware explicitly helps adults rediscover our natural capacity to align with gravity and move efficiently.

Second: Muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia, and other tissues gradually contract when we’re not moving. Normally, therefore, stillness leads to stiffness.

This is why we sometimes stretch spontaneously, or shake or shiver, and it’s also an aspect of yawning. Babies and animals do this, too. The movement restores circulation and is especially vital for our joints, where some tissues are only nourished and lubricated while we’re moving.

The most beneficial movements are gentle, pleasant, rhythmic. We see this in young children, the fact that they’re rarely still except when they sleep. Moving easily feels good, much better than being still.

FlexAware gives us simple easy effective movements we can do anywhere and anytime to relieve, reduce, or prevent stiffening. The movements are effective even when they’re so subtle that people near us don’t notice.

Third: Every skeletal muscle attaches, either directly or through a tendon or ligament, to two or more bones, crossing some joint or joints. When a muscle contracts, it pulls the attached bones toward each other. For either bone to move, muscles on the opposite side of the bone have to lengthen. Thus, as one muscle contracts, some opposite muscle lengthens. But that’s not all. When any bone moves, every attached muscle participates in some way, lengthening, contracting, or changing tone while maintaining length.

Muscles never function in isolation; they can’t. Focusing on specific muscles – to stretch, strengthen, or for other purposes – can be counterproductive.

FlexAware views muscles as an integrated system, like an elastic suit. Every FlexAware exercise seeks to promote ease, comfort, and skill overall. This is why the movements feel good while doing them and after.

Fourth: Bones are alive. They change shape and density with the way we move.

When bones are subjected to stress, from gravity and weight-bearing activities, they adapt by adding calcium and becoming stronger, “remodeling.” And bones lose calcium through inactivity, as when people are bedridden or astronauts are in space. This is Wolff’s law, named for the 19th century scientist who first described it. Remodeling also occurs with ligaments, tendons, and other soft tissues; Davis’ law.

This is obviously true in children as they grow, and it continues throughout our lives. We see evidence of this every day: bunions, flat feet, deformed knees or hip joints, stooped or contorted postures, and so on. Such conditions are not genetic and not merely the result of age or inadequate diet. Inefficient movement is always a factor.

And such conditions are reversible at any age, at least partly. When we move easily and efficiently, our bones, ligaments, fascia, and other tissues can remodel toward more ideal configurations and functioning.

Fifth: As with other movements, breathing involves many muscles and bones.

People typically focus on the diaphragm or the belly, as if those are the only muscles we use to breathe. They’re not. The diaphragm and the four abdominal muscles attach to the lower ribs. Our ribs move as we breathe, and every attached muscle participates. This includes many muscles in back – lower, middle, and upper – in addition to the chest and sides.

FlexAware movements increase the mobility of the ribs, and improve the action and coordination of all the muscles that attach to the ribs. This is how FlexAware helps people breathe freely and spontaneously, like healthy children.

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Basic Neuroscience

First: The brain continuously monitors, coordinates, and directs activity throughout the body. This includes the position and motion of every bone and joint, which muscles are contracting, which muscles are lengthening, the surface of the skin, our orientation to gravity, and how and what we perceive of our environment. Plus our memories and our anticipating of the future.

Movement and other essential functions are coordinated by the brainstem and cerebellum, the deepest and oldest areas of the brain, also the most rapid and reliable. On the surface, the cortex, are the areas that coordinate language and other uniquely human capacities; these areas are relatively new, slow, and unreliable. Language is particularly slow because it is linear and sequential, one word at a time.

The newest area, and the most uniquely human, is the prefrontal cortex. Neuroscientists see it as the center for executive functions, plus self-reflection and awareness.

By enhancing awareness of the way we move, FlexAware integrates the newest areas of the brain and the oldest. These are exercises for the whole brain and the whole person.

Second: Scientists long ago divided the nervous system into several subsystems. A main division is between the autonomic and the voluntary. The autonomic subsystem regulates functions that are vital for survival, particularly breathing, heart rate, blood flow, digestion, immune activity, and sexual responses. The voluntary subsystem mostly controls skeletal muscles and intentional activities. However, modern neuroscientists recognize some conscious control over autonomic functions.

The autonomic subsystem has two branches, sympathetic and parasympathetic, with distinct nerves and neurotransmitters. The sympathetic is fight, flight, or freeze. It normally responds to stress by increasing arousal and preparing us to fight or flee, though in cases of extreme arousal or panic, it can induce freezing or fainting. The parasympathetic calms our stress responses and coordinates rest, recovery, digestion, and healing.

Breathing is autonomic and can also be voluntary. When breathing is faster, and while inhaling, sympathetic nerves are more active. Slower and deeper breathing, and exhaling, involve more parasympathetic activity. Thus, breathing coordinates and harmonizes the whole nervous system.

FlexAware movements work with breathing, and increase ease, variability, and spontaneity. In this way, FlexAware seeks to and seems to improve our capacity to arouse more readily when appropriate, and to relax more completely and voluntarily.

Third: The brain’s cortex, the outer layer, is divided into left and right hemispheres. Each hemisphere coordinates activity on the opposite side of the body. Specialized areas for sensing and moving are sometimes presented as maps or images, the somatosensory homunculus and the motor or kinesthetic homunculus. These images depict the body as experienced, not the body we see, so they have huge lips and thumbs with tiny trunks and thighs. Moreover, these images are personal and distinct, reflecting our unique experiences, and they change throughout our lives.

FlexAware movements refine and enhance the way we experience our bodies, the way we sense, feel, and think about our bodies, our self-images. Refining the self-image is vital for healing and fitness.

Fourth: We sense and perceive more accurately when stimuli are not too intense. This is the Weber-Fechner law, named for the two scientists who described it in the mid-1800s. Stated more formally: the ability to perceive differences is inversely proportional to the intensity of the stimulus. Weber-Fechner has been proved conclusively, which is why it’s called a “law,” and it’s valid for all sensory activity, weight or effort, vision, sound, taste, and smell. With movement, the law is clear: excess effort impairs sensation.

Suppose you have one piece of paper resting on your upturned palm. Add a second piece, and you can probably perceive the change in weight. If you have a book resting on your palm, the underlying effort would make it impossible to perceive the change from adding one piece of paper or even a few dozen pieces.

The Weber-Fechner law is the key to understanding exercise-related pain and injuries. While exercising, the extra effort and repetition reduce our ability to perceive minor aches and irritations. Our capacity to perceive is further impaired when we employ willpower and self-discipline to override or overrule discomfort. This is how a minor ache can become a major pain, with serious tissue damage.

Weber-Fechner also explains why poor posture, shallow breathing, and other movement habits are so persistent. Habits are all-or-nothing behaviors that streamline and simplify our actions. Habits are efficient and necessary, though they also reduce our ability to perceive differences. If we can’t perceive differences, we can’t readily make changes to learn new skills. Typical efforts to change habits rely on willpower and self-discipline, but those are neocortex activities and thus rather slow and unreliable. Weber-Fechner operates throughout the nervous system.

FlexAware respects and obeys the Weber-Fechner law. It does so, first, by enhancing awareness. And, second, by consistently emphasizing the value of reducing effort and seeking ease. Advanced FlexAware exercises can be large, fast, powerful, and challenging — even using weights, machines, and other equipment — yet awareness and ease are always fundamental.

With regard to posture and other movement habits, FlexAware and the Weber-Fechner law remind us that lasting improvement requires awareness and respect for comfort. Enhance awareness. Reduce effort. Seek ease and comfort. Explore alternatives. This is the FlexAware way to improve breathing, improve posture, relieve back pain, and enhance health and fitness overall.

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Neuroplasticity and Mirror Neurons

Until the 1970s or ’80s, most scientists viewed the brain as primarily a product of genetics, hard-wired at maturity and then relatively unchangeable.

Today, however, based on extensive research with PET scans and functional MRI, neuroscientists know that the brain changes with experience. This is neuroplasticity and it occurs at all ages. When we move in new ways, the brain reorganizes or reconfigures the somatosensory and kinesthetic cortex and other regions, including the deepest and oldest regions. Changes can be significant. For example, after an arm or leg is amputated, neurons associated with the limb make new connections and take on new roles.*

The brain coordinates sensing and moving; movement affects the brain’s functioning and structure. These processes are reciprocal and iterative. Thus: learning to move more skillfully changes the brain, and such changes facilitate more skillful movement and perhaps further learning. But the reverse must also be true. When we only do what’s familiar, the brain changes to reinforce our habits.

Even more recent, and related, is the discovery of mirror neurons that fire both when we perform an activity and when we observe other people performing the activity. Mirror neurons appear to be vital for learning to walk and talk. Also for awareness, empathy, and our sense of identity.

Our brains and self-images change throughout our lives. Changes involve our perceptions of other people, and can even incorporate prosthetic limbs and other tools. The brain can also change itself through internal experiences, even words and images. Education and meditation and prayer and psychotherapy change the brain. Love and joy change the brain. Learning is organic and happens in our cells.

FlexAware movements, and the style of teaching, are carefully designed to facilitate positive changes, gently guiding people toward ideal efficient ways of moving and being.

* A few good accessible books on neuroplasticity:
The Mind and the Brain, Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD and Sharon Begley (HarperCollins 2002)
The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge, MD (Penguin, 2007)
The Body Has a Mind of its Own, Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee (Random House, 2008).

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In conventional models: joints are hinges, muscles are cords or elastic bands, and movement involves levers, fulcrums, and resistance. We find these ideas and images in popular books, advertisements, online videos, and anatomy texts, including medical texts.

These models, like most concepts in anatomy, are from dissecting cadavers. Dissection even provided the name, anatomy, which is from Greek words meaning “to separate” and “to cut up or cut open.” Cut open a cadaver, and it looks like something assembled from distinct parts and pieces. The cords, hinges, and levers are obvious.

But cadavers don’t move. We do, of course, and conventional models cannot adequately explain how we move. There are significant flaws, problems, or anomalies:

• In babies and young children, bones are growing and soft at the ends, not hard enough to be hinges or levers. In adults, too, bones are relatively soft at the joints.
• Our joints are nearly frictionless, far more so than any mechanical hinge or similar device, regardless of materials and lubricants.
• While walking, our ankles, knees, and hip joints are fully mobile, yet also stable and reliable, even when we’re carrying something extremely heavy.
• The major muscles that move our fingers are in our forearms, with tendons that pass through our wrists and palms, yet all the joints are mobile, reliable, and nearly frictionless in every position and orientation.

Watch a young child — or a dancer, gymnast, or other athlete — and we can see that every bone and muscle is moving continuously, simultaneously. The conventional models are grossly inadequate.

Scientists and movement educators are increasingly exploring and applying a new paradigm:

• Muscles, tendons, fascia, and ligaments function as a continuous tension matrix, like an elastic suit.
• Bones are embedded within the tension matrix, functioning as firm structures that muscles pull on and pull from.
• Joints have small gaps between the bones, normally 1-3 millimeters. The gaps are clearly evident on X-rays and CT scans.
• Those gaps are formed and sustained by the tension matrix, particularly the ligaments that spiral around the joints.
• Movement occurs through changing the overall configuration of the tension matrix and the skeleton. Every movement involves the whole person.

Biotensegrity is one name for this new paradigm. The pioneer and leading proponent is Dr. Stephen Levin, a retired orthopedic surgeon. Tensegrity combines tension and integrity, and this term was coined by design scientist architect R. Buckminster Fuller, creator of the geodesic dome. Elegant examples are sculptor Kenneth Snelson’s “floating compression” structures. A simple example is a popular children’s toy, Skwish, created by Tom Flemons, who builds biotensegrity models of the spine, legs, pelvis, and the whole skeleton. There are also tensegrity elements and processes within cells, as described by Dr. Donald Ingber, who heads a laboratory at Harvard Medical School.

This new paradigm provides ways to understand how babies and young children move with bones that are soft and only partly formed. We can now explain the performance and power of great athletes, and instances of ordinary folks performing remarkable feats of strength. We also gain insights into the way living beings self-organize at every level, from the single cell, to the bone or muscle or other tissue, to the whole organism. Biotensegrity has enormous potential applications for health, fitness, exercise, and medicine.

FlexAware is a perfect fit with biotensegrity. It’s applied biotensegrity.

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Integration, and a Call for Research

From gravity and basic anatomy, through physiology and neuroscience, to neuroplasticity and mirror neurons and biotensegrity, these ideas are mutually reinforcing. This is a coherent story about how we learn and move.

A major theme is the way we change throughout our lives. There are changes in our cells and our self-images. Changes in the way we align with gravity as we sit and walk; the way we breathe, particularly the mobility or lack of mobility in our ribs; and the way we sense and feel and think about our bodies, our movements, and ourselves.

This story and science can help us understand how and why changes occur throughout our lives. These insights empower us to change in the ways we desire.

Parts of the story are about young children. There was a time in our early lives when we were crawling. Through months of exploring and experimenting, we learned how to walk. And then how to run, skip, dance, and so on.

As young children learn to walk, they leave crawling behind. They outgrow crawling. With similar processes and practices, this story tells us, adults can learn to breathe freely and move easily, to be generally more aware and more skillful, and thereby to outgrow back pain, breathing problems, knee- and hip joint pain, headaches, depression, neurological disorders, and countless other conditions. Instead of seeing back pain, etc., as problems to be fixed or treated, we can consider them to be like crawling, conditions we can outgrow and leave behind.

This is the logic, potential, and promise of FlexAware. For many currently intractable health conditions, FlexAware movements bring rapid lasting progress. And potentially much lower health care costs.

Outcome studies and other research are invited.

(Whole article revised in August 2013, with further minor revisions in August 2015.)

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