Biotensegrity and the Alexander Technique
Support through Suspension
Carol Boggs
September 2011

Ideas from anatomy and physics inform our AT teaching. The models we have in mind matter – a shift from machine mechanics to bio-life-affirming, resilient, architecturally inspired models can enrich our work.


Until recently, a common approach for many disciplines has been to think of the human body as a collection of segments or blocks arranged one atop the other with the goal being, to get the alignment just so and keep it there. Such an arrangement is known as an axial-loaded compression structure, which is gravity dependent, vertically oriented to gravitational up/down, with the bottom segments bearing the cumulative weight of everything stacked above them. This model works fine for brick walls, columns, and many buildings, but is not a suitable model for the support of the mobile human body.

It has taken a few decades for a different pattern of organization to infiltrate the thinking with respect to animate beings. It stems from the original work of Buckminster Fuller in the 1940’s with his ideas about the kinds of structures that equally distribute a weight-bearing load thereby reducing the density of the materials required. He coined the term “tensegrity”, a contraction of tensional integrity. By 1948, Kenneth Snelson, a young sculpture student having attended Fuller’s classes at Black Mountain College, constructed the first tensegrity structure. Snelson subsequently went on to construct numerous outdoor structures of large proportion all based on the principle of tensegrity, i.e. continuous tension and discontinuous compression. In Snelson’s tensegrity structure, which is the model for the human body, the support is supplied by a tensile network that suspends rigid struts or spacers which do not touch each other.

Tensegrity principles taken from architecture and sculpture became relevant to many looking at biological structures. Since 1978, Donald Ingber, MD, PhD has done considerable research on a micro level looking at tensegrity as revealed in cellular structures, namely cytoskeletons.

Over the past two decades, however, I have discovered and explored an intriguing and seemingly fundamental aspect of self-assembly. An astoundingly wide variety of natural systems, including carbon atoms, water molecules, proteins, viruses, cells, tissues and even humans and other living creatures, are constructed using a common form of architecture known as
tensegrity. The term refers to a system that stabilizes itself mechanically because of the way in which tensional and compressive forces are distributed and balanced within the structure. (Ingber 1998 p.2)

In 1975, Ron Kirkby PhD wrote an article “The Probable Reality Behind Structural Integration”. This is one of the first published applications of tensegrity principles to be applied to understanding the macro structure and support of the human body. As Kirkby was trained by Ida Rolf, he gave credit to her and to his instructor, Michael Salveson, for the original idea of beginning to apply the concept of tensegrity to the body. Dr. Stephen Levin, in conversation with Buckminster Fuller, learned that Fuller had talked about his own work to Ida Rolf. (Levin 2011, personal correspondence)

In 1982, after having worked with biological tensegrities since the mid 1970s, Dr. Stephen Levin, orthopedist and the pioneer of Biotensegrity, published “Continuous Tension, Discontinuous Compression: A Model for Biomechanical Support of the Body”.

It is the author’s contention that only in failure does the spinal column function as a
“stack of blocks”. The support system of the spine, and indeed the remainder of the body as well, is a function of continuous tension, discontinuous compression, so that the skeleton, rather than being a frame of support to which the muscles and ligaments and tendons attach, has to be considered as compression components suspended within a continuous tension network.
(Levin 1982, p.1)

The understanding of tensegrity structures has many distinct advantages when applied to biological systems. These structures are omni-directional and are stable in any direction and independent of gravity. When applied to animated beings the structural system is maintained whether functioning as a biped or quadruped; prone, supine or standing upside down; on the ground, under water or in a spaceship. The laws of leverage act differently when applied within the tensegrity system so that forces generated are dissipated and may actually strengthen the structure much as prestressed concrete or a wire under tension. External forces applied to the system are distributed throughout it so that the “weak link” is protected. The forces generated at heel strike as a 200 pound linebacker runs down the field, for example, could not be absorbed solely by the
os calcis but have to be distributed – shock absorber-like – throughout the body. (Levin 1982, p.1, 2)

Although some of the rigid components of a tensegrity system may “kiss,” it does not mean that they are in compressive opposition to one another. Axial loads were applied to joints in live subjects under anesthesia during surgical intervention of a variety of conditions. Joint studies included the knee, ankle, elbow and metatarsal-phalangal joints. In our studies at no time could the articular surfaces of these joints be forced into contact with one another as long as the ligaments remained intact. Although the study may lack elements of sophistication, it is readily reproducible by any surgeon. (Levin 1982, p. 3)

It was Kirkby’s 1975 article that stimulated my own thinking about support. As a result, over the years I have suggested to my Alexander Technique students that the body is much more like a pup-tent than a brick wall. Being upright is not about stacking units one on top of another using axial-loaded compression to create support. Rather, support comes from the dynamic balancing of the tensile forces (muscles) in relation to the struts (bones) of the body. In my tent analogy the structure is tethered to the ground, creating a mix of gravity dependence with the play of tensile forces against the struts. It took several more years for me to develop the understanding that the human body is a complete tensegrity system that is not dependent on gravity for creating and sustaining structural integrity. Not to say that gravity is irrelevant, but rather that it is a force acting upon the tensegrous structure resulting, under the best of conditions, in an efficient and resilient interaction. The interplay of the tensile forces of the musculature acting with the spacers or struts of the bones creates a dynamic balancing act; in short we are complete, free-standing, biotensegrity systems. Of course the fine tuning of this system is where AT practices can make the best use of an already well-designed, dynamic structure.

Three Governing Principles

The idea of ones bones in suspension brings about a spacious, fluid possibility and can immediately introduce lightness in the body due to an inhibitory undoing, as well as triggering an improved tensile support response. This couples nicely with our classic AT processes of inhibition and direction.
In order to fully appreciate this, we need to consider a few principles governing biotensegrous systems before we dive into how gravity acts as an external force or stimulus to which we can have either a conscious or subconscious response.

1. Hierarchy, Self Assembly and Self Regulation

The body is not one tensegrity, but billions of tensegrities operating as one… there is a constant realignment and shifting of tensegrities in response to all kinds of external forces including gravity. This arrangement is hierarchical. (Levin 2011, personal correspondence)

… large molecules self assemble into cellular components known as organelles, which self-assemble into cells, which self-assemble into tissues, which self assemble into organs. The result is a body organized hierarchically as tiers of systems within systems. (Ingber 1998, p.2)

There are strong and tight tensegrities, and weaker looser tensegrities within the system due to physiologic response to both internal and external forces. (Levin 2011, personal correspondence) As Levin states, the structure of the basic building block is the icosahedron. (Levin 1981, p.6.6).

Dr. Levin also states that rhythmic patterned exercise is a primary way to “reset” the tensegrities in the body.
Rhythmic patterned exercise is the most efficient use of the muscular system and, if the body is free to do so, it will reset the body’s tensegrities during those movements; it becomes a self-regulating mechanism. If the system has been out of balance because of injury or whatever [misuse], then enlisting the body’s most energy efficient movement patterns should restore the system. (Levin 2011, personal correspondence). As you change the shape of the body you realign the tensegrities; you are not changing the shape of the structural parts. (Levin 2009, lecture notes).

The key in the above paragraph is “if the body is free to do so”. There may be yet another way to “reset” the body’s tensegrities. Within the Alexander Technique we are forever encouraging the most energy efficient movement patterns utilizing inhibition and direction. There is a decided change in the body’s organization in response to constructive conscious thought often resulting in the experience of ease and lightness while diminishing the pressures from excess tension and/ or collapse. Rhythmic patterned exercise while applying the principles of the Alexander Technique can result in an even better “resetting” of the tensegrities.

2. Network for Communication

Tensegrity accounts for the ability of the body to absorb impacts without being damaged. Mechanical energy flows away from a site of impact through the tensegrous living matrix. The more flexible and balanced the network [the better the tensional integrity], the more readily it absorbs shocks and converts them to information rather than damage. (Oschman 2000, p. 64)

Muscular balance is the outward and visible sign that vital communications and energy flows are functioning freely. By communications, we are referring to the flow of body fluids, the flow of neural impulses and the flow of vibrations through the semi-conducting tensegrous living matrix. These are the vibrations that convey information needed for the support system to adapt itself to the way it is being used, and to repair injuries. In a balanced [balancing] and communicating body, various kinds of vibratory information percolate through out the body and into every cell and nucleus. (Oschman 2000, p. 166)

Ordinarily, we think of the nervous system as exclusively responsible for the communication of information. We need to broaden our view to understand that the matrix creating the architectural structures in a living organism, responsible for sustaining structural integrity, have their own network of communication.

This network is independent of the nervous system and conveys vibrations or oscillations due to the 3-D close packing [It is the way oranges stack in the grocery store] that happens with the development of all biological material. The oscillations can be sound, electromagnetic, thermal, energy transfer, information and non-linear pump pressure (pressure goes up when compressed unlike car tire pressure which remains the same on or off a lift rack). With every cell in the body being connected to every other cell, the communication speed is much faster than in neurological messaging. (Levin 2009, lecture notes)

3. Pre-Stressed Elements

The use of a model made with rubber bands and plastic straws to demonstrate tensegrity principles, is useful in the first steps of moving away from thinking about our structure as “stacked” and toward understanding our structure as “suspended”. It also helps to demonstrate the quality of resilience, tissue plasticity and pliability. In the tensegrity model that is relevant to animate organisms (as opposed to the tensegrity of the geodesic dome) the tensile components are pre-stressed and the structure deforms/shrinks symmetrically. [Insert fig. 1]

… structural members that can bear only tension are distinct from those that bear compression. Even before one of these structures is subjected to an external force, all the structural members
are already in tension or compression – that is they are pre-stressed. Within the structure, the compression-bearing rigid struts stretch, or tense, the flexible, tension-bearing members, while those tension-bearing members compress the rigid struts. (Ingber 1998, p.3).

This means that with increased stress or pressure the structure gets stronger, the tensile forces become more taught, diverting the stress away from the weakest elements and spreading it over a larger territory. The rubber band/straw model is pre-stressed and deforms symmetrically, but only within a short range. Beyond that range it gives-way too much getting weaker not stronger, even though it does recover its form when external pressure is relieved.

All biologic tissues, cells, and sub-cellular structures are pre-stressed. Muscle tone is a prime example of intrinsic stress. (Levin 2011, personal communication). Studies by Nachemson,
Tkaczuk, Kazarian and others have shown what is described as “pretension”, indicating that the ligamentum flavum, anterior longitudinal ligament, and posterior longitudinal ligament are under tension when the spine is in a neutral position. At no time are these ligaments completely lax, indicating a continuous tension state. Kazarian describes that when the vertebral bodies are held together only by the intervertebral discs, after having cut the anterior and posterior longitudinal ligaments, the vertebral column expands, as would be expected in a tensegrity system if some of the tension members are cut. (Levin 1982, p.3)

With regard to the role of the spine in supporting uprightness in the torso, the balance of the tensile forces of muscle tonicity and spinal ligaments in relation to the vertebral column creates a suspension system.

Each vertebral body in a spine bears a formal topological resemblance to a stellated tetrahedron. A sequence of these tetrahedrons suspended as a tensegrity mast can illustrate the equivalent spinal properties of load bearing combined with flexibility and rotation. In this description the vertebral mast is suspended by means of ligaments and muscles from the pelvis. A full length tensegrity spine can demonstrate the identical function and form as depicted in the anatomical drawings of Frank H. Netter, MD. (Flemons 2005, p. 1.3)

At the macroscopic level, the 206 bones that constitute our skeleton are pulled up against the force of gravity and stabilized in a vertical form by the pull of tensile muscles, tendons and ligaments (similar to the cables in Snelson’s sculptures). (Ingber 1998, p. 3)

Gravity as Stimulus

Experts and researchers in the field of tensegrity and Biotensegrity all agree that tensegrous structures are independent of gravity in sustaining support of the structure. For those of us in the Alexander Technique arena this is a challenging notion. Clearly gravity is an inescapable force. Taking a look at how animate beings interact with gravity may shed some light on this perplexing idea.

Considering gravity as a stimulus, we can either have a conscious or a subconscious response. We can experience the downward pull toward earth’s center and be dragged down a bit toward collapse, or brace against the pull with excess tension. This would be a subconscious response resulting in creating a habit of imbalance within the supporting tensile network. Within the Alexander Technique the remedy lies in developing a constructive conscious response to gravity as a stimulus. Part of this conscious response recognizes that gravity is only half the equation; counterthrust needs to be seen as an active force in opposition to the downward pull. Considering gravity without counter-thrust tends to leave one with the perception of downward weighted heaviness. It becomes burdensome to drag around the weight of the body. Many in our culture perceive gravity as an enemy rather than an ally. When there is an acknowledgement of counter-thrust, then gravity becomes a force that keeps us in contact with the ground ready to receive support. With the body’s weight being pulled toward the earth’s center, it is stopped by the earth’s surface giving a counter-thrust back up, “or in a physicist’s terms: resting objects exert force against their supports and at the same time the supports exert an up-thrust against the object resting upon them.” (Dietschy 2008, p.147).

If the Alexander Technique principles of inhibition can be understood as opening the pathway, and direction as sending the thought through the pathway, then the upcoming counter-thrust can move through an open system to help stimulate an improved balance of the tensile forces. Understanding the synergetic interplay between biotensegrous structures and gravitational pull/counter-thrust helps us to better comprehend what is being accomplished in applying the Alexander Technique to ourselves and in our teaching. Interestingly enough, Walter Carrington referred to “elastic bracing” as a desired pattern of organization (Nicholls 2005, lecture notes). This seems quite in keeping with the principles of tensegrity.

Alexander Technique teachers are consistently encountering students who carry too much habitual excess tension and/or exhibit a lack of support moving toward collapse. Most of us have a blend of these two issues, but often there is a predominance of one or the other. If one lives more toward the collapse end of the spectrum it is tempting to overdo the enlistment of support. Thinking the Alexander Technique directions is helpful, especially when clear and specific spatial intensions are cultivated. The all too familiar “torso back and up” can be complemented and clarified by thinking from “pubic bone to T12”. When this is combined with the thought “around the ribs, up the sternum and out the collar bones” (Charlsen 2009, personal communication), the direction becomes more three dimensional, enabling more interior volume and eliciting an improved resilient support.

We know that what we think affects our subtle coordination patterns. The matrix of images that permeates how we think about support in the body makes a difference. Even if your teaching doesn’t include sharing these ideas with your students, what informs your own thinking about support may benefit from considering the Biotensegrity model.

Annotated Bibliography

Charlsen, Lyn. Conversation at Sweet Briar AT residential course, 2009.

Dietschy, Doris. (2008) ‘One Plus One Makes Three: Buckminster Fuller’s Principles of
Complementary Forces as a Way to Understand Our Ability to Balance and Move.’
The Congress Papers: 8th International Congress of the F.M. Alexander Technique,
vol. 1, pp.144-149.

Flemons, Tom. (2005) ‘Vertebral Masts: Biotensegrity Modeling of the Spine’
http://www.intensiondesigns.com Models: Tetrahedral Vertebral Mast, Quick reference Sheet

Flemons, Tom. (2007) ‘The Geometry of Anatomy’
Resource page, last entry. Consulted 23 February 2010

Fuller, B.
Synergetics (1975) New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc.

Goldsworthy. Andy.
Stone (1994) New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers. Quintessential
master of the axial loaded compression structure. Highly recommended DVD: ‘Rivers and

Guimberteau, M.D., Jean-Claude. (2005) ‘Strolling Under the Skin: Images of Living Matter
Architectures’ DVD. In vivo video showing the plasticity and tensegrity of living
fascial tissues.

Holmes, Bob. (2010) ‘The Healing Touch’. In
New Scientist, Feb. 13. pp. 37-39. Science writer
reporting on latest discoveries about how tissues develop.

Ingber MD, PhD, Donald E. (1998) ‘The Architecture of Life’. In
Scientific American, Jan. pp.1-12.
Head of Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Researches
tensegrities on the cytoskeleton level.

Juhan, Deane. (1998)
Job’s Body. Station Hill, Barrytown. Excellent chapter on connective tissue
including brief pages on tensegrity.

Kirkby PhD, Ron. (1975) ‘The Probable Reality Behind Structural Integration.’ Bulletin of Structural
Integration, vol.5, no. 5, pp. 5-15. One of the first to publish about tensegrity and human body

Levin MD, Stephen. (1981) ‘The Icosahedron as a Biologic Support System’.
Proceedings, 34th Annual
Conference on Engineering in Medicine and Biology, v. 23, September 21-23, Houston, Texas.

Levin MD, Stephen. (1982) ‘Continuous Tension, Discontinuous Compression: A Model for
Biomechanical Support of the Body.’
Bulletin of Structural Integration, vol. 8, no.1, spring-
summer, pp. 1-5. Pioneered the field of Biotensegrity.

Levin MD, Stephen. 2005-06. DVD: ‘Biotensegrity & Dynamic Anatomy’. Available on website

Levin MD, Stephen. (2009) ‘Biotensegrity Seminar’, lecture notes.

Levin MD, Stephen. (August 2009- Sept 2011) Email correspondence.

Nicholls, John. (2005) ‘The Carrington Way of Working’, lecture notes.

Oschman PhD, James. (2000)
Energy Medicine. Elsevier Science Limited. Writes re: whole system
networks that form the human body and uses the tensegrity principle as theoretical framework.

Snelson, Kenneth. (2009)
Forces Made Visible. Lenox, Massachusetts: Hard Press Editions.