Of Water, Body and Symmetry

Article by Paola Catizone.

How do we begin to tell the story of the evolution of species? The developmental shape shifting, the exodus of creatures from sea to land and the morphic and movement transformations that occurred during that lengthy journey?

I look at my sparkling new, one month old grand daughter. I watch her struggle with gravity and friction, adjusting to light, shade and sound, now louder and more immediate, during the first few days outside the mother’s womb. Food and feeding, are probably the predominant preoccupation for mother, baby, and the medical staff of the maternity hospital. This is no wonder, as hunger and the desire to survive and reproduce are the basic and central drives impulsing the evolution of life.

The baby’s journey from the warm hug in the watery environment of the womb to the mother’s arms in the outside world, mirror the evolution from unicellular marine life through to star fish, shark, amphibian, primate and human.

We know that all biological life began in water, and that the element of water can provide comfort and healing to our bodies/minds through our lives. We also know that plant life preceded animal life on the planet. Photosynthetic bacteria and blue green algae formed in the primordial seas, according to available fossil records, demonstrating the basic characteristics of life, namely the ability to reproduce, metabolize and adjust to change. This all happened about 3.5 billion years ago. About 1.5 billion years ago, the first single cell organisms with the capacity to reproduce sexually appeared. Sexual reproduction brought about great potential for diversification. Around 600 million years ago, a great diversity of multicellular life structure, from sponge to jelly fish, appeared; soon crustaceans and fish were populating the seas too.

Three types of body symmetries are recognized in marine life. Their relationship to human movement patterns will bring us back to my little grandchild, softly snoring in her cot, and more importantly to our own bodies, sensing and listening.


Imagine lying in water, floating tummy up under a warm sun. Ripples move your limbs and trunk in no particular direction, now rocking a leg, now gently swaying your waist, no part having priority over the others. A unicellular being or simple multi cellular one, like a sponge, would move in this manner. The first movement symmetry is in fact an asymmetry! Little babies’ first movements may resemble this pattern as may the abandoned moves of a dancer in the throws of ecstasy. Early morning stretching can also be asymmetrical. Our outer bodies are organized bilaterally, but many of our inner organs, such as the heart, liver and intestines retain their asymmetrical form. The skin, our largest organ, remains the largest receptor for receiving stimuli from the environment, sensing simultaneously from the whole of its surface.

Radial Symmetry

The baby is moved too quickly into her cot and she reacts by stretching her arms and legs out as if trying to grip a supporting object. The Moro reflex in infants could be linked to Radial Symmetry, the second movement pattern in evolution and in humans. This pattern in nature brings the mouth and gut to the centre, with appendages radiating from this core. Lateral and diagonal supine floor movements, and any yoga asana that involves awareness of movement initiating at the centre of the body can help us to explore radial symmetry. Opening and closing motions such as those used in the first sequence of Thomas Hanna’s Somatics sequence are directly engaging with radial symmetry. Any yoga visualization that brings awareness away from the head and down to the belly is bringing the body/mind back into individual and collective evolutionary memory of radial symmetry. Back bends and forward bends can be used to help to re connect to the centre as can be any practice which emphasizes strengthening core muscles. Radial symmetry aside, centre/periphery awareness should be part of our movement and yoga training, as it is only by engaging core muscles that we can ensure that stretching into our limbs is well and safely supported. All major movement in the periphery of the body is mediated through the centre, when this stops happening our movement is less than optimal and safe. practicing radial symmetry can help us to sense mobility as a series of movement connections, from centre to periphery and help us leave behind a fractioned and mechanistic sense of the body as a series separate of parts in a machine. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man or the humble star fish are both images that represent this stage of movement and can be used effectively in visualization.

Bilateral Symmetry

Now it’s feeding time and the little baby is placed on her mum’s chest. The scent of milk will trigger the rooting reflex and the baby may even move upwards in a form of early crawling towards the breast. In the water, we have developed a spine and many of the senses are located in the face or head. Following light, scent and taste we move through space towards food or safety, following the head and using the back fin to propel us forward. On the ground we use our feet to push the earth behind us. The polarity of head to tail movement is present in the spinal undulations of Kundalini Yoga and can be explored through versions of cat and locust pose. Noticing where movement is initiated in our body can be revealing; do we begin movement from the head? From the belly? Or perhaps from the heart? Do we sense our surroundings with our whole body, asymmetrically? Alignment and most asanas can benefit from a sensory awareness of the relationship between head and tail.

The ways of exploring body symmetries through yoga are as many as there are practitioners, and the journey will continue, on to the land and away from fusion with the mother and with oceanic bliss. The evolution to standing will bring more transformations through hunkering to squatting and brachiation, up into the trees for a swing with our primate ancestors and then back on to firm ground, with a small base on our feet in the upright human stance.

The body/mind remembers its origins in water and the practice of Yoga is an ideal place for exploring these memories and for learning from them.


  • Body Stories A guide to Experiential Anatomy, Andrea Olsen, Station Hill Press
  • Somatics, Thomas Hanna, Addison Wesley
  • Sensing, Feeling and Action, Bonnie Bambridge Cohen Contact Editions