Hello and welcome to this, my first ever blog post!
I'm really hoping that this platform will be useful for anyone who shares my passion for bodywork, the body-mind connection and embodied awareness. I hope to use this platform to dive a little deeper into aspects of mindful touch and practices I currently use or are interested in.
Putting words to bodywork can be challenging. That which is effortlessly recognised and known in the body when we touch, can become elusive, diluted and unknowable, when analyzed, picked over and explained.
But finding words to bring us into a deeper understanding of this beautiful, natural, healing work will, hopefully serve to ground the work for us all and help to integrate what happens on the table into daily life.
And so, on to the subjct at hand!
As anyone who has lifted the lid on the subject of fascia, and Myofascial Release will tell you, the research is vast, rich, varied and ongoing.
Pulling together what I believe to be the most interesting aspects of this work has at times felt like disappearing down a wormhole.
I have tried to touch on the what-how-when of MFR and have done my best to simplify some of the more geeky content without diluting the true wealth of information out there.
Whether you are completly new to the topic, or perhaps have heard about MFR and been curious to know more or try it, I hope you find something in here that resonates for you.
I'll try and touch on all of the following:
everything you always wanted to know, but was too afraid to ask...
Fascia belongs to the family of Connective Tissues which make up one of the four types of tissues in our bodies. It is found throughout the entire body, supporting, connecting, and separating organs and muscles to, and from one another.
We use the word Myofascia to refer to those connective tissue systems that are most closely associated with soft tissue (myo=muscle fascia=band).
This is the area most effectively affected through manual therapy.
In order to really appreciate what Myofascial Release is, and why it is getting so much attention at the moment, we have to go deeper and take a closer look at Fascia's role in your body.
What you find, might really surprise you...
without it, we'd most likely collapse in a puddle
At the most simplistic level, one can think of fascia as being the jelly in this mould: surrounding, giving structure, and protecting the fruit suspended in it.
"…while every anatomy text lists around 600 separate muscles, it is more accurate to say that there is one muscle poured into six hundred pockets of the fascial webbing. The 'illusion' of separate muscles is created by the anatomist's scalpel, dividing tissues along the planes of fascia. This reductive process should not blind us to the reality of the unifying whole." (Meyers, 2001)
It forms a continuous structure stretching from our head to our feet
but unlike skin, bone or muscle, (that we traditionally think of as the building blocks of our anatomy), fascia cannot be isolated and separated from our bodies. This is perhaps why traditionally, it has been overlooked by anatomists, ignored by scientists.
Under a microscope, living fascia appears as a chaotic, fractal structure, continually morphing into ever-shifting new shapes, finding new equilibriums.
It is useful to think of it as a 3-dimensional, web-like matrix that surrounds and interpenetrates every muscle, bone, nerve, artery and vein as well as all our internal organs, brain and spinal cord.
This infinitely adaptable, multidimensional system forms the living, unified space of our internal environment.
Internal force (from muscles) and external force (from gravity and ground reaction) are absorbed and dispersed through the body mainly through the Tensegrity in the fascial network. It protects individual joints, muscles and bones while at the same time harnessing the kinetic energy from our body’s movement, because of its Viscoelasticity.
In other words, the forces of gravity impacting the body when we move, is absorbed by the fascia and dissipated throughout the body, but also stored and recycled to maximise efficient movement. When fascia becomes constricted or dehydrated, it can impact movement in the whole body.
If your'e a runner, this would make perfect sense to you.
We've all experienced this: some days it feels as if you run with great effort, as if your legs are leaden. Other times running might feel effortless, the body almost weightless.
The difference in this running form and the type of energy expended is likely explained by the runner with the lightest form better utilizing the natural spring and bounce of the fascia, producing a less fatiguing method by which to propel from one foot to the other in a seemingly effortless leap.
The single most important factor in understanding the fascia's ability to absorb force and transform into movement is the model of Tensegrity.
To understand the principle of tensegrity in action, here's Tom Meyers giving us a short explanation.
In a tensegrity model, all the forces are transferred to all the structural elements. What happens in one part, happens simultaneously in all parts. In other words, you cannot distort the shape on one side without changing the entire shape so the whole structure can move and morph in space endlessly.
'We are not continuous compression structures like a bridge. We are tension dependent structures - we depend on the balance of tensions in the soft tissues. (Tom Meyers, 2018)
Ever watched how a parkour athlete can twist, seemingly effortlessly, through the air, land and immediately launch into movement in an almost fluid-like, seamless continuum? That is tensegrity and viscoelasticity in action!
Human fascia has a kinetic storage that is used not only when running and jumping, but also even with walking. (Sawicki et al, 2009).
But structure is only part of the story.
Under a microscope, living fascia behaves like an endlessly morphing, matrix of liquid filled tubules.
Excerpt from Dr. Jean Claude Guimberteau's Strolling under the Skin
Chaotic and unpredictable, this web slides over itself, disconnecting and endlessly reconnecting while the water content within it moves, pools and drains. Random, yet always in search of equilibrium. The droplets, dew-drops and bubbles within the tubules suggest different concentrations and a hydraulic sliding system, constantly adapting to the forces acting on the body.
In addition to its pivotal role in giving the body structure, and keeping it safe, fluid and moving, there is a third, fascinating role of fascia in the living body...
too much or too little are both not so good...
Fascia, like all soft tissue, will remodel itself over time along the lines of repetitive stress.
It's a slow, adaptive mechanism to ensure our survival and that makes our bodies more efficient at performing repetitive movements, but it can weaken the tissue in other directions.
Incidentally, the same principle applies for repetitive non-movement, such as sitting in an office chair for long periods.
In situations of prolonged physical inactivity or postural misalignment, fascia ceases to produce the lubricating gel essential for fluid movement. As a consequence it can stiffen and different layers can start adhering to each other. Since the layers are all connected through the web-like matrix, this can cause problems and be responsible for pain throughout the entire movement system.
Thixotrophy is the tongue–twisting name given to this curious characteristic property of fascial tissue to change from a semi-solid ‘gel’ state to a more fluid ‘sol’ state.
This change from gel to sol state accounts for that melting feeling experienced on the table at a MFR treatment, or during a Yin Yoga class.
Change from Gel to Sol state appears to happen in the presence of heat and pressure, and this transformation can happen fast.
New studies suggest that manipulative therapies like massage and MFR or yoga can trigger this change in a matter of minutes. (Schleib, 2015)
‘From the point of view of our body’s self-perception, it is our most important sensory organ.'
(Robert Schleib PhD)
Yes, I know.
That's a mighty big statement.
But stick with me, this is where things get really interesting.
Fascia is richly innervated with 5 different neuro-receptors and is by far our biggest sensory organ. In fact, it is now known that the central nervous system receives its greatest amount of sensory input from fascial tissue.
Because the fascia is so intimately linked to the nervous system, we can start to understand some of the changes we feel when receiving work on the fascia.
Fascial stimulation through touch feeds into a communication feedback loop with the brain, which in turn regulates the changes we experience and feel in our bodies.
The main players in this nervous system-fascial matrix feedback loop are:
Four different Mechanoreceptors in our fascia detect stimuli such as touch, pressure and vibration. When stimulated, they act on both the nervous system and the endocrine system.
Research has shown that, for instance, deep, slow and steady pressure of the kind you receive during MFR or deep tissue massage triggers a parasympathetic response (that's the rest-and-digest state), as well as changes in the production of serotonin.
In other words, a particular, focussed, intentional kind of touch can produce measurable changes in your nervous and endocrine systems, producing quiet emotional states and muscle softening.
Proprioceptive nerve sensors in our fascia help us make sense of ourselves in 3-dimentional space.
"There really is a sixth sense. It's called proprioception. It is the sense of position and movement. It is produced by nerves in our connective tissue (fascia, bone and ligaments) and our 300 or so muscles. Without Proprioception, you couldn't stand up. (standing up is actually shockingly difficult)" (Paul Ingraham)
One of the biggest advances in modern anatomical study was the discovery that the Fascia is home to 10 times the number of proprioceptive receptors than muscle tissue. These sensors not only help us know ourselves through movement in space, but allows us to respond faster than the conscious mind. (think pulling your hand away from a hot stove plate)
Proprioception , therefore, is key in helping the fascia to protect us, but it is also key to the deep sense of fulfilment we can get from a deep tissue massage - especially one where our limbs and joins are manipulated and mobilised.
Most of us crave the kind of stimulation that lies beyond skin stroking.
After all, we have evolved through millennia doing some form of manual work or being in close physical engagement with nature.
Our modern, desk-bound, device orientated bodies crave and miss that deep, profound contact we used to receive from digging over a field, or chopping a pile of logs!
Interoceptive cells help us know which sensations we like and don't like.
Different from proprioceptive and mechanoreceptive awareness, this sense responds slower, and helps us identify physiological needs where there is an emotional component to the sense. For example, having a full bladder, feeling boated, feeling itchy, feeling too hot or too cold or having a sense of breathlessness.
For example, when you stub your toe, the sensation resonates throughout your whole body. This might feel like a momentary shock and simultaneous full body contraction. That's the full-matrix response we discussed earlier.
Now you might naturally shift the weight of your body to your healthy foot when you walk again – an adaptation which might become a habitual, subconscious pattern after the injury has healed. This shortening and deviation in your body can become a permanent part of the structure, because the fascial system has retained a ‘snapshot’ of the moment of trauma.
The myofascial matrix is not only responsible for our embodied sense of Motion, but much more significantly, our embodied sense of Emotion.
In fact, 90% of the peripheral nerve endings found in fascia are Interoceptive. (Schleib, 2015)
'Our bodies tend to record our responses to events, both physical and emotional, and the fascia is the place trauma is recorded. ‘It is the information bank of the body’ (Schleib)
This ability of the fascia to hold a memory of trauma is what I'll look at next.
‘Often, emotions surface as the tissue reorganizes from the hands-on treatment and the parasympathetic nervous system compensates for the flight and fight response.’ (Ruth Duncan).
The idea that our bodies can hold emotional memory, often at the subconscious level has been well researched and documented.
Trauma specialists Bessel Van Der Kolk and Peter Levine as well as neuroscientist Steven Porges led the field in this research.
Parallel to this field opening up in science, John F Barnes, whom many consider the father of Myofascial Release, started demonstrating his movement-assisted Myofascial Unwinding: a gentle practise of releasing stuck emotion and trauma through fascial release.
During myofascial release and craniosacral work the body often ‘unwinds’, going into spontaneous movement as the fascia and muscles release. The practitioner works with and is guided by this movement, supporting the body where needed and holding it when release is taking place. It is as if the body ‘needs’ to move in a particular way to unwind. If myofascial restriction was due to physical or emotional trauma or repetitive strain, the body tends to readopt the position it was in when the event(s) occurred, allowing tensions to be identified so that they can be cleared. Myofascial unwinding may be accompanied by emotions or memories.
'Memories that are state or position-dependent can therefore be retrieved when the person is in a particular state or position. While the information is not available in the normal, conscious state, the body’s protective mechanisms keep us away from the position that our mind/body awareness construes as painful or traumatic.' (From J.F. Barnes’ “the Body Remembers”)
Fascia, because of its rich enervation with sensory receptors and its close connection to the nervous system is potentially a rich field of exploration in trauma-release work, and one which will open up more as research deepens our understanding of it.
We know from our studies into the autonomous nervous system that our bodies are hard-wired to respond near-instantaneously to our perceived interaction with our environment.
A perceived threat in our environment is enough to trigger a fight/flight/freeze response within the sympathetic nervous system.
It is exactly this perceived interaction with our environment, that is at the heart of fascia, through its interoceptive innervation.
From the research done by Steven Porgess into the vagal nerve tone, we now also know that down-regulation of the sympathetic nervous system depends on subtle social cues such as facial expression, voice tone and touch.
When these align to make us feel safe, our nervous systems are able to regulate within a healthy range.
Incidentally, in tests performed by Robert Schleib PhD, fascial tissue did not respond to Myofascial Release in anaesthetized patients. In other words, effective fascial release depended on the subject’s nervous system being online, regulated and intact.
Because the nervous system is integrated and working in tandem with the fascia, it would then also follow that fascial response and change is governed at least in part by our own need for safety, and therefore would respond to the gentle, embodied touch of a practitioner within the safety of a therapeutic setting.
The safe holding space created by the sensitive practitioner allows deeply held tension, holding and guarding within the client's body-mind to surface and process within the conscious awareness of the client.
When I experienced first-hand the subtle shifts in my own body during my first MFR treatment, I knew instinctively that this work absolutely had to be part of my own work with clients.
If you've had atreatment with me, you know by now that I am all about client-practitioner resonance.
Very powerful things happen when the nervous system is contacted directly through a practitioner's hands.
When we feel in flow, and safe with the practitioner we work with, we stay present during a treatment.
When we feel present, in tune and safe, we become co-pilots in our treatment.
What I love most about Myofascial Release is that it truly invites you, the client, to feel into the changes happening under my hands.
The more you become a kind of passive participant in this work, the more deeply you feel the results.
A beautiful aspect of this work, from the therapist's perspective, is that one needs to slow way down, and put aside any need to 'fix'.
Fascia responds best when you 'listen' into it, and wait.
It responds best when followed. Force it, and it'll push right back.
There's magic in that process - it never ceases to fill me with awe.
When I sense into the places your body holds tension, I contact living, responsive tissue. And inside that living tissue, I contact the story inside the tension and in that, the whole of you.