The Century of the Body: Fascia, Yoga and the Medicine of the Future

The medicine of the future will have to focus on healing the epidemic of lifestyle-related diseases by changing behavior, says Tom Myers, author of Anatomy Trains. Yoga, bodywork and other therapies that tap into the transformative potential of the body’s fascial network have an important role to play in this process. In this interview with Yoga U Online, Tom explores the transformative potential of the body’s fascial network and its implications for the future of yoga and yoga therapy. 

Also Check out Tom Myers' online course on Fascial Fitness—An Emerging Evolution in Movement Science 

Yoga U Online: Tom, you trained with Ida Rolf, the founder of Structural Integration, before developing the notion of the anatomy of connections. How did you get interested in this area?

Tom Myers: Well, Ida Rolf was giving a demonstration in Santa Monica, close to where I lived. I went there with a friend of mine, and as it happened, Ida chose my friend as a model to work on. He was one of these people, who looks normal when you look at them from the front, but when you look at them from the side, you can hardly see him because his chest was collapsed so badly, his breast bone was nearly on his back.

In 45 minutes, Ida Rolf took a hold of his ribcage and changed its shape so that he was visibly deeper from front to back. His voice changed. Even his emotional affect changed. He became, if you will, a deeper person. I was so impressed at the level of change that this woman could generate in a short time that I thought, “Hmm, I really want to do this.”

yoga and fascial fitnessYoga U Online: Ida Rolf developed her work in part inspired by yoga, is that correct?

Tom Myers:  Yes, she started studying yoga in the 20’s in New York with a kinda rogue tantric guy named Pierre Bernard. She studied yoga for many years. At the time, yoga was totally unheard of in the States. So she never thought that there would be the kind of resurgence of yoga in the West the way there has been.

When she created Rolfing, she was asking, “How do I create a yogic experience in a western way?” Rolfing or Structural Integration was aligned with the goals of yoga as “a physical system that enriches the student’s body, mind and spiritual well-being through an understanding of structural balance.”

When Ida first started working with people, she started putting them into yoga positions and looked at where they weren’t stretching properly. She would then grab the tissue and start stretching it. Later, as she got in contact with osteopathy, it evolved into table work. But it was still trying to get that experience of yoga, still trying to get that fundamental thing of Hatha yoga which is, if you change the body, you can change the person.

That’s not an idea that we’ve really gone with in the West. We mostly thought, “Oh, well, if you change your mind, you could change your body.” We think of it in terms of stress; you have to reduce the stress in your mind, and then you can reduce the stress in your body. However, we all know now that if you reduce the stress in your body, you will reduce the stress in your mind as well.

So the theme in my approach to body work over these past 30 years has been to do just that – reduce the amount of structural or gravitational or oppositional stress that was going on in the body, so that the person could be more themselves.

Yoga U Online: Part of your work has been to draw attention to the all-important, but much overlooked role played by fascia in the human body. What is the role of fascia in this picture?

Tom Myers: Fascia is that network that connects it all together. We are made up of somewhere between 70 to 100 trillion cells. That’s 70 trillion cells acting together. Most of your cells are little packets of water, like little water balloons. Something has to hold all those 70 trillion cells together. That’s the fascia.

Fascia—or connective tissue—is what glues us together. So, it’s a broad use of the word fascia. What we’re really talking about is the body-wide extracellular net that holds us together.

Yoga U Online: Yet, as it is turning out, fascia is more than just the ‘wrapping’ of the body?

Tom Myers: Yes, what’s really exciting is the new research on fascia that’s coming out.  Up till recently, everybody was thinking of fascia as just the packing material that goes around the other tissues. Now, we’re finding out that it’s a regulatory system in the same way that your circulatory system is a regulatory system and your nervous system is the regulatory organ balancing your inside and your outside world.

The fascial system is also a regulatory system. It has an organizational dimension that keeps us in the shape that we’re in. It’s that role that’s being explored now, which is really exciting.

Yoga U Online: Fascia is often referred to as the ‘organ of form.’ Does it play a wider role as a regulatory system than that?

Tom Myers:Yes, it’s the organ of form, but it goes far beyond that.  In the development of the embryo, it’s actually the connective tissue cells that are organizing the brain. The brain cells of the neo-cortex are originally born in the ventricles in the middle of the brain. And they have to migrate out to the surface of the brain. That’s not very far in a little tiny little embryo, but it’s incredibly long, as far as the cell is concerned.

So how do the cells which get born in the middle of the brain know where to go on the surface of the brain? The answer is that they put their little ‘arms’ around a connective tissue fiber and ride that connective tissue fiber out to the surface of the brain and are deposited in just the right spot.

The same thing holds for organs. The fascial bags for organs develop before the organ develops. So there’s a bag for your liver. And then the cells that are going into that bag become liver cells.

Yoga U Online: Fascia also seems to be linked to the potential for mind-body transformation in a major way. You referred to your friend who was transformed when Ida Rolf worked on him; you said not only his posture and the way he appeared changed, but he himself was transformed.

Tom Myers: Yes. I’ve seen that again and again in my practice. You make these changes and the person changes. The nervous system, the circulatory system, and the fascial system are never separate in a human being. They develop together and they work together. So when the fascial system changes, everything else changes.

For example, think of someone who’s depressed. The image that comes to mind is somebody with their chest collapsed—you certainly don’t think of someone with their head held high and their chest stuck out.

So you can approach depression from a neurological point of view, and look for things in their past that contribute to their feeling of depression. You can approach it from a chemical point of view, and say that serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac or Zoloft might be helpful, because there’s a chemical effect, when someone is depressed.

But depression also has a fascial effect as well. It also is expresses as a specific look and shape of the body. You really don’t see people with their chest puffed out going around saying, “I’m so depressed.”

So we’ve gone after the talk therapy solutions to depression, and we have more recently gone after the chemical reactions to depression. But I think we really ought to be looking at how people hold themselves and how they shape themselves.

That relates to what we talked about before, fascia as the organ of form. We have to change the connective tissue, change things at that level. And that in turn changes people’s breathing, and when their breathing changes, their chemistry changes and their outlook changes.

So, again, people have been paying a lot of attention to the chemistry and neurology of conditions like depression, and not much attention to shape. But shape is hugely important, and that’s where yoga and bodywork really shine.

Yoga U Online: What are the implications for health professionals and movement teachers of looking at the body as a functional whole, rather than as an assembly of muscles, bones, organs and biochemicals?

Tom Myers: We’re really just looking at the very beginning of the potential offered by body work, yoga, Rolfing, osteopathy, and so on—all these body therapies contributing to this realm.. This next century is going to be the century of the body, because this is the century in which we need to learn to change behavior.

We need to learn how to get people to change behavior, because so many of the big diseases are all lifestyle-related. At the heart of big, epidemic conditions like heart disease and diabetes really are behavioral, lifestyle issues. These are conditions where people need to change their habits more than they need to take the medicine. There’s plenty of medicine on the market but that’s not really solving the problem. That’s just pushing back the symptoms.

Medicine is great at changing chemistry, but it is lousy at changing behavior. And bodyworkers movement therapists, and yoga teachers may not administer things through the mouth or through needles—but we’re wonderful at changing behavior! We have to get better at it. But this is basically our realm: How to change behavior or to change movement, which is behavior.

We’re just starting to really examine this potential now. Yoga was very small until quite recently. Pilates was very small until quite recently. And bodywork was quite limited until very recently. Going forward, I think we will see these unite into a very powerful combination of manual therapy and movement, where everybody is speaking one language.

On that note, to get yoga the seat at the table that it deserves, yoga teachers need to learn the language of anatomy. If yoga people are just talking about energy and how everything is connected, then they really won’t get a seat at the table, because anatomy is the language that everybody speaks. And I’m talking about bringing orthopedists and physiotherapists and athletic trainers and yoga people and body workers all to the same table and developing something that is very strong and very powerful.

And I think yoga has a lot to say about that. So I’m really hoping that yoga will improve its training standards and improve its ability to talk its walk so that the value that yoga has will make it into this new science.

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Fascial Fitness—An Emerging Evolution in Movement Science