Photo: Tom Myers; Cover Art: Tom Bowman; Art Direction: The Magazine of Yoga
Fascia as our ‘Organ of Form’
Anatomy Trains’ Tom Myers talks tissue remodeling, yoga, women and sports, dodgeball and (yes!) parkour
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Conversation: Tom Myers, Part One
Book Review Anatomy Trains
Website Anatomy Trains
In the second part of our Conversation, we pick up with Tom discussing the limits of mechanism metaphors and part-for-whole thinking.
Susan Maier-Moul There are many ways our metaphors and preconceptions of our bodies strand us far from the truth of being human. It’s hard to fathom the effect that having never adequately accounted for one out of three whole body systems has had on our life sciences.
Tom Myers The research that’s been going on now into this fascial system and how it plastically remodels in response to our attitudes, our habits, and our injuries is just fascinating in terms of how this system works as a whole.
What we’ve been doing is studying individual pieces of it and trying to put it together from the parts. Now it’s time for a change: one mind, one muscle, one fascial net.
Susan Can you give an applied sense – a “hands on” example?
Tom Sure. For instance, lots of young female athletes have trouble with the medial collateral ligament of their knee. It’s a really common athletic injury for young females. Physiotherapists have done a lot of study on the medial collateral ligament.
Now it’s important for your readers to understand that there is no such thing as the medial collateral ligament, except that we’ve made one by means of our method of dissection.
Susan Seriously? There’s no such thing as an MCL?
Tom There is definitely strong connective tissue on the inside of the knee joint, but it doesn’t have any defined edges and it doesn’t have any top and bottom. It just blends into the joint tissue on the inside, blends into the overlying muscular tissue on the outside – the pes anserinus – and blends right and left with the joint capsule and other ligaments there.
It’s kind of arbitrary where you put your scalpel and say, ok everything to the left is medial collateral ligament and everything to the right isn’t. And these kind of divisions made with a scalpel become part of our assumption of the ‘truth’ within the body – but it’s just a particular point of view, a Newtonian world-view.
These defined structures that we have, like the plantar fascia or the central tendon of the diaphragm, or the nuchal ligament – whatever structure that you want to name – is kind of arbitrary as to where it begins and ends, because this is really all one net.
So what could we learn by thinking of it as all one net, rather than thinking of it as the iliotibial band or the medial collateral ligament or this or that?
Susan Yes, that’s my question. Obviously we want to let go of misleading concepts so we can think clearly, but can you tell us where we begin to re-conceive how our bodies function? What sort of entailments do we have with “one net” fascia?
Tom Well, for example, very often, these medial collateral ligament tears and ACL tears that these young female athletes are having, have to do with their ankles, have to do with their hips – if we’re honest, have to do with the fact that they’re dealing with sexuality at the same time that they’re learning their sport. How they hold their pelvis, and hold the hips and the tension thereof that has an effect on how much strain there is on the inner knee.
So you can’t just isolate this one thing out and say ok, we’re gonna study the medial collateral ligament and find out why all these female athletes are having a tear at this point.
But that’s the way we’ve tended to think about things, as ‘Oh this is a failure of a particular structure, and we have to find out why that particular structure is failing’. I don’t think that’s the case.
Parts that “fail” are not the problem
Tom We have to look much more broadly at how are the ankles are working, how are the hips working, how are the kidneys working, how are the relationships working – all of those things come into this equation of dealing effectively with another human being.
Susan The parallel that you’re pointing out is the same way that we “constructed” a ligament, we constructed a bio-mechanical reason out of an entire social and life fabric of the person who’s got the injury.
Tom Absolutely. And we tend to focus our work on “the part that failed.” You come to somebody with a shoulder problem, you want them to fix that shoulder. That’s what you’re paying for. You want them to identify where “the problem” is, and inject steroids in there, or do something that is going to stop that problem.
But the problem is body-wide; it’s the whole fascial net that’s often involved, especially in anything chronic.
Susan I think this is something we instinctively know is true. Can you give an example from your practice?
Tom I work on shoulder injuries day after day after day – and almost all shoulder limitations are due to either the head being jacked forward of the rest of the body – which is a really common postural fault in our society – or the rib cage dropping back, dropping down and back. In other words, with the upper ribs in a kind of collapse.
That’s a very common thing in our society, too, and I could give you all kinds of good reasons why the head goes forward: everybody’s anxious and we’re all leaning our head forward to see what’s coming next and I know why the heart is falling back.
I could wax on in very poetic ways about this, but the fact of the matter is, just on a pure bio-mechanical level, if you do either of these things, you tie a whole bunch of shoulder muscles up in stabilizing the shoulder. Then you ask the shoulder to do something and other parts of the shoulder get overworked until one day they fail.
So rather than when somebody comes in and says I have this shoulder problem, yes I have to work on whatever “part” has failed because it needs to be repaired and rested and brought back to normal.
But for any of this treatment to last, I have to think much more carefully about how are they using their shoulder and how could they use their shoulder differently. It’s not just the shoulder. The rib cage under the shoulder or the head above the shoulder needs to be corrected, or they’re just gonna put themselves right back in the same situation again.
So, thinking holistically about this net can get you a lot farther than just thinking about the individual structures, which are in any case, human constructs, not God constructs.
Physicality, our bodies and our practices
Susan Much of what you say has amazing implications for credentialing physical practice.
One of the things we’re dedicated to at The Magazine of Yoga is validating physical practices as vital for the entire nature of being human, whether you want to, as you say, put your scalpel in and say this part’s spiritual and that part isn’t, because that is also a very outdated way of thinking of the boundaries of bodies and communicating with one’s highest sense of purpose.
We’re committed to reaffirming and potentiating physical practice and its effect on this incredibly critical, whole body communicating system that culturally and functionally we have not understood at all, yet. The fascial system.
Is there anything you might like to say in that regard, on why yoga(s) might be particularly useful if practiced consistently, in balancing that fascial system, or coming into contact with its important messages?
Tom Obviously hatha yoga is only one of the eight limbs of yoga, so (laughing) I’d like to think that you could probably get around it and do ok, still get yourself to enlightenment! So let’s leave aside the other limbs because I am not a yoga adept at all, and probably only know enough about them to be dangerous, so just talk about the physical practice part.
Yoga is, as far as we know along with martial arts – they seem to have come from the same roots somewhere in Kerala in India – yoga went one way and martial arts went another. But both of them – and this is important – are attempts to ‘re-form’ a person in all their aspects through working with the body.
Sure, the idea is physical training. You want supple stretchy ready-to-fight muscles if you’re building an army to defend yourself or if you’re working towards your own enlightenment, those are great physical benefits.
But that wasn’t really the idea. The idea was to change the person, to realize with psychological correlates, to make them a moral person, to make them a more attentive person to make them a more compassionate person, and to build all that through working with the body. I think that’s a very excellent, and valid, and not very affirmed line of inquiry in the Western world, because we kind of associate the body with sex, and dirt, and food and shit – all “the thousand ills the flesh is heir to” – whereas the soul is pristine and cool and heavenward and angelic.
We Westerners divide our base animal bodily nature from our angelic intellectual higher nature – I grew up in New England, so I know about this kind of dualism. I’m not a philosopher, so I’m not going to carry us too far down there, but yoga was an attempt to change a person, to unify us body and soul – not just stretch and strengthen the body.
Rolf, Alexander, Feldenkrais
Tom (continuing) The way of the yogi is the mission of the mind. You’re using the hatha yoga to bring the mind into harmony. If the body comes along for the ride, great. But the aim of yoga was to discipline the mind, and the body is one of those areas that the mind occupies and therefore one limb disciplines the body’s actions on the mind. See? You cannot even talk about it in our languages without separating body and mind.
Now, if we come to the 21st century, and yoga has come from the East to the West, in such a big way, from being almost totally unknown in the 1920′s and 30′s to being only very vaguely known in the 50′s, to now, where you can say “practicing yogurt” on a Dannon ad or whatever it is on the TV, and everybody knows what you mean.
The idea that yoga would have such a currency in the Western world would be unknown to Ida Rolf’s generation, F M Alexander’s generation, Moshe Feldenkrais’s generation. This is a very recent and happy phenomenon.
However, the practices of yoga – we don’t know what Patanjali was referring to in terms of asana and practice when he was writing, and surely those practices have changed over time. I don’t know how old asana is, I thought that the current asanas were developed about three or four hundred years ago for the Brahmin caste of India.
Now, in this electronic Western world, you have to ask yourself: Are those practices, are those asanas also suitable for people in the early 21st century?
We’re in very, very different cultural circumstances. These people were doing hatha yoga to keep themselves on the ground, because they were learning sutra after sutra after sutra and they were in a very spiritual realm. We’re using yoga to try to get ourselves up out of the mud of all the toxicity and noise that we have around us. This was not true for the people for whom yoga was developed.
So I think, is physical practice a very important piece of this? Absolutely.
Is the physical practice that’s been handed down from previous generations suitable for this generation? It’s at least open to serious question.
I could be wrong about my history, but my understanding is that the people who originally learned yoga could recite sutra from memory for hours; I can’t even remember my own cell phone number!
The demands on our bodies and our minds today are very different so what we’re looking for is what works when and for whom in our culture – and this is why I celebrate all the differences in yoga that are coming down now – there’s yogalates, and there’s yin yoga and yang yoga and astanga yoga and Iyengar yoga and Bikram – we’d be on the phone another half an hour if I listed them all!
Susan These variations and innovations are actually positive evolutions: healthy for the whole body systems, and actually put us better in touch with “tradition” in the sense that dated practices were not by fiat breaking down the bodies of practitioners.
Tom I think it’s a wonderful thing. I know that if you’re a proponent of one kind of yoga seeing all these other kinds of yoga could be annoying, but for myself looking in from outside I think it’s absolutely wonderful because what we have to do is experiment and see what kind of physical practice is going to train our children to live in this post industrial electronic world.
The physical education of the 20th century in schools was built around getting people ready for the industrial world. You did a lot of repetition, like jumping jacks or push-ups – what’s the repetition good for? Well, if you’re going to get a job on an assembly line, then doing a lot of repetitive movement is good for your work.
And if you’re going to be in a competitive industry, then a lot of competition, so that, that’s what the physical education of the 20th century was based on, repetition and competition.
Now we’re coming in to the 21st century, anything repetitive can be done better by a machine. So all of the repetitive things that we used to do are being replaced by robots and computers. So we really should be not teaching our children to do repetitive things, we should be teaching our children to do original things.
We need movement that carries us back to our bodies
Tom (continuing) At the same time, what is actually happening is that physical education – in fact, anything with a physical basis under it – is being taken out of schools.
There’s no money for dance, there’s some money for sports, but only if you’re at the top of the sports realm. If you’re trying to learn something sportish, like skateboarding, the money is being taken away from that. Music, money is being taken away from that.
Even recess is being curtailed. So that kids’ physicality in schools is getting less and less.
Susan There are some very dedicated people creating yoga programs for schools.
Tom I notice with great interest that yoga is being taken in to some schools. And some sports programs, other people are taking it to new venues and doing new things with it, and as I say any of these might turn out be part of this new yoga we are developing.
We need some movement that carries people back towards their bodies. Because we’ve had an incredibly strong cultural trend that’s been taking people away from their bodies.
But we’re not going to go back to the body in terms of what it looked like in the 1950’s. We’re going to go back to training a body that is going to be ready for electronics, that’s going to be ready for a world around connectedness and that has to be trained to be both very sensitive – well, we don’t know yet.
I was about to give the characteristics, but we really don’t know what kind of body is going to work in this new world that we’re creating. That is what is so exciting about it.
The limits of mechanics and the rise of dynamics
Susan Gilles Deleuze in his essay, Mediators, talks about contemporary sport. Deleuze suggests people are no longer as turned on by initiating mechanical movement, but are excited by the power and nuance of “getting with” larger forces. He mentions hang gliding, there’s surfing, and I think about parkour -
Tom I’m a great fan of parkour! Because it is total conditioning – I’m 60, I’m not doing it anymore. I’m sure I’d have fun playing with it as I have with Contact Improv but I’m past that stage –
The absolute reflexiveness required to deal with a situation on the other side of a wall that you couldn’t see as you mounted that wall where you might have a drop of three feet or you might have a drop of eight feet and you might be landing on something that’s hard, or something that’s soft, you really don’t know if you’re doing parkour, in its purest sense. The readiness is all, said Shakespeare.
I think that the kids are intuitively picking the skills that they’re going to need in this century. It’s going to move a lot faster than the last one.
Susan Yes, it’s not this mythical ability to nail down the center and define the edges, which is very European enlightenment stuff – sort of the explorer mind set of “now we know the world is round.” We thought that we had grasped the nature of reality, and of physicality, and we were just going to explore the details.
What happened mid 20th century is, we found out, oh by the way, quite a bit of that stuff is wrong –
I think it’s amazing to be at this point in the 21st century where in many ways popular culture is so far ahead of institutional culture.
Tom We’ve gone from, and I’m going to get this wrong, but we’ve gone from what Margaret Mead called a post-figurative to a pre-figurative culture. When I was a kid, and I was a kid in the pre-television days, at least in my neighborhood of rural Maine, Dad went out to work and dad came home with the news. Now, dad goes out to work and by the time he gets home, the kids have much more news than he does about what’s happening in the world.
Now our children are the wise ones and being an old person, I don’t want to say, they are – there’s wisdom in the old that should be tapped (laughing). Have respect for your elders and that kind of thing. The trouble is the elders do have this wisdom, but it’s in an area that’s hard to see the value of. At least so far, because things are happening so fast that the kids are ahead of us, and need to be.
Whole body communication and tissue remodeling
Susan You have some interesting research from the connective tissue frontier to share with us don’t you?
Tom Yes – let’s pick up with talking about this fascial system as a complete system, and what could we understand about this system?
So we understand that the nervous system is communicating all over the body and making a kind of simulation of the world. A picture of the world, but it’s actually more like a computer simulation of the world and that we act within that simulation and then hopefully the simulation is accurate enough so that we don’t step into a room thinking it’s level when it’s two inches lower than we think it is. And that’s pretty good if somebody’s tossing us a ball, or we’re jumping off a fence or something.
By the time you get to the complexities of relationships, then two people can be in a relationship and not be looking at it the same way at all. So your picture of reality, and reality, by the time you get up to some of these abstract things, is very low res.
Susan These whole body communicating systems aren’t static, we aren’t sort of about one kind of event and not another. Our relationships are active, and physiological as well.
Tom The circulatory system is sending chemical messages all around the body and also assessing the chemistry of the body from moment to moment. Eliminating toxins, making use of nutrients, getting things where they need to be, on the chemical scene. And the fascial system is constantly reviewing our mechanical situation. So just as the nervous system speaks to itself all over, and the circulatory system speaks to itself all over, this fascial system is speaking to itself all over.
This is a communicating system that if you turn your ankle, if you sprain your ankle, that that’s maybe a problem of your ankle for 5 minutes. But as I said, the message about that turned ankle went through your body at 760 mph on the connective tissue system and the system as a whole begins to respond to this.
Cells begin to produce more fiber, adjustments are made, as I said, in the hips and the back, the whole body and it’s not just the nervous system, the actual fascial system itself will remodel itself. Healing a bone is remodeling. Healing a wound, when you get a wound through your skin, that’s a form of remodeling.
Susan The remodeling, the whole body communicating systems, are superbly dynamic, responding and interacting really with everything.
Tom You’re constantly remodeling your system both in response to your psychological experience and your physical experience, and your habitual experience, including your exercise. So that if we starting looking at how this system operates as a system we would start to see a whole other way in which the body is conscious. Yoga can be seen as a fascial remodeling technique.
And that’s what I really love about yoga: It’s bringing this fascial system into consciousness. The trouble is, we’ve been thinking about it all in terms of muscles. While the muscles are conscious, but when you stretch the muscles and the fascia (and every time you stretch, you do both), the fascia is ten times more innervated than the muscles and it’s really the fascia that we’re tuning into.
So a few of us are trying to develop these ideas in something we call Fascial Fitness. It’s just a way of bringing all this fascial research together. I’m working together with Dr. Robert Schleip (www.somatics.de; and PubMed) in Germany to bring the latest fascial research to bear on personal training, manual therapy, and yoga practice.
We’re hoping to bring these things out. They’re coming in thick and fast, but the applications aren’t always clear and certainly not always definitive. But we’re trying to bring this information out so that practitioners can use it more quickly than they have been able to until now.
Genetics and CT: maybe you just aren’t bendy after all
Susan I think it’s very interesting when people talk about yoga as “just” stretching, that they certainly don’t grasp it in the tensegrity sense, nor do they realize stretching is not something you would want to use the word “just” to minimize the action or its benefits. A life-giving, important activity is happening.
Tom Because we’ve been trapped in this mechanical model, we’ve been very simplistic about how we thought of what is actually happening when we put a muscle under stretch.
In fact, many different kinds of stretch are going on in different tissues in different directions, cells are communicating and releasing things which affect the function – this tensional net is very responsive, and we’re just finding out about how it responds, and it’s pretty amazing.
We’ve also for instance just found that there are really two distinct – genetically distinct — forms of fascia that we call the viking fascia and the temple dancer fascia.
Susan The differences between them originate genetically? Describe their characteristics, please -
Tom The viking fascia is very dense and less elastic and creates a lot of friction, and therefore creates a lot of heat for the body and was probably developed there for Northern climates.
The temple dancer fascia is that bendy twisty girl who’s in your yoga class whom you really get annoyed at because she can do any pretzel shape she wants with ease. But she has the fascia that’s already loose and elastic, and that was probably developed in warm weather climates. Of course it’s all spread around now genetically.
To cut to the chase here: we shouldn’t give the same yoga class to a bunch of vikings that we give to a bunch of temple dancers. There’s different fascia so clearly the exercises should be different.
One person’s release is another one’s poison
Susan Do people’s bodies have different mixes of those two fascia?
Tom No, this one seems to be a fairly clear divide, but we’ll know more about this in a couple of years.
You can train part of your body to be too lax or too tight and therefore it would have the appearance of being part temple dancer, part viking. But no, this seems to be something that is over all the body and is genetically determined and you come in with it somewhere along that scale.
You can sort of have some parts of the body that are tight and some parts that are loose, but the genetic typology we’re talking about is a chemical disposition, a histological disposition and a fascia that is body-wide.
Susan Understanding these cellular differences, the tissue infrastructure variations among human beings certainly argues for the value of teachers like Jill Miller. Jill is really a leader, and she’s working very openly to modify how postures are done, so they are vital, healthy and realistic for bodies today.
Tom What I find is that when people are arguing – and we have lots and lots of arguments in the manipulation community about which should be better, this or this –
What you often find is that “this” is better for this kind of body, and that one over there is better for that type of body. So it’s not an either/or. It’s a question of to which people should “this” system be applied and to which people should “this” system be applied, and we’re just beginning to do that triage. Nobody knows.
I was inspired by Ida Rolf and I came forward in 1976 with my knuckle at the ready: “I’m going to change the world with the fascial work”.
And it does work for some people and for other people it’s just not appropriate and you need to do another kind of work, or no work at all, or this person over here really shouldn’t be doing any kind of body work they should be doing yoga. And this person over here is already bendy and stretchy and they shouldn’t be doing yoga they should be doing something more Pilates-like that’s going to stabilize their joints.
You take somebody with unstable joints and put them through the old yoga stuff that was going on in the ’70’s when I first got started with it and you’ll seriously unbalance them. I put my daughter through college on yoga injuries – but that’s all part of people’s passion for exploring, all part of the big experiment we’re in.
You can create a real problem, not through malice, but just through trying to apply one unvarying system to a variety of different bodies. So over the next fifty years – I think this is just a great experiment, and we’re all involved in it – over the next fifty years we’re going to be figuring out what works for different people in different situations.
If we really get a health care system in this country – at the moment we have a sick care system, and it’s a very sick sick-care system as well – but if we ever do get a health care system in this country it will be a three-legged stool.
The three legs that it will rest on are: clear communication, which is what is called psychology today, but it really as to do with, and it’s fundamental, with clear communication and being in the present.
The second leg will be nutrition. And the third leg will be movement.
Now yoga, Pilates, personal training, all of these things right now are the fresh little shoots of what will gather together for the next 50-100 years to become a very strong tree of educating our kids for movement in and with the world. Because we’re educating our kids for an environment that has very little naturalness in it. I’m not decrying it, but the fact is we mostly live in an artificial environment.
By artificial, I just mean that we made it ourselves rather than being the environment that humanity grew up in on the planet. Now we live mostly in cities, we mostly wear clothes, so our feet are contacting shoes, not the earth. And we really haven’t begun to understand the implications of that.
Working our way through that world-view change – as individuals, as parents, as teachers, as seekers, and as citizens – is the unique challenge of the 21st century yoga.
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