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The Energy Fascia Connection

By Tom McDonough, M.Div., Ph.D. candidate, the developer of Energy Integration.

(Appeared in the May/June 1998 issue of Massage Magazine)

"We can see all the beauties of life on exhibition by that great power with which fascia is endowed. The soul of man with all the streams of pure living water seems to dwell in the fascia of his body."

A. T. Still, developer of osteopathy in Philosophy of Osteopathy, 1899

When I first heard this quote, I didn’t get it. How can Still equate fascia and soul? My work with the energy/fascial matrix has shown me the wisdom in Still’s words.

There is a natural progression in manual therapy from the gross to the subtle, from the fascial matrix to the energy matrix, from working on someone to working with someone, from overcoming resistance to establishing trust. As one learns to listen to the fascia, a whole new world of subtle rhythms and forces is revealed.

Fascia is soft tissue. It can be likened to a laminated sheath that surrounds everything in the body, from the smallest nerve and muscle fiber to the largest bone, muscle and organ. If we could remove everything from the body except for the fascia, we would be left with a there-dimensional matrix much like the three-dimensional, computer-generated images se see in sci-fi movies. Fascia not only binds and supports, it is also a primary communication channel in the body. In ancient Chinese texts there are allusions to qi (energy) moving through the fascia. I use the term "energy/fascial matrix" to refer to this close correlation between fascia and energy.

Effective bodywork enhances the balance and flow of energy. Effective energy work enhances tissue quality. Energy Integration was developed to unite bodywork and energy work, allowing therapists to effectively work with this energy/fascial matrix. Energy Integration provides a step-by-step introduction to energy work and its integration into bodywork.

The journey toward Energy Integration

As a massage therapist my initial training was in deep tissue work, with a focus on sports massage and injury work. From the beginning I was intrigued by the notion of "armoring" (W. Reich, 1945, A. Lowen, 1977), and how the body uses muscle tension to both express and repress emotions. As I studied massage therapy, the first approach I learned was to push through the muscle tension, to work through the pain. I expected the client to be sore for 24-48 hours after a session. Most of us have been exposed to this approach at one time or another, and it gets results.

Then I was exposed to CranioSacral Therapy. My eyes were open to another approach the direction of ease. It went against all my previous training, but I could feel the tissues responding even though my touch was very light, five grams or so, about the weight of a nickel. I realized that by following the body's lead, I could get much more than by trying to force things. The Tao Te Ching expresses it much better than I can.

In the pursuit of knowledge,
Every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
Every day something is dropped.

Less and less do you need to force things,
Until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
Nothing is left undone.

True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can’t be gained by interfering.

(Tao Te Ching, ch 48)

I realized that this was the way I wanted to be with people listening, following. I saw the power and the freedom of a gentler approach, which suited my personality and learning style much better than more direct techniques that relied on force and overpowering restrictions. I have learned a lot from the direct approaches, but now choose to apply that knowledge in a different way, a gentler way.

As I continued my journey working gently and non-invasively with the body, I crossed the line from matter to energy. Still’s insights into the fascial matrix took on a whole new meaning for me. As I talked with other therapist I realized, I wasn't alone. Studying this energetic component in the literature and with clients revealed connections I’d never noticed. My ability to assess and treat significantly improved, and I was able to blend and harmonize insights from other modalities into an integrated systems approach – Energy Integration.

The reality of energy

The body can be likened to a sack of electrically conductive material. Modern medicine takes this for granted in many of its diagnostic and treatment tools (EEG, EKG, EMG, etc.). We have all experienced the energetic component of our bodies, though we may not have connected with it as such.

If you are unfamiliar with this electromagnetic component, take a few moments to palpate your energy field. Rub your tow hands together for a few moments. Separate them about a foot and a half and then slowly move them toward each other until you feel a subtle difference between your hands, like a cushion of air or a subtle form of the static electricity we often feel in front of a TV screen. Once your hands become sensitive to what you’re looking for, see if you can notice the subtle differences in the field at different distances between your hands. There are different leve3ls or laye3rs in the energy field called auras, which can be seen and palpated with a little practice.

Energy medicine includes mind/body medicine, and goes beyond it. Mind/body medicine studies the effect of an individual’s mind on his or her body. In energy medicine we realize that energy follows thought. Meditation and visualization can not only affect the flow of energy in my own body (mind/body effect), but my thoughts, my intention, can affect the flow of energy in someone else’s body (non-local effect).

Systems such as traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine have recognized the mind/body connection and the energetic aspect of the body for thousands of years. As I studied these two systems, I tried to see what they were doing in their various modalities. These two systems have stood the test of time, and are examples of systems approaches to health and healing.

Energy Integration employs a similar treatment mix, incorporating energy work, bodywork, movement, nutrition and meditation, providing therapists with the tools they need to work with the whole person—body, mind and spirit. The more specific we are in understanding what’s "off," the gentler and more subtle our intervention can be to get the desired result. We notice where the body is stuck and gently free the area, allowing the body’s natural healing and homeostatic processes to do their job. The further along someone is toward the disease end of the spectrum or the less specific we are in our treatment approach, the ore force is needed to make a change.

The Energy Integration approach

Energy Integration demystifies energy work, and allows it to be integrated with ease into a traditional treatment setting. Though I use models of chakras and meridians at the beginning, I quickly make the transition to anatomy and physiology as primary metaphors. In the words of the semanticist Alfred Korzybski, "The map is not the territory."

The use of anatomy and physiology as a metaphor for energy work provides a very detailed model that allows the therapist’s work to be very specific. In this way. In this way energy work blends so well with manual therapy that it doesn’t trigger negative associations with clients or other therapists. Energy work can be described in the same language as manual therapy. In fact, you can transfer many of your manual therapy skills to the energetic matrix.

Energy Integration techniques can be preformed on or off the body. As your touch becomes lighter, and your intent more focused you will quickly be able to assess the optimum distance for the most effective release. When you’re working on the body the quality in your hands should be the same quality as when you’re working off the body. The intent is to work with the structure and the energy at the same time. This form of energy work can be transparent to the client.

Words like energy, chakra and meridian needn’t ever come up. I follow the keep it simple principle, or in the words of William of Occam (1290-1349), "It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer." The simplest form of a statement is superior to endless hypotheses. We do not need to embrace eastern mysticism to work with energy. No matter what our terminology, the energetic component of the body is a reality easily palpated and experienced.

When you work on clients’ energy they can often feel your presence deep within their body, even though you are not touching them. To experience this for yourself, try the following: With your eyes closed, hold the index finger of one hand about an inch away from the palm of the other hand. Begin tracing a pattern on the palm of your hand with the index finger. Keep it about an inch or so away from the other hand. Notice that you can feel the tracing in the palm of your hand.

From the perspective of Energy Integration the fascial matrix is simply a more habitual form of the energy matrix. If there is a fascial restriction, there is an energy restriction, and vice versa. As we develop our palpation skills, we gain the ability to feel these strain patterns on a subtle level. Intention and visualization become more important on this subtle end of the spectrum. Visualization enhances eye-hand coordination allowing the touch to make finer distinctions, while intention facilitates the flow of energy.

No matter what techniques we use, it’s important to assess our results. Because of the connection between the energy and fascial matrixes our manual therapy skills can be used to validate the effectiveness of our energy work. This cross validation is particularly helpful during the learning phase. Work at this energy/matter interface, with an emphasis on confirming results on both the energetic and fascial levels, is stressed during the learning phase and in the practice of Energy Integration.

Test your skill

If you're familiar with following fascial strain patterns I invite you to try a little experiment. The next time you're working on a joint injury:

1. Do the traditional range of motion test to zero in on the affected structure. Be specific.

2. Gently place your hands on the tissues and see if you can pick up on a fascial strain pattern. Follow it with your hands. Where does it lead? Be specific. Literally, can you put your finger on it?

3. Now hold your hands a few inches off the body in the area of the joint. Where is your hand attracted? Be specific.

All three assessments should point to the same restriction. If there is a fascial restriction, it is reflected in the energy field and vice versa. When you're learning energy work, it's important to confirm it on-the-body. It not only gives you confidence, but it grounds the work, and gives you a means to verify the results you're getting.

Soft tissue and bone are capable of adjusting their strength according to the amount of stress placed on them. On the subtlest level this strain pattern is the energy field. DNA, RNA, etc. carry the programming that tells the body how to produce collagen fibers. But what determines how these fibers are laid down? It’s the field, and on a grosser level, the biomechanical strain patterns. Manual therapy works on the level of these biomechanical strain patterns. Energy medicine works on the level of the energy field. Both effect the strain pattern. If we chain the strain patterns, the body adapts appropriately. The intervention can be either gross or subtle. The more specific our work, the less it takes to influence the body.

This specificity requires good listening and assessment skills. NeuroLinguistic Programming teaches the concept of pacing and leading. The intent is to blend with the client, resonate on his/her level, and then slowly lead the client to a more functional place. The tai chi push-hands exercise is a good metaphor for this process. One needs to match the force and speed of the opponent. At that place of matching it takes very little to redirect the opponent’s energy. This is how we make structural changes energetically. The first step is learning to follow the bodies lead. What’s the body trying to do? Once we understand this, you simply facilitate the process in the direction of ease, working with the body’s natural homeostatic processes, not against them.

As bodyworkers, we are accustomed to feeling the effect of fascial strain patterns in the body. When we get a good release the tissues change, as does the strain pattern. These strain patterns can be picked up in the energy field and often released energetically. If the energy has made a difference, it will show up in the tissues. There will be signs of tissue release (heat, pulsing, softening and spreading of tissues, changes in breath, etc.), just as with bodywork, and the strain pattern will be different.

With practice you can assess the whole energy/fascial matrix as a unit, and usually find one point on the matrix that will bring the body into functional balance, softening and releasing fascial restriction while enhancing energy flow. This is a big plus when dealing within the confines of limited treatment time.

Treatment approach

We need meaning in our life a meaning that gives shape and direction to everything we do. As we focus on the deeper meaning of life, we position ourselves for healing. Meaning provides the motivation and the energy for long term change. Healing implies being made whole. The clearer a client is in this regard, the easier it is to get quick and long-lasting change from bodywork and energy work.

There are no immutable laws of nature, only habit. When nature finds something that works, it keeps repeating it—much like a computer programmer who has developed many little sub-routines over time. When one sees that nature is habit, it creates the possibility for change, the possibility for new learning. This is where meaning comes in. Once we know the "why," any "what" becomes possible. Even disease processes can be turned around (see sidebar, "The Disease Process and Energy Word").

Energy work and the family

Once you appreciate the implication of energy work, both as an assessment and treatment tool, a whole new world opens up. An example of this can be seen in family systems. When the principles of Energy Integration are applied, practitioners notice a family component to fascial strain patterns. You may have already noticed this yourself—families tend to share the same or complimentary patterns: genetically, psychologically, fascially and energetically. These patterns are often subtle, and symptoms are often sub-clinical. They can best be assessed and treated energetically, or at the energy/matter interface.

Because of these subtle and not-so-subtle influences, when working with children I recommended that work be done with the whole family, because the child’s energetic resonance has adapted to the family’s and vice versa. They are truly one system. If you work just on the child, the family pattern can induce a re-occurrence of the problem. When a parent is scheduling an appointment for a child, I encourage a family visit. At the very least, I treat the parent for a few minutes before I treat the child. This simple practice has significantly improved my results with children.

The following is a case study from occupational therapist Pat Joyce O.T.R./L. She provides CranioSacral therapy to infants and toddlers through an early intervention program based in Springfield, Massachusetts, and she serves a client population of adults and children at her private office in Hadley, Massachusetts. For the past two years she has been incorporating principles of Energy Integration into her practice.

Joyce first noticed the possible impact that treating a parent might have on a child, when a 34 month old boy finally began to walk independently. Just prior to his walking, the child's mother had obtained CranioSacral work for herself to address an acute back injury. Although the child had demonstrated steady gains throughout his own CranioSacral treatments? His new developmental leap warranted reflection. Joyce considered the mother's own bodywork as having important relevance to her son's improvements.

Following a conversation with myself, an energetic connection between the mother and child became more clear, and Joyce started to incorporate on a regular basis, hands-on work with family members of the children she served. She began by offering brief 10 minute treatments to receptive parents and other caregivers.

The results were encouraging. An 18 month old girl who had low muscle tone and whose mobility had been limited to rolling, began to scoot on her buttocks across the floor, cruise at furniture, and walk behind a pushcart within six weeks of the initial treatment given to her mother. A 17 month old boy with cerebral palsy showed for the first time, sustained independent sitting for 2 to 3 minutes during the week which followed treatment to relieve his mother's back pain. It became common to notice similarities in fascial strain patterns among families. With Joyce's hands following the direction of ease, another mother's

shoulders typically rotated around the axis of her spine, in a manner reminiscent of the "windblown" asymmetrical pattern evident in her 2 year old son's pelvis and legs.

Perhaps even more important than physical changes, there have been clear indications of improved bonding and emotional connections between children and their caregivers, when each has been treated. This has been observed and reported whether or not biological links exist.

Because Joyce now routinely tries to incorporate hands-on work with families right from the first session, it has become more difficult to separate the effects of treatment directed solely towards the child from the effects of treatment directed towards family members. As occurs in other therapies, once a technique shows promise of success, there is high motivation to use it.

Leverage is the key. The more specific you can be, the less time it takes to get a release. By applying the principles of Energy Integration one can quickly assess and treat clients. Once you’ve mastered the techniques, they can be done in just a minutes. This makes it possible to treat the whole family system in a single session. All you need is five to ten minutes per person. It’s efficient, cost effective, and it gets results.

Subtle forces, fine distinctions

Energy Integration deals with subtle forces and distinctions, but experience has demonstrated that our senses have the capacity to make very fine distinctions. Think of a wine taster or someone who differentiates scents for perfume companies. Pulse diagnosis is another example of the ability to make subtle distinctions. Statistically, whether we are considering taste, scent, or touch, the ability to make these subtle distinctions is learned. For about 10% of the population it’s a gift, 80% can develop the skill, and 10% have difficulty learning to make these distinctions. As with any learned skill the right learning environment and regular practice are important.

Tom McDonough has trained in CranioSacral therapy, SomatoEmotional Release, Visceral Manipulation, Mechanical Link and Muscular Therapy. He is the developer of Energy Integration and the Health and personal Mastery Retreat Program, and is a member of the International Alliance of Healthcare Educators. His is a Ph.D. candidate in healthcare with a special focus in holistic health, and has a private practice in the Boston area. Tom can be contacted at 978.258.3783.

Pat Joyce contributed her case study to this article.

(Side bars to the article)

Principles of Energy Integration

  • Fascia is the network through which qi flows in the body.
  • Fascial restrictions disrupt the energetic flow in the body.
  • Freeing fascial restriction allows the energy to flow freely through the meridians.
  • Freeing energetic blocks frees fascial restrictions.
  • The energy matrix and the fascial matrix are one and the same.
  • The fascial/energetic matrix reflects who we are and how we are in the world.
  • Energy follows thought.
  • We follow where thought leads.
  • Meaning provides an organizing principle around which we grow.

Exercises To Experience The Human Energy Field

Exercise 1: connecting to others’ energy

Find a partner and stand about 20 feet away. (In this example, we will refer to a female partner.) Have your partner close her eyes. Slowly move toward her until she can feel your presence. Stop as she connects with where on her body she feels your presence as well as its quality. Have her close her eyes again and continue moving toward her, stopping each time she feels your presence.

The human energy field has an electromagnetic quality, and it can be palpated and perceived with our whole body. Just as in exercise 1 you may notice that your presence is picked up at different distances. Again the level to the auras can be readily palpated and seen with just a little practice.

The more habitual a strain pattern or the more locked-up someone is, the easier it is to pick it up in our bodies. Have you ever noticed the quality of a room change when someone depressed walks into it? You may actually feel the pull compressing your sphenoid (a cranial bone). This may also be one of the mechanisms that allow martial artists to fight blindfolded. They can feel their opponents.

Exercise 2: seeing energy fields

Find a white background or mirror for this exercise. Hold your hands in front of you as far as you can with your fingers facing each other. Move your hands away from and towards each other (1 to 3 inches). Look between your fingers with soft eyes and notice. Continue doing this while you change your emotional state. Notice any change such as intensity or color.

Exercise 3: energy quality

Work in groups of three. Have one partner stand in front of a light background and slowly sway from side to side. The other two can observe that person with soft eyes from about ten feet away. Start by looking in the area of the head and shoulders, about one inch off the body and about six to twelve inches off the body. Describe what you see with your partner, and then change places.

The Disease Process and Energy Work

Disease processes more often than not involve the accumulation of small changes over time. As one line of defense fails another is activated until the whole body is involved. Energy work is ideally suited for situations where small, subtle changes are needed—situations where you want to work with and boost the body’s natural healing and homeostatic processes. The earlier you intervene in this process the easier it will be to turn things around.

To develop your skill of working with the human energy field, practice on yourself when you experience something fairly common, such as a headache, migraine, cold or flue. First, notice your own early warning signs. For me, colds and flues usually begin in my throat. Whenever I notice that my throat is a little raw, I palpate the energy field around my throat. There is usually a strain pattern pulling off to one side. There is also a corresponding fascial strain pattern in the same direction. The fascial matrix is merely a more habitual form of the energetic matrix.

To practice self-care through energy work, first connect with the energetic strain pattern a few inches off the body. Follow it in the direction of ease. Let’s say it moves a few inches away from midline. Follow the energetic strain pattern only as far as it pulls you, just as if you were following a fascial strain pattern. Hold it gently at the end-range. With practice your hands will take on an intelligence of their own, allowing you to better follow the subtle patterns in the field. As you follow and hold this energetic strain pattern your intention should be to offer the energy field whatever it needs. Don't send energy, just offer the area whatever it needs. Invite balance. Notice how quickly the field shifts back to midline and the strain pattern disappears both energetically and facially. Repeat this process throughout the day as needed.

With colds the body's immune system is activated as well as the lymph system. As the lymph system becomes overworked the whole body gets into the act. By catching things early and balancing the energy in the throat, the lymph glands can better handle the infection and there is no need for the whole body to get into the act. The cold or flu never develops.

And treating yourself will build confidence in the efficacy of energy work.


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