By Laura Servid
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, January/February 2009.
The directive to “stand up straight” is a familiar instruction to properly present oneself in the world. The progression to an upright posture, in terms of both human evolution and individual development, ultimately demands a delicate balance of a complex structure. The question of what is the most correct and credible upright alignment can be debated, depending on perspective and particular school of thought. The subject of this article discusses the Aston-Patterning model of alignment, which is based on Judith Aston’s many years of teaching and observation.
An early observation from Judith Aston, a pioneer in the field of human ovement and body mechanics, was that regardless of how well people were trained into a “correct” alignment, they would only hold that posture when they were consciously on their “best behavior.” The correct posture seemed to be a forced position, involving appreciable tension, which often made people look stiff, uncomfortable, and less like themselves. Aston’s question, then, was why, if a posture is supposed to be correct and good for us, is it so difficult to maintain? Why don’t we see people naturally assuming this pattern? Aston’s investigations followed her keen sense of dimension and proportion and were based on her knowledge of both functional and expressive forms of movement. What has evolved today is an empirical understanding of human alignment that achieves delicate balance of the body structure and allows for easy and less effortful movement assisted by the forces of gravity and ground reaction force.
Looking at the familiar anatomical charts that describe the three planes of the body, the coronal plane is seen to bisect the body in halves: front and back. Using this as a reference, correct alignment seen from a side view may be described as a straight line, perpendicular to the earth, running through the ear, shoulder, mid-trunk, hip, knee, and lateral maleous. This representation of the body fits the model that describes the body structure in terms of straight lines and perpendicular planes.
Key in Aston’s view of alignment is the departure from the idea of a single line through points on the body to a three-dimensional concept of the body. The concept describes shapes rather than perpendicular planes. Her paradigm visualizes the body as a series of three-dimensional segments that are supported from the ground up.
Each body segment has an inherent optimal shape, differing somewhat from person to person, depending on their genetic makeup and personal history. The optimal placement of these parts is determined by first imagining the center of the mass of each segment, then considering how it would be best positioned over the segment below for its support and to support the segment above. When the structure is at its best, no single part “borrows” space from another, nor does it compromise the movement of another segment. The goal of this three-dimensional alignment is to balance the body over the feet in such a way that the whole structure can move together cooperatively.
Aston uses the three aspects of dimension to describe body segments. Those aspects are: length (the space from head to foot), width (the space through the body from side to side), and depth (the space through the body anterior to posterior). A person who is tall and thin can be described as having greater length, less width, and perhaps even less depth. A person who is short and heavy may be described as having less length and greater overall width and depth. If the heaviness takes the form of a “beer belly,” the dimension of depth may be greater than the dimension of width, and the depth to the front can be described as being greater than the depth to the back. Each individual segment can also be described in terms of these three dimensions. This is helpful in understanding the relationship of the segments to each other and to the whole body.
In Aston-Patterning, the external three dimensions describe the shape of the being, creating the boundaries for the internal dimension. It is the inner space created by these parameters that is vitally important to consider. This space is referred to as internal volume. The internal volume contains all the body structures and organs and can be thought of as the space in which they operate. Where the space is compromised, function is also compromised.
The analogy of a balloon can be used to better understand internal volume. The outside of the balloon shapes the space inside. If the balloon is pressed on one side, the space inside is changed—flattened or indented on the side under pressure. The pressure pushes into the space and increases the dimension of the opposite side. If the top and bottom of the balloon are compressed, the shape gains width and depth and loses length. If it is squeezed side to side, the length and the depth may be seen to increase. Pressure front to back will lessen the depth, making the shape wider and longer.
Of course, the body is not hollow on the inside like a balloon and contains relatively rigid skeletal structure mobilized by joints. The fascial system, the muscles and organs, however, are quite malleable and elastic. Individual segments and the whole body can take on varying shapes depending on the application of different forces. This is obvious when one observes that human beings, while having the same basic structure, come in an endless variety of shapes and sizes, each one an individual being. The integral tensions of the fascial and musculoskeletal systems organize and provide support for the whole structure, manifesting the whole person.
The resulting form, each person in their own shape, volume, and size, characterizes the individual physical body and offers indications as to the attitudes, emotions, and belief systems, all of which make up that person. Our shape, dimension, and alignment truly express the very essence of who we are. It was this individuality, Aston noticed, that was missing from a class of students all modeling “correct posture.”
Formula for Alignment
An unfolding of observations and discoveries shaped Aston’s formula for alignment. She first noticed that when one stands with the feet parallel to each other, a certain amount of tension occurs, wrapping the tissue around the hip joints into medial rotation. This also produces medial rotation of the tissue around the tibias. However, when the feet are in a slightly open stance— the heels directly under the ischial tuberosities and the forefoot turned out about 5–15 degrees, this tension is reduced. Studying the way the femoral head fits into the acetabulum, Aston notes that the slightly open stance matches the natural structure of the body. From the open stance, without excess tension either at the back or the front of the hip joint, the pelvis is allowed to come on top of the femoral heads. With the pelvis in a slight anterior tilt and sitting directly over the heads of the femurs, the spine becomes well supported. The thorax, then, moves forward slightly to relax over the pelvis, directly supporting the neck and head. With support from below, tension is not necessary to “hold the chest up” and the depth of the chest is supported by the depth of the forefoot. Finally, in this alignment, the shoulders rest on the rib cage, the arms hang easily, and tension is not required to hold the shoulders back. Building the structure from the ground up is logical when we consider that our bodies are structures on the earth. Each part rests on the one below and supports the part above. In this model, the standing body balancing over the feet can be set in motion easily by the transfer of weight hinging across the ankle.
The posture Aston describes is a dynamic resting point in relatively stationary balance with weight distributed over the whole foot. The shape of the body divided on the coronal plane is deeper anteriorly—that is, the rib cage is deeper to the front than the back and the head also has more depth to the front. When the body is slightly angled forward, this depth to the front is supported by the forefoot. Aston believes that in neutral alignment, the body is angled forward about 2–4 degrees, hinged across the ankle. This places the center of gravity over the arch of the foot, accessing a spring off the ground to support the body above. There is a subtle motion through the whole system that maintains our standing posture and keeps us ready for movement through space. If the body is aligned at 90 degrees, perpendicular to the earth, with the ear, shoulder, hip, knee, and ankle directly one over the other, the weight falls on the posterior third of the foot. Here, balance is achieved through tension rather than a subtly dynamic motion with capability for relaxation of the parts, each supported by and supporting the adjacent segments. This can be felt in the following exercise.
Stand comfortably straight with your weight about even right to left and the feet parallel. Align yourself in the familiar suggestion with your ear centered over your shoulder, shoulder over hip, hip over knee, and knee over ankle bone. Notice any tension necessary to maintain your alignment?
Now, allow a slightly open stance as described above. Let all segments of the body move slightly forward, hinging across the ankle, to bring the weight evenly over the balls and the heels of the feet. Is this a more relaxed posture?
Base of Support
Our foundation, or base of support (BOS), is an essential concept in the Aston system. Rather than thinking of the structure as hanging from an imaginary sky hook, which truly is imaginary, the focus is on the ground as support, both on which to rest and from which it is possible to push off. The BOS is described as the surface on which the weight of the body is resting. In standing, the BOS is the feet on the ground or the floor. In sitting, the primary BOS becomes ischial tuberosities on the chair as most of the body weight is on the seat. The secondary BOS is the feet on the floor, supporting a lesser amount of weight through the legs. The BOS can also be described in terms of one segment in relationship to the segment above. For example, the pelvis acts as a BOS for the abdominal segment, and the neck is the BOS for the head.
When each segment of the body can occupy its own space and rest on the one below, there is minimal tension required to maintain the alignment. However, compromises to the shape and placement of the segments are part of life’s impression on the body. Forces acting on the body can change the shape or dimension of a segment or alter the relationship of one segment to the adjacent segment. With displacement of one part relative to another, the nervous system supplies the necessary tension needed to keep the structure upright. The body can then be seen to take on compensating patterns of balance and counterbalance as the structure maintains itself moving through space and time. These compensatory patterns can be genetic or due to injuries, surgeries, postural habits, the result of attitudes, conformation to organizational rules, or fashion trends.
Over time, the patterns can create strain or stress on a part, uneven wear and tear on joint surfaces, and cause pain and discomfort.
Forces acting on the body and shaping its segments have a variety of sources. One of the most obvious and pervasive forces is gravity. The pull on physical mass toward the center of the earth is a constant force on the human structure affecting its dimensional shape. This downward pull tends to decrease length and cause compression of body segments on one another. Depending on the shape of a segment or the tension around that segment, the downward force may result in direct compression of two segments or a combination of compression with displacement. For example, if a pelvis is held in a posterior tilt, the tendency is for the pelvic segment to be placed back on the femurs and pulled down by gravity, resulting in a reduction of space at the back of the upper leg segment. In three-dimensional terms, the length at the back of the hip is reduced by compression, while the length at the front of the hip is increased. There is less depth between the lesser trochanter and the ischial tuberosity.
In another example with excess thoracic flexion, the neck segment tends to be pulled down and forward on the upper chest. Loss of dimension can be seen both in the front of the chest and in the back of the neck. The front of the chest can be described as losing both length and depth. Rounding of the shoulders forward results in loss of width as well. The internal space of the anterior chest is then compromised, putting pressure on the lungs and limiting mobility of the anterior ribs for respiration. At the back of the neck, the pull of gravity on the head creates compression on the posterior spine, creating the circumstance that is consistent with anterior disc protrusion, stenosis, or bone spurs.
Fortunately, gravity does not act alone. As with all actions, according to Newton’s law, there is an opposite reaction. Gravity has a counter force called ground reaction force (GRF). This counterbalance to gravity can be exaggerated by pushing against the earth which helps to increase length and lift the body structure away from the ground. The interplay between these forces and the human structure is at the heart of all Aston-Patterning movement, and is called Aston-Mechanics. Often, where gravity compresses and reduces the shape and space of a segment, the use of GRF can suspend and fill the space, reclaiming dimension.
The displacement of segments in anterior-posterior or left-right relationship, creates other forces in the body. These forces are tensile force, sheer force, and rotational force. In the above example of the posteriorly tilted pelvis, the force at the back of the hip joint may be described as compressive. However, at the front of the joint there may be a tensile force as the placement of the femur forward and the pelvis back creates a stretch across the Y-ligament. In the example of the neck being pulled forward on the upper chest due to thoracic flexion, the force between the segment of the upper chest and the neck segment, could be described as a sheer force, the neck sliding forward and down across the surface of the upper ribs. The twist that occurs when one segment turns forward in one direction and the next turns forward in the opposite direction, creates a rotational force between the two segments.
In the Aston three-dimensional view of alignment, the interface between two segments or a two-dimensional cross section through any part of the body is described as an aperture. An aperture is regarded as a space through which movement can occur, a plane across which weight and force can be transferred, or an open channel for communication between parts. When two segments are optimally aligned, the aperture is fully open, the segment above has a full BOS, and the communication between the segments in terms of blood flow, nerve conduction, and muscular work can occur without hindrance. Displacement and tension, as described in the forces above, squeeze the aperture, obstructing portions of it. When this happens, movement through the space is restricted and the BOS reduced. Take, for example, the tension created in a stance with the feet parallel. The tension created by the wrapping of the tissue into slight internal rotation makes movement though the anterior medial dimension of the hip joints more difficult. Tension through that section of the aperture restricts movement through it. That tension may hold weight bearing onto that medial aspect of the hip joint and limiting the base of support to that one area, rather than engaging the full dimension of the hip for support.
The ability of the nervous system to sustain upright balance of the human structure is truly amazing. Comfort and ease are often lost as the body works to balance and counterbalance all the segments and their specific tensions. Problems with tension or discomfort of one part are often due to an appropriate compensation for a shift in alignment of another part; until the overall shape of the body is brought into balance, the struggle will continue. Recognizing this relationship changes the clinical approach to solving a problem.
For instance, there is the common determination in posture that the head is held too far forward. Often, this is true of the neck and head in relationship to the upper chest. But if, as in a previous example, the thoracic spine is in flexion and the chest is centered behind the center of the pelvis, the forward neck and head may be appropriately held forward in balance to the parts below. In fact, the neck may be forward on the upper ribs, and the head may actually be held back on the neck. Moving the head back, then, is not indicated, and that effort can force too much weight to the back. The solution may be that the chest segment should be positioned forward, reclaiming dimension and providing the necessary BOS for the neck and allowing the head to find a more neutral position on the neck. With the chest forward in relationship to the pelvis and head, the position of the head is no longer an issue, strain on the neck is reduced, and the aperture through the corridor of the chest, neck, and head is open.
Relationships between segments and the balance of the whole are essential to our alignment. Each part acts as the BOS for the part above and, depending on the relationship, can create ease or tension. The part above has weight-bearing influence on the part below, and can, depending on its mobility and tone, allow or restrict movement of the segment below. When the alignment of the body segments is accurate, each segment holds its own shape and supports the segment above, so the downward pull of gravity need not displace the structure. Holding good posture does not mean stiffness and muscular effort against the pull of gravity. Instead it lets the structure rest into the pull of gravity and readies the body for GRF to spring up through the segments, affording length and decompression.
Aston-Patterning, as a form of treatment, is careful to assess the whole person with regard to their alignment and dimension in order to understand the problem of a particular part. The initial assessment is done in terms of seeing the segments of the body: their position in space both in relationship to the feet on the ground and in relationship to the other segments. Watching common movement patterns such as casual stance and walking can show where there is available space for movement and weight bearing and where those elements are not readily accessible. A specific form of palpation determines the areas of tension or lack of muscle tone that may need to be addressed in order to allow the structure an easier and more fluid access to balance and movement. Aston sessions are specifically designed to bring out the best three-dimensional shape available. Movement coaching helps the person feel the support of the structure on the ground or on the chair, allowing the body to yield to gravity, land, and push off the ground to facilitate motion. With balanced cooperation of the whole, the strain on specific parts is reduced, and often symptoms disappear.
Awareness of the full three-dimensional shape of one’s structure and movement through its spatial design can be enlightening and rewarding. Exploration into spaces that have been inaccessible, and movement along pathways that allow greater ease, give a sense of renewal and expand the possibility of expression. The understanding made possible through inquiring into and exploring the body’s truth contacts an inner wisdom in which the client is empowered to shape personal evolution. In the Aston paradigm, correct posture and good alignment are indicative of far more than the physical structure. They represent the place where the body rests comfortably and is well supported, allowing for the individual manifestation of dynamic balance and expression on many levels, and movement in any direction.