Kenneth Snelson


Anyone who’s been in class for some time will have heard me talk about biotensegrity. For me, it’s been a key concept in helping me deepen my practice, improve my sense of embodiment, and demystifying some of the more enigmatic concepts in T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

I first learned about
biotensegrity in 2008, and almost immediately it provided a new foundation to my understanding of biological structure, including my own.

The term biotensegrity originated with Dr. Stephen M Levin, an orthopedic surgeon who was looking for a model for the spine and the flesh and bones of our bodies that aligned more usefully than the mechanical models he encountered in his medical school training, which posited the working of the body to be like machinery.

Levin realized in 1975 that
Kenneth Snelson’s tensegrity structure Needle Tower, on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC provided the model he was looking for: omnidirectional, gravity independent, stable yet flexible and responsive, and with space between the “bones” or solid compression struts.

What Snelson termed as “floating compression,” his mentor at the time,
Buckminster Fuller dubbed as “tensegrity” —a contraction of tensional integrity. Tensegrity is the name that stuck.

Levin, recognizing that this new way of building things could be applied to improve understanding of biology, coined the term biotensegrity, and has been mining the implications of his observations for over 40 years. I have been working directly with him in various capacities, most intensively over the last three years, and I’m delighted to serve on the board of the newly established
SM Levin Biotensegrity Archive. I also co-founded and help organize the local Biotensegrity Interest Group (BIG), DC BIG.

It’s a much longer discussion, but I want to make it clear that my “take” on the T’ai Chi Classics (the traditional writings which guide our practice), and on the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan itself, is deeply informed by my ongoing study of biotensegrity.
I believe, and I hope, that in time this will be a commonplace thing