- Brian Phillips
The Body Coils – How does Myofascial Release Affect the Nervous System?
The nervous system governs the body by receiving and transmitting messages. These messages create sensation, maintain homeostasis, control movement, and are responsible for involuntary (autonomic) activity: heartbeat, digestion, breathing, shivering, etc.
The nervous system has a natural healing ability; it can purge tension. Depending on a person's sensitivity, a Myofascial Release (MFR) treatment can spark energetic movements, which are unconscious—like movements that happen during sleep. These unconscious movements help re-calibrate the nervous system by lowering cortisol levels, lessening pain signals, and thawing out neurological stress.
The nervous system is designed to purge tension
The human brain can really get in the way of the nervous system's natural healing abilities, unlike an animal's brain, which has less cognitive function. An animal's small brain benefits them in this respect. Animals purge tension easier than humans because their autonomic nervous system activates a healing response whenever their stress level is too high; their nervous system resets as needed, and on a regular basis. We tend to hold onto tension longer than other mammals because our minds have a complex memory that can keep us stuck in habitual loops. When it comes to purging neurological stress, we are somewhat dependent on another human being to aid in the process.
While I was giving an MFR treatment, a client said to me "The body Coils." They were describing small undulating movements that their spine was making. I replied, "Imagine what it would feel like if the coiling sensation multiplied." The power of suggestion helped, and their movements grew bigger. With one hand under their neck, and my other hand under their back, I supported their spine, and followed their unique way of moving, which was effortless on their part. This is the nervous system's healing response; this is the body purging tension without the mind interfering.
How does the nervous system respond to bodywork?
Forceful bodywork triggers a branch of the nervous system called sympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system primarily functions while a person is alert and awake. It's responsible for increasing heart rate and adrenaline. When aggressive, or even semi-aggressive force is applied during bodywork—physical therapy, MFR, stretching, etc.—the sympathetic nervous system goes into a protective response, which makes a person tense up. Even during massage, the sympathetic nervous system can remain in a self-protective state because techniques like kneading, grasping, and elbows can be applied too rapidly, or too aggressively.
Bodywork that is applied gently triggers a branch of the nervous system called parasympathetic. The parasympathetic nervous system primarily functions while a person is at rest or asleep. If the therapist takes a gentle approach, it will calm the client's nervous system, and the treatment will be deeply relaxing. Activating a client's parasympathetic nervous system while they're awake is unique because it allows unconscious activity to happen while they're conscious. This opens up neurological communication between both branches of their nervous system—sympathetic and parasympathetic.
Myofascial Release and energetic unwinding
Not all MFR treatments are energetic, but sometimes a client's nervous system becomes highly stimulated and they move involuntarily. When this happens, the therapist coaches their released energy into fluid movements. This opens up space in their connective tissue (fascia), which releases tension, and increases their range of motion. A client may have a lot of pent-up energy, which causes them to shake, or their movements appear choppy, not smooth. The therapist will help them find a cadence, and eventually their fitful movements will become rhythmic. When the therapist stays in sync with the client, the client's movements get more and more fluid-like, and this may eventually turn into an energetic unwinding—myofascial unwinding.
The way some clients move during MFR treatments is inexplicable, but I'll do my best to describe it. An example: when I work on someone's neck or back, I slowly separate their spinal joints (facets) with light traction in order to put space between their vertebrae. The facets fluctuate more independently of themselves when the spine releases tension. It's possible for a client's spine to unlock all the way from their neck to their lower back. If this happens, it frees-up their spinal cord; hence, the client might experience a boost of spontaneous energy, which causes their spinal column to become extraordinary flexible. Their vertebras can literally shift independently of one another in different directions; it's a very dynamic way of moving. This might be hard to fathom because your spine might feel too rigid to move this freely, but when space opens up in the fascia, and the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, the body has amazing potential.
How do I develop somatic awareness?
Myofascial Release is more effective if you bring your awareness to any sensations you're having during a treatment. Avoiding sensations because they feel weird—especially if they're involuntary—is normal at first, but allowing whatever sensations arise is better. If you give yourself permission to feel into your body's impulses, an ordinary Myofascial Release treatment will become energetic.
Receiving a Myofascial Release treatment is easy. The therapist applies the techniques gently, which naturally calms the nervous system; so, during the beginning of the treatment you'll start to slowly feel your body relax, and your mind will cut down on chatter. Tapping into the subtleties of the nervous system is a process that might take a few treatments, but it's a natural one that takes little effort.
Summary of Myofascial Release and Energetic Bodywork
Myofascial Release is a hands-on therapy, unlike most energywork modalities, which are performed off the body. What makes MFR distinct: how it channels a client's energy. When a treatment becomes energetic, the therapist helps transform the client's energy into fluid movement. The parasympathetic branch of the nervous system is what allows energetic activity to happen. This is deep-rooted in every mammal's nervous system.
Myofascial Release primarily creates more space in the body's fascia. The results of creating more space in the fascia: the body releases tension, which helps improve motion; the nervous system fires better, which helps neurotransmitters effectively carry neural chemicals, like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins throughout the body. This is an inborn process, but if you want to enhance it, you need assistance to help bring your nervous system into a deeply relaxed state, and it helps when someone is there to guide you through the process.