I may be wrong, but I’m guessing you probably weren’t high school jocks, nor were you devastated if your favorite college football team didn’t make it to the playoffs. No. I’m thinking our readers are frontrunners (so to speak) attracted to cerebral pursuits or bodymind disciplines like yoga, Tai Chi, kayaking—even tennis or golf, especially if played in the ‘inner’ manner that includes a spiritual component. Even so, you may be missing the most important aspect of a fully satisfying embodiment—somatic awareness, or kinesthetic intelligence.
From the Greek, “soma” connotes an organic sense of self felt from the inside out. Kinesthetic refers to the sense of bodily position, weight or movement of muscles, tendons and joints. Should you care about something you don’t know you’re missing? “Yes!” says author and educator Thomas Myers, whose pioneering work in ‘wholistic anatomy’ is embraced by growing numbers of both conventional and complementary medical practitioners, as well as by those in various movement disciplines. Author of Anatomy Trains, Myofascial Meridians, Myers has a serious grasp on embryology and is a specialist in fascia, the connective tissue of the body. Anyone who’s pulled off the skin of their Kentucky Fried Chicken to save calories or avoid transfats (need I mention the obesity epidemic in this country?) has encountered a superficial layer of the amazing stuff that literally holds us together. From bone, blood, cartilage and tendon to fat, and flat, supportive sheaths, the “fascial net” is the one body system that, could it stand alone, would reveal our individual shapes.
An avid sailor born and raised in Maine, Myers likes to use the analogy of a sailboat to describe the basics of postural balance: the spine is like the mast, held straight and strong by a series of stays—the fascial members, among which muscles (they’re the ‘myo’ in ‘myofascial’) have starring roles. It’s a fascinating interplay between tensile and compressive forces, one which should be fluid and adaptive rather than rigid. Though he loves to hang out with skeletons, Myers is a solid guy around 60, comfortable with a generous girth and with himself in general. Undoubtedly one of the most knowledgeable persons in the world about corporeal matters, he’s sailing uncharted waters in the Body-Mind medicine field, spearheading a new understanding of embryology and birthing practices, anatomy, physical education, and even language, pioneering something he calls ‘spatial medicine.’ The idea is for people to become aware of where they are stuck, compressed or glued down (there is a psychological component to this!) and learn to create appropriate tension and tone for themselves. If we’re comfortable in our own skin and can facilitate relief and relaxation before tension creates trouble, there’s a good chance we’ll react with ease and kindness when we encounter tensions in the larger community.
Until we learn to do this for ourselves, osteopaths, chiropractors, physical and massage therapists, structural integrators, personal trainers and other ‘bodyworkers’ are learning to facilitate more space and mediate organic relationships among body tissues in patients/clients. Though the focus in this new discipline would be on education and prevention, surgeons won’t be out of a job, but will need to become “fascially literate,” wielding high-tech tools with an ever more precise knowledge of how to interpenetrate layers of connective tissue and reintegrate them smoothly before stitching up (they’d do well to study the cutting edge dissection DVD recently produced by Kinesis, Inc. in collaboration with Laboratories of Anatomical Enlightenment, Inc.).
To introduce his ‘myofascial meridians,’ Myers sits perched on a harbor bench, holding what appears to be a medium-sized bass. He turns it over a few times with his bare hands, runs a finger along the newly caught fish’s spine, then caresses its underbelly, illustrating what he calls “the superficial back and front lines” of myofascial connection. He’s explaining some evolutionary concepts that will illuminate the lecture in his Anatomy Trains video. After having the fish cleaned, he resumes his position, this time tracing the “deep front line” along its gutless insides. He’s demonstrating ‘the root map’ of “myofascial meridians,” a term he’s come up with in an effort to create a wholistic anatomy. Myers is a very hands-on kind of guy, and likes to get to the core of things. He’s always been hands-on: “I remember going to camp when I was nine or ten and giving the camp counselors backrubs. I had a natural talent for it until someone told me it was queer. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I knew it must be bad, so I stopped doing it.” He eventually became a certified practitioner of Structural Integration, studying directly with founder Dr. Ida Rolf, whose methods became popularized as ‘Rolfing’. Myers has practiced integrative manual therapy for over 30 years in a variety of clinical and cultural settings, including London, Hamburg, Rome, Nairobi and Sydney, as well as around the U.S.
Fish and skeletons aren’t his only models: With a group of students, Myers kneels on the floor, examining a freshly killed leg of lamb. He’s slid his forefinger into the sheath surrounding the tendon, showing how fascial layers slide on each other. After encouraging the students to explore the tissue, he moves down to an open joint, palpating the synovial fluid (“notice it’s the consistency of egg-white”). This experience is modeled on his annual spring jaunt to Germany, where, “in a real Heidi-like, Alpine setting,” Myers gives his favorite class. “A farmer kills a sheep or a lamb for the Easter feast, and we’re out there within five minutes. With the help of the farmer, we take the sheep apart over an hour or two, getting to see the attachments of the organs while everything is warm. When you put your hands on that connective tissue and it melts in front of your hands, you can see what is actually happening in a living body.” (Myers thinks cadavers have their place, but are limited in what they can teach us.) “If we’re going to have a wholistic profession, we’re going to need wholistic anatomy studies to go with that profession [rather than the mechanistic model that currently informs medical curricula].” Besides his popular workshops, Myers has contributed over 70 articles to various trade magazines introducing such a course, written in the appropriate scholarly protocol.
While he majored in English literature at Harvard for two years, Myers spent most of his time engaged in “physical theater,” something that shows up in his quirky sense of humor and ease of movement (demonstrating the flexibility of the human spine, he does a great impression of a contorted plumber under the sink). Afterwards, he studied directly with Buckminster Fuller, eventually earning a degree in “systems analysis” design. Fuller and other modern thinkers postulated “activities of wholes that are unpredicted by their parts;” in other words, ‘the whole behaves in a way that is more than the sum of its parts.’ Working with ‘Bucky’ profoundly affected Myers’ worldview and work. “My view of anatomy in general, and Anatomy Trains in particular, is a systems view,” he states, noting that in the 500 years since [anatomist] Vesalius and the renaissance of anatomy, the field has been characterized by a mechanical, Newtonian influence (“if you understand the parts and put them together, you’ll know what the whole does”). “Instructors usually put a particular muscle on a skeleton that has no other muscles attached to it, and then say the muscle does X. My view of anatomy is a Fuller view—what does the whole system do that you can’t predict just by looking at the individual parts? What if we look at where the muscles are strung together in long strings, like meridians of latitude or longitude around the body? What if we organize it as wholes rather than as individual muscles?”
Holding up a ‘tensegrity’ structure (comprised of six or eight dowels held apart by the tensile pull of rubber bands), Myers is careful to specify that Bucky Fuller “expanded” on the creation of sculptor Kenneth Snelson (Fuller is usually credited with its invention). “In the past, we have thought of our bodies as a stack of bones with the muscles hanging off it like the cables of a crane.” Instead, he insists, “the bones float in the soft tissue, just like the dowels do in this tensegrity structure.” In addition to studying with Buckminster Fuller, Myers worked with movement educator Moshe Feldenkrais and studied European Osteopathy, as well as various martial arts and a form of body-centered psychotherapy. And though he won’t accord himself a title he hasn’t officially earned, he is, for all practical purposes, an anthropologist. As such, he asks; “How can we prepare our neolithic bodies—whose musculoskeletal structure has changed little in the four million years of human existence, and whose neural reactions were forged at the latest around campfires seventy thousand years ago—to interact with the speed-of-light, man-made, flat-surfaced world we have created these last hundred years?”
It’s a great question, one answered all too often by a teenager slumped in front of a laptop with his/ her head angling so far forward you think E.T. has dropped in. Indeed, our body alienating culture isn’t giving the next generation a solid footing or foundation in life. Physical education (where it still exists in public schools) is relegated to repetition and competition, without understanding or sensitivity. In his thesis, “Kinesthetic dystonia: what bodywork can offer a new physical education,” Myers offers a new model for P.E., tracing a day in the life of an average high schooler. “Nate” is lucky enough to be in a progressive school that includes kinesthetic literacy in the coursework, has been introduced to Qi Gong and conscious breathing, and is comfortable hugging both his mother and a close female friend (the two choose not to have sex). Throughout the day, Nate checks in with how his body feels before taking action, whether it’s eating a particular food, responding to a bully’s taunts or correcting his posture on the school bus. In biology, he has built a clay model of the bones and muscles and, with a partner, has detailed the joints of the body, dividing them into groups according to their degrees of freedom. The project is completed when classmates test each other’s joints to see who has what motions available. “Today,” writes Myers, “they learn about concentric, eccentric and isometric contractions of the muscles, again testing out each mode with one another” (told you he was hands on).
With his understanding of embryology, Myers was certainly excited when his wife became pregnant, but discovered he wasn’t kinesthetically prepared to be a parent. “I was Mr. Bodyworker—surely so knowledgeable about bodies—but when someone handed me a baby to hold at our prenatal classes, I would hold it awkwardly, say, ‘Oh, look at her,’ and then look for some woman to hand the baby off to.” Myers says that, without ‘handling skills’ for small children, he was headed for being a lousy father. “I was ignorant of how small bodies really work in everyday movement and how to interact with a baby’s movement to effectively accomplish what either of us wanted. We teach folks how to balance their checkbook and how to drive a car, but the most complicated piece of machinery, as well as the most precious they will ever touch, will be their own child.”
Fortunately, he encountered Touch-in-Parenting (taught by Frank Hatch and Lenny Maietta in Santa Fe), something he says changed his life forever. “It changed my life as a parent for sure, but it also sent me on this path of asking what kind of early intervention would set our children on the road to natural health. Now a certified Touch-in-Parenting instructor, Myers is also interested in the esoteric meaning of verbal communication and has written a series of articles entitled; Body Language: An Excursion through the Alphabet in Somatic Terms.
To learn more about the body as a tensegrity structure, myofascial meridians and spatial medicine, visit www.anatomytrains.net and click the “explore” button.