During Rolfing training, we spent a lot of time jumping. Why? Because, it turns out, people jump in distinctively different ways. While some of my colleagues seemed to shoot straight up in the air, as though shot out of a cannon, others (and here I include myself) seemed to take a counterintuitive approach, actually getting lower to the ground (for example, bending the knees, pushing the arms away) before we travelled upwards. These differences in our pre-movements seemed instinctive, or at least habitual. I could no more fathom how my more propulsive friends could shoot upwards so effortlessly than they could understand how we ground-oriented folks needed, in the not-quite-words of a song, to get down to get up.

Looking up between skyscrapers in downtown Manhattan

In a forest of skyscrapers in Manhattan

Hubert Godard, the French Rolfer whose insights into movement and dance have enriched our understanding of unconscious organisation of tone in the body (what he calls ‘tonic function’), has described two basic orientations to the world around us, which can be called ‘sky and ground’ (or space and ground). These patterns of orientation and resource, he argues, are deeply conditioned by our earliest intimate experiences of being held and touched, and by the landscapes (both natural and cultural) in which we find ourselves. He writes: ‘If you put somebody in front of a big mountain, the body will react. It will change the height of people without them noticing; they are activated by the context.’

A prairie in Wisconsin

A prairie in Wisconsin

If this is hard to imagine, consider the child who grows up in the wild, open spaces of the prairie compared to the child who grows up in downtown Manhattan: these landscapes generate entirely different experiences of space and horizon, and both the dangers and opportunities of these places are very different. I spent many years living in Cambridge (in the UK), and as a result I became very attentive to the presence of cyclists (I imagine people in Amsterdam develop a similar acuity); I also remember the profound expansiveness of the sky and a quality of light that I noticed when I lived in Brighton, close to the sea. As someone who grew up chiefly in a narrowly domestic and suburban environment (Northampton Chekhovian, if you will), almost entirely devoid of contact with natural landscapes (walking conceptualised as an unavoidable necessity between the multi-storey car park and the shopping mall), I continue to be struck by how I respond to certain kinds of space, certain kinds of activity.

My training made it clear that I am by pattern a ground-oriented person, better resourced in finding the ground than orienting myself in space. This has implications for the kinds of activities that I enjoy, and also for the way that I do things: for example, when I teach and practise yoga, it feels far more intuitive for me to build triangle pose from the ground up (planting my feet and legs carefully, before turning and rising to find the sky) than it does to start from the reach. I notice that yoga is very often taught by people who are sky-oriented (and who are frequently hypermobile, to boot), and this can leave the more ground-oriented among us at a loss, because we are discouraged from using the resources of our pattern to make the pose work for us. In the terms of yogic cosmology, we need to find not only prana but apana: the downward, rooting, ground-oriented energy that is also necessary for balance.

I recently did some Spring cleaning and came across a bundle of my old school reports. Two examples reminded me that my patterns of preference (for the ground over the sky) were established early on. If you’ve met me, you’ll know that I’m a small, speccy kind of woman and may imagine that I was a correspondingly small, speccy, studious kind of child not much given to athletic prowess. The day that my sports teacher suddenly introduced volleyball into our games session was not a day of glory for me. In fact, I found it a profoundly unnerving experience, requiring as it seemed that I look up the whole while (which made me feel less connected to my place of resource, the ground) with the continual prospect of being hit on the head by a ball. A minor version of aerial bombardment: that’s what volleyball is to me. I got so grumpy about the whole thing that I was actually taken aside by the teacher and told to buck up my ideas.

School report in which teacher despairs of my uselessness at volleyball

We will not dwell on the volleyball episode.

Conversely, the day that we played indoor hockey was a positive triumph. Give a short, ground-oriented girl a stick and tell her to focus on the ground, and all goes well. I remember feeling tremendously empowered by the whole experience (I’d also like to apologise to anyone who got clobbered by my hockey stick): here I was in my element.

My school report in which I triumphed at indoor hockey.

Give a short girl a stick, and lo, she will triumph.

Rolfing aims not at the building of a ‘perfect’ posture (whatever that might be) but at greater balance: between flexors and extensors, internal and external rotation, between lift and landing, sky and ground. We seek to develop a fuller repertoire of movement and possibility that nevertheless does not erase or deny our habitual patterns of movement and behaviour. These are also resources. My ‘groundedness’ is a resource that I can share with clients in whom this pattern is less developed; equally, I can relate to those who long for greater lift and reach. Rolfing is as much about making peace with one’s patterns as it is about ‘changing’ it. But change, too, is possible.


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