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Tensegrity & Human Structure

The Discovery of Tensional Integrity and its impact on Understanding Human Structure. By Roger Golten

What a piece of work is man
How noble in reason
How infinite in faculties
In form and moving
How express and admirable
In action how like an angel
In apprehension how like a god


Man is the most complex system in Universe, apart from Universe itself. Fuller

How does nature build such astonishingly complex structure? Nature always uses most economical means, so the passage from economy to complexity requires a superb and highly efficient “building block” 

In a life spanning more than three quarters of the twentieth century the independently minded American thinker, Buckminster Fuller always insisted that he was a discoverer rather than an inventor, seeking the most economical way to build structure, ergo the way nature does.

“I didn’t set out to design a house that hung from a pole, or to manufacture a new type of automobile, invent a new system of map projection, develop geodesic domes, or Energetic-Synergetic geometry. I started with the Universe — as an organization of energy systems of which all our experiences and possible experiences are only local instances the principles operating in Universe, I could have ended up with a pair of flying slippers” (quoted in Ency. Britt.). 

“I am not a creator, I am a swimmer, a dismisser of irrelevancies”

Gravity itself is a tensional force. For instance the 25,000-mile diameter Earth is on a 92 million mile long piece of string keeping it in orbit around the Sun.

At the other end of the spectrum, Donald Ingber has been looking at and experimenting with the structure of microscopic biological cells since 1975. In 1998 his paper “The Architecture of Life” was a front-page feature in Scientific American, reporting on experimentation that proves that tensegrity design is an excellent “fit” in terms of explaining intra-cellular design and structure.

What you imagine is what you touch” Ed. Maupin PhD

Stephen W Levin MD has developed tensegrity thinking as applied to the gross musculo-skeletal features of the body in a number of papers from 1980 onwards. His synthesis of the shoulder girdle in one paper explains the extraordinary features of a joint that is so mobile that it’s strength is unanticipated by conventional analysis. More recent contributions cover the pelvis, spine and the importance of the soft tissues, all highly relevant to this discussion


Tensegrity structures, those whose integrity is maintained more by tension rather than by compression have provided an intuitively very satisfying conceptual model for how the human body is organised on a gross level. They are used in Hellerwork & other Structural Integration Practitioner trainings to demonstrate an alternative to compressional structuring, the kind most visible up to now. Tensegrity architecture is now being scientifically acknowledged and verified to be the way Nature actually builds her structure from a subatomic to a cosmic scale (as Bucky Fuller preached), and the human body, last bastion of unconsciousness, is included. This recognition may stimulate some fundamental advances in the way we take care of our bodies.

The Big Picture

Gravity itself is a tensional force. It’s a force that operates invisibly over millions of miles, and even more mysteriously, when you consider that it does not exist in isolation – only as a relationship between two objects.


Structural Integration is a systematic programme of myo-fascial manipulation originated by Ida P. Rolf PhD (1896-1979).

The goal of structural integration work, or S.I. for short, is to optimise the organisation of the human body with regard to the strongest force acting on us in our whole lives; the force of gravity. Rolf can be regarded as one of the great early pioneers in the development of the human potential movement in the early 20th century, along with FM Alexander, Moshe Feldenkrais, Milton Trager and Joseph Pilates. It was Rolf who first recognised the primacy of the fasciae and the importance of gravity in the development and functioning of human structure.

The S.I. protocol utilises the plasticity of the fasciae, the tissues that surround, envelop and contain the various structures of the body, to optimise the overall relationship of the person to the planet and the parts of the musculo-skeletal system to each other. S.I. falls within a general therapeutic area known as somatic education – education of the body through the body, and it is further distinguished from other modalities by the discipline and direction imposed by the line of gravity.

The fasciae are a part of what is known as the connective tissues of the body, distinguishable in embryology as part of the mesoderm, as opposed to the endoderm (digestive tract) and the ectoderm (nervous system). The mesoderm or connective tissues include bone, muscles, ligament, tendons and surprisingly, the blood. Connective tissue connects and mobilises the body, and is highly developed in athletic types, whereas an academic may be more ectomorphic or an opera singer endomorphic.

That backache was the best thing that ever happened to me

I first came across this type of therapeutic work in 1982 when an acute lower backache had me in enough pain to try something new and different. After one session I was intrigued, and after three I knew I wanted to learn the technique and that it was to become my vocation in life. It was 7 years earlier, whilst completing my Bachelors degree at KeeleUniversityin International Relations, that I first came across the work of R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), universally know as Bucky.


The University bookshop was a welcome refuge from incomprehensible and irritating studies in micro-economics and I clearly remember picking up James Meller’s Buckminster Fuller Reader and reading a few sentences about how ‘economics is defined as the study of the allocation of scarce resources, but that there is no scarcity’. This subversive thought intrigued and inspired me. Later, at the age of 88 Fuller was to sum up the facts as he saw them:

“..The total of all energy used daily – 95 percent wastefully – by all humans for all purposes aboard Spaceship Earth amounts to less than one-millionth of 1 percent of Spaceship Earth’s daily income of expendable energy imported from the Universe around and within us.”

At Keele, extra-murally, I was a member of an improvisational dance movement group led by Georgiana Gore PhD., and influenced by an obscure contemporary of Merc Cunningham, Don Oscar Becque, who had taken the impulses of modern dance into the area of structural exercise. I performed as a dancer in the Keele Musik Circus’s performances of John Cage’s Theatre Piece inLondon,Edinburgh &Zagreb, and developed an enduring interest in movement studies.

[custom_frame_left][/custom_frame_left] Bucky’s statement intrigued me, and I bought the book, which turned out to be the first acquisition of what is probably now the biggest collection inEurope. Certainly the most well thumbed; as I completed my reading of all 24 books, and other related titles by 1986. By this time, and quite serendipitously, I had already been back toSonoma,Californiato train with

Joseph Heller (1940 -), a student of the great pioneer of Structural Integration, Ida P. Rolf PhD (1896-1979), and the founder of Hellerwork in 1978, which takes the bones of the Rolf method and adds the flesh of movement awareness training and mind/body dialogue. My first visit to theUSA had been in 1981 when I attended the World Frisbee Championships. When I arrived back in theUK after completing my basic training to begin my practice in July 1983, it was the month Bucky died, at the age of 88, in Pacific Palisades in California.

Tensegrity as a new conceptual model of anatomy

It is by using the concept of Tensegrity that Fuller developed from Kenneth Snelson’s sculptural pieces that Heller has been able to dramatically communicate the vital and innovative idea that infuses his conception of anatomy. The idea that it is the soft tissues that hold everything in place and that the bones are keeping the soft tissues apart was a radical conception which is almost impossible to visualise without a model of tensegrity, and tensegrity itself is almost impossible to visualise without a 3 dimensional model in hand. Fuller/Snelson structures made the invisible distribution of structural forces visible for the first time, by completely separating the tension and compression.


Snelson with Fuller in 1949

Kenneth Snelson, originally a painter, met Fuller at the eclecticBlackMountainCollegesummer school inNorth Carolinain 1948, where he had come to study with Joseph Albers, Wilhelm de Kooning and others from the Bauhaus group. Fuller’s talk on the first evening electrified Snelson and the entire student body as he introduced his energetic/synergetic mathematics and the concept of the design science revolution.

“… these studies in forces are a rich source for an art which celebrates the aesthetic of structure, of physical forces at work; force-diagrams in three-dimensional space…” Kenneth Snelson

That winter Snelson integrated Albers and Fuller’s influences within himself and developed sculptural pieces based on what he called “discontinuous compression”. Snelson presented Fuller with his invention the next summer, and Fuller saw the solution to questions he had been pondering for 20 years. Tensegrity, the word coined by Fuller, is a contraction of tension and integrity, is the name of a class of structure whose form is maintained not by compressional, but by tensional forces. It’s the difference between a brick building and a tent. What holds up a T.V. mast? It’s the balance of tension in the cables. Tensional and compressional forces are not always easily separated because they always and only co-exist, so, in truth, all structures combine these forces. It’s just that compressional forces dominate a brick house, and tensional forces dominate tensegrity structures.

In a tensegrity the tensional forces are continuous and the compression elements are “islanded”. In terms of the body, each bone is floating in a network of tension. This is an important development in the history of the understanding of the body, because it underlines the notion that the body is more of a whole system and less of a collection of parts. It explains how one part can affect another seemingly remote area in terms of pain, sensation or function. Other examples of tensegrity at work are the wire-spoked wheel, where the load on the hub is suspended from the spokes above, in contradistinction to a solid or wooden spoked wheel where the loaded hub pushes down, and the suspension bridge, which although it relies on massive end columns for stability it utilises tension to span remarkable distances.

Fuller’s Geodesic domes are a further class of structures that can be considered to be tensegritous. Although the triangulated struts are all rigid beams they nevertheless display the key features of a tensegrity – loadings are distributed throughout the system. Some struts will be under compression and others under tension, in fact the load analysis is too complex for standard engineering models. Fuller maintained that geodesic construction would allow domes of unlimited size to be constructed. His vision of a 2-mile wide dome over New York Citybeing a poignant example, given the Sept 11th, 2001 outrages.

Another key property of a tensegrity construction is that it is most economical in it’s utilisation of resources, giving maximum performance per unit of input. This, Fuller believed, is how nature always builds her structures

Everything is connected to everything else in the body, which we knew anyway, but now we know how. Working with isolated parts of the body is never going to make a difference that lasts, for instance the neck depends on the underlying position of the ribcage, as does the shoulder girdle. Fixing a neck doesn’t work without addressing the whole shoulder girdle/ribcage assembly. Truly holistic, the S.I. protocol always addresses the whole body, with the systems understanding of proceeding from the whole to the particular, so that “problems” can be put into the context of the being and can be transformed into opportunities, and the “fix” is permanent and intelligent, because there is a degree to which the system has learned something.

In taking the idea of the primacy of the fasciae further, the anatomical picture that develops shows the photographic negative of what traditional anatomists have laboured over for centuries, which is not to say that their work has been in vain, but that analysis is seen to been just one way of thinking, and that there is another way, the way of synthesis, which in the West appears to stand on the shoulders of analysis, even though in the East it is more immediately accessible. What do I mean by this elliptical statement? The fascial network is the “inbetweenness” in the body; that which separates adjacent structures, keeps them apart and, paradoxically, joins them together. It’s a continuous tensional system, keeping the compression members, the bones, apart and wrapping all the organs and securing them in their correct locations.

From a synthetic point of view we can then highlight the importance of this fasciae; it’s what Dr. Rolf called the “organ of support”. There is seamlessness inherent in the fascial system which is obscured by the analytical tendency for every specialisation of this ubiquitous tissue to get named separately. The most important fact to know about fasciae is the Doctrine of the One Fascia: There is only one fascia. All the ins and outs and nooks and crannies are local examples of something that connects everything as well as keeping it separate. What a paradox!


If it were possible to dissolve the body in a vat of special acid which removed everything except the fascial structure, we would be left with a perfect representation of every detail of the body, but empty of content. The essential connectivity would be revealed. Every nerve would be represented by its myelin sheath, every bone by its periosteum, every organ by its investing fascia and every individual muscle fibre by the individual fascicles. not only that, but the brain would be outlined by the delicate meninges, faux cerebri and tentorium. London Cranial Osteopath Jeremy Gilbey has been using the Tensegritoy, a construction toy kit, to illustrate and teach the reciprocal movement in the cranial system.

Turning our attention to the bones, have you ever wondered why they have all those protuberances, those bumps and lumps especially at the ends of the long bones, and the fascinating spines of the vertebrae. Perhaps understanding can come again through looking at the geometrical tensegrity structure, which could be thought of as a schematic conceptual and simplified model of idealised human structure.

In their function as the “spacers” of the network of soft tissue tension, the bumps of the bones serve to increase the distance and angular advantage of the ends of the guy lines that suspend the ends of the bones, maintaining the distance between them and allowing for movement.

As Dr. Rolf says in her magnum opus, The Integration of Human Structures,

“Verbally, fascia is often confused with muscle. Muscle is enclosed within the fascia, as the pulp of an orange is contained within it’s separating cellular walls”


The soft tissues are kept apart by the bones; otherwise we would coalesce into a big blob. The origins of the tension elements must be remote from the insertions in order to have span and do their work.

At every level of anatomy, gross and microscopic, this design is immanent; the bones are suspended and animated by this fantastically detailed network of cables, sheets, tensioners, stabilisers, bands and straps.

Looking at the spine itself, each vertebra in held in position by tiny muscles and ligaments spanning one vertebra to one another above and below, each in turn. Other, bigger straps span two or three at a time, distributing the load evenly along the back. Its only when the structure is overloaded, goes out of alignment and the normal curvature distorts, that uneven loading starts compressing the inter-vertebral discs, which are normally spongy shock absorbers and not designed to bear the weight of the whole structure.

The tensegrity mast is a great way of conceptualising this superb design. Man-made Tensegrity masts are very rare. Very few people have developed the ability to build them. Apart from Kenneth Snelson’s sculptures,


Tony Gwilliam, a collaborator of Bucky’s in the 60’s, now living inOjai,California, has built some. On an overall conceptual level the tensegrity model illustrates the way stress is distributed throughout the system, economy in the use of resources, and the general sense of lightness and “bounce” in a well-ordered body.


The gravity of the situation

We are not truly upright, we are only on our way to being upright.  This is a metaphysical consideration.  One of the jobs of a Rolfer is to speed that process along.  We want to get a man out of the place where gravity is his enemy.  We want to get him into the place where gravity reinforces him and is a friend, a nourishing force.
Ida P. Rolf, Ph. D.

When a body is misaligned it can lose this ease and literally falls into mis-use and dis-use. Compressional forces begin to dominate and serve as an emergency fallback mode to maintain mobility, albeit compromised, and the laws of hydraulics come into play, which state that liquids cannot be compressed.

The sad fact is that 90% of the population is probably stuck in fallback. Unless you’ve been Rolfed, Hellered or spent significant time doing some highly intelligent integrative psycho-physical discipline like The Alexander Technique, Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, Chi Kung, certain martial arts, or reached a high stage of gymnastic or dance development you may have forgotten what’s possible for your body and cannot conceive it in the mind as a result.  Do you remember being a carefree child, being able to roll on the ground, leap in the air, climb a tree and bounce on the bed, all before breakfast? Have you seen gymnasts somersaulting and spinning, ice dancer’s triple salkos, dancers pirouetting? If you have you know that tensegrity is the only way that this is possible, that being in perfect harmony with gravity allows grace, effortlessness and beauty in movement, that the paradox of gravity is that it allows an equal and opposite ground reaction force to animate and lift the body

There is that irreducible state epitomised by the couch potato slumped on his sofa with the TV remote control, ribcage resting on belly, neck disappearing into shoulders which themselves are jammed onto the upper ribs. This is the perfect picture of a body that has given up the fight against gravity and is being “organised” by compression. You might say this guy is in a grave situation. Our bodies are organised in opposition to gravity, indeed our development depends on it, and we spend the first 6 months of our lives trying to figure out how to lift our heads and sit up by ourselves. This vital developmental process, which continues with crawling and eventually standing and walking is easily disrupted by products such as recliners, car seats, inappropriate clothing, footwear and babywalkers. Most of us in these unnatural times have probably skipped one or two developmental stages such as crawling and the persistence of infant reflexes is noted in many with learning difficulties

Each milestone in a child’s early physical development is such an achievement as to generate spontaneous applause from siblings and parents. Well done Johnny! Even years later there is little or no attention or intellect applied to the human achievement of uprightness, or the way we sit, walk or stand. Deportment is considered a redundant art as we hunch through the day, interrupting our somatic slumberings only with an occasional outing to the gym, where we gaze distractedly at a TV monitor as our bodies operate on the modern equivalent of a hamster run

Gravity is both the organising and disorganising force in our lives, depending vitally on our orientation towards it. The paradox of gravity is that without it there would be no “up”. Are we Gravidynamic, “in the flow”, tensionally organised around a vertical axis or are we burdened by our own mass, dragging ourselves around in compressional mode, supported more by the density of our structures than the designed extensibility. It is a fact that most materials, except stone, are stronger under tension than compression, and this includes the connective tissues. The fasciae are tremendously strong, and in fact the bone is more likely to splinter than the surrounding periosteum (the fascia that wraps the bone) is to tear, shin splints being an example of this phenomenon.

Wholeness & healing

This is the gospel of Rolfing: When the body gets working appropriately, the force of gravity can flow through.  Then, spontaneously, the body heals itself.

Ida P. Rolf, Ph.D.

Joseph Heller’s background in aerospace engineering and Mathematics may suggest a mechanical orientation to his development of Rolf’s ideas, but in fact his influence on the field of Structural Integration has been in a surprising and opposite direction. Joseph Heller was known as a “soft” Rolfer (in terms of physical pressure) prior to his leaving the Rolf Institute and founding Hellerwork, and he became convinced that the effectiveness of Rolfing would be greatly enhanced by “educating the driver” as well as “servicing the vehicle”. By engaging the client in the process and developing the educational aspect of the work he was able to make Hellerwork one of the most powerful and effective personal growth tools available.

“In the future I see Hellerwork at the forefront of a new discipline of Psychophysical Integration helping us to reintroduce the body’s wisdom back into our culture. This new discipline will have far reaching consequences in the fields of fitness and performance. It will change our concept of ageing and what to expect from our bodies and our lives as we grow older. It will impact our views of education and the design of training procedures. It will influence ergonomic design and the quality of our work environment. Most importantly it will make us aware of our personal ecology and lead us to deal most effectively with our planet’s ecology.” Joseph Heller

This educational impulse covers two major areas, firstly in “movement education” clients are coached in the simple arts of movement; the way they sit, stand and walk. Due to our general unconsciousness about how we do what we do this is simple but not easy. The Structural Bodywork element of Hellerwork is creating more choice in movement, the Movement Education element is about exercising that choice, and moving away from habitual patterns, or at least reviewing them on a conscious level and determining what’s worth keeping and what to change, and how. Moving from improved structure to improved functioning is partly automatic and partly constrained by mental and psycho-emotional habits in addition to the physical.

This leads on, secondly, to an investigation of the mind/body connection. How did thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, opinions and emotions affect my body and my relationship with it? Through long experience and observation Joseph Heller developed themes to each of the sessions in the S.I. protocol which provide a hook to hang a conversation on and a place to start in the client’s own personal process. As with the other elements of the Hellerwork process, this can, and is approached by Practitioners in a variety of ways. Psychology is one of four major study areas of the Professional Training in Hellerwork (The others being Movement, Anatomy and Business Practice Management), and several approaches are taught; including Hal Stone’s Voice Dialogue and Ron Kurtz’s Body oriented Psychotherapy.

“When the whole body and the whole being are included in the educational process, the rate and depth at which learning can occur is truly staggering” Joseph Heller.

The Author, Roger Golten

Roger Golten.



Herts. WD4 9HE

& InLondon

Tel: 01923 400521/07956 514522



The Players

Ida P. Rolf PhD.

Joseph Heller.

Kenneth Snelson.

R. Buckminster Fuller

Donald E. Ingber PhD

Stephen M. Levin MD

Ed Maupin PhD.

1 Comment

  1. Susan lowell on April 11, 2015 at 5:14 am

    I read with interest your mention of biotensegrity on your website.
    I thought you might like to know that the first biotensegrity summit will be held Sept 17 as a pre-conference event to the Fourth International Fascia Research Congress.

    Also, closer to you, there will be a full pre-conference day at BFS 2016

    Be sure to let me know if you’re joining us; I’d love to get your “take” on biotensegrity



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