Debunking Body Tensegrity (Video)

Alexander Technique teachers aren’t alone among somatics practitioners in thinking that tensegrity is a good model for the musculoskeletal system. In this 20-minute talk first given to Australian Alexander Technique teachers during their 2018 Science and the Alexander Technique Webinar, Patrick Johnson goes in-depth on tensegrity. He shows that the tensegrity is biomechanically suspect and should not be taken literally by Alexander technique teachers.

Note from Patrick: This video generated lots of comments when first posted on YouTube. I have since edited the video (cut a few sections that were too confrontational in tone) and taken it down from YouTube. However all comments made on the original video can be found at this link and are relevant to the current version. Feel free to comment further below!

21 thoughts on “Debunking Body Tensegrity (Video)

  1. Hi, I hope this ‘thread’ is still live. I appreciate your critiques, and they are helping me address this feeling that biotensegrity may be a step in the right direction, but is still a vast oversimplification. One intuitive thought about the spinal model, perhaps you could help me clarify my thinking. In short, the spine is not isolated from the rest of our structure… Regardless of what the official biotensegrity ‘claims’ may be, would it be feasible to think of the two types of elements more as variables than as black/white? Does a stiffened muscle itself become non-compressible for other ‘purposes’, perhaps along an orthogonal dimension? Or the lateral pressure of a contained fluid, when it is less compressible than the force exerted against it? I realize my thinking is unclear, still developing my thoughts. Are you still there?

    1. Yes it can. A stiff muscle can protect against an external force or over flexing a joint just by “getting in the way”. Also, otherwise soft and squishy stuff can resist deformation when squeezed from all sides, like the gel in a disk or the guts when the abdominals are toned.

  2. I have to admit I have never consciously really known what Tensegrity specifically was ! i.e. what this word meant. ( I have seen teachers use the models sometimes and seen and heard the word ) so thank you for a great explanation and the extra info surrounding the explanation and also for the extremely clear and concise debunk. It has already made me start to rethink some of the ways I may explain how the Alexander Technique works and also how I teach and my own practice as I think this notion has possibly rubbed off on me in some shape or form without knowing.

    1. Hi Catharine
      Thanks for the nice feedback!
      You are not alone in being vague about the definition. I’ve used the most common and well defined definition, and focused the video on the claim that soft tissue can decompress the joints when they have more tension. Others use a broader definition, but often never really say exactly what that definition is. If you want to dive down the rabbit hole with some tensegrity proponents have a look at the original discussion from the original youtube video.
      I hope to make a follow up video summarizing the broader defintions and why they are flawed, and simpler explanations for various spreading effects that you can use in your practice.

      1. Thank you – that is interesting, and maybe why I have never previously got to grips with tensegrity. I will definitely have a look at the original youtube video link and look forward to the follow up. Feel so fortunate to be able to update + expand my knowledge
        and look towards new horizons P.S. Have just watched the other groups 6 pm Q + A for wk 5 , what a great discussion !

    1. Hi Malcolm
      I’m not sure I completely understand your question. As you know, muscles, ligaments, tendons and fascia all have a degree of springiness so that when they are stretched, especially when stretched quickly to the extremes, they can convert kinetic energy into potential energy which can then be released. I.e. effortless recoil. How much they deliver depends on the thickness and location. In gait, I can imagine that the Achilles tendon and plantar fascia both play a big role. Some of the hype about superficial fascia overestimates it’s contribution to springiness. It plays a role in creating spring action but usually not as big as the muscle it encases.
      What kind of model were you looking for? Was the a particular kind of springiness that you are trying to describe and explain?

  3. Liked the video and explanation as well as the comments that followed. It is an enriching journey of continuous learning and checking held assumptions

  4. James S. and Lynne Conway requested that I repond to a critique of this video posted on the public youtube video link made by a Brazilian Professor. After checking first with Lynne I posted a complete 2000 word essay on the youtube site. For those interested, please view the comments there at . Enjoy!

  5. A response from Sergio Teixeira da Fonseca on the youtube video. If would be great to hear Dr. Johnson’s thoughts regarding Sergio’s comment. Thank you!

  6. Thanks Patrick, very interesting, clear and helpful. Any pointers as to where to start looking for the other models you refer to which explore non-localised tone? Many thanks!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Joanna. If you have the time and funds, sign up for our 7 week webinar starting in a couple of weeks (I’m not sure we’ve posted the ad yet, but it is happening). If not, try to read the rather technical paper from 2017 by Alison and Ian Loram.
      I hope to create a followup video addressing this question soon. Also, look up open and closed kinetic chains and think about the overlapping multijoint nature of back muscles.

  7. Thank you for this clear explanation. I had heard you and Tim talking about it and so I ‘knew’ it was an at best incorrect model. I have a couple of the toys and sometimes use them mainly to show that if you distort a structure in one area it affects the whole. One reason I didn’t ever like the idea of the tensegrity model for us humans was that it seemed to suggest that pressure on our bones was bad, when we know that bones stay stronger if they are weight-bearing.

  8. Thank you very much, Patrick, for this clear presentation. I appreciate how you both acknowledge the attraction of tensegrity as a pedagogical tool for AT professionals— for example, how you separate the use of a tensegrity toys as a teaching tool as a metaphor for spring and bounce for our students from the reality of our actual musculoskeletal anatomical systems. What I take away from your clarifications in a nutshell is: 1) tensegrity structures exist; 2) ‘biotensegrity’ as a theoretical explanation of our musculoskeletal system is false. To me, this embraces both how human beings need — and crave! — metaphors, images, and ‘stories’ to stimulate, activate, and retain learning, while at the same time we can acknowledge that these are indeed useful acts of imagination, if you will, that motivate and enliven us.

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