Neurodynamics: An Introduction

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Neurodynamics is based on two key principles, the first of which concerns the musculoskeletal system and how it is designed to function. We all know that the main function of muscles is to contract to produce movement and postural support. The biceps muscle flexes the arm at the elbow; the sacrospinalis muscles maintain the support of the trunk, and so on. If something goes wrong with these muscles–and there’s a lot that can go wrong–we generally treat the problem by massaging, stretching, strengthening, or relaxing the muscles.

But this notion that muscles do specific jobs and can be treated individually doesn’t do justice to how they actually work. Look, for instance, at the muscles on the nape of the neck. One of the main functions of these muscles is to extend the head–that is, to keep it upright on the spine. Why then do these muscles not actually pull the head back and down? Because the head is weighted in front, it exerts an opposing force on the neck muscles and keeps these muscles lengthened. The neck muscles are working, but instead of forcibly pulling the skull back, they are stretched between the skull and the spine so that, even while the muscles maintain stability in the skeleton, the skeleton maintains length in the muscles.

Some variation of this relationship exists in virtually every part of the musculoskeletal system. Muscles everywhere in the body are kept lengthened by the skeletal system. Instead of simply contracting, the muscles are suspended within a latticework of bones while they maintain the upright stability of the trunk. This holds true for our leg muscles, our shoulder girdle, our rib cage—nowhere are muscles simply contracting against the skeleton; instead, they work in a kind of partnership with the bones to produce a latticework of support that is highly economical and efficient, with all the muscles working together even when we are moving just one part of the body. Upright support is thus achieved through the dynamic relationship of muscles and bones working in partnership to create a dynamic system of support that makes it possible to move efficiently and with a minimum of effort.

If bodily support is created through a dynamic relation of body parts, how then do we restore healthful function in muscles that have become tightened or overworked? The answer is that, instead of trying to release or stretch muscles, we must understand how they work dynamically in the context of skeletal support. To use an analogy, imagine a bridge that has begun to collapse so that some guys wires have gone slack and others are carrying all the weight. Those hard-working guy wires can’t do less work or the entire bridge will collapse. The only way to solve the problem is to erect the bridge as a whole, which will relieve strain on the guy wires. Similarly with the back, if muscles in the lower back have become shortened through a lot of sitting and sedentary activity, simply massaging the muscles may provide relief but cannot restore the natural function of the back muscles, which work properly only in the context of a fully lengthened trunk and spine. For the muscles to truly release, we must create the conditions under which the back muscles are elastically stretched between the head and pelvis, which produces optimal length and tone in the back muscles–a condition that can be found universally in young children, whose backs are full and supportive in the context of natural skeletal support.

The same principle applies to anatomical knowledge of muscle systems. Bodywork in general has become more and more sophisticated in its understanding of muscles and fascia and how lines of force are communicated through the body. But useful as these conceptions are, they leave out the most important element of anatomical design–namely, how muscles lengthen in the context of skeletal parts that work dynamically in the field of gravity. A key focus of neurodynamics is on restoring this entire system holistically based on an understanding of how muscles work together with bones to produce active tone and support.

The second key principle of neurodynamics is based on the potential to gain greater awareness and control over the muscular system in action. When we suffer from muscular tensions, we quite naturally assume that the problem is physical and that, when we have reduced the tensions causing the discomfort, we have solved the problem. But there’s another, even deeper problem. Let’s say that you have restored a lengthened condition of your back muscles and sit down to work at your computer. Even when you try to maintain this improved condition you’ll find that, within a few minutes, your back muscles will become tense and constricted again. The reason for this is that our muscles function in the service of a larger psychophysical system that operates at a mostly unconscious level. To address this, we must not only restore length to the system as a whole, but learn to stop performing actions in our old habitual way by becoming kinesthetically aware of the harmful pattern that created the problem to begin with. By preventing the habit, we perform the action in a new way. This not only prevents the muscles from tightening but also gives us a new level of poise and control in everything we do.

One of the most important insights attaching to this concept is that problems that appear to be physical are often caused by our own misdirected activity and can be solved only by learning to stop this activity and to replace it with more consciously-directed action. Many of us, when suffering from physical tensions, believe there must be something wrong that has to be fixed or treated–a belief that is reflected in the endless methods that promise wellness and relief. But the body is designed to work naturally as a total system, and the real challenge is not to relieve or treat symptoms but to prevent our own interference with the natural system by raising the process of action to a more conscious level. This cannot be achieved through bodywork, stretching, relaxation, exercise or any other method but only by understanding how the musculoskeletal system works as a holistic system, and how to gain an increasing awareness and control of this system as the basis for preventing the interference–a process that is central to the theory and practice of neurodynamics.

This may sound simple, but even those of us who study the body and how it works are rarely awake to the reality of how we are creating our own problems, and of the necessity of giving ourselves the experience of not doing that which we do habitually. Because we do not really believe our problems have anything to do with our own choices and actions and instead think something is wrong with our bodies, we try to change the body instead of our actions–an approach that reflects a profound belief in the duality of mind and body.

The goal of Neurodynamics is ultimately to bring the entire process of how we do things to a more conscious level so that we can establish and maintain the natural coordination we once possessed as children. There’s a great deal more to say about the theory and practice of Neurodynamics, which incorporates research on stretch reflexes, neck reflexes, muscle function, and other subjects which are covered in much greater detail in my book, Neurodynamics: The Art of Mindfulness in Action. If you’re interested in another specific topic, let me know in the comments, or send us an email- I’d be happy to answer your questions.