Modern science is just catching up to the ancient wisdom of the mind-body connection and the effect that mental patterns (e.g., stress) can have on the body through biochemical pathways.
Does this connection go the other way? That is, if mind affects body, is it possible to change our mental and emotional patterning via the body as well? Indeed, yes, says Anatomy Trains author Tom Myers in this interview. Through bodywork and some types of "exercise," like yoga, we can release psychological trauma by addressing chronic tension patterns and holdings in the body. 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.
Q: 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. What's the reasoning behind this theory?
Tom Myers: Well, the link between emotions and bodily health is a very ancient idea, which has been around for a very, very long time. Modern medical science is actually late in recognizing a mind-body connection and the importance it plays for our health and well-being.
Somatic pioneers of last century, like Wilhelm Reich and Ida Rolf, pointed out that it's not just the mind impacting the body through biochemical pathways. The body impacts the mind as well, because we tend to hold unresolved emotional trauma in the tissues, thereby locking us permanently into certain patterns of thinking and behaving.
Q. Could you elaborate?
Tom Myers: When stress builds up in the brain, it only has two ways out -- one is the chemistry of the body. Stress changes the messenger molecules or neuropeptides that are bathing the nervous system and thus changes your mood. And those chemicals have a variety of effects all over the body, not just the nervous system.
But the other way that distress manifests itself is in patterns of tension. And the trouble with those patterns arises when they become lodged permanently as chronic tension patterns. Patterns that move are just fine. We get angry. We get un-angry. We get sad. We get un-sad. The trouble is with the things that come along and stay for a long time, like the unresolved anger or the unresolved grief.
With those, the brain keeps sending out the same messages to the same muscles, and so you take on a specific postural pattern. And after a while, your mind has fit into that pattern, your muscles have fit into that pattern, your fascia has fit into that pattern, your distribution of energy has fit into that pattern, and that may in itself cause illness or lack of ability to move.
Q: So this understanding has significant applications for our theories of how we deal with psychological trauma? You mentioned Wilhelm Reich, who was one of the early psychologists pointing out that to deal with psychological issues, to release psychological trauma, talk therapy might not be enough. You also have to address those chronic emotional holdings in the body?
Tom Myers: Well, yes, that was his idea. And that was Ida Rolf's idea. In my own experience, I would say that there are different strokes for different folks, but 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, such as Zoloft and Paxil, but for some people, those drugs work. So there are different approaches that will work for different people.
Q: 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 locking us into permanent posture patterns. So is fascia more involved than other body tissues in the holding of tension patterns?
Tom Myers: Well, no. It's the final repository. Most of these emotions are going to start in your nervous system. They're going to be exported to your muscles. And 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 are you 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. You need long, slow stretches, such as during yoga.
One of the wonderful things about yoga is that because of the sustained stretch held in many yoga poses, you actually do change the connective tissue. So you change the pattern of that fascia and thus you can get down to the chronic tension patterns lodged in the tissues. This can lead to a wonderful emotional unfolding over the long term.
Q: 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.
As human beings, we have a tremendous plasticity, a tremendous potential for change. We used to think that there was very little neural plasticity. Now we know there's lots of neural plasticity. We used to think that there was no genetic plasticity. Now we know there's lots of genetic plasticity. So yes, you share genetic material with your parents, but your experience turns on or turns off those genes and can do it all through your life and in response to trauma, to exercise, to everything. So the list of things that can be changed in the genetic expression keeps growing longer every year.
And fascia is the same. A traditional anatomist might tell you that there's no plasticity in the fascial system, but they are looking at embalmed fascia in an anatomy lab. Real fascia in real people is very fluid, very dynamic, and has these kinds of plastic or viscoelastic properties that allow us to change in ways that we haven't thought we could open and change.
Q: That's a wonderful vision. It just shows us the tremendous potential for transformation that we all have. Now, you said that traditional exercise may not do so much to release the chronic tension patterns in the body, as slower forms of movements, like yoga. Why is that?
Tom Myers: Well, when I say exercise, I'm talking about running or working out in the gym. This has less of an effect on fascia, because it's designed for the muscles, for the cardiovascular system or perhaps for neural recruitment, such as stability training. These are all great things to do for yourself to make yourself physically healthy and fit.
But what the people who developed yoga recognized was that in order to change the person -- not just to change the chemistry or to change the amount of strength that you have or your readiness to dive off a diving board -- but to really change the person that you are, to change the issues in the tissues, then you really have to make a deep change in the pattern of your body.
Now that pattern is in the nervous system, that pattern is in the muscular system, that pattern is in the chemistry, that pattern is in the fascia. But once the pattern is lodged in the fascia, you have to address it at the level of fascia for it to release.
So there are different ways in which you can go about doing this. But generally, the sustained stretches of yoga where you hold a posture for several minutes (as you do in many yoga styles) give the muscles a chance to calm down. The muscles have to relax first, and then the fascia starts to stretch and release. And that can facilitate the kind of repatterning that leads to lasting release of chronic holdings and, in many cases, a profound change of mind and body.
Tom Myers is a body worker, anatomy expert, and author of the bestselling book, Anatomy Trains. He studied directly with Dr. Ida Rolf and Moshe Feldenkrais, two of the leading somatic visionaries of our time, and he is known for his deep insights into the role of fascia as it relates to the structural health of the body and to our emotional health and well-being.
This is an excerpt of an interview with Tom Myers. To listen to the full audio interview, you can download it here: Facilitating Change: Yoga, Fascia and Mind-Body Transformation
Want to learn more? Check out Tom Myers' online course on YogaUOnline:
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