Why Are We So Stiff and Achy?
“Oh no,” I think to myself as I walk by the window, peering into a new, beautiful yoga studio. Inside, I see an assortment of people pulling and yanking, straining, and forcing their way into positions their bodies have no hope of reaching.
It’s not their fault. They have the right idea. They do need to move more, stretch more, and breathe more. And yoga is an ancient science. But this looks downright painful!
We know that the body adheres to the principle of “use it or lose it.” It makes sense that we need to move our joints through their full range of motion to keep them healthy. After all, it’s the lack of motion and the abundance of repetitively stressful movement that cause joints to degenerate faster as we age.
So, what is the missing piece to the puzzle of how to stay active, flexible, and pain-free – especially when most of us have never even been flexible in the first place? General movement and flexibility are dependent on more than just our joints. The greatest abundance of restrictions throughout the body – that keep us stuck, achy, and in pain – are found in the soft tissue of the body (The Myofascial System), which is also highly dependent on the organization and tone of the the nervous system.
Composed of every muscle cell, and the fabric that surrounds them (as well as the arteries, veins, nerves, and organs), the myofascial system is the main “packing material” of the body – determining what you see when you look at someone’s shape and when you watch them move.
It’s like a strong, intricate spiderweb that runs through the body, holding it together, and allowing for movement to happen smoothly (as opposed to jerky, robotic actions). The myofascial system and the nervous system work together to create cohesion through the whole body, generating effortless support for an awkwardly weighted, constantly shifting system in gravity (i.e., keeps you from falling over 10,000 times per day).
Even though most of us have not experienced it, the myofascial system allows for a feeling of effortless floating while existing in gravity, quite a feat when you take into account the amount of force constantly pulling on your body.
Imagine yanking on fabric and seeing the lines of stretch and tension pull through the whole piece. You are not only acting on the area you are pulling, but you are creating tension and distortion throughout the whole structure. Fascia allows for the body to distribute forces and coordinate movement using underlying pulley systems and pendulums, rather than relying solely on isolated contractions of individual muscles.
Now, speaking of muscles, they are important too. They are the elements of brute force that the fascia channels into graceful movement. Muscles have one job and that is to shorten.
It is the “software program” from the brain and spinal cord that coordinate the extremely intricate patterns of muscle firing (shortening) to create the symphony that results in the most simple of movements. Much of the disorganization that occurs in this software program occurs as the result of the body’s defending itself against perceived threats. Most of the time, these threats occurred in the past, so the body spends its time defending against past experiences – an unproductive and destructive way of operating.
These defenses build up, create tension, inflammation, lack of fluid movement, lack of blood flow, lack of nerve energy flow, stuckness, stiffness. Over time, this dehydrates the soft tissue and subtly disconnects the area from the central nervous system. Movement is a key element in restoring a healthy tissue environment and integrating the area into the the organization of the entire structure.
So, if movement is so important, what happens when movement creates more pain? You got it – more problems.
Once this web gets stuck, it can be challenging to get it unstuck. While stretching is vital to keeping your body open, there can be many layers of stuck fascia that will not respond to stretching alone. Addressing these issues in the tissues, while restoring neurological integrity, is vital to a more permanent resolution .
Resolving the underlying issues keeping you stuck is essential to making lasting change to the body. Releasing and re-hydrating the dried-up, hardened areas of fascia creates space, resilience, movement, and allows for a neurological re-integration of that part of the body into the system. It feels lighter, more spacious, and allows the body to work as a whole system again.
While muscle rolling and using implements to dig into specific areas yourself can be therapeutic, helpful, and recommended, there is a depth of integration and healing that is possible through working with a skilled practitioner.
Daily stretching and movement can allow you to access part of your potential, but they don’t necessarily go beyond the initial barriers into the places that are truly keeping you stuck. And working into specific areas yourself can release the tissue in that area, but it is not necessarily integrating it into the rest of the system.
Once the deeper change is realized, those yoga classes feel different, like they are designed for your body, rather than feeling like a class in medieval masochism. The same movements and postures that had been causing greater pain and inflammation are now creating greater flexibility and health.
Your body now gives you a sense of relaxation, strength, and confidence, rather than draining you and taking away your sense of power in the world. This is an example of the connection between your mind and your body.
When we struggle with our bodies, life becomes more stressful and less fun. When we organize our myofascial and neurological networks, releasing defense, pain, and stiffness, we connect to an experience of effortlessness, lightness and ease that informs our whole outlook on life.
Just because something has been hurting for a long time, or you are old, or whatever your story is, things can and do change for the better when you address issues at their source. Change your body and you change your experience of your life.