Your left hamstring is your link to the earth on which you live, the ground on which you walk.
This is not hyperbole.
In the Postural Restoration view of the human body, the left hamstring is a vital conduit of sensory information that starts at the ground/heel “joint” (my terminology) and continues all the way up to your brain.
The reason that the left hamstring is so vital (as opposed to the the right hamstring), is that the function of our left hamstring is so easy to lose.
We lose our left hamstring function when our left hemi-pelvis rotates forward, and stays there, compared to the right (the Left AIC Pattern).
When this occurs, our connection to the ground weakens because our foot, that sensory creating structure with 7,000 nerve endings, no longer contacts the ground properly.
To further emphasize the importance of our feet, I’ll note that there is a whole style of massage, called reflexology, that believes the foot is intimately connected to the internal organs of the body. While I have no clue as to its validity, it has been around for thousands of years, so it can’t be dismissed out-of-hand.
Testing Foot Awareness
Close your eyes and assume an even stance. Settle into that stance. Open your eyes and look down. Are your feet parallel? Some people will not even stand with their feet parallel. Are your toes straight ahead? Does one foot turn in our out more than the other one?
At this point, make sure you are standing with your feet parallel and hip-width apart. Settle into that stance. Notice how your feet contact the ground.
Do you feel your weight evenly on both feet? Do you feel more weight on the heel or forefoot, on the inside or the outside?
Now, no matter what you have noticed, shift the left side of your pelvis forward.
This is what you’ll likely feel:
- your body weight on the left shifts anteriorly (to the front) and your forefoot will be more weight-bearing than your heel.
- Your left foot may also be a bit more pronated (the arch on your left side will move into the floor
- Your right foot will supinate a bit (your weight will fall more to the outside of your right foot so your right arch moves away from the ground).
At this point you’ve lost the normal human connection to the ground.
Importantly, you start feeling the ground incorrectly because your feet aren’t positioned correctly to feel the ground!
You won’t be consciously aware of any of this as it is happening because the changes are so small and gradual as to be imperceptible.
But your brain will know!
The sensory information that you have partially lost from your feet is the same information that allows your vestibular system, the system that enables you to stand, balance, and walk upright, to function optimally.
Loss of sensory information can set off alarm bells in the threat detection centers of your brain. This alarm sets in place a series of reactions that can produce protective measures–what PRI calls extension patterns– that cause more harm than good in the long run.
For me, that meant five years of plantar fasciitis, which is a terribly painful inflammation of the connective tissue that runs the length of the bottom of your foot.
Our Psychological Dependence on the Ground
We don’t give a lot of thought to our foot’s relationship to the ground beneath us.
But if you get something like plantar fasciitis, you’ll become aware of the ground very quickly.
The ground hurts!
The fact that gravity always keeps us firmly attached to the ground, and that we stand and walk on it, is pretty damn important.
We just never really give it much thought. Until it hurts to walk on.
For better or worse our feet are some of the most highly innervated areas of our body. This is a delightful discovery when receiving a gentle foot massage, but a damn curse when you have plantar fasciitis.
Psychologically, under normal non-painful situations, the ground gives us a sense of security.
We use the metaphor of feeling “grounded” to indicate a sense of stability.
What a relief it is to sailors to return to “dry ground” after months at sea!
The best ideas are “grounded” in fact.
War is won with “boots on the ground” and the “loss of ground” to an enemy can destroy an army’s morale.
The “facts on the ground” is a description of a local reality.
Psychologically and physically, the ground is as part of the human experience as any body part will ever be.
The earth beneath our feet is our foundation.
These Hollowed Grounds
In our not so distant past, most cultures considered the earth sacred.
This is probably because for most of our history, humans knew they were part of nature, part of something much bigger and powerful than themselves. We were never seen to be apart from nature.
Over the years, with the advent of city living and the modern economy, we became disconnected from the earth and from nature.
Earth became something to master and exploit, not something to live in harmony with.
Lamenting the destruction of nature, Chief Seattle wrote the following words to President Millard Fillmore in 1852..
“This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself”
To our own detriment we have created countless physical barriers between ourselves and the earth.
We are rarely in direct “skin-to-earth” contact with the ground anymore.
When we are separated from the ground for extended periods of time, the human organism ceases to function properly.
For proper human function, your brain has to know where the ground is, and where you are in relation to the ground. All those nerves need to be used.
In his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, the author talks about treating traumatized individuals in three different ways.
- The “top-down” method is through verbalization: talking, connecting with others, getting people to understand their experiences.
- taking medicines that shut down inappropriate alarm systems (his less preferred way)
- The “bottom-up” method involves allowing the body to have experiences that contradict the anger and helplessness that accompanies trauma. Not unsurprisingly, part of the “bottom-up” method involves what he calls “grounding”!
It is the third method, the “grounding” aspect, that has much in common with PRI.
PRI uses the body, and it’s sensory experiences, to reprogram the nervous system. We use conscious exercises that bring us awareness of important regions of our body as a way to restore sensory input to the autonomic nervous system, a system that works beneath our consciousness.
Restoring proper input can enable proper output.
We look at pain as a signal that something is wrong with the system, and thus you can’t treat pain.
What you can do is address the position of the body, its “postures”.
By bringing awareness to various areas of the body, such as a left heel’s connection to the ground, you can reintroduce proper muscular activation, restore proper movement pattern, and decrease or eliminate pain.
The Hell of Plantar Fasciitis and Chronic Pain
What would happen if your brain lost the ability to “sense” the ground because your feet lost the ability to contact the ground properly?
Instead, what if you sense, as I did from 2001 to 2005, that all your weight was placed on the outside of your feet as you stood and walked?
What if, due to this lateral (outside) weight bearing, you experience searing pain on the underside of both your feet as the plantar fascia becomes inflammed?
And the pain was so bad that you reflexively pulled away from the doctor’s hand that only gently stroked your foot?
Pain so awful that life becomes a burden and depression a frequent visitor.
You live a life of quiet desperation that no one around you understands.
Is that normal?
For lots of people in chronic pain, that does become normal.
Chronic pain has the ability to suck the life out of you.
At that point, you stop truly living and exist in survival mode.
Life becomes a struggle where you just try to get through each day–knowing the process of survival begins each morning when you wake up and place your aching feet on the ground and doesn’t end until you fall asleep at night.
Life Begins at the Heel
Postural Restoration has a saying that life begins with left heel strike.
If that heel isn’t hitting the ground at the proper angle because your pelvis is rotated forward on the left side, your gait is off (the way you walk).
You won’t be walking efficiently, and your brain will not “sense” the ground underneath you the way it should.
It so happens that our foot needs to hit the floor at a certain angle so that all our other joints like the knee and hip, will be positioned properly to absorb shock, distribute ground forces, and move through a full range of motion.
For the body to work optimally and without compensation, our joints have to be positioned correctly as our heel hits the ground. Properly positioned joints ensure that the muscles will work as they should.
Conversely, an altered joint angle will change the function of our muscles, and a change in muscle function will continue to alter proper joint angles.
As you can see, joint angle and muscle function feed off and reinforce each other. It’s never a one way street with the human body. We are an integrated system.
Once that system is altered and dysfunctional movements are constantly repeated, the new faulty movement pattern becomes encoded in our central nervous system and becomes normalized.
Your body has an amazing ability to compensate for lack of movement in one area by finding it in another area.
It probably has an acceptable range of compensation built into its design, and staying within that range enables you to function without pain.
I know people like this. The position of their pelvis, ribcage, and neck so limit their ability to move through a full range of motion that I’m astounded they are fine.
Other people with the same test results as these people may be absolutely miserable.
But these super-compensatory inclined humans– they don’t feel a thing.
Does that mean they are in the clear?
It’s possible that the position that they are in means their joints will wear down more quickly than joints that aren’t in that position. They are in what is called end-range. At end range, meaning the joint can move no further, there will be a lot of impingement going on: surfaces rubbing on other surfaces such as muscle on bone.
They could be the proverbial “ticking time bomb”.
On the other hand, they may be fine in the long run. You never truly know.
Our ability to compensate is a highly individual thing. Some people are really good at it, some are not.
I definitely was not.
When Your Brain Says “Enough”!
At some point your compensation strategies will probably break down and you might start feeling the consequences of your lack of heel strike in the form of pain.
Your joints can’t absorb ground forces nor disperse energy efficiently and the muscles surrounding those joints have altered function, making them more susceptible to strain or pain due to constant lengthening or over-activity.
Your brain will decide when it’s had enough.
When that limit finally arrives, since life is not starting at the heel, since the brain’s foundation is removed–it will try to create a foundation somewhere else.
That somewhere else can often be found at common painful areas like the hips, SI joints, L4/L5, the mid-back or even the neck.
When the brain detects instability in one location, it will try to find stability somewhere else. And what starts off as a protective mechanism turns into a painful situation.
To reverse this situation we need to restore proper movement of the foot and pelvis on the left side.
Generally, the first place to start in most cases is by creating harmony between the left foot and ground so that a left hamstring will turn on to properly position the left pelvis.
An exercise like this 90/90 with Hip Shift is designed to do just that.