Have you ever stumbled across a realization in one area of your life that unlocks the door to understanding in another? This can occur with relative frequency to the degree that you view your life holistically, rather than as a collection of compartments.
Modern science conditions us to think reductively, to the point that our primary approach in understanding complex matters is to break it down into its component parts and then study their interrelationships. We’ve amassed mountains of information about our physical bodies, for instance, by dissecting them into increasingly small bits. There is no doubt that this approach provided us with a giant leap forward in our understanding of how our bodies work and what goes wrong when they don’t.
That said, there are times where reductionism causes those who employ it to lose the forest for the trees. My riding coach and I had an interesting discussion the other day about suppling, that is, working with a horse in a way that reduces its resistances and muscular tension so that it can move with greater precision, balance and lightness. This topic has long been of interest to horseman, for these resistances stand in the way of just about every one of the horseman’s goals in any riding discipline.
The conversation started with a realization made in my own personal training, an “aha” moment that my trainer and I had some time ago about the importance of healthy fascia in human fitness. Little is known about fascia, likely because medical researchers and anatomists over the last two centuries have focused on the seemingly more important organs, tissues and cells that lie within it, but I found this description in an article in the June 2011 issue of Running Times:
Under your skin, encasing your body and webbing its way through your insides like spider webs, is fascia. Fascia is made up primarily of densely packed collagen fibers that create a full body system of sheets, chords and bags that wrap, divide and permeate every one of your muscles, bones, nerves, blood vessels and organs. Every bit of you is encased in it. You’re protected by fascia, connected by fascia and kept in taut human shape by fascia.
Why didn’t anyone mention fascia earlier? Because not many people know that much about it. Fascia’s messy stuff. It’s hard to study. It’s so expansive and intertwined it resists the medical standard of being cut up and named for textbook illustrations. Besides that, its function is tricky, more subtle than that of the other systems. For the majority of medical history it’s been assumed that bones were our frame, muscles the motor, and fascia just packaging.
In fact, the convention in med-school dissections has been to remove as much of the fascia as possible in order to see what was underneath, the important stuff. That framed Illustration hanging in your doctor’s office of the red-muscled, wide-eyed human body is a body with its fascia cut away; it’s not what you look like inside, but it’s a lot neater and easier to study and it’s the way doctors have long been taught to look at you. Until recently, that is.
The article continued:
What exactly does it do? It wraps around each of your individual internal parts, keeping them separate and allowing them to slide easily with your movements. It’s strong, slippery and wet. It creates a sheath around each muscle; because it’s stiffer, it resists over-stretching and acts like an anatomical emergency break. It connects your organs to your ribs to your muscles and all your bones to each other. It structures your insides in a feat of engineering, balancing stressors and counter-stressors to create a mobile, flexible and resilient body unit. It generally keeps you from being a big, bone-filled blob.
“Fascia is the missing element in the movement/stability equation,” says Tom Myers, author of the acclaimed book Anatomy Trains. Myers was among the first medical professionals to challenge the field’s ignorance of fascia in the human body. He has long argued for a more holistic treatment, with a focus on the fascia as an unappreciated overseer. “While every anatomy lists around 600 separate muscles, it is more accurate to say that there is one muscle poured into six hundred pockets of the fascial webbing. The ‘illusion’ of separate muscles is created by the anatomist’s scalpel, dividing tissues along the planes of fascia. This reductive process should not blind us to the reality of the unifying whole.”
What rocked the medical community’s world was this: Fascia isn’t just plastic wrap. Fascia can contract and feel and impact the way you move. It’s our richest sense organ, it possess the ability to contract independently of the muscles it surrounds and it responds to stress without your conscious command. That’s a big deal. It means that fascia is impacting your movements, for better or worse. It means that this stuff massage therapists and physical therapists and orthopedists have right at their fingertips is the missing variable, the one they’ve been looking for.
The perils of reductionism exposed! It pays to consider the unifying whole on occasion, lest we become so obsessed with the minutiae that we lose sight of the unity of the topic under consideration. In other words, it pays to take a step back every so often…a point well-worth remembering in your personal and professional life.
When it comes to horses, suppling can be seen to relate more properly to both muscles and fascia. I believe that it is entirely possible for a horse to be brought to the point where his muscles are relaxed and supple, while retaining adhesions and inelastic fascia (made so by injuries, improper training, incorrect movements over time, etc.). I’ve experienced this in my own physical training and I am sure that the concept translates perfectly into the bodies of our beloved horses.
How to restore that fascia to healthy function is fodder for a later post, but I know that in human fitness training and bodywork, therapists and trainers have had a lot of success by using techniques such as Feldenkrais, the Alexander Technique, Flexibility Highways in Motion, Rolfing and other approaches to myofascial release.
If our physical health can be improved by remembering to take a holistic view on occasion, so too can our lives in general. Forward movement is improved when all of the parts articulate in coordinated agreement. If you are moving in one direction in one area of your life, say towards greater integrity and refinement, while maintaining destructive and conflicting habits in other areas of your life, your progress will be impeded. It may seem like common sense, but in my observation, many take this very approach.
Think about your own life for the moment. Are there areas of chronic tension that don’t seem to line up with other areas in you and in your life that are more relaxed, flowing and easy-going? Those points are worth taking a closer look at, but sometime taking a closer look doesn’t mean zooming in, it means zooming out. Look at them in relation to the big picture. Get them in perspective. Doing so makes it infinitely easier to choose the right course of corrective action.