The phrase made famous by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” has become synonymous with the concept of synergy. Collectively the muscles work in chronological sequences to provide movement, which are called muscle firing patterns. When these patterns are sequenced correctly pure movement takes place at skeletal joints, conversely, when firing patterns are aberrant dysfunctional movement occurs and habitual compensation patterns develop.
When yoga is practiced well corrections can be applied to aberrant movement patterns enabling muscles to work in harmony. The effect is greater strength and economy of energy within coordinated movement patterns. Muscular synergy is like a diverse ‘work-force,’ some of which provide stabilization, some prime agonist movement, some antagonistic resistance, and all channeled through the fascia tissue pathways that Thomas Myers calls ‘Anatomy Trains.’
Myers states in a 2006 article titled ‘Anatomy Trains – Early Dissective Evidence,’ “Some readers may be familiar with the Anatomy Trains Myofascial Meridians idea. Briefly, all our muscles have been analyzed as if they were separate units within the body. This idea – that there is a separate unit like the biceps, the psoas, the latissimus – is so pervasive, that it is hard to think in any other way. But in fact all the muscle tissue is embedded within the single, ubiquitous fascial webbing of the extracellular matrix (EMC).”
I have found Thomas Myers book, ‘Anatomy Trains,’ to be a valuable resource in understanding how yoga influences fascia tissues. The lines of pull along the “Anatomy Trains Myofascial Meridians” can be recognized when practicing yoga postures. Myers’ work has deepened understanding of how the body’s connections are all-encompassing.
More than a decade ago I read ‘Anatomy Trains’ in its first edition many times over. I had at one point scrawled footnotes on small scraps of paper that served as bookmarks. After going through Myers’ book with a ‘fine toothed comb’ yet once again, I realized that there were more bookmarks with footnotes than pages in the book, which indicates how rich with information ‘Anatomy Trains’ really is.
In 2007 I was fortunate to attend a Thomas Myers workshop weekend held in Toronto. At the end of the workshop I asked the author if he would sign his book for me, like I was some sort of groupie. As Thomas Myers looked at my copy of ‘Anatomy Trains’ with all those footnotes he seemed to take a step backward, perhaps somewhat stunned by what appeared to be a handwritten copy of his book on scraps of paper filed into the pages of his publication. The story has a happy ending as a Thomas Myers signature was accompanied by a note, “To Mike, a well-used book is an author’s joy!”
The essence of the concept presented in ‘Anatomy Trains’ has its roots set in the research of the late Dr. Ida Rolph, the famed bodyworker responsible for ‘Structural Integration’ techniques known as ‘Rolphing.’ Dr. Rolph was Thomas Myers mentor and Myers moved Dr. Rolph’s findings forward with more intricate details about the nature of fascia tissue and a more refined approach to understanding the organized lines of pull through the fascia tissues of the body.
The overriding message that can be extracted from the research of Dr. Rolph and Myers is interconnectivity. This means no yoga teacher can justifiably say that a particular yoga posture is meant to stretch a certain muscle, since any yoga pose will certainly involve chains of muscles linked by fascia. Pinpointing potential problems can be accomplished by understanding which fascial lines cause restriction due to adhesions, postural anomalies, and/or movement pattern abnormalities. In this way yoga practice can become a functional movement screen of sorts and a postural assessment tool.
What yoga practice does not do is isolate a stretch to a particular muscle of the body. I am aware how difficult it is to transmit to students the notion that yoga is not about stretching a particular muscle, but instead it is about ‘wiring’ the nervous system, engaging stabilizer muscles, releasing muscle tension, lengthening fascia tissue, contracting agonist musculature for movement and putting the brakes on movement with antagonistic muscular resistance. All of this needs to be done with appropriate muscle firing patterns in sequential order for coordinated movement. As you can see, understanding human movement as it pertains to yoga is complex.
I have been working with a student who was diagnosed with the most extreme case of fibromyalgia possible by her rheumatologist. She has given me permission to mention her story. After many years of treatment by her excellent physiotherapist she was given the go-ahead to enter my yoga program. After a year of yoga therapy and group classes that support injury rehab, the gripping actions of chronic innervations that the condition of fibromyalgia had produced, released through the neck and shoulder area. This might sound like the condition is now remedied, but in fact the recovery is only half complete as now she is re-learning appropriate firing patterns facilitating pure movement.
The centerpiece of yoga is breathing. When the breath rhythm is connected to muscle firing patterns that offer pure movement seemingly effortless action characterizes yoga practice. Interestingly, the connection of breath and movement has been instrumental in my fibromyalgia student’s recovery so far. The easing of chronic innervations was facilitated by changing breathing patterns and connecting breathing patterns to muscle firing patterns. Although we still have a ways to go, the physiotherapist is very pleased with the progress made so far.
Understanding how the interrelated biomechanics of the body work together to improve movement patterns and posture is essential for health. The most difficult concept to understand is that the pain symptoms are often not located where the origin of the problem is occurring. All interrelated anatomical parts must be considered in the context of the entire body. It is important to embrace the idea, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” in order to resolve physical issues.