The Principles of Tensegrity

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Tensegrity is a term that was first described by Buckminster Fuller as an architectural term. It is defined as a balance of discontinuous compression elements, which are connected by continuous tension forces, which allow any system to exist in balance. Expressed in a living form, Dr. Stephen Levine defined it, biotensegrity. In our case, as human beings, the fascial matrix and muscles form the system of tension and the bones float within the matrix creating relationships of discontinuous compression that connect through the whole system.

“A model based on Fuller’s Tensegrity…may also be utilized to demonstrate the structural integration of the body. All our previous concepts of biomechanics of the body will have to be reassessed in relation to this model and our therapeutic approaches to the musculo-skeletal system will have to be revised.” ~ Stephen Levine

I read that Dr. Ida Rolf used to say to her students that it’s not the bones which hold the muscles or the muscles which hold the bones but rather that the bones should float inside the flesh. I like this. Essentially, our bones are floating in our tissues. None of our bones actually touch one another.

A single breath creates dynamic relationships in 136 joints in the human body. When balanced, in relationship to gravity, movement transfers through our living systems evenly and there is no single place in the body, which needs to single-handedly support us.

Try this. Stand on your two feet and close your eyes. Visualize this idea: none of your bones actually touch…your bones are swimming around inside the tension of your connective tissue matrix. What effect does this have on the way you feel inside the ocean of your body?

This model of the human body differs from Newton’s model of the skeleton and joints like a frame, from which the soft tissues are suspended. We move, flow and breathe unlike mechanical structures, like a house, with right angles and parallel lines.

Examples of Tensegrity in Nature:

  1. DNA Helix structure.
  2. Old growth tree blowing in the wind.
  3. Bicycle wheel with spokes.
  4. Balloon.
  5. Single Cell in the human body.

Tips for embodying biotensegrity in your yoga practice:

  1. Imagine softening and widening each joint in your body. Lie on your back with your pelvis on a block, legs in the air. It is easiest to begin without weight-bearing to feel the matrix of space around each joint. Explore bending and straightening your knees. Feel the circumference of your knee joints. Imagine threading a needle with a fine piece of thread. When the joints come into a place of balanced tension there is a “threaded” feeling, and the bones almost seem to disappear. Joints become waterfalls of moving energy rather than holding zones of compression within our fascial web of tension.
  2. Oscillating, varying, omni-directional movements are a great gift for loosening (or balancing) the braids of the fascial matrix. Have you ever had a tangled necklace in your drawer? In order to untangle the necklace, we must soften the chain and slowly jiggle/wiggle/oscillate the tissue 3-dimensionally, until it is ready to be untied. If we just pull the necklace strings in opposite directions, the knots just get tighter (and might eventually break). Have you ever felt this in a yoga posture; pulling, pulling, pulling (sometimes for years), and nothing is happening? The oscillation allows for holding patterns to soften, new neuromuscular movement patterns are programmed and hyper-flexible (or overstretched) parts of our bodies begin to re-integrate. Consider lying on your back again and moving your limbs like they are the limbs of an octopus slithering about in the ocean. Can you move in such a way so that the bones and joints of your body feel soft, light, fluid and hollow? Tensegrity structures feel light and strong, and yet they are relaxed and take up a comfortable amount of space (like a balloon or a bicycle wheel, light & strong).
  3. Rest into Ease. A tensegrity body rests, even through sequences of dynamic movement. Tissues appear soft and balanced. There is an evenness of tone throughout the entire system. At any moment, ask yourself, where is the ease? Rather than having an argument with your body or holding on for dear life in a yoga posture, choose to move towards the ease. At first, it might feel like you are doing less, when in fact the vibrancy of the relationships within the inner landscape of your body are only beginning to really shine through. As the armor of your outer body is beginning to let go, the magnificence of the inner world is revealed. Notice what happens to the breath through ease.

In moving towards the ease, layers of the body begin to slide and glide, we begin to feel the organ cavity of life in our bellies, and our yoga practice leaves us as open vehicles ready to receive whatever unexpected curveballs might be manifesting in our lives.

  1. Taoist 70% Rule. In the Taoist Qi Gong practices, it is often suggested to apply 70% effort. Rather than the attitude of no pain, no gain, which can lead to common overuse injuries, strain to the adrenal glands and unhealthy competitive relationships with our self and the world. The principle upon which the 70% rule is based is that exploration and growth (in life and in a daily yoga practice) must begin by considering your weakest link. Do not seek maximum performance, as that quest may both damage the weak link and cause the whole system (physical, mental, emotional) to contract and tense up.

Explore applying this Taoist idea in your yoga asana practice. Allow yourself to explore moving towards 100% and then backing off to a place where the body feels balanced and even. With a consistent daily practice, I feel much less prone to injury, my nervous system feels settled and I am more productive in relationships and other aspects of my life. What do you notice?

Embodied Tensegrity

These principles have the potential to lay the groundwork for any mindful movement practice. As the foundation of my yoga asana practice, I was introduced to principles of embodied tensegrity, through Gioia Irwin 4 years ago. In diving between the layers of the body and embracing the spaces that emerge, our fascial web begins to untangle and become more even. The myofascial meridians begin to flow more freely and limbs become light and hollow, like bamboo.

The practice becomes an opportunity to maintain ease and fluidity in movement as the body goes through the natural changes of life. It is a practice of balance and patience, and it opens up a space for listening to the language of the cells in our bodies. Over time, a practice of space, balance, oscillation, ease and movement may also become a metaphor for the way that we live our lives. Perhaps our lives, as a whole, could even become integral tensegrity structures?



When Things Get Turned Upside Down: Yoga Inversions

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You’re never more alive than when things get turned upside down.

::Malcolm Gladwell

Whether misjudging a headstand and crashing to the floor, fired from our job just when we thought we were up for a promotion or dumped after posting “in a relationship” on our social media status for all to see, nothing gets our attention like being confronted by the unexpected. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a surprising new landscape for which we weren’t prepared. We’re staring down change and wrestling with the fear that we might fall again.

The truth is we’re guaranteed to fall again…and again. Like crashing waves, challenges will crest and crumble whether we’re talking about our headstands or our lives. Personally I’ve fallen many times, certainly out of my headstand, but ultimately into a new headspace.

Inversions in Yoga

To me, inversions are a fantastic living laboratory where we can embrace and move beyond things like fear, expectation, and impatience. All at once upside down needs to become right side up, and we have to surrender our tight grip on what we think we can control. We feel tangible postural balance merge with something deeper.

Inversions are an amazing reminder that how we do one thing is how we do everything. They reveal to us that often things are not going to go as we’d planned, but they just might turn out even better that way.

Making the Leap

Starting a new job or relationship is like the leap of faith it takes to turn upside down in a handstand. Though initially our jump may resemble a first handstand in an unfortunate bra, revealing things we had not hoped for…we learn as we go. Frankly, sometimes the catalysts for our evolution are pretty tits-out, upside down. But, if we move through our raw initiation and prove to ourselves a little at a time that we can do it, before you know it, whatever we were attempting becomes an important part of our personal fabric.

When we try too desperately to control the things we can’t, we become tightly wound in lopsided ways that stunt our growth and leave us miserable.

If we litter our inversions or our lives with expectation, we pin ourselves underneath frustration and impatience, which, in turn, erode the courage and humility it takes to try again.

Outcomes Are Not Guaranteed

The bottom line is we can’t control a guaranteed outcome. Even Kino MacGregor and Doug Swenson have days when they can’t balance in their handstand (albeit annoyingly infrequently). And for all of us, life can feel out of control and out of balance sometimes when it comes to work, deadlines, responsibilities, Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Almonds, time wasted down the rabbit hole of Facebook…you name it.

The Yoga Sutras

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, abhyasa (perseverant practice) and vairagya (surrendering without expectation of a particular outcome) demand that we resist the trappings of instant gratification our modern society seems to promote. And Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga, stated,

Do your practice and all is coming.

He didn’t say, “Do your practice and kurmasana (flipping your feet behind your head) is coming instantly.” Nor did he promise results like millions of dollars and six-pack abs. We have to allow incremental progress to eclipse our need to accomplish the finished product. As Ralph Waldo Emerson so famously put it,

Life is a journey not a destination.

What We Can Control

There is one thing we can control, however, and that’s the accountability and integrity with which we show up — on our mat, at our job, for ourselves and for one another. Abhyasa and vairagya ask us to see balance and progress not as a single handstand, but as a part of a larger personal pilgrimage (sadhana). When we look at things through a wider lens, we can see every wobble, challenge and fall as an opportunity to learn and grow. Each time we glean a little bit more wisdom to bring to our next inversion or adventure. And as we do, we start to see that we’re never more alive than when things get turned upside down.

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