Forget anatomy and take on art

A new perspective on physical balance

| Jill Branch |
Forget anatomy and take on art

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Muscles seem like a necessary part of any discussion about physical balance. But they weren't a big part of my structural integration training. Instead, my teacher introduced us to what he called the cylinder model. It was a way of viewing the body as a collection of cylinder shapes. The arm cylinder connected to the torso cylinder, the neck cylinder connected to the rib cylinders, the calf and thigh cylinders made up the leg cylinder. The spine, the rib cage, the arm, the leg ─ all cylinders.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, the cylinder model was developing the right side of my brain ─ I was learning to understand the body holistically. This was in stark contrast to everything I learned in school ─ and life for that matter ─ which was dominated by left-brained, linear thinking. The right-brained perspective is not one that comes naturally to us scientific types, but it is necessary to improve imbalance rather than treat the symptoms it causes.

functional differences between left and right brain
Cylinders give a right-brained, holistic view of the body, while the traditional understanding of physical balance is dominated by left-brained linear thinking. (The functional differences of the brain’s left and right hemispheres were studied by neuropsychologist and Nobel Prize winner Roger Sperry.)

A balanced body from an artist's perspective

What then, do cylinders have over muscles? The cylinder model teaches us about relationships; the muscle model limits us to the symptomatic parts. Common questions might be, what muscles cause back pain or what muscles should be strengthened to improve ankle stability? Commonly, symptoms like back pain or ankle instability are treated as separate issues. Though the effects of symptom-driven treatments can give some relief, they are often short-lived because they don’t make the part and the whole function better together. Cylinders, on the other hand, show us the big picture. Instead of asking what muscles cause back pain, we ask how each cylinder connects to the next, and the next, and the next. We can then balance the whole system, not just treat the parts.

Cylinders show us relationships, but we can understand those relationships better through art. Line, shape, form, and space are elements of balance used in art. Combined, these elements make the gestalt ─ the organized whole. To get a right-brained perspective on the human whole, let’s look at these elements through the lens of structural integration.

view of the leg as a cylinder
The cylinder model shows the relationships between parts of the body. The muscle model limits the problem to the symptomatic part. Cylinders show us the big picture so we can balance the whole system, not just treat the parts.


When a body is balanced, it resembles a vertical line. It looks long with stacked joints and connected cylinders. Lack of a line reveals the twists and rotations of imbalance. They are tell-tail signs of compression and disorder that cause pain, tension, and joint immobility. As someone goes through structural integration (SI), their patterns of twists and rotations are unwound through the fascia. As fascial twist is unwound, so are the imbalances of the body. The cylinders and joints become aligned. Compression is removed, and the body lengthens.

unwinding tangled string
To untangle a knotted ball of string, you must systematically follow the tangled pattern to unwind it. Similarly, fascial twist must be systematically unwound for a human body to become balanced, lengthened and aligned.
before and after SI - Line
Before SI, the cylinders of this woman’s legs are not aligned. Fascial twist has caused them to get corkscrewed into her pelvis. This not only created misaligned joints but caused back and shoulder pain. After, the cylinders are connected. Notice how after she looks taller and thinner, more like a line.

Shape and form

Shape and form are two sides of the same coin. Shape is a two-dimensional concept that involves height and width. Form is three-dimensional and includes volume. While the shape of a balanced body resembles a vertical line, the form resembles a cylinder. When cylinders have good shape and form, their length, width, and volume are proportionate. Together, they look connected rather than disjointed. Fascial twist causes fascia, bone, and muscle to get stuck together in a disordered pattern. That twisted pattern dictates shape and form. The more twist present, the shorter, tighter, and less straight the body looks. Through the SI process, the unwinding of fascial twist restores balanced shape and form.

before and after SI - Shape and Form
Before structural integration, this woman’s shape resembles an ‘S’ rather than a straight line. Her twisted pattern literally has her head screwed on crooked. As such, she had constant neck pain. To visualize her pattern, imagine turning her head clockwise, as you would with a lid to a jar. The twisting would corkscrew her body, resulting in the scoliosis you see. By unwinding fascial twist, her scoliosis improved and the cylinders gained good form, allowing her head to attain balance.


Space is the most complicated of the elements so here is my best attempt to simplify it. Space can be evaluated two-dimensionally, as in, there is a lack of space between the navel and the hip bone, or three-dimensionally, as in, the space inside the leg cylinder is too small compared to the space inside the torso cylinder. When the body has appropriate space, the cylinders look proportionate in form and shape ─ they are connected. The amount of space within a cylinder is directly correlated to the amount of fascial twist present. Lack of space can look compressed, small, or stocky. Even if the joints appear to be aligned, there can still be a lack of space. In that case, the cylinders look heavy and thick relative to other cylinders. As fascial twist is unwound through SI, space is created inside the body. Space gives each cylinder the freedom to lengthen and each joint the ability to move.

cylinder bodies showing spatial relationships
When space is lacking cylinders don’t fit together. The body looks and feels disjointed. Fascial twist must be unwound to create space. When the body has space, the cylinders can lengthen, and the joints can move.
before and after SI - Space
Fascial twist doesn’t allow this woman’s body to lengthen. Her hidden navel is evidence of the lack of space. After SI, she has enough space, freeing her body to lengthen and reveal her navel.

The takeaway

Our left-brain dominance has produced left-brain dominated treatments ─ ones that focus on symptoms rather than balance. When you integrate a holistic, right-brained approach, you get systemic changes that last.

It was cylinders, not muscles, that taught me about physical balance. That back pain isn’t just in the back, and knee pain isn’t just in the knees. Muscles aren’t the only or even the best way to look at balance. Dr. Ida Rolf famously said, “Forget anatomy and take on art. You’ll look at the body as something around a line, a vertical line.” You can learn a lot when you’re open to new perspectives.

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