Modern science is just catching up to the ancient wisdom of the mind-body connection, and the general public has a growing understanding of how mental patterns (like for example, stress) can impact the body through biochemical pathways.
Fascia, the collagenous-based soft-tissues in the body and the cells that create and maintain that network, plays a key role in releasing these holdings. Anatomy expert Tom Myers has shaken up the fields of bodywork and yoga with the development of the concept of Anatomy Trains, the myofascial meridians of the body.
As Tom explains in this interview, we can release psychological trauma by addressing the issues and chronic holdings in the body. Yoga is a more effective method than exercise to change the pattern of the fascia and impact the emotions which may be holding there.
Tom Myers is a bodyworker, anatomy expert, and author of the bestselling book, Anatomy Trains. As a bodyworker, Tom had the privilege of studying directly with Dr. Ida Rolf and Moshe Feldenkrais, two of the leading somatic visionaries of our time. Tom has continued their work, adding his own insights and developing his approach to holistic integrative anatomy. Tom is also known for his deep insights into the role of fascia as it relates to the structural health of the body and even to our emotional health and well-being.
Eva Norlyk Smith: These days, medical science broadly recognizes that our psychology can impact our health for better and worse. Your mentor Ida Rolf was among the first to address how the body holds unresolved trauma in the tissues. How does this happen?
Tom Myers: If you observe a human being, you can see the emotions written into a person. A happy person has his chest opened up. A sad person has their chest down and in. An angry person has their shoulders back. And a person who feels defenseless may turn their hands out so the palms face forward. All of these things are recognizable patterns in the emotions.
As distress builds up in the brain, it only has two ways out – one is the chemistry, which changes the messenger molecules, or neuropeptides, that are bathing the nervous system, and thus changes your mood. Those chemicals have a variety of effects all over the body, not just the nervous system.
The other way that distress manifests itself is in patterns of tension, which are quite specific. They can be defensive, reactive or retractive, where they retract away from pain.
The trouble with those patterns is they don’t move. Patterns that move are just fine. We get angry. We get un-angry. We get sad. We get un-sad. It’s those things that come along and stay for a long time, like the unresolved anger or the unresolved grief. Those are the things that the brain keeps sending out the same messages to the same muscles and so you take on a postural pattern.
After a while, your mind, muscles, and fascia have fit into that pattern, and that may in itself cause illness or lack of ability to move. It also helps to maintain that whole mood in your body and in your mind.
Eva Norlyk Smith: So that whole pattern gets locked in these tissue fibers or that chronic holding. What is the best way is really to address the issues and those chronic holdings in the body?
Tom Myers: In my own experience, I would say that there are different strokes for different folks. For some people, the body approach really works. For some people, the talk approach really works. And for some, it’s the combination. I’m not very fond of the SSRI drugs, like Zoloft and the Paxil. But honestly, for some people, those drugs work. So there are different approaches that will work for different people. I have prejudiced stories as a bodyworker because that’s my approach – the bodywork approach changes how your body is in space, relative to the problem. The pills change how your chemistry is relative to the problem. The talk therapy changes your point of view towards the problem. Any one of those would be effective. It really depends on the person as to which one is the most effective at any given time.
Eva Norlyk Smith: Now, of course, you are also a specialist in fascia and have often talked about fascia as a shape shifter, being responsible for the shape of our body and particularly lodging our posture patterns. So is fascia more involved than other body tissues in the holding of tension patterns?
Tom Myers: When you hold a postural pattern, especially if you hold that postural pattern in gravity (which most people on earth are), then a certain pattern of tension is going to exist over time on a certain pattern of fascia, to distribute and manage that tension. Fascia is a slow moving tissue. You can think of the fascia as the St. Bernard dog of the body.
Most of these emotions start in your nervous system then are exported to your muscles. The pattern in your muscles is going to determine what the pattern in the fascia is. But by the time your fascia gets stuck in that pattern, the problem is how you are going to get out of it. General exercise won’t get you out of these things. They will not change the pattern of the fascia. One of the most wonderful things about yoga is that because of the sustained stretch, you actually do change the connective tissue. You change the pattern of that fascia and thus you can get down to the emotions
I think that yoga teachers ought to recognize and be able to handle emotional unfolding in the body because it’s going to happen to some of your students. You want to be able to recognize it and see what’s going well and what isn’t going well. Exercise isn’t going to change the fascia. You can definitely say that exercise will change fascial patterns but it’s that sustained stretch that works the most quickly and, I think, the most effectively to change the length of the fascia.
Eva Norlyk Smith: So even though fascia, as you said, is like the last stage in this development of patterns getting lodged in tissues, it’s the first stage that you want to start to address because fascia is a more static holder of postural patterns?
Tom Myers: Absolutely. If you change your mind or you change your nervous system or even if you change your movement patterns, you’re working against this very slow moving, steady tissue of the fascia. But if you change that fascia, then it’s easier to change the nervous system and the circulatory system on top of that. Conversely, if you don’t get in there and make that change, you end up also with what I call the “Woody Allen Syndrome” – you understand more and more and more about why you cannot change. To have a greater understanding about why you can’t change misses the point. The point is to change.
Eva Norlyk Smith: So it sounds like fascia is a good place to start because it’s the final repository for this long chain of reaction in the body. Are there particular yoga styles which help this process?
Tom Myers: What the people who developed yoga recognized was that in order to change the person and the issues in the tissues, you really have to make a deep change in the pattern of your body. That pattern is in the nervous system, the muscular system, the chemistry, and the fascia.
There are different ways in which you can go about doing this. I really don’t want to promote one kind of yoga over another but I do want people to understand the different effects the different kinds of yoga has. In the sustained stretch of the alignment-based practices, such as Iyengar yoga, you go into the pose and you stay there for ninety seconds, two minutes, three minutes. This gives the muscles a chance to calm down.
When you hang out in the pose for a little while, the muscle tension relaxes and then you start stretching the fascia. Up until then, you’ve been holding it in the muscles. We keep talking about muscles relaxing, But the muscles have to relax first, then the fascia starts to stretch.
Eva Norlyk Smith: I can see how yoga styles that hold the poses for long periods of time can be beneficial. What about more dynamic styles?
Tom Myers: Something like Ashtanga Yoga heats the body up. The internal body temperature does make a difference because it heats up the “glue” in your body, the kind of mucus-y stuff that’s all over the place. It could be thick mucus or very thin mucus but in any case, it sticks us together. And like most glues when you heat them up, they become looser. So if you’re doing really strenuous yoga where you are sweating, then you are going to raise your inner body temperature. When you raise the inner body temperature, you melt that glue and your yoga will be that much more effective.
Where is the sweet spot between these two? Both are beneficial. When you heat up the body temperature, you’ll have an easier time with the glue that holds us together. When you hold the pose for a long time, the muscles will get out of the way and you’ll get a change in fascia.
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