THE MYTH OF THE CORE
"We can throw away the habits of a lifetime in a few minutes if we use our brains" F M Alexander
The Idea of the "Core": Simple or simplistic?
If you watch the news, sooner or later you are likely to see a segment about physical fitness, in which a fit, muscular person exhorts you to strengthen your core. Or go to a gym, and you may get similar advice from a personal trainer. Every day, all over our country, people are diligently working to improve their core strength.
But what if the whole idea of the core is a myth-a myth that is actually harmful to our fitness and well-being?
I have taught the Alexander Technique for over 25 years, and my experience in fostering the psycho-physical well-being of my clients has led me to believe that this fixation on the core is a fundamentally misguided-maybe even destructive-idea.
Perhaps one reason that this core obsession became so widespread in our culture - despite no empirical studies verifying its existence - is that it makes a kind of intuitive sense. Many people feel that they lack a “core,” either physically or emotionally, or both. They may feel weak, unstable, stiff, awkward, and a great distance from where they want to be. And many suffer from stress, back pain, poor posture, and other problems with their bodies. The idea that you can become strong, fit, and confident by holding yourself in a certain way and strengthening specific groups of muscles - literally trying to create a feeling of a strong, secure core - may, at first, seem attractive and simple to put into practice. But think a little more deeply, and you may see that it is more simplistic than simple, an unthought-out reaction to a more fundamental feeling of weakness.
Individual Muscles versus Total Pattern of Organization
Research the idea of the core, and you will find that, despite the clarity of the word, it is a very nebulous concept in practice. Conflicting definitions are the norm: some locate the core in the abdominals, some in the back, some in the whole trunk. So rather than taking up each definition in turn, I will examine the underlying view which they all share: namely, that there is some set of muscles that can be strengthened through exercise or concentrated on and held to create better posture during daily activities. This approach will, it is claimed, stabilize our bodies, protect us from injury, and improve our level of fitness.
By contrast I want to suggest a completely different way of thinking about and relating to the body, one which may be unfamiliar to many people, and will imply a radically different approach to our problems. In order to adequately contrast this approach to the idea of the core, I will need to examine it in some detail. I want to be clear that I am not criticizing the idea of exercise for general fitness, but the notion of using exercises or focusing on specific muscular efforts to change deep habits of postural behavior.
Analyzing the posture and movement of any person will reveal weaknesses and imbalances - the body may be too weak in one area, too tight in another, held forward, backwards, right, or left. These imbalances often create stress, pain, and restrictions in movement and flexibility. But if we try to correct the imbalances superficially, we will be doing more harm than good. Before rushing off to "strengthen" ourselves and "correct" the problem, we need more awareness and understanding of what the problem actually is. Is it how to correct individual imbalances, how to strengthen weak muscles and release tight ones? Or, instead of narrowing our gaze to individual muscles or joints, is it understanding how the body is coordinated as a whole so we can change our habits effectively?
A muscle may be weak or tense because that is its role within the total, complex pattern of how a person has habituated to using the body. So it can't be changed in isolation from the whole pattern, and in fact may be a symptom of imbalance rather than a cause. To use an analogy, if a bridge is built with strong materials but an unsound design it will be weak and unsafe. So with our bodies: the pattern of how we use them as a whole—the living design, so to speak—is far more important to our fitness and well-being than the simple strength of our muscles in themselves. With that in mind, let us look at the underlying structure of our body to see if there is some key to changing its fundamental patterns.
Organizational Forces: Up Versus Down
At the most basic level we have a skeleton as a frame to which are attached muscles by way of tendons. The muscles are activated for movement by the brain via impulses carried through the nervous system.
This description is true as far as it goes. However, the key to better understanding and changing deep patterns of imbalance and poor coordination is a factor that neither our exercise culture nor our ordinary scientific understanding of the body recognizes at all; that is, whether the general orientation of the body is “upward” or “expanding” versus “downward” or “contracting.”
This factor introduces us to what I will call the "organizational forces" of the body, which are analogous to the design of the bridge in my earlier example. This aspect of our bodies is recognized by various disciplines such as Tai Chi, Yoga, some forms of meditation, and my own area of expertise, the Alexander Technique. These disciplines acknowledge, in different ways and with varying degrees of clarity, that our overall coordination, as well the level of our general functioning and well-being, depend on how the organizational forces are operating. The word "body" suggests an objective "thing" that is the same for everyone, but the actual experience of the body differs radically depending on what forces are organizing it, from lightness, ease, and confidence with the upward orientation, to heaviness, tension, and distress with the downward direction.
The "upward orientation" is natural, biologically-given. It is manifested in babies and in animals by the fluidity, grace, and wholeness of their movements, and by their erect yet effortless posture. Underlying this upward tendency is the finely-coordinated working of the spine and the postural muscles which run along it, creating a unified support for the body.
To make these forces more concrete, imagine setting up a tent that has a center pole to provide upward support. Remove the center pole, and the tent will still stand, supported by the poles at the corners, but it will be twisted and shortened. Unless the center pole is put back in place, no "correction" of any of the resulting distortions will be able to restore the tent's proper shape and function.
In a well-coordinated body which is functioning according to its design, the spine and the postural muscles provide the central uplift and support, which creates a general expansion throughout the rest of the body as the center pole does for the tent. This set-up creates maximum freedom, mobility, and ease in the body and can be described as an "upward" orientation.
By contrast, in a poorly coordinated body that lacks the uplift of the spine, support and balance are provided by holding muscles and joints tightly together and creating fixity at the joints. This "downward" orientation represents an interference with our natural, upward orientation, an interference which is found in most people in the modern world, usually showing up by about the age of five, or even younger. In the earliest, most impressionable years of childhood, we unconsciously absorb the patterns of our culture from our parents and peers, including, for nearly everyone, this interference with the natural way of using and relating to our bodies. Once we have absorbed this interference, it becomes the constant, habitual way of organizing our bodies. It distorts all our reactions and movements, fragmenting our experience of our bodies and creating mental and physical stress. And it underlies the myriad musculoskeletal ailments that beset us, from back pain to repetitive stress injuries, from breathing problems to balance problems.
Muscular Patterns Underlying the Downward Orientation
Remember, as described above, that in a well-functioning body, all the muscles running along and parallel to the spine, the postural muscles, coordinate together to support the spine, and therefore the body. But in a downwardly oriented body, the spine becomes segmented functionally, each section working at odds with its neighbor. This segmentation is the immediate cause of the weakness of the back and therefore of the whole body. For example, let us examine a typical case of someone standing with a forward neck, a rounded upper back (kyphosis) and an over-arched lower back (lordosis).
Beginning with the neck, the postural muscles along the back of the neck overwork, which, along with overwork in the muscles in the front of the neck, cause it to arch too far forwards. At the same time, overwork of the muscles in the back of the neck where they attach to the skull retract the head back into the neck, creating further compression and stress on the neck from above. The next section of the spine, the thoracic, rounds back, due to overwork in the muscles of the chest and underwork of the muscles in the back of the spine. And finally, the muscles of the lower back overwork, which, along with overwork of the psoas in the front of the lower back vertebrae, cause the lower back to arch too far forwards.
This is a simplified picture, but it demonstrates that the weakness of spinal support is due to the lack of a coordinated working of the postural muscles, along with interferences from other muscles extrinsic to the spine. Again, the problem is not weakness of the individual muscles, many of which, as pointed out, are actually overworking. Instead of an evenly distributed working of the postural muscles along the spine, this segmented and spastic working of the musculature subverts the unified support of the spine and results in what I have described as a downwards orientation in the body: the "center pole" is not supporting the body.
The Brain Orchestrates the Body's Organization
Although it has so many destructive consequences at so many levels, this interference originates from a mental change. The "posture" which it creates may appear fixed and simply physical, but there is always some fluctuation in the degree of interference from day to day, and even moment to moment: it is not fixed and static. This is because the brain is constantly orchestrating the underlying functioning of the spine. I use the word "orchestrate" to highlight the complexity, changeability, and "mental" quality of the messages from brain to postural muscles. As a conductor keeps the members of his orchestra working in harmony through constant, precise promptings, so the brain must constantly coordinate the firing of all the postural muscles along the spine to organize its function as a unified support for the body - or to disorganize it in the case of the downward direction. This support has nothing to do with the brute force of individually strong muscles - it is about precise coordination and timing - the "living design" discussed above. Just as a slight deviation in the rhythm of a conductor's promptings could ruin an orchestra's performance, so a subtle shift in the way the brain coordinates its messages to the postural muscles can switch the body from a harmonious upward direction to a destructive downwards one - the segmented spine discussed above.
I do not mean to suggest that this orientation, whether "upwards" or "downwards," is directed from the level of the conscious intellect. On the contrary, it takes place deep in the brain, beneath the emotional and intellectual level, a level of which we are, usually, completely unaware. But because it takes place in the brain - where all complex skills and activities originate - and because it can be changed through a mental process of observation and intention, I will refer to it as a "conception" or "idea".
It may be an unfamiliar way of thinking, but the "downward orientation" is really one way, a disordered way, that the brain can conceive of how to deal with balance and movement, and the "upward orientation" is another, an integrated way. It is one of the miracles of our brains that they can conceive of a way of coordinating our bodies that is contrary to its design. The tiniest shift in conception, a change in attitude from an innate trust in the body's design to a confused mistrust, gets carried out and amplified through all levels, from the most mental to the most physical, until our whole body gets drawn away from its natural orientation. For most people, once the downward tendency has become habitual, the upward direction remains buried and inaccessible. But because the source of the problem lies in the brain, it is not fixed and final: there is always the possibility of change.
The Internal Perception of our Bodies is Distorted
For an example of what this downward orientation looks like in practice, imagine someone sitting slumped in front of a computer, and think of the pressure this way of sitting puts on the body. Think of how it must restrict breathing and diminish vitality. Imagine as well the narrowing of the general field of awareness so that the focus is almost exclusively on the computer screen. This is not a biologically advantageous state to be in, mentally or physically. There is so little awareness of what is happening in the body that this person could be causing serious damage to him or herself without even feeling it.
How could our self-perception be so unreliable? The internal awareness of our bodies is commonly referred to as our "kinesthetic sense." All perception is based on change and movement. When the body is downwardly oriented, the general fixity of the body obstructs the subtle movements of postural organization which would register in the background of our bodily awareness. The kinesthetic sense is therefore missing so much background awareness that it presents us with a static, fragmented, and inaccurate perception of our bodies. All that is left is a rough awareness of the position of the body and the degree of tension in some of the muscles.
We may feel, for example, some tension in the shoulders, some discomfort in the hip, or notice the postural position of our body as we slump. So we approach our body in a piecemeal way: we might try to relax the shoulders, change the position of the hip, or straighten up to counteract the slump. But we have no overall awareness of the constantly changing, subtle forces at work behind these fragmentary experiences of our bodies. We have no sense of our bodies as an integrated, living whole.
If we review the basic idea of the "core", we see that it is based on this same fragmentary awareness of the body. It is focused either on trying to strengthen or directly control isolated groups of muscles, or trying to hold the body in a different position. There is no understanding of the general organizational forces at work, and no awareness of the need to change the habitual downward interference .
Our Destructive Habits Are Unconscious
But the difficulty in trying to change the habit of downward interference is that the shift from upward to downward happens at such a deep level and begins at such a young age that it is completely unconscious in adults. Since this tendency has become habitual, we don't feel how it is causing us harm: again, our kinesthetic sense has become distorted. We have become so habituated to tension, stress, and excess effort that they feel natural and right. Unless our awareness deepens to a level where we can re-examine this shift in orientation, our movements and reactions will keep repeating the same patterns.
This, then, is the essence of the problem and is the dilemma so many people are in: The mere intention to move automatically stimulates the downward habit of excess tension and stress, yet we have no awareness that this is happening. The sense of willpower and control that we enjoy in our daily activities masks the fact that all of our actions take place via this unconscious habitual interference. Because we can decide, say, to lift our arm—an action that we know how to do habitually—it doesn't mean we can also decide to move our arm in a new, non-habitual way, free from the downward tendency. Our will is actually only effective in the very constrained arena circumscribed by our habits.
Now, imagine what happens when we decide to do some core exercises designed to correct our perceived weakness or imbalance. We will simply perform them according to the same unconscious pattern that underlies all our activities, no matter how cleverly designed the exercise, or how perfectly presented the instruction. Or if we are told to correct our posture by working our core, we will tighten some groups of muscles, guided by the same fragmentary and distorted awareness that is causing our problems in the first place. Our posture might look better, but no fundamental change in our habitual orientation has taken place, and we will usually tire of the efforts we have been making. There are cases in which people find that holding and stiffening muscles in the trunk does make certain activities easier, such as weight lifting. But this is only because their bodies have become so unstable that creating an artificial and forced stability is the only way they know how to compensate for the lack of the natural support of the upward orientation. This is a crutch, not a solution, not a change in habitual orientation. And this added tension will only lead to injuries and damage in the long run.
In other words, as discussed above, the problem does not lie in the body (considered as muscles, ligaments, bones, tendons) but in the brain; more specifically, in the way the brain carries out its image of the design of the body. Unless the brain changes its fundamental conception from downward to upward, no matter how much we exercise, or how much we work on our posture, we will just be doing more of the same, or even strengthening the very patterns that are damaging us.
Expanding Our Focus
In investigating the causes of the stress, pain, and other difficulties which many of us experience with our bodies, we have had to move far away from the simplistic approach based on the idea of the "core". The "core" approach suggests trying to directly control or strengthen specific groups of muscles. But such a narrow focus ignores almost all of the underlying causes which we have discussed.
Our investigation led us to widen our focus as we examined successively deeper, more comprehensive, and more "mental" levels of contributing causes which must be addressed if we are to have any success in changing our habits. We began by looking at weaknesses or imbalances in individual muscles, then realized that problems with muscles are symptoms of the total pattern of the body's organization, then saw that re-awakening the upward orientation is the key to changing the body's organization, and finally we recognized that it is the brain which orchestrates this orientation.
But since this orchestration has become unconscious and habitual, we would seem to have no access to changing it. It looks like we have reached a dead end, and my argument seems to paint a hopeless picture: we are trapped in a maze of destructive habits which we don't experience, with a distorted self-awareness as our only guide. It seems that there is nothing we can do to correct our difficulties. But solutions often reveal themselves in the clear articulation of the problem. There is nothing we can "do" because our way of "doing" IS the problem.
Stop Doing So Much and Start Noticing What You Are Doing
This is actually good news. Because the recognition that we are trapped in our habitual patterns is a first step towards waking up from the unconsciousness of habit. If we understand that exercise and simple muscular effort, all this frantic "doing", will never change our deep postural habits, we will have freed ourselves from a major obstacle to change-the subconscious reliance on habitual tension and the whole mind-set that goes with it. Our self-awareness will therefore be more accurate
We can then begin to allow our awareness to expand so that we step back and notice our habits instead of unconsciously acting them out. We approach our bodies with more refined skill as we discover that the most effective way of changing our habits is indirectly, by monitoring the subtle shifts between the upwards and downwards orientation, rather than by directly trying to control specific muscle groups from within our habitual orientation. In effect, the total, complex orchestration of the spine, and therefore of the whole body, can be simplified and organized around a single upward direction.This expanded awareness gives us an objective and coherent way of observing our bodies which bypasses the confusions and complications of our habitual stance. The word "objective" is not meant to imply a point of reference outside of our experience, but an ability to accurately process our body's experience without stimulating the vicious circle of further mental, emotional, and physical reactivity.
This objective form of observation allows us to effortlessly change our habitual patterns at the deepest level of the brain's messages to our postural mechanisms. Our intention changes from figuring out what to "do", what to "strengthen", to how to prevent interference, what to let go of. To be clear: "letting go" does not mean becoming weak and flaccid. Quite the contrary, it means letting go of what weakens us - the downward interference - and fully engaging ourselves with the strongest way of using our bodies.
The challenge is that we need to learn how to react and move in a fundamentally different way, which is not easy. Our habitual way of doing things may create problems, but it feels secure and familiar. There is a discontinuity between upward and downward which means we have to resolutely move away from what we know - the automatic way of reacting with strain and tension - and move towards an unknown way of doing things that may at first feel unfamiliar, perhaps even wrong. We have to let go of our obsession with "doing" - with "fixing" and "strengthening" ourselves" - to a focus on awakening the finely-tuned upward orientation as we discover and trust our body's design. We must dare to surrender our known control at the habitual level to gain a new kind of control at a deeper level.
The details of how to go about this are too complicated and specific to go into here, and the help of a teacher is invaluable in the process. But the general direction to go in is to become more observant and sensitive to how we use our bodies during our daily activities. Gradually, as we get more attuned to our bodies, we become aware of unnecessary tension in our movements and reactions and can choose to free ourselves from the grip of the "downwards" habit. As we become increasingly sensitive to the subtle differences between the upward and the downward orientation, we effortlessly move towards a fundamentally healthier way of being, without exercise and without futile efforts to control isolated groups of muscles. As F. M. Alexander said
"We can throw away the habits of a lifetime in a few minutes if we use our brains"
There is a reason that the fixation on the core has become so popular. It rightly reflects the awareness that there is something awry in our relationship to our bodies. But following this approach leads us astray: it is not a solution, but only an expression of the problem.