Spiral Anatomy

spiraling DNA figureSpirals are embedded in every level of our being, from our DNA to the structure of our bones, ligaments and muscles. Learning to feel these spirals and take advantage of them is a major theme in the Feldenkrais work.  Realizing the flow and ease that come from moving with spirals has been one of the most enduring lessons I have learned in my own movement – one of those things that doesn’t go away even when I’m stressed and fall into all my old habits.

This is why my spirals workshops and classes are among my favorites, and why it’s one of the three of four themes I like to teach in my summer retreats at the World Fellowship Center. One of the things I don’t get to do all that much in my workshops, though, is to explicitly examine the anatomy which we so clearly learn to feel in our Awareness Through Movement lessons. So here’s an attempt to take a look a these spirals in writing. (Or scroll on down to the bottom of this post, if you just want a quick way to feel these spirals for yourself.)

The Spiral Hip

Nowhere are the spirals clearer (in both experience and anatomy) than in the hip joint.

Monta Ellis Spiral DunkRight femur, from behindUsually we Feldenkrais people think in terms of the interaction of bones and joints, but we’ll see how evident the spirals are in the ligaments and muscles as well.

Take a look at the thigh-bone (femur) itself. See how the head of the femur rises from the shaft like a basketball player jumping up from under the basket? This shape allows the femur to direct force from the feet up into the pelvis in just the right angle for the force to continue flowing up the spine (and, in the case of Monta Ellis over there, on out his right hand as he dunks the ball into the basket).

Hip joint ligaments

Staying with the hip for a moment, let’s zoom in to the joint itself, and take a look at the structure of the ligaments.  Note how they continue and follow the spiral in the femur on a smaller scale.


Now take a look at some of the muscles that surround the hip joint.  See the same line continuing?


Ilipsoas in context

When these muscles contract, they slacken the ligaments; when they relax and lengthen, those ligaments  prevent the leg from over-extending backwards (along with lots of other muscles we’re not looking at here).

These muscles also happen to be some of the largest and most powerful muscles in the body.  My teacher Jeff Haller points that the spiralic action of the hip joint is central to practically every powerful action in sports or martial arts (just think of a pitcher’s wind-up or a golfer’s swing).

Of course, the powerful spiraling hip joint is just as central in more mundane movements such as walking, running, or, to be more seasonal – raking leaves or shoveling snow.

Spirals everywhere else


Of course there are lots of spirals in the rest of the body as well.  Take a look at this collar bone, and think about how it translates twist in the spine into a twist in the arm.  There’s a particularly great Awareness Through Movement lesson that explores this which we tend to call “fencing”.

So here’s one final image to inspire you to spiral. How many can you spot?

Discover it for yourself!

It’s pretty easy to get the feel of these spirals. Try these movements and let me know how they work for you:

1. Reference movement:

This is a range of movement test frequently used by physical therapists. Stand comfortably, and raise your right arm in front of you, with your palm facing the floor (yeah, it’s the ‘Nazi salute’). How high does your arm go in this unnatural, direct way? What limits the movement? How comfortable is it in your shoulder?

2. Add a simple spiral:

This time, bring your hand up so your palm is a few inches from your face, with the fingers pointing up and the elbow hanging down. Several times let your hand come back down to hang by your side, and raise it up in front of your face again. Do you feel the beginning of a spiral? Feel how the hand, elbow, and shoulder each engage in turn?

Now begin to follow the path a bit higher with each movement. As your hand passes in front of your face, begin to allow the palm to turn to the left (so the thumb comes towards your face). As you follow the spiral higher, the hand will continue to turn until the palm is facing to the right. Allow your eyes and face to follow your hand, and the hand to turn as if you were changing a light bulb. Are you reaching a bit higher than you were when brought your arm straight up? Can you feel the spiral down to your feet?

3. Bring your hips into the spiral:

Next time you bring your arm down, instead of letting your hand hang by your right side, bend your knees and reach towards your left foot. You’ll be turning a bit to the left as you do this. Then reach up again to that imaginary light-bulb as you turn to the right again. Feel that spiral from your feet to your fingers now? Can you feel your hip joint swivel as you do it?

4. Reference movement and applications:

After a short rest, reach your arm up again in that ‘Nazi salute.’ Has your range of movement changed?

But, more to the point, why would you want to raise your arm like that when you could let it spiral? Imagine you’re reaching for something on a high shelf. Try reaching for it directly, and then introduce a slight spiral. Which do you prefer?

Now imagine what life could be like if all your movements had that smooth spiral feel. Where else could you apply what you’ve just learned? Make a suggestion in the comments!  (Here’s a hint to get you started: sit down at a table, and reach across it with your right hand, and then with your left. If you’ve done the exercise above on only your right side, your bound to feel the difference!)

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