Your Three-Dimensional Body

The Aston System of Body Usage, Movement, and Fitness

Judith Aston, M.F.A. and Jeff Low, Ph.D


Your Three-Dimensional Body

Judith Aston states the paradigm, or concept, which underlies all of her work as follows: “All human movement occurs in three-dimensional and asymmetrical spirals.” This article will attempt to explain just what this concept means. Although it sounds complex at first hearing, the paradigm actually represents a very simple and clear truth about the way un which we, and every other object, move. As you read this chapter you may find that, although many of the statements are unfamiliar or conflict with what you have been taught about movement, it probably will match your experience of the way you actually move.

To understand the paradigm, we will examine separately the three main concepts of three-dimensionality, asymmetry, and spiraling; and then we will see how they fit together.

Three Dimensionality

The three dimensions of all objects are length, depth and width. When considering how these relate to movement, we must think of them both internally and externally. Every object has internal dimensions. These are the inside measurements of the object.

These internal measurements determine the volume and proportions of the object. For example, the length, depth and width of a glass determine volume liquid it can hold. The proportions of an object determine the relationship between these three dimensions. If the relationship is not suitable, if the proportions are not correct, the object will become unstable. If the height (length) of the glass is too great compared to its base (depth and width) the glass will fall over. If the height is tiny and the base is great, it might make a find baking pan but it would make a lousy glass.

When it comes to the body, the questions of volume and proportion become critical. Every person’s body has natural, optimum proportions. This would be the shape of your body if it did not have compensations and misalignments caused by traumas, tensions, and long-term poor movement patterns. When the body is in its appropriate proportions, with full internal volume (where all the joints have enough space for normal range of motion), we refer to it as having integrity. It is a major goal of Aston usage for you to use your body with integrity.

It is important to note that integrity is not a static, preconceived condition. Your body is always in motion. Even if you try to stay perfectly still you are always breathing, blood keeps flowing, nerves are firing, and muscles are twitching. When we talk about usage, we are generally referring to voluntary movement, but those involuntary elements, such as breathing, follow the same three-dimensional paradigm.

Much of what doesn’t work in the field of body mechanics, and what we’ve been taught to think of as good posture, results from not understanding they dynamic, constantly changing nature of the body. To study the body, movement specialists have made diagrams and pictures of bodies in motion. Unfortunately, the pictures and diagrams they made were also static and two-dimensional. Therefore the models for movement and posture they developed from those pictures were two-dimensional. Actually, the classic picture of good posture might just be fine, if you never had to move out of that position. Once you add movement, you must consider three-dimensionally.

If you use your body in the optimal fashion for its current condition, then you are using it with integrity. However, was we will see later, when you use your body with integrity, your proportions and volume will become more natural. As that happens, your optimal movement pattern changes. To maintain integrity you must continue to adjust to its changing proportions. Good usage is not simply a new set of patterns that you learn but an on-going discovery process of how to best use your changing body in a changing world.

Finding this position of integrity, which Aston calls “neutral”, is the starting position for good usage. In neutral, your joints have their proper spacing, and your muscles have the space to operate freely. When your body is in neutral, you are using the least amount of effort possible to maintain that position. When you are in neutral, you body is aligned so that the pull of gravity has the least possible effect. For each static body position (sitting, standing, crouching) there is a neutral position for your body. If you find that position and start you movement (standing up, walking, running) from that neutral position, the movement will be performed with more efficiency and power and with less effort and strain on the body.

When you are out of neutral, some area of your body will be compressed, and some will be overstretched. Because of that compression and over stretching you will b unable to move freely, and other muscles will be forced to compensate and do the jobs of those muscles that are being restricted. This causes wear on those functioning muscles, further compensations, new compressions, and takes you further away from neutral. This pattern of misuse, compression, compensation, and increased misuse is the basis for our poor movement patterns. Aston states this syndrome as, “The pattern of misuse becomes abuse, which often leads to injury.” The current medical label for it is “repetitive motion syndrome”. Unless we break this downward spiral of poor usage we will end up in pain. By learning to move from neutral we begin to undo these patterns an increase our ability to move with integrity.

Let us look at some common abuses in proportion and volume to better understand how these factors create tension in the body and strain during movement.

In one common type of body the person operates out of a slouch. The shoulders are rotated forward which causes the chest to be caved in slightly. The chest has reduced volume. If you do not understand this concept, stand in the slouched position. Bring your shoulders forward and inward. Now, as a contrast, lift and then let your shoulders drop back and stand straighter. Notice that your chest gets larger. If your chest cavity was a container it would hold more volume of liquid int he opened position than the closed one. Well, your chest is a container which holds air. If you habitual body pattern is one of rounded shoulders you will not be able to breath as deeply or send as much oxygen through your system.

The following is an exercise that will highlight how changes in proportion and volume compress and constrict the body.

  • Stand in a slouched position. If that’s close to your normal position, just exaggerate it. Walk over to a table or counter and lift something that weighs a bit, such as a phone directory. Then open your shoulders up, stand a little straighter, and lift the object again.

  • Try each position several times while noticing which part of your body feels the effort of lifting. In which position is lifting easier? Notice the compression in your chest and stomach, and the strain on your back, when you slouch.

  • Walk around a bit in the slouched position. Notice where you weight hits when your feet land. What areas of your body feel constricted in motion? Compare that to walking without the slouch.

Try another common postural pattern which, interestingly, looks a lot like what we’ve been taught to think of as good posture. So stand up straight, shoulders back, chest out, and knees locked. Doesn’t exactly feel stress-free, does it? Notice you now have too much volume in your chest and not enough in your back. Try the lifting and walking exercises again, this time comparing rigidly straight to a relaxed posture.