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What Is Your Righting Reflex And How Can You Always Land On Your Feet?

A cat ready to activate her righting reflex
Ready to activate her righting reflex

As you probably already know, cats have an inbuilt balancing system, originating from their intricate and sensitive ears, called a 'righting reflex', which allows them to land on their feet more often than not. Whilst the height from which they descend determines their ability to land on their feet specifically, they will never fall on their head whilst alive and well. This is not to say they will always escape injury, because they most certainly can be hurt, but their righting reflex help to keep them safer.


Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831 - 1879) began his studies into what would later become known as 'the falling cat problem' and proceeded to drop cats from a variety of heights, from just off of beds to out of open windows, specifically to discover how they would inevitably land on their feet. However, it took until 1969 for the cat mechanics and physics to be completely understood, and I have summarised the layman's gist below, because it does relate to you.

To begin with, a cat is essentially a cylindrical object which begins to rotate once falling: think pepper grinder. The upper and lower parts of its body will rotate in opposite directions, which changes the downward angular momentum to zero. The cat then draws its front paws close to its body to reduce inertia, whilst the back legs are stretched out to create inertia. This results in the upper body rotating through a large angle, whilst the legs turn in the opposite direction. A highly flexible spine obviously makes this all possible, and once the upper body is aligned in an upright position above the ground, the cat will extend its front paws, draw up and twist its hind quarters in the opposite direction to allow the hind paws to align with the ground also, making an all four landing possible. This complex process is done quickly, instinctively and without the conscious input of the cat... now please hold that thought.

Whilst this is all fascinating, are you wondering how this relates to you, your life, happy mindset and worldly ambitions? Fair enough, let's begin with the working premise of a cat in a tree wanting to get down.


For the cat to jump or fall from the tree, successfully deploy its righting reflex and safely land on all fours, it must first relax and trust the process, because do you suppose the cat consciously understands the mechanical physics of its own body and inherent capabilities? I would wager not, simply because we, as (arguably) more sentient human beings do not fully understand our bodies and inherent capabilities, so how could a cat know theirs? Instead, the cat has grown up to understand that when it jumps or falls it can land on its feet, and then proceeds to live its life just trusting that process when it's called upon. The cat must be relaxed for its musculoskeletal system to operate optimally though. Any tension in the complex assortment of muscles, ligaments and joints would negatively impair performance, increasing the risk of overall harm, or death.

I can attest to these principals on a human level too. In 2004, sixteen weeks after giving birth to my daughter (with post-partum Relaxin hormone still coursing through my system), I was involved in a 30mph car collision which resulted in - what I felt at the time to be - a disproportionate amount of damage to various joints in my body. Instinctively, I had braced for impact before and during the collision and, because of the Relaxin effects (which rendered my joints more loose and relaxed than normal), the stiffening and bracing action did more harm. If only I'd relaxed - complete with my relaxing Relaxin - I'd have reduced the damage done, but my instincts kicked in and here we are. Prior to my prang though, I had been oblivious to the lingering, residual effects of Relaxin, and during the collision I simply didn't have the presence of mind to let go and relax into the process. I mean, who would?! This is why I'm explaining the Righting Reflex to your now, because when you know better you can adapt and do or be better.

Now, imagine if our cat tensed and braced for impact because it had suddenly decided it didn't want to fall out of the tree. The cat's rigidity alone would be the cause of its purely avoidable harm. The same principle also applies to e.g.: rigid oak trees which snap during strong enough winds, whilst the wise willow bends. Now let's apply this directly to you.


Think about the pattern and nature of human life. Once born we are continually having layers of safety and security removed, from learning to crawl out of our parent's arms, to walking, to attending nursery and school, before perhaps moving further away to university and then into jobs, our own homes, whilst driving cars and taking part in all sorts of (potentially risky) play. If we were to tilt our heads and squint, all of these perfectly normal aspects of life could be considered a high tree branch, or a precipice of some kind, representing the ever present chance of harm. A little grim I'll grant you, but it's only a thought experiment to illustrate my point.

Now we, as fully autonomous and resourceful adult human beings, have a binary choice to make with each choice in our lives, to either accept or reject these normal aspects of life as they occur. Of course we can accept some and reject others, usually accepting the pleasant and rejecting the unpleasant, but I want to discuss the aspects of life perceived as unpleasant, like falling out of a tree or colliding with another car.

If the cat tenses on its way down to the ground it may be avoidably harmed. When I braced for impact (particularly with Relaxin in my system) I feasibly created more harm, according to my doctors and Osteopath. But now let's take this to the mental and emotional plane and say from the outset that what you resist, persists. It is certain that unpleasant things will happen in your life, but how you choose to manage those events determines whether you will land on your feet, or not. You could choose to reject, stiffen, brace and cling to the reality that once was before the unpleasant thing happened, but by doing so you're not allowing the unpleasant thing to pass, for new things to come in and replace it.

What I'm suggesting you do is relax, understand and accept how the unpleasantness is merely temporary, that all things must pass and as such, this too shall pass. Let go, because we inevitably - instinctively - assume that all change is bad when the life shifts hit the fan, but whilst they may initially be disguised as unpleasant in the beginning, things often work out for the best if you'd only trust the process and get out of the way of your own progress. If you can develop an inherent cat-like belief in your own righting reflex, and believe that circumstances will eventually work out in your favour (because let's face it, you have survived 100% of the worst days of your life), then you can start developing a powerful inner peace mindset at a galloping pace.

Somewhat inexplicably, I now have a mental picture of Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff, hurtling towards the ground. He looks helplessly at the audience and waves, gulps or holds up a sign saying "Yikes!" No one chooses to hurtle off a precipice, metaphorical or otherwise, but such events are catalysts for change, new growth and previously unforeseen opportunities. We can all grieve upon the superficial destruction of a forest fire, but it's often nature's catalyst for regeneration. In fact, some seeds (like the giant sequoias) can only germinate under such extreme conditions, where the dead wood simply has to make way for the new. It's the circle of life baby.

If you were to live your life without such trials, challenges or adversity of any kind how would you grow and regenerate - because if you're not growing you're dying? With the pace of life around us as it is these days, if we're not actively moving forwards we're passively falling behind, so growth is kind of essential. And how do you grow? By facing, accepting and growing through the trials, challenges and adversity, fully aware that the frequent ejection from your comfort zone is ultimately a good and valuable source of fresh opportunities.


Imagine a doorway with free flowing energy passing between the door jambs; some of it pleasant energy, some of it unpleasant energy, but it is flowing in and out is the point. Now imagine standing in the doorway, blocking that free flow of energy. Sure, some energy may be able to get past and around you, but the flowing nature is impeded, which means it's hanging around for longer than it should be - whether it's pleasant or unpleasant - and it's potentially enroute to toxicity. The not-so-secret secret is to treat whatever comes to your door as merely a transient visitor and let it come and go freely. Get out of its way by deliberately not clinging to or overthinking it. You might not like what's arrived today, like the cat who has decided it doesn't want to fall from the tree, but resisting what's arrived only blocks the available exit routes from your life. Relax, trust your righting reflex by deploying responsive proactivity when you must, and literally let it go to stay in the flow. Let your new mantra be: "It is what it is!" - with a shrug of the shoulders like Tony Soprano, if it helps.

Seriously though, just like our eponymous cat, you too have inherent natural and instinctive abilities. How else have you survived and accomplished all that you have during your life? And what, you're just going to switch off those valuable capabilities now? Of course you're not. You're going to keep growing. Only now you're going to understand more about yourself and trust in your newly defined righting reflex, when things inevitably get a bit hairy. Do you doubt this? Okay, one more paragraph before I've got to dash.

Answer me this: Do your toenails grow? Yes. Great. Now tell me: How much thought, effort and energy do you consciously put into making your toenails grow? I'm betting zero, right? And why is that? Because you just trust that this one-of-a-million naturally occurring automatic bodily function does its thing without any conscious input from you. Similarly, after eating a sandwich do you consciously instruct your pancreas to release the required levels of insulin to process and store the carbohydrates? Nope, this is something else you just trust the process of, like e.g.: cell renewal, waste disposal and hair growth. Do you even know what the appropriate levels of insulin for a sandwich would be? Me neither. So maybe try reviewing all the processes you're happy to leave in the trust of the unseen but hugely capable bodily functions, and ask yourself why can't you let unpleasant life aspects play themselves out as quickly as they played themselves in, because it's all the same flow of energy.

Not everything needs your intervention, and I'd go so far as to hazard a guess that in many of the circumstances you're currently dealing with, it is your subconscious ego's hungry need to solve all your problems that gets you into more avoidable trouble than absolutely necessary. If that hits a nail on the head then we can certainly discuss that another day. For now though, may I encourage you to reflect on your righting reflex, to then mindfully use it in ways to help you relax whilst on the perceived precipices of your life, and just trust that you're so much more capable than you perhaps believe yourself to be. Review all the things you can just do without thinking, and then consider if you really need to still be overthinking yourself into paroxysms of angst and frustration when the life shifts hit the fan, or whether your energy would be better spent leaning into your proven ability of responsive proactivity; which has already served you so well.

Let me know if you'd like to discuss further, but until the next time, please trust in the 'righting reflex' you were born with. You have got you!

Karan x



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