Saturday, August 23, 2014

Connective Tissue - Easing the Ties that Bind

Rebecca and I have been getting our house ready for sale in the last couple of months. And, of course, I’ve been spending lots of time fixing those things that I never seemed to get around to. I think about how those new owners will never know how hard I worked getting the place ready for them as I get out of bed in the morning with the aches and pains that come from spending unaccustomed time laying flooring, attaching new screws into loose hinges or moving wheelbarrows of earth. I have some empathy for Jonathan Swift’s character, Gulliver, who awakes in Lilliput to find himself anchored to the ground, bound by the ropes the nation of diminutive people have laced across his body.  

I know that what’s going on inside my body is not too different from Gulliver’s experience. Little strands of connective tissue are slowly but incessantly binding the different parts of my body together so that the shape of my constant bending and kneeling makes it harder to stand straight and move with ease.  

Connective tissue is everywhere in our bodies. It is the cartilage in our nose, ears and deep on the sliding surfaces of our joints. It creates nets that hold our fat cells, intestines, nerves and vessels in place. It forms sheets that cover bones and muscles spinning the cables of tendons that connect muscles to bones and the tapes that hold joints together.  

Of all connective tissue, these sheets, called fascia, have the greatest effect on our movement. From the smallest bundle of muscles cells to the largest muscle masses, fascia helps create not only the shape of muscles but also allows a sliding of each bundle against those around it. They are instrumental in the dynamic strength of muscles that allows subtle responses of the smallest bundles while at the same time binding them together for focused action. With that strength they give our bodies an essential sense of its limits so that we don’t over-reach the range of motion of our muscles and joints. Fascia doesn’t just help shape the inner landscape of our bodies, it shapes the way we move.    

Connective tissue draws its amazing adaptability - forming itself to the needs of each part of the body - through a unique combination of two components: 1. fluid and 2. long, rope-like strands. The fluid, called ground substance, is the basic ingredient of gelatin. Like Jell-O, it is able to respond to temperature changes, moving from liquid to gel as it cools. The strands, known as collagen fibres, are the longest molecular formations in the body. They are also the strongest, with higher strength than steel cables of the same size. Collagen fibres get a lot of that strength from being twisted together like ropes and bound with hydrogen bonds that hold the strands together with Velcro like strength.  

Our most direct and dramatic experience of connective tissue at work is when we injure ourselves. The ground substance of connective tissue helps to create a thickening of the fluids in the wound while the collagen fibres throw themselves across the wound, binding it together and creating scar tissue.  

On the inside of the body, when not called to emergency duty, the fascial sheets adjust themselves to the strains that go through our muscles, tendons and ligaments, thickening themselves to help carry greater load and shaping themselves to the limits of our movements.  

This is exactly what has been happening as I work. As I hammer a new baseboard or lay paving stones, my fascia begins to thicken in my quads and calves. My chest muscles shorten with the load of carrying boxes full of books into storage and the fascia begins to shrink-wrap itself to the new shaping of my body. The deadlines and long hours I require of myself mean that my body isn’t given range of movement experiences.  Not using my full range of movement between the muscles means that the Velcro of collagen fibres begins to create stickiness between the surfaces of muscles. At night these adhesions throw down even more strands so that, like Lilliputian ropes, each tiny strand contributes to and causes the profound limitation of movement and achiness I feel when I wake in the morning or try to stand erect after a long time spent bent over.  

Thus, several weeks later, when I finally appear in yoga class, my hands can barely reach my feet in sitting forward bend, paschimottanasana and my heels cannot find the floor in my downward dog, adho mukha svanasana. Where I might have once blamed “tight muscles,” I now know the truth. My inner surfaces are sticky, my fluids have gelled and my fascial sheets have thickened around shortened muscles.  

I know I have to travel slowly on my road of re-inhabiting my body. In its essential nature, fascia is like Silly Putty. Pull too hard, too fast, and it will pull back against you and maybe snap! But go slowly enough and it melts, giving way before a gentle, engaged stretch. The gel begins to warm, melting into its fluid nature. The Velcro begins to pull apart, allowing the surfaces to slide to greater length. The thickened areas become more flexible as the load is shared across my body through the wisdom of the asanas. I return to a deeper relationship with the life of my body as their busy Lilliputian work returns to providing strength and flexibility on the journey to embodied engagement in life. 

Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of the "Yoga Bridge", the publication of the Yoga Association of Alberta. 


Myofascial release balls such as those used by the Yamuna® system are an excellent way of working out adhesions and thickened fascia.  You can find more at

An insightful (and very entertaining) video on the restrictive power of fascia can be found in anatomist Gil Hedley’s “Fuzz Speech” 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Body's Story

The Body’s Story

Comment: This is a short article I wrote as an introduction to my Anatomy and Expression workshop series.  It gives a bit of insight into the intersect between body practice and our inner experience. 

As I am working through a twist in yoga, the instructor kneels beside me, and with gentle support starts helping me move deeper. As my ribs start to move and my breathing opens I am surprised to hear sobs emerging. I have been working on the tension in my ribs and restrictions to my breathing for some time, but this was new.

The transition from physical tension to deepened experiencing is not news to any somatic practitioner who has been working for longer than a year or two. I still remember my first experience with this deepening as it occurred on my massage table. My client and I had been working together for some time, but this time she had sheets of tension through her neck and shoulders as a result of a car accident she had earlier that week. As I worked with the tension, she dissolved into tears. She remembered having to move into care-taking mode when she realized that it was an elderly man is who had been driving the car that hit her, and he looked more shocked and bewildered then she felt herself. It was only as she was able to drop into her body that her own reactions began to surface and the tensions that it held them began to soften up.

Despite the frequency of these occurrences in massage therapy and other somatic practices, little education is available in entry level training programs.  The only training that is typically available for practitioners is through specialized trainings in trauma and processed centered therapies.  

 A first step in gaining access to this valuable information is looking at it through the lens of anatomy. In the early 1900s, Pioneer psychoanalyst and researcher, Wilhelm Reich, was already describing how particular muscles in the body formed distinctive patterns of tension that he called armoring. This led to the recognition of tension bands that form at typical levels of the body such as the neck or lower back. And more broadly, how patterns of tension will form as an expression of particular types of personality, often shaped in early childhood development.

Practitioners can benefit from the recognition of these patterns by responding more specifically to them. Slight shifts in techniques can be made through the recognition that the tensions showing in a person’s body are not just physical but have a story. Recognizing the signs of a stopped story in the body may lead to a referral to a practitioner who specializes in this area.  In addition, clients can benefit through education about how unresponsive tension patterns may be related to armoured experience.  

Where Softness Begins - Justin Stone and T'ai Chi Chih

Where Softness Begins
Justin Stone and T'ai Chi Chih
Matthew van der Giessen

I had positioned myself toward the end of a long row of workshop participants when Justin Stone walked into the room and sat himself down right in front of me. My placement of safe anonymity evaporated immediately. Justin sat there, looking at nothing and everything, while we moved through our set. 

I  had arrived in Albuquerque earlier that week with teachers and students from across the continent who had gathered to celebrate Justin's 94th birthday, and to take my first Intensive workshop.

When we finished, Pam Towne, who was leading the Intensive, asked Justin for his comments. The many useful things I'm sure he said disappeared in a blur for me when, at one point, he turned to me and said, "I don't know what you think you are doing, but that's not Tai Chi Chih." I had been warned by Gail Terriff, my teacher in Edmonton, that when I went to the Intensive I would receive at least one correction that would collapse my sense that I knew how to practice Tai Chi Chih.  Little did I know that it would come as such a sweeping critique of my practice and from Justin Stone himself! I continued to absorb the impact of Justin's statement as Pam led us into the next section of teaching.

Then, a window opened awakening me from my absorbed self reflection. Justin had become a bit antsy as he waited for Carmen Brocklehurst to take him home;  he was hosting a meditation later that afternoon. Finally, he got up and headed for the door. I waited for somebody to do something but it seemed as if in that moment time stopped and nobody moved. I felt myself step forward and open the door for Justin.

As I walked him out to the car, he turned to me with the second set of words he would ever speak to me. "Your technique is just fine", he said to me. "You just have to learn to relax." It was if, having fallen into a pit as the ground opened up under my feet when he had spoken to me earlier, he had now handed me a ladder by which I might be able to find my way out.

Later that week, amongst the many invaluable things I learned, Pam handed me an essential rung for my ladder. It was the basic principles of Tai Chi Chih practice: moving from the center with softness and continuity, yining and yanging with the focus on the soles of my feet, with polarity and circularity. Somehow, I thought I could never memorize this simple line. Yet, I immediately recognized that this was the missing piece that I needed to respond to Justin's challenge to me. Every evening after our class I went home and practiced it in my hotel room. Eventually it stuck.

In my work as a massage therapist, I am interacting with people through my body every day.  After 30 years I have learned that congruent interaction is an essential part of my practice. Upon taking my new Tai Chi Chih mantra home, I discovered that holding it quietly inside myself subtly but powerfully changed the quality of my work. New options opened up with deep and unexpected shifts for my clients. In the years since my meeting with Justin, my work has gone through what is perhaps the most significant evolution of my whole career.

And perhaps as important, I find that in my every day interactions with others, whether individually or in groups, my internal mantra helps keep me grounded, helps me hear how I need to be in this moment. I feel more comfortable in myself and, perhaps, more helpful to the fellow beings who inhabit my particular universe. While Justin may no longer be with us in person, his words are there in my ear to help guide me through the rest of my life, moving from the center with softness and continuity.