Photo: Tom Myers; Art Direction The Magazine of Yoga
Fascia as our ‘Organ of Form’
The author of Anatomy Trains explains what’s new about how we understand being human, inside out
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Conversation: Tom Myers, Part Two
Book Review Anatomy Trains
Website Anatomy Trains
The first time I looked at Anatomy Trains, I don’t think I read a word of it.
I stood in the bookstore with my mouth hanging open, staring at the illustrations of the Superficial Back Line and the Deep Front Line barely containing myself from omg-slapping my forehead and exclaiming “Right!” as my whole being moved into full grokking mode.
I shared the book in the workshops I taught. I passed it around retreat weekends, yoga programs and mentoring sessions. I used it when I put posture flows together. I read it before, during and after my experiences with Paul Grilley and my quiet hours reading Deane Juhan.
My battered, pencil-noted copy is still full of sticky notes and slips of paper.
In short, I became an acolyte not only of connective tissue, but of the dynamic responsiveness of the communicating systems of the body. And I was not alone.
For all of you who have admired and thrived on Anatomy Trains and the work of Tom Myers as I have, The Magazine of Yoga is delighted to bring you this refreshing, information packed interview.
Susan Maier-Moul You are one busy man these days! Tom, you’re right in the center of what’s happening in new millennium biology and histology. Can you tell us about it?
Tom Myers In terms of research into the body’s mechanics, and fascia’s role in our real, moving body, what’s going on right now is happening terribly fast for science but slow for the rest of us who are trying to apply it in practice – in yoga classes, in bodywork practices, in surgery, and in the rehab unit.
The way we have looked at Western anatomy is undergoing a somewhat of a revolution, or a paradigm shift, to use the overworked phrase.
Susan Overworked, true, but we really are in a major change of concepts – a change that affects our approaches to health, to meaning, and even the language we use to describe our own experiences. How did we get here?
Tom Around 600 years ago we started taking the body apart, to examine our insides to see what we could learn. I’m talking about the Western European tradition now. There really isn’t any tradition of dissection in the Indian or Asian ways of knowledge, and it’s not something that happened all during the Dark Ages.
A brief history of looking around inside the body
Tom Dissection and looking at the body in terms of what’s inside is a decidedly post-Renaissance Western idea.
Even when that started happening in Europe, it flew in the face of the Catholic church because the clergy believed the body would be resurrected along with the soul when Gideon blew his trumpet and Resurrection Day came. So dissecting the body was forbidden by the church, and the early anatomists were harassed.
After the Renaissance came, with this new idea of humans pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, seeing how the body worked became of interest.
Besides the church, these early explorers were also up against the classical establishment. Nothing had really been done on the body’s workings since Galen, who was the big cheese Roman physician of the fifth century AD.
He was so revered that if he found something in the body and Galen’s books said one thing and the body showed another you believed Galen and disbelieved the body. It was that strong.
Susan He was really prolific – I’ve read something like half the ancient Greek literature we have is written by him. Since Galen was a surgeon, though, he certainly was familiar to some degree with the insides of human beings.
Tom Vesalius – big hero of mine – started dissecting the body and published in 1548. This was really the start of modern anatomy.
His ideas flew in the face of both the church and Galen, but he really did a masterful job of mapping our structure – we all know his famous engravings, like the skeleton contemplating a skull on a stone slab. And we’ve really been using his anatomy, obviously very much more refined and detailed, but basically the same model, ever since.
Vesalius, De Humani Corporis Fabrica
Vesalius and the others tackled the body with a knife, a scalpel, with the same tools that hunters and butchers used on animals; ‘Anatomy’ means ‘to cut up’.
A tool brings a point of view with it
Tom We were trying to understand humans in terms of just figuring out how they worked – but it is crucial to understand the sea change happening now, to realize that all our anatomy is based around what a blade can do with tissue.
And of course, dead tissue, no longer animated with the spark of life.
So a cadaver is really a model of a person (and a model of them on their last viable day on the planet, as well).
Susan Yes – it’s odd that science has assumed dead tissue has the same qualities as living tissue. That whatever is missing in terms of life is negligible.
Tom When you do start cutting into a body, it is a greasy, slippery mess. It is not at all what the books look like, the anatomy books that we look at today.
Human tissue is just full of fat, it’s very greasy, its very much of a mess of fibers and fluid, and it takes a lot of practice and superb skill with a scalpel to turn what you see initially into something that looks like what the books look like.
Susan So in a way, we find what we find because it’s what we’re looking for more than because it’s what’s there.
Tom You always do that with a point-of-view – it’s impossible not to have one, because the reality in front of you is confusing and not easily understandable, so the early anatomists had to make sense of it.
And the way they did that was to cut away all the connective tissue, which is the fat, greasy, fibrous, sinewy stuff that is everywhere and surrounds everything, and throw that over their shoulder to expose what’s left.
That’s why this fibrous system has not been studied or its overall role understood – because it was the stuff that got sliced off in bits to show everything else – muscles, bones, organs, vessels, and nerves.
Susan So in clearing our way toward what we wanted to see, we threw away what we needed to make sense of it!
Muscles are history
Susan Even though we can dissect our way to the muscles we’re looking for, in a way we make them up, is that it?
Tom The items we name as individual muscles are very easy to expose in scalpel dissection. They come in a kind of sausage casing, so that you could easily wield the blade around the muscle, cut off the ends, and take it out as a piece and say, ooh here’s a muscle, here’s a deltoid, here’s a biceps, here’s the quadriceps.
Once we got ahold of that idea, we’ve never let go – this is certainly the way we looked at biomechanics, during all that time.
It is increasingly clear that ‘a muscle’ is a dead duck concept. There is one mind, and really just one muscle, in 600 fascial pockets.
No one has found a representation of a deltoid in the brain, and you don’t think in terms of individual muscles when you move.
Susan Yikes – that’s true isn’t it? Yet this way of overdetermining the body has continued to have consequences, hasn’t it? Everyone seems completely mired in these outdated concepts, and the way we talk about the body is kind of stuck.
Tom Following Aristotle and Newton, we’ve been really bathed in this idea of the body as a machine.
Descartes called it a ‘soft machine’, and look at the number of mechanical images that you’ve heard about, that you imagine when you think about the body: the heart is a pump, the lung is a bellows, the liver is a factory, the brain is a computer.
We have all these images of the body as a mechanical machine-like entity.
All of Kinesiology is expressed in terms of Newtonian mechanics – the laws of force, fulcrums and the different classes of levers that are in every Chapter 1 of every textbook.
The fact of the matter is there are no levers of that simplicity in the body. It just doesn’t work that way.
A limited way of thinking has consequences
Susan It doesn’t work that way, and thinking about ourselves in those terms gets us down a lot of dead ends.
Tom Right. Thus, we think of the skeleton like a crane and muscles as the cables of the crane, and the cables move the crane around and that’s how our body works.
Now, that’s not a wrong image. It’s a limited image. It’s an image that has us working as a very simple kind of machine. And we are in fact a far more complicated machine than that.
We are much more like a tensegrity structure, a special kind of engineering only recently developed by an artist named Kenneth Snelson, and the geometry of it was developed by R. Buckminster Fuller, Bucky Fuller, in the last century.
Thinking of body movement in terms of tensegrity structures enlightens the role of the fascia as a whole.
Snelson tensegrity structure. Photo: Onderwijsgek
Susan This is why living tissue is important – we’re not “dead weight” – we’re dynamic.
Tom The crane, any building or bridge you want to name, the chair you’re sitting in are all continuous compression structures, they carry the compression from your rear end to the seat of the chair to the legs from the legs to the floor.
It’s a continuous compression, brick on top of brick kind of thing. All the buildings in New York have to be strong enough at the bottom to hold everything pushing down from the top – that’s why they used good Maine granite in the Empire State Building.
And that’s the way we’ve thought about our skeleton: the legs are piled on the feet and the thighs are piled on the legs, the pelvis is resting on the thighs, etc. as if we were a stack of checkers or a stack of bricks that go up to the head. And we say oh isn’t it a shame that God put discs in between the vertebrae because clearly if we’re a stack of bricks we’re coming down on those discs and bulging those disks out.
Each body is a sea of connective tissue
Susan So we’re not just piled bottom up.
Tom This is simply not the case. The bones float in a sea of connective tissue and it is the balance of the muscles and the connective tissue, the soft tissues, that determine where the bones are.
Sorry all you chiropractors and osteopaths, but it’s not the bones that determine where the soft tissue is. It’s the soft tissue that determines where the bones are.
Getting the balance of that soft tissue is tremendously important and yoga is one of the programs that addresses the soft-tissue balance. Pilates is another, and there are various programs proliferating everywhere (especially on late-night TV).
But yoga has a great pedigree for balancing out the soft tissue and letting the bones float within them.
Susan The kind of movement we use in yoga, where does it come into this?
Tom It just hasn’t been described in terms of engineering and most of the folks that I know, if they’re trying to put their experience of yoga together with Western anatomy of levers and bones and individual muscles moving the bones, they don’t get very far in their application to their yoga practice because that anatomy, that mechanical anatomy does not describe yoga very well.
We’re developing new anatomy classes for yoga teachers that lay out anatomy in terms that make sense to the experience of yoga practitioners.
Susan Does really understanding soft tissue change how we practice?
Tom The experience of yoga doesn’t fit in to that old mechanical paradigm.
So what’s the new paradigm that’s coming up? Well, seeing the body as a tensegrity is one of those new images, but there’s another really important one: If we go back to Vesalius again, this early anatomist, he pulled out a picture of the nervous system as a whole and the circulatory system as a whole.
(And these were incredibly radical pictures for the 1500’s. This was as radical for that century as a picture of the earth coming back from the moon has been for this century.)
Vesalius, nervous system (left) and circulatory system De Humani Corporis Fabrica
Evolving views of body systems
Tom (continuing) Now, Vesalius, even though he made this great picture, didn’t know that the veins and arteries hooked up in a closed system – that had to wait for William Harvey a couple of hundred years later.
But even in 1548, we had a complete picture of the nervous system and the circulatory system, which are two correct answers to the experimental question: Which of our systems are the holistic systems? Which systems are present throughout your body, inside and out?
If I could make everything else invisible except the nervous system for example, that would show the shape of the exact whole body. Because the nervous system goes everywhere: there’s lots of endings all over the skin, around every blood vessel, there’s endings in every organ, there’s endings in every muscle, in every bit of fascia.
So if I made you invisible except the nervous system, you’d look a little filmy, but we’d be able to see everything except your hair. You’d see the tone of the muscles, you’d see how fat or thin you were. Everything. Because the nervous system has to go everywhere.
Likewise, if I made everything invisible except your circulatory system, we’d see the exact shape of the person because everything has been perfused by the blood. We wouldn’t see very much of the cartilage, because there’s not much blood in that tissue. But we’d see the bones fine, there’s plenty of blood in the bones, and we’d see everything except the open lumens of the respiratory and the digestive tract. Because they’d all be filled with fluid, flowing liquid. So you can see those two systems.
Everything needs to be in communication with the central government, so to speak. So the nervous system goes everywhere, and everything needs to be in contact with the inner sea. So everything is in contact with the fluid system.
You know what happens if we get an area that doesn’t exchange with the fluid system. It either gets cancer or goes necrotic, or at the very least, functions very poorly. So everything has to be “in the swim” so to speak.
Inside the body: a view without a knife
Susan Our contemporary perspective has a lot to do with new instrumentation and new methodologies, doesn’t it? We “see” the body differently because we literally see the body differently.
Tom What I’m saying is – and it’s not just me, there are many people advocating for the fascial net – is that what happened when the anatomist came in and took the body apart with scalpels is they threw this connective tissue away and ignored that as a whole system. But that’s the third system, a very important one, that is an answer to the question we posed before: which systems are whole body systems?
Understand, if I made everything, everything invisible except your skeletal system, we’d see the attitude of your body. But we wouldn’t know whether you were a man or a woman, or fat or thin, or muscular or sedentary. We wouldn’t know any of those things.
If we disappeared everything except the digestive system, we might be able to tell something about your emotions by the color of your liver, but other than that we wouldn’t see the shape of your whole body.
Susan So the skeletal and digestive systems are critical, just not holistic in terms of the body.
Tom But if I were to make everything invisible except the fascial system, you would see the exact whole body again. Because this is the fabric that holds you together.
It starts just under your skin, it goes all the way down to the bone. It is around every organ, it is around every nerve, it’s around every blood vessel. It’s the sinew that holds you together.
If we could magically just show only your fascial system — something we have yet to do in almost 600 years of careful anatomizing — some of it would be very soft, as in the breast or the cheek — if you feel your cheek you can feel there’s not much fascia in there. But if you go down and feel your Achilles tendon, that’s almost all fascia and nothing else.
So just as the nervous system would be denser in your face and hands and thinner on your back, and just as the circulatory system would be thicker in your fingers and very scarce in your cartilage, the fascial system would be thicker where there’s lots of mechanical tension and thinner where there isn’t much mechanical tension. But at least some of it would be everywhere, because your cells need to be held together.
Without it, all your water would end up pooled up in your feet. If it wasn’t for the fascia making bags and holding things together. Like the sections of an orange, the fascia holds all that water up in the air so to speak.
Whole body communication
Susan To sum, then there’s the nervous system, the circulatory system and -
Tom Yes, the fascial system. The fascia is a third whole body communicating system.
The nervous system is a whole body communicating system, the circulatory system or the fluid system, because we would include the lymphatics and whatnot in this, is a whole body communicating system, and the fascia is a whole body communicating system.
The nervous system is clearly communicating signals around the body, and works in seconds. The circulatory system is clearly communicating chemistry around the body, minute by minute and hour on hour.
But the fascial system – the one we’ve ignored, the kind of Cinderella of body tissues – if you consider that as an overall system, which really hasn’t been done in 500 years of anatomy, it’s 500 years later and we don’t have a picture of the fascial system. We have a picture of the nervous system, and we have a very detailed picture of the circulatory system, but surprise, surprise, we have no map of the fascial system.
To get one, we would have to dip a body in some kind of solvent, and dissolve away all the cells, all the circulatory and nervous systems, and we would be left with a web of fiber and glue that holds us together.
We think, oh here’s an iliotibial band, here’s the thoracolumbar fascia, here’s the plantar fascia, but we have never mapped this network as a whole. That’s one of the things that my work is trying to do, is to map this.
Susan You called it a “whole body communicating system.”
Tom The other whole systems are clearly communicators, so what is the fascial system communicating? The fascial system is communicating mechanical information around the body – the dance of tension and compression and force and stability.
If the circulatory system handles the chemical information, the nervous system handles the signals about what’s going on where, the fascial system handles the tensions. So if you were to lean over now and to pick up a cat off the floor by your chair, the cat weighs five pounds — I don’t know about your cat, my cats are very well fed! — and that tension would communicate up your arm, and it would communicate across the shoulder and down the spine on the other side and into the opposite hip via the fascial webbing.
We think of the muscular system or the musculoskeletal system, as holding those forces, and of course they are part of it. It’s just that in between the muscles and the skeleton, all around them is the tissue that’s really communicating the tension along: it’s this fascial webbing.
It goes around the muscles, through the muscles, around the joints, over the bones and otherwise gives you a really nice, well, – blessed be the ties that bind!
Moving and being
Susan I think one of your points is that the body is not inert during this process. That the actual movement changes the shape of the body as you’re doing it.
Tom Yes, the actual movements change the shape of the body – that’s one of the definitions of movement.
Now, what is this network made of? The equivalent to the material that makes up this fascial net in plants it’s called cellulose and it’s that very strong sugar that doesn’t melt. And that’s what makes plants stiff.
So there’s very little of it in lettuce. There’s just lots of it in trees; it’s what holds them up in the air and keeps them from falling down.
But we animals went not for cellulose, which is kind of stiff and dry. We went for collagen, which is much more pliable, but a very strong protein.
It’s stronger than steel. And each molecule looks like a three-stranded rope. All those three-stranded ropes — I mean gazillions of them — are woven together very tightly in the Achilles tendon and very loosely around your liver and etc, but it’s the same kind of stuff all over your body that accommodates all the forces.
Susan Does the fascial system communicate something about that constant accommodation?
Tom Have you ever stepped in from one room to another and it’s two inches lower than you thought it was going to be? A kind of shock goes through your body when you land on the floor. Because it wasn’t quite where you expected it was.
That shock is going up through your connective tissue system, and it’s communicating through your system much faster than your nervous system can go.
Your nervous system goes about 160-170 mph. And the fascial system communicates at 750 mph, which is the speed of sound through water.
It’s essentially a sound wave that’s going through you.
If you step through and the floor is where you expect, then your muscles are attuned to that expectation and your fascial system is ready for that – pre-stressed, as it is called in engineering – and you hardly experience any shock at all. It’s just if it’s unexpectedly lower, then your muscles aren’t tuned for it, and your fascial system has to take a great deal of the shock. In the worst case, if you’re falling from a great height, you might break bones or tear something.
In the normal course of things your fascial system is very accustomed to taking that stress, and your nervous system is constantly listening to your fascial system.
That’s one of the new bits here, the nervous system is listening to the fascia much more than it’s listening to the muscles.
Susan I like that image – listening as a distributed sense.
Tom Fact: there are ten nerve endings in the fascia for every one nerve ending in the muscles. I’m talking about sensory nerve endings here, not the motor nerve endings, because the motor nerve endings only go to the muscles.
There are no motor nerve endings in the fascia because the fascia can’t actively contract. The muscle is clearly the quick-reacting element of your ‘fibrous body’.
The fascia is a slower reacting system, but, we now know, a very ‘plastic’ one.
It will react to a broken bone by mending it, or to a tear by reweaving it. So some of its actions are very slow, over a month or two.
If you get an injury to your left hip, you’ll likely put more weight through your right leg in reaction, and your fascia will adjust to that change of balance over months and months and that’s the kind of pattern that a body worker starts looking at and undoes and that’s the kind of thing that yoga might undo.
However, it’ll happen faster if you have a teacher who is paying attention, or you are paying attention to exactly what you’re doing.
Good teachers and refining self awareness
Susan Is self awareness neutral enough to pay that kind of attention? I mean, aren’t we bodies that are compromised or acculturated or habituated?
Tom Yes, it’s harder for you yourself to pay attention to it because you’ve been standing that way for three years now and you don’t feel it as abnormal, you don’t even notice it at all any more.
It really takes somebody from the outside to say, “Hey, you know you’re putting so much weight on your right leg. Why don’t you try putting a little more weight on your left?” Or something like that, to correct these things.
The fascial net accommodates, incident by incident, over a life, until we have a pattern of posture that’s really recognizable.
You know how you can recognize a friend by their posture or their pattern of movement two blocks away before you can see their face.
That’s a pattern in their neuromotor system but it’s also a pattern in the fascial system and a yoga teacher should be able to, and a body worker – I mean, we train our bodyworkers to be able to recognize those kinds of patterns upon first assessing someone.
Tomorrow, in part two of our Conversation, Tom talks about the bane of female athletes: medial collateral ligament injuries. He’ll also talk extensively about yoga and soft tissue, as well as reveal startling new discoveries about differences in connective tissue that may explain quite a lot about your practice!
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.