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.
“The gravitational field of the earth is easily the most potent physical influence in any human life. When human energy field and gravity are at war, needless to say gravity wins every time. It may be a man’s friend and reinforce his activity; it may be his bitter enemy and drag him to physical destruction. His structure holds the answer.” -Ida P. Rolf, Ph.D.
It’s important to understand that my husband, Peter, refuses to take baths. He does shower, yes, but he finds baths unmanly, just like soccer — or any other sport that does not require players to crash into one another like angry apes and beat their chests.
For years he coached our son, Cade, in football, shouting at his boys to “Hit them low, take them down.” He watches soccer only because our daughter, Raye, plays. She has what her coaches call “grit.” This makes Peter proud.
Before every game we remind her about excessive body play.
“Keep your arms in,” Peter warns as I nod approvingly. Then he whispers, “Go kick some butt.” He holds up his palm. She throws a punch, good and hard, thumb out so it doesn’t break, just as he taught her. Then they beat their chests and grunt.
So my expectations were low when, on a cold Minneapolis day last winter, I dialed Peter’s number at his office to make an unusual request.
“Hey,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Nothing. Just working.”
“O.K. I just called to say hi.”
“Hi,” I said. “So do you feel like going to Costa Rica on a yoga retreat?”
And I held my breath.
I felt as if I had been holding my breath for more than 20 years, since I got my first job in New York and soon after learned that, at 56, my mother had Alzheimer’s disease. I moved back home to help care for her and began telecommuting from Minneapolis.
Next, I met and married Peter. Then came Peter’s alcoholism. And two infants. And my father’s cancer. And tensing up every time the phone rang.
After two decades of illness and death, of car pool lanes and hockey rinks, of figuring out dinner and what to do while my taciturn husband learned how to live without a drink, after giving up running because it hurt my knees and sugar because it made me sick and traveling because it made me insane trying to convince myself I would not die while away, here I was again, holding my breath.
“Do I want to go on a yoga retreat?” he repeated. “Not really. But I’ll go if it’s important to you.”
So we went, neophytes both, because we had become strangers in marriage, because our therapist told us we needed to say “yes” to life more, and because on the cusp of turning 50, I needed to remember how to breathe.
On our first night, our group gathered for a ceremony that involved sitting cross-legged on cushions and holding stones in our hands. Our teachers lit candles and told us to close our eyes.
I peeked at Peter. I was supposed to be envisioning the blue in my body, but instead I was thinking: “Please don’t let them ask us to join hands. Or chant.”
The next day Peter did his first downward dog. There were cats and cows and instructions on breathing: “In through the nose, out through the nose.”
Later we took a group surfing lesson. I was dreading it. I am terrified of sharks and scared of waves. But I wanted to say yes to life, so I found myself lying on a rental board on the beach that scratched my arms with an instructor named Ricardo telling us to “pop up.”
Twenty minutes later, we walked into the water. “Remember to shuffle,” Ricardo told us. “To avoid the stingrays.”
One by one Ricardo brought the others into the ocean — shuffling, shuffling. One by one they popped up, wiped out and disappeared before reappearing and heading back to shore.
Then it was my turn. Ricardo held my board. My heart raced. “Relax your shoulders,” he said. Like everyone else, he told me to breathe. “Trust me,” he said as he let me go. “You’re not going to die out here.”
I thought, “How do you know?” And then I popped up. My feet splayed. My arms flew out. I held my breath. I did everything I was not supposed to do. But I was up. For 15 seconds I rode on top of the ocean, bobbing and swaying in harmony with the universe — until it claimed its due, and I crashed.
And in those 15 seconds, an amazing thing happened: I remembered how to have fun.
It’s not that I have no happiness in life. Peter is a litigator with a dry wit and a fierce, wise heart that never, in the end, fails his family. Our kids, Cade, 16, and Raye, 14, are the usual mix of maddening delight. One minute one of them is declaring eternal hatred for me because I heated her soup in the microwave instead of on the stove, and the next minute we’re in the yard playing football.
There is no sweetness like the surrender of a 6 foot tall, 185-pound boy who comes to the end of a good day, or a bad one (even when the bad he battled was you) and lays his head on your shoulder and says, “I love you, Mom.”
It is a deep, quiet joy. But it is not exhilaration.
I ran out of the water (O.K., I shuffled), shouting to Peter, “Did you see that?”
He smiled. “I couldn’t stay up. My balance stinks. I need to go lie down.”
I headed back to the water. Two hours later, I returned to our room. Peter was passed out. I showered, checked my email: a note from Cade’s school about his skipping class. I pressed my lips to Peter’s forehead; he was burning up.
“Peter,” I whispered. “Are you O.K.?”
Nothing. I tiptoed to the door and was almost out when I heard him say, “Kiddo, you were great out there.”
He slept most of the next day. I booked a private surf session. Once, when I remembered to look up, I saw Peter on the shore, watching. Then he was gone.
Later I set a Gatorade by the poolside chair where he had collapsed and then went back to the beach. With crashing waves on one side of me and the jungle on the other, I walked. A stray dog padded behind me.
There wasn’t another person in sight. I thought back on the moment I knew I would marry Peter. My father was in the hospital, I was working at my parents’ kitchen table and my mother, lost to the Alzheimer’s, was in the basement, filling a notebook with squiggly lines.
Peter showed up after work. “What can I do for you?” he asked.
“Um, check on Mom?” I suggested, my head buried in files. When I looked up, an hour had passed. I heard music. I walked downstairs. There was Peter, slow-dancing with my mother to my parents’ favorite Mahler symphony.
And 15 years later, here he was in Costa Rica doing goddess poses while instructors chanted about love and light. I could hear his voice in my head. “Kiddo,” it said, “I ain’t doing no circle of friendship.”
I laughed. And for the first time since I was a child, I did a cartwheel. I was burned from the sun and bruised from the board. My husband was sick. My son’s school had informed me he might get detention. Again.
And I sat on that beach and I wept. For myself, at 50. For my exhaustion with life. For my fear of dying like my mother, who left me so slowly, so cruelly that I didn’t realize she was gone. But mostly I wept for an awakening I had given up on, for that 15-second rush: a realization there could be something around the corner I might fully, lightly, loudly love again.
By day four Peter was back among us. We did our warrior poses, stopped at a stand where I bought a crocodile-tooth necklace, took a walk to a cafe where we shared a papaya smoothie.
“Isn’t this beautiful?” I asked him. “Are you having fun?”
He held my hand. “I am. But I’m still not doing the freaking circle of friendship.”
“Closing circle,” I corrected. And he did do it.
Back on our cushions the last night, we shared our feelings about what was most meaningful to us. A widow talked about healing. A commodities trader cited friendships. I was too worried about what Peter would say to think what I might say. “Don’t swear,” I silently warned him.
The woman next to Peter said something about finding peace.
“For me — — ” Peter began. And I held my breath, thinking, “Please, no sarcasm.”
His eyes moved from face to face with the firmness I knew so well, and then a tenderness I had forgotten, as he said, “The best part was seeing my wife laugh again.”
I exhaled. I looked at my husband. It was my turn. I had nothing to say. I don’t remember saying anything. But I do remember what I thought. One: “I am coming back to this place.” And two: “Damn, do I love this man.”