Why Are We So Stiff and Achy?
“Oh no,” I think to myself as I walk by the window, peering into my neighborhood 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, breathe more. That’s for sure. And yoga is a great way to move and breath and connect with their bodies. 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 restrictions throughout the body – that keep us stuck, achy, and in pain – are located in the soft tissue. In the myofascial network.
Composed of every muscle cell, and the fabric that surrounds them (as well as the arteries, veins, nerves, and organs), the myofascial system determines 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 a robot). It also creates 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 thing. 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 spine and brain, that coordinate the extremely intricate patterns of muscle firing (shortening) to create the symphony that results in the most simple of movements.
So, with all of the brilliance of the body, what is going wrong to cause all of this pain and stiffness? In a nutshell, this web that holds everything together gets stuck. It gets stuck and stiff and this lack of movement creates more stuckness and stiffness.
And to make matters worse, the stuckness and stiffness has a host of effects, such as increasing inflammation, increasing pain signals to the brain, decreasing movement of waste products and inflammatory chemicals, etc…It’s a hot mess – literally!
Movement is the key to staying healthy and pain-free, but 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 must be reached through other methods.
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 re-integration of that part of the body into the rest of 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 seems more available 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 network and release 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. One of the the sources of your experience of your body is the myofascial network. Change it and you change your experience of your life.