Monday, 24 September 2012

Anatomy of Stretching in Thai Yoga Massage

As a teacher  and student of Thai Yoga Massage I have trained with several schools and teachers in Thailand. Styles vary between schools and can be broadly classified into commercial schools and traditional teachers. Commercial schools tend  to cater to the demands of western students who pay a lot of money and have their preconceived notions of Thai Massage and Yoga. It is rare to meet local Thais learning in these  schools.
The recent commercial success of Hatha yogic practices, has made Yoga synonymous with stretching. In reality Hatha Yoga forms a very small and preliminary portion of Yogic practices. Due to these mistaken and preconceived notions  students expect that Thai Yoga Massage  may also be similar to Hatha Yoga. It has also not helped that  schools emphasise the aspect of stretching in Thai Yoga Massage by calling it the Lazy Man’s Yoga. Videos on Youtube with dramatic, graceful and acrobatic stretches of Thai Yoga Massage are plenty but these are a very small component of the healing art. The videos in turn attract hatha yoga students to Thai Massage.
In the real world  however people have very limited flexibility. Most people have a very sedentary lifestyles and their myofascia  have hardened and formed adhesions with underlying layers of fascia. Doing dramatic stretches in such cases is not only useless but can be outright dangerous for such people. To understand this it is important to understand the anatomy of stretching.
One way to do this is to look at muscles like a rubber bands with non elastic attachments called the tendons running from the muscle to periostuem  ( the superficial layer of the bone). In this chain, the muscle is the only element that has the ability to stretch. The tendon has very limited elasticity and bone almost none at all. In time muscles tends to deteriorate and lose their elasticity. This deterioration happens in two way:
1.    Trigger point or knots form on the muscle fibers when they are kept in a contracted position or used repeatedly over a long time. When muscle fibers contract, they use biochemical energy called ATP, and the depletion of these chemicals, forces the muscle to start using non aerobic metabolic processes. These processes however generate byproducts that are the causes of inflammation such as Histamine or Bradykinin. The tightened muscle fibers then constrict capillaries and prevent them from carrying off the fatigue toxins to the body's recycling system (liver and kidneys). The buildup of these toxins create what is anatomically called Trigger Points in a muscle. A trigger point  feels like a slippery elongated bundle of fibers. These knots can be experienced as small  ball like formations on the muscle body that are extremely excruciating to touch. These accumulations tend to harden the muscle and restrict its ability to stretch freely. In the analogy of the rubber band this is the equivalent of a knot on the rubber band.
2.    Myofascial adhesion: Often due to an inactive life the human muscular system accumulates restriction in its range of motion. Poor posture also can force muscles to set into patterns of contraction on one side or the other of the body (front or back or side). Without sufficient stretching the fascia of the muscles get stuck to underlying layers of muscles. The closest analogy is to Velcro. The muscles that do not move over each other adhere to a lower or superior layers over time. At this stage both muscles lose the ability to move independent of each other. Arteries, veins and nerves that use the fascial net as a scaffolding to travel over the body encounter a serious problem. These adhesions  and the hardening of the fascia cause a  reduction of space and lubrication between  muscle layers.  This space is used by these chemical/information highways of the body. The restriction in these spaces impede the function of these arteries and nerves that supply information and nutrition  to the internal organs and therefore affect the bio chemistry of the body. The situation then no longer stays at  a muscular level but starts interfering with the homeostatic balance of the body.
When these conditions exist in the human muscular system the muscles have a limited ability to stretch . Doing dramatic stretches then is like expecting a rubber band with a knot in it to stretch the same amount as it does when it  had no knots. Stretching in such a condition can cause the tendon to rip from the muscle or cause tears in the tendon resulting in inflammation/ tendonitis.
Thai Yoga Massage teachers need to always emphasize to their students that while stretching looks great on Youtube it is not  for the average person who walks in for a treatment. For a typical client who comes for a Thai Massage treatment the priority should be to loosen the knots and adhesions by working on sen/meridians of the body. These meridians discovered 2500 years ago have been increasingly found to be valid from a  scientific perspective.
The most important thing to keep in mind when assessing a client is to understand the tightness in the body and the extent and location of these restrictions. A good assessment tool like this will help. Further the therapist needs to use her knowledge and experience to understand how these restrictions are  interconnected  using the theory of thai meridians. Priority goes to first removing the restrictions in the legs and hips before moving up. When the muscular structure has regained some amount of suppleness then the stretching can begin.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Thai Sen Meridian

72000 Nadis and chakras run all over the body and intersect at the chakras
Nadis and Chakras
The concept of meridians in Eastern philosophy is not new. TCM or Chinese medicine meridians used in acupressure and acupuncture are of course are well known. In the Indian system the Yogic Nadis are also used in  ayurveda and other Yogic practices. Thai massage or Nuad Bo Rarn as it is know in Thailand uses the Indian yogic system for its meridians. Subtle differences do exist between Thai Sen (meridians) & Yogic Nadis but the concept of Prana or Lom(in thai) running through  them is the same.
The Yogic system believes that there are 72000 such meridians or rivers of Prana crossing the body and as they  cross each other the whirling of the Prana on these points of intersection create vortexes. The Chakras.   Thai Sen lines are similar in conception and flow, as the yogic lines. Yogis also talk of how each Chakra is associated with various organs/ glands of the body. Like the Sahasara is related to the corpus collosum, the Ajna  chakra to the Pineal gland, the Vishuddha to the thyroid, the Anahata to the Thymus, Manipura to the Spleen, and the Swadishtahana plexus to the prostate.
To a rationalist this might seem like a lot of mumbo jumbo. Rivers of Prana? Really! If you cut the body up can you see these rivers? Measure them or touch  them? It sounds difficult but as a practitioner of Thai yoga Massage I can feel them. I can feel the ebb and flow of prana but as a teacher of Thai Yoga Massage. How can I explain this to one who might not have developed the subtle touch yet. Over the years I struggled with trying to explain to my students (the skeptics) that these lines exist and that you can feel the breath on them.
The answer  to the question lies in anatomy. I  got interested in other therapies that are derived from modern anatomy. Some of them less ancient than Thai Yoga massage. One of them was Anatomy Trains as conceived by Ida Rolf’s student Tom M. Myers. What Tom Myers was talking about,  while derived from Rolfing, was presented in a much more simple manner. His view of the human system was quite revolutionary at least for me.
Tom Myer's theory was simple, the hidden organ of the body that is now acknowledged for its existence by modern medicine, is the Myofascial net. He calls it the organ of support. The myofascial net includes everything that keeps the body together. That means muscles, intra muscular fascia, inter muscular fascia, tendons, ligament, bone and even down to the connective tissue, the Dura Mater covering the brain. Everything that helps keeping the body in shape and  organized is the organ of support.It keeps everything organised  inside this very large water balloon which we call the “I” . It prevents  the organs from sloshing around and therefore in working order.  It is with us (albeit in changing form) from the  moment of conception to death. It is  the organ of support and one that keeps us in one piece even when have our arm broken.
Tom Myers concept was simple. None of the bones in the body actually  touches each other. Instead Myers asks us to look at the human system more as a skeleton wired or held together in place by a combination of muscle, tendons, ligament and cartilage. Not only the bones but even our internal organs are held in place by this amazing net. It is what stops the left lobe of our liver from popping out of our mouth as we are doing a yoga head stand. What was even more mind boggling about Myer’s view was that arteries, veins and nerves use this net as a scaffolding to travel from one point to another to provide nutrients, hormones and information which creates the flow of life in us.

Surprisingly Tom Myers went on to explain that this organ of support aggregates the various pulls and tensions of gravity working on us through specific lines. He calls these lines meridians too. The difference is that his lines are lines of tension or muscular pull. Something like ropes in a sail boat that help keep the mast upright even with strong wind and gravity working on it constantly.
Sen Suman or Sushumna Nadi or the Deep Front Line are the same in the human torso
Sen Sumana
Myers talks of ten major lines of pull. As I studied more I realized that the lines he was talking about were often following the same track as Thai Sen lines. For example the Deep Front line is almost exactly the same as Sen Sumana or in the Indian yogic system the Sushumna Nadi. This line runs along the inside of the calf and the legs and into the deep muscles of the Psoas  and then following the anterior longitudinal ligament  it loops around the linea alba to hold all  our organs in place.
Or Myer’s Lateral line in the leg follows the route of Sen Kalathari providing a basket weave that allows for lateral integration in the body.
Of course differences exist but the tracks of these lines  remain almost the same.
I found it quite fascinating that the Yogis, 2500 years ago, seemed to have realized the same truth without MRIs, X rays and dissections, what modern anatomical  research is coming to realize only now.
Sen Kalathari or Lateral Line are the same on the legs
Sen Kalathari or Lateral Line
The concept of myofascial meridians gets even more complex because the lines do not stand alone and transmit pulls independently  of each other. Instead they interact and share the pull at points of intersection. Points like the extensor reticulum at the ankle, the knee joint, the AIIS, ASIS, along the spine,  on the anterior side along the Linea alba, the sternum and even at the neck. The truth is that everything is interconnected in the human body and everything interacts with the other elements to create the flow of life.
Breathing is only one of the autonomic movements that occur in the human body but it is among one of the most frequent and more importantly one of the most essential. It originates muscularly at the core of the human system.  In the book "Dance Anatomy" by Jacqui Has is point that the mechanical aspect of breathing runs through the entire body. Put in the context of  myofascial meridians  it tells us that even a movement like breathing  which begins at the core of the human system spreads mechanical tension along these myofascial meridians and distributes it across the body. This is the ebb and flow that a Thai Yoga Massage practitioner feels  when in contact with the client. You can feel  the pull of an inhalation and push of the exhalation even down in the calf. It is subtle and requires training but it exists physically.
To feel the breath over the body requires not only subtle sensitivity but also stability. Conventional movement oriented Thai Yoga Massage which is often taught in commercial schools limits the ability to sense this movement. Styles of Thai massage taught by Master Pichest Boonthume or in advanced courses at the School of Thai Yoga Massage India need the practitioner to linger  longer  on points of tension along the Thai Meridians. When the practitioner follows this style, she can meditate and feel the breath flowing over the body. Then Thai massage  becomes a therapeutic meditation as against the conventional meditation in movement Thai Massage is known for.
Further research needs to be done  on the impact of the interaction of these lines of myofascial pull and other circulatory functions both independent and in interaction with the mechanics of breathing.