Our Structure and How It Responds to Injury

The body has three main structural components--bones, muscles, and connective tissue. Bones, through the integrated system of the skeleton, provide the structural support that holds you upright. The skeleton is like the foundation of a house; lower bones support the weight of the upper bones. When our bones are properly aligned, they provide the support to counteract gravity's pull on our whole skeleton. Our foundation stands straight, and we move with ease. When our bones are not aligned, our structure starts to sag, and in order to keep it functioning properly, our muscles and our connective tissue are recruited to perform the function of bones.

Muscles and connective tissue together create a dense, three-dimensional web that, through its balanced tension, both suspends your bones in place and moves them. Muscle fibers are elastic and have the ability to contract. From resting, they can shorten their length by 30 percent and are responsible for our ability to move. Connective tissue, on the other hand, is a denser, less elastic material that provides more structural support, especially for our joints. It forms the tendons and ligaments that connect muscles and bones. But it is also pervasive in every inch of our body as it covers every individual muscle fiber. So, what we think of as our muscles are really bundles of muscle fibers wrapped in individual connective tissue envelopes, creating integrated, functional webs of elastic and stabilizing materials.

As bones are jarred out of place through accidents and injuries—childhood falls, sprained ankles, falls on ice, bruised or broken bones, car accidents, etc.—joints become misaligned. Your muscles contract in compensation, creating new tensile forces to counteract the loss of skeletal stability caused by the injury. This muscle action holds your misaligned skeleton upright and allows your joints to continue functioning, although with less flexibility and range of motion. It also holds your bones in such a way as to prevent nerves from being impinged, organs from being poked or pressed upon, and blood vessels from being restricted, in order to protect you from more discomfort.

Your muscles learn to be continuously activated in this certain way to maintain your posture. Your nervous system becomes trained to hold these contractions without your conscious intervention. They become second nature while you are healing from your injury and then develop into chronic holding patterns. We lose conscious awareness of these physical compensations because our nervous system has taken over.

Both the injured area and the muscles compensating for the injury become overtaxed during the healing process. Your body starts reinforcing the injured area as well as the overtaxed compensatory muscles by filling them in with excess connective tissue, creating scar tissue and adhesions. While this strengthens the area, it unbalances the muscular forces in the body, makes muscle less supple and flexible, and locks compensatory tensions into your structure.

Bodywork helps dissolve this excess connective tissue, realign and individuate the fibers of the muscles, and thereby allow your bones to shift back to a more ideal alignment. Bodywork also re-educates your muscles and nervous system, making them aware of the unconscious tension they have been holding and teaching them a new way of being. Realigning your body is an extensive process, but it can be sped up by your involvement. You can help by actively engaging your awareness during bodywork, and by regularly practicing some awareness-building and relaxing activities.

Relax . . . Relax

As our body accumulates stress and tension, we need to "actively" relax and rid our body of tensions in order to improve our health. Through conscious relaxation, we can tune into our bodies and expand our internal awareness, bringing that which is unconscious to our consciousness. Bodywork, Tai Chi, yoga, breathing exercises, Feldenkrais, meditation, and other holistic activities assist us in developing such self awareness. We revitalize our body and remove that which unnecessarily absorbs our energy.

This excerpt from Awakening the Spine by Vanda Scaravelli addresses what "active" relaxation means:
To relax is not to collapse, but simply to undo tension. This tension has been accumulated in the body and in the mind by years of forceful education.

Tension is the result of will, effort and prejudice. We have been trained, during the first part of our lives, to struggle to achieve. Now we have to work in the opposite direction, by letting go, giving place to a different action (if we can call it action), an "un-doing action". This will stop the habitual process of doing which has become mechanical.

The body in itself is healthy, but it has been ruined by all sorts of negative, destructive, guilt feelings. If one can avoid going in this negative direction, . . . the body will then be able to start its recuperating function, its natural way of existing. . . . It is not a state of passivity but, on the contrary, of alert watchfulness. It is perhaps the most "active" of our attitudes, going "with" and not "against" our body and feelings. [emphasis added]

Recommended Classes

Take a yoga class or a Feldenkrais class to reduce your tension, lengthen your muscles, gain body awareness, and improve your health.

Through poses that you hold, yoga builds your strength, flexibility, and stamina. Through gentle movement exercises in Feldenkrais, you learn to move more effectively with more coordination, ease, and flexibility. Both contribute significantly to increased body awareness, and give you the tools to change, repair, and heal your own body. Both are an effective complement to bodywork and compound its benefits.

I recommend the classes offered through the Yoga Center of Lawrence, which is located next door to the Kinetikos office and is where I teach yoga. See the Yoga Center of Lawrence's web site for a schedule and more information.

Try This

When you are feeling frustrated, "stuck", angry, down, or irritated, take 1 to 5 minutes for this exercise. Get into a comfortable position, sitting or lying, and relax your body and release your tensions. Take several slow, deep breaths. For a few minutes, count as you inhale fully and comfortably, and exhale slowly for twice as many counts. You may feel calmer, more patient, revived, and more at peace. This exercise will reset your nervous system and will also train it to respond more calmly next time you have the same kind of experience.

Promoting Self-Care

As a massage therapist and yoga teacher, my aim is to help individuals change their bodies and physical habits to improve their health. As our health really encompasses our whole being, I also want to encourage healthy habits in all facets of life. I'd like to use this newsletter to share information and ideas to help you understand your physical self and to encourage and assist your self care.

If you are interested in improving your energy, mood, and daily experience, I recommend exploring diet, exercise, therapy, and other activities suggested in this newsletter. Bodywork, by promoting physical changes, facilitates other changes in your life. Improving one's health is a lifelong discovery, learning, and growing process. Embrace and enjoy it. I wish you all a long, healthy, and happy life.