by Emily Dolan Gordon
This article begins a series about bodywork for martial artists. The series is intended to be simple, informative and straightforward. References to resources for further learning will be provided. The author hopes to open the door for martial artists to the next level in physical training, through education and introduction to basic principles of bodywork.
Most of us live in our bodies the same way we live in our houses. Very few people get around to fixing things before they break down, though we all tell ourselves that we should. Most of us don't really have much of an idea about what we are made up of, or how our bodies even work! It's really quite a fascinating miracle we live in, this architecture of flesh, nerve and bone. Descartes refers to the body as a "soft machine" though there are many factors of emotion, attitude, thought and spirit which shape, and are shaped in turn, by the physical house we live in.
Let us begin at what most of us think of as our core, bone. Bone in the body is actually living tissue. If you look closely at old bones, you will see the tiny holes, the spongy ends and center, where blood cells are made and filtered, minerals and nutrients constantly stored and released. Bones support muscles, which direct and shape bones with activity and adaptation. Naturally, muscle can only be given shape by bone, but bone is also shaped by muscle, which pulls on attachment keels through tendons, stimulating bone growth or, in the absence of activity, allowing bone thinning. Overlying bone is a tough, porous net of fascia called the periosteum (in Greek, "around bone"). This is the first of many layers of fascia, which keep the otherwise gelatinous "meat" of the muscles in some form of shape and direction. Cartilage cushions and protects the meeting ends of bones, and is the first form bone takes in utero. Bone replaces cartilage as the fetus matures. Bone hardening is usually not complete until the early 20s in most humans.
Fascia is the silvery stuff found on a chicken drumstick, and you have probably dealt with the stringy attaching tendons if you eat or prepare any meat (vegetarians are encouraged to consult anatomy references). Do you see how each tendon comes up over the joint, and fans out into a web which encapsulates the muscle? On the fat part of the chicken leg, the web concentrates again to bind and protect the soft muscle fiber against the bone, as well as guiding it to the proper attachment. Fascia of a slightly different sort also protects and groups internal organs.
Now, the meat of the matter, muscle. Meat is just that. Most skeletal muscle is composed of groups of spindle-shaped fibers. The way we move and train as well as genetic and nutritional factors determine what kind of muscle we have, be it fast twitch (short fat fibers: imagine a sprinter's thigh muscles) or slow twitch (thinner, more compact fibers: imagine a marathon runner's thighs). We are composed of both voluntary, or skeletal muscle, and involuntary, or visceral muscle. Especially for those of us who train in budo, the boundary between those two gets less and less defined, as we learn to better "hook in" to our autonomic system through concentration and breathing. We gain finer and finer control of muscle, breath and nerve, through training. The better control of our strength we have, the less strength we need.
Leading anatomist and bodywork teacher
Thomas W Meyers proposes that the body is a "tensegrity" structure, referencing
Buckminster Fuller's works on mechanical physics and design. From Meyer's
book, "Anatomy Trains":
"In the class of structures known as 'tensegrity' the compression members (dowels) 'float' without touching each other in a continuous 'sea' of balanced tension members (elastics). (Meyers, after Oschman, 2000")
Think of your bones floating in this way in a sea of muscle and connective tissue. It may feel like a system of levers and pivots, but think what would happen if muscles did not oppose each other in balance?
To illustrate, think of the muscles in your back. Now think of the muscles in your chest and stomach. What would happen if one or the other were suddenly severed (iai and kenjutsu kata tell the story)? The muscles on the unsevered side would dominate the equation and the body would flex uncontrollably away from the muscles which no longer function and towards those which do. The balance would be completely destroyed. Striking muscle groups to cause them to contract or release involuntarily has much the same effect. In fact, some schools of bodywork use percussion to manipulate the tonus (contraction) of muscles.
With all of this to think about, pay attention to how your body moves for the next month, and stay tuned for the next installment of this column, when we'll talk about things that go wrong with this complex system.
All the best and good training, Emily