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Everyday Poise: Brachiation

by Ellen on March 21st, 2014

When discussing Developmental Movement, we can look at “development” in multiple ways. While the most obvious aspect is babies learning to crawl and walk, creating the movement patterns they will use in life, we can also look at Developmental Movement on an evolutionary scale. By studying other primates, we can learn more about our own use and our own bodily efficiency. Today I’d like to discuss one aspect of this evolutionary developmental movement: brachiation.

But first, watch this video of a gibbon swinging through the trees.

The term “brachiation” is derived from the latin word for arm – brachium – and refers to swinging through the trees using only the arms. Children on monkey bars in a playground are technically practicing brachiation, and research suggests that we humans may have had an arboreal ancestor who traveled through the trees using this technique. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the gibbon reaches for the next branch with the outside edge of his hand and arm – the first thing to grasp the branch is his little finger. This reaching with the outside edge of the hand is one of the defining characteristics of brachiation, and it seems to be one of the major techniques that we humans have lost in descending from the trees. When we reach for something, we usually extend our index finger and thumb towards it. Why would a primate reach with the little finger, rather than the index finger and thumb as we humans do?

It may surprise you to learn that the strongest part of the hand is actually the pinkie-side, not the thumb. The muscles of the little finger connect through to muscles in the outside of the forearm much more strongly than those of the thumb side, meaning that the pinkie-side of the hand has a much more direct connection to the support muscles of the back and scapula. If all you’ve got supporting you is your hand, you’re better off grasping with the pinkie – it’ll give you a much more stable hold. This is the reason why martial artists who use weapons hold the weapon most tightly with the pinkie and most loosely with the index finger – it’s a stronger and more stable hold. Incidentally, martial artists refer to this hold as the “monkey grasp” – and no, that’s not a coincidence.

This concept of brachiation can be extremely useful for humans, particularly when reaching for an item above head level. By reaching with the pinkie first, we can keep the shoulders released and the support muscles of the back engaged, allowing for better control of the object once picked up. Just as it’s easier to carry a heavy load by getting underneath it than by hauling straight up from above, reaching with the pinkie connects through to the back and allows the muscles of the scapula to do the work from underneath, rather than relying on the upper deltoids to haul up from the top of the shoulders. This not only makes it easier to lift the weight in question, it also makes it easier to lift the weight of the arm itself.

Next time you go to a zoo, take a trip through the primate house and keep an eye out for brachiation. Watch how easily they move through their habitats, and look for the pinkie-side of the hand!

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

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