The Tortoise and the Hare
Understanding Depth and Pressure
People are often surprised at how effective Myofascial Release and other lighter pressure techniques are at relieving various issues in their tissues. The main reason for this is the outdated idea that bodywork/massage is a one-way street where the therapist physically manipulates your anatomy into submission. There is often a “no pain, no gain” mentality around massage. For a myriad of reasons, I find myself frequently explaining to clients how their neck and shoulders feel SO much better even though I didn’t use brute force to “get deep in there,” and why they didn’t have to suffer through mind numbing pain to achieve release. Here’s the thing — many of us have misconceptions about depth, pressure and how the body responds to each — or even that the mindbody is a part of the story!
Pressure is force exerted against an object through contact, such as my hands on your back. Depth is the distance from the surface of something through its layers to the other side, usually top to bottom. For example, your back muscles down through your ribs and organs to the ribs connecting to your sternum on your chest. The misconception is that more pressure, or brute force, will give you access to greater depths of the body and effect a more significant result. Brute force can be very effective in accomplishing certain things, but in my experience true depth of work is not one of them.
The role of your Fascia (a connective tissue) and how it operates within your mindbody is the main reason for this. For more details on the Fascial network, please see my blog on the subject. To summarize, Fascia is a liquid crystal matrix that forms the ground substance of your body. It binds everything together and gives you form while simultaneously allowing your tissues to glide under your skin so you can move around.
Fascia literally permeates every system of the body down to the cellular level — and it likes to take things slow. It re-liquefies out of its hardened and restricted (injured/traumatized) state in response to heat and movement, in this case, of my hands. Although, if a therapist’s approach is hurried and over forceful, your fascia blocks entry and puts your mindbody on guard. In other words, your mindbody does a great job performing one of its main objectives … protecting you! If too much force is used too quickly, the mindbody reads it as an attack and puts up its figurative fists.
This brings up an important issue: whether from an actual trauma, from repetitive movements or posture issues, recognize that the areas of your mindbody that most need help are already injured. Which means your mindbody is already doing everything it can to protect these vulnerable places. Sometimes the injured tissue is hypersensitive and it’s obvious that a lot of pressure is undesirable. Areas of the body that are injured because of repetitive activities and posture will often become numb. Being numb, these areas can take a lot of pressure, whether or not they should is another story.
Part of this numbing out is physiological because of issues like restricted blood flow, but it is largely a coping mechanism. To get through your day your mindbody has decided it needs to numb the pain to protect you. The craving for heavy pressure that hurts is born from this numbness. We are so used to tuning out from our body and our pain that the only way we can feel any relief is to beat ourselves up. It is only when we tune in to the mindbody connection and begin to feel that we can open the gateway to truly deep tissue work.
When I take my time with your mindbody, a world of new depths opens up as my hands can patiently listen and react, melting through layers and getting much deeper than you ever imagined possible. And, in the end, I often end up using quite a lot of pressure. The slow application, though, allows the mindbody to lower its guard and truly let go, giving into rather than forcing release. It is possible to force one’s way to the same depth of work, but the body will not hold onto the work for nearly as long when it is forced into submission. It takes a certain amount of time and patient perseverance from all involved to deeply affect the body in a meaningful, lasting way. When we experience pain through this kind of bodywork it is therapeutic and healing because we are tuning in and listening to the needs of the mindbody rather than forcing our own agenda.
Slow and steady wins the race. Just like in Aesop’s fable of The Tortoise and the Hare. You slowly start towards your desired destination and when resistance occurs you wait patiently for it to subside. Then you melt a little deeper until the next block surfaces, waiting until it dissolves and then onto the next, and the next. We listen to your mindbody, meeting you where you are and then taking you one step further, step by step, until your goal is reached. What is the moral of the story? As it is with your mindbody, so it is with life. Be patient with yourself and you always win.