Structural Integration and the Living Matrix – Pt 2

Regarding the fascia, there are superficial and deep layers. The superficial layer lies just underneath the skin and surrounds the entire body from the top of the head to the bottom of the feet. Dr. Rolf likened it to a shopping bag because the contents of the body are held within it. The deeper layers of fascia are embedded within layers of muscle tissue. Their endings, called tendons, connect the muscle into the bone. A practitioner stretches and lengthens the fascia to create more space within the body.

Fascia has different functions. One of the functions of fascia is that it gives the body its shape and form. If you were to remove every other structure and tissue in the body, but leave the connective tissue, that body will still discernibly look like a human form. That’s because the fascia is what holds everything in place. Remove the fascia, and we turn into liquid like blobs of salt water.

There are two major components that comprise fascia. They include collagen fibers and ground substance. The collagen fibers are structural proteins that spiral around each other in a rope- like fashion. These bands of fibers can create very strong tissue. I liken these fibers to that of a Slinky. They have a quality of elastic recoil to them. They can be stretched out, but they also have the ability to return to their original resting shape. The other component of the connective tissue is a liquid medium known as ground substance that surrounds each cell. This is where cellular metabolism occurs. That is, the all important delivery of nutrients and removal of wastes into and out of each cell..

The fascia also has a special quality to it called thixotropy. Because of the thixotropic quality of connective tissue, when it gets stirred up, it becomes soft, supple and hydrated. When it is stagnant, it becomes dense, thick, congested and unyielding. That’s why movement is so important to our bodies. Movement helps keep our tissues hydrated and responsive with an elastic quality. Dr. Rolf referred to this changing biochemical state of fascia when she described it as a plastic medium. A practitioner can move, mold and sculpt fascia, changing its quality of thixotropy to a more hydrated state as they stretch it. That changing biochemical state of fascia is what occurs during the “melting” of myofascial release.

Fascia has another quality. It has the ability to contract. People didn’t think of fascia as contractile tissue until recently through the studies of a German scientist named Dr. Robert Schleip. Schleip is a practitioner and teacher of Structural Integration, as well as a laboratory scientist. His clinical studies have proven that fascia has the ability to contract in a slow rhythmical manner similar to smooth organ muscle. Many people can relate to hamstrings that feel like they shorten every year if left unstretched, or lower backs that seem to tighten up on their own. Oh, yes.

Well, the good news is that Structural Integration can bring back freedom of movement to the body. Contracted tissues that just won’t yield, can become supple again. A head that is pulled forwards out in front of the body can come back into alignment over the shoulders. A twisted, rotated pelvis that is tilted forwards or backwards can become horizontal and balanced once again. Legs that are uneven can regain their original length.

I remember working with a client in Hilo, Hawaii who wore a significant lift in his right shoe. It must have been an inch and a half high. He had contracted polio as a child. Polio shortens instrinsic or core level muscles in the body. When I worked with him, I found very contracted deep and superficial muscles on the right side of his abdomen below his rib cage. As we worked to release these contracted tissues, his leg length equalized and he was able to throw away the lift in his shoe. This is just one example of the big and little miracles that happen on a Rolf practitioner’s table every day. For that client, it was life changing.

One of the things I have been studying lately in peoples’ structures is spinal rotations. I am  extremely curious about this and have seen patterns of strain that repeat themselves in different peoples’ bodies.

In order to understand this idea, it is necessary to think of the spine as a big corkscrew. This big corkscrew of the spine is affected by the tensions and pulls of the muscles attached to it. One of those sets of muscles are known as the psoas. They are core level. That means they attach to the spine. In the case of the psoas, they attach along each side of the spine at bony side projections called the transverse processes.

These psoas muscles are huge players in sciatic pain and disc problems often caused by injuries of lifting and twisting. That’s because the tendons of these muscles actually attach not only into the spine, but into the intervertebral discs as well. Uneven tension in these core level muscles can cause tissue around the spine to become damaged, creating inflammation, pain, and dysfunction. Balancing these core level muscles can often take the strain off of discs and nerves so the tissue can heal. Many people have recovered from disc injuries and chronic sciatic pain through this work. It has been my experience that when you take the tension off the tissue, the body has more capacity to  heal.

The psoas muscles originate along the transverse processes of the lumbar spine from L1 at the bottom of the rib cage beneath the diaphragm to L5, just above the sacrum. The iliacus muscles that line the inside of the pelvis join up with it forming a common tendon known as the ilio-psoas that weaves its way under the inguinal ligament and then attaches at the top inside edge of the leg bone.

If one side of the psoas muscle contracts, it shortens, pulling that leg up higher into the pelvis. This is often what often happens when people have one leg that is longer than the other. Because of its attachment to the spine, tightness along one side of the psoas will initiate a pull that causes the spine to rotate.

On the side where the psoas has shortened, the crease of the gluteal fold underneath that hip will look higher. That same leg will present forward of the other one when the person is standing, and the rotation on that side will be an inward one.

In the corkscrew of the spine, an inward rotation on one side of the body will become an external rotation on the other side. As this plays out on the horizontal plane, or side-to-side axis, something similar occurs in the vertical plane or up and down line of the body. A shortening on the right side of the psoas can be the cause for strain and instability of the neck muscles on that same side all the way up at the other end of the spine!

When the spine twists, autonomic nerves of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems that run along the side of the spine can become tweaked as well. Those nerves affect blood flow, heart rate, breathing, and digestion, to name a few. They are part of the fright/flight and rest and repose complex of the body. Rotations at the spine can affect them, causing a variety of responses including anxiety, agitation, panic attacks, and indigestion. Functions can become compromised that we are not even aware of. Fortunately, the process of Structural Integration is very effective bodywork for derotating the spine and the extremities of the body.

I remember the “Aha” turning point experience I had in my understanding of the connectedness of connective tissue. My hands were in the lower part of my client’s tight right psoas muscle, when suddenly they experienced a strong release of tension all the way up into their neck muscles on that same side of their body the moment the tension in their psoas released. A tight, short area in the psoas had been pulling all the way up to the other end of their spine via the anterior longitudinal ligament that runs along the front side of the spine into the scalene muscles at the side of the neck. What an example of the tensegrity quality of the connective tissue to transmit tensional forces through it!