Somatic Anatomy Body Systems
By Mary Ann Foster
In the previous article on Somatic Anatomy (“Wheels of Motion,” February/March 2006, page 94), we began with a study of spatial concepts. Recall that the primary objective of this series is to bridge cognitive studies of anatomy and physiology with experiential studies so your body becomes your laboratory of inquiry. Change begins with awareness. Awareness — of body systems and how they interrelate in a kaleidoscope of changing relationships — creates a foundation for full-bodied healing in massage.
The Family of Body Systems
The body systems are packaged within the skin, each taking up a certain amount of space. Massage can be applied with the intention of returning each system to its optimal position, aligning more than just the bone. Each system also has a physiological rhythm that can be tuned into and even matched with the rhythm of our touch. We will move through the body systems in this article starting with the skin and moving down through the layers.
If we massage with an awareness of the qualities of all the body systems, the client’s body seems more receptive. This has led me to many interesting therapeutic encounters. In one case, a woman with hip pain and a history of kidney infections came for a massage. As I worked her hips and abdomen, I sensed the various tissue layers and rhythms. All of a sudden, something in her belly gurgled. Then, her bladder lifted up into my hand as though it knew my hands had the intelligence to adjust it. I intuitively and gently lifted her bladder and repositioned it toward her spine. We both knew something healing had occurred. Afterward, she commented on experiencing great pain relief, saying she felt a stretch all the way to her kidneys (perhaps her ureter?). It was as though her bladder recognized a full-bodied touch receptive to all body systems and rose to the surface to take advantage of the opportunity to shift.
Exercise 1 — Full-Bodied Touch
• Sense or visualize the layers of the different systems, from skin through fascia, then muscle, bone, lungs, and heart, all the way through to the front of the body.
• Notice any subtle rhythms that arise. Begin to slowly move your hands, following any rhythms.
• Slowly press and release. Which layers feel supple and responsive? Which layers feel held?
The Integumentary System
Skin regulates temperature, cooling the body through sweating and retaining heat with a layer of subcutaneous fat. Skin takes in and processes nourishment, absorbing nutrients in lotions, converting ultraviolet rays into vitamin D, and relying on tactile stimulation as food for neurological development. Skin is also resilient, regenerating faster than any other system, stretching under load, and scarring to shore up tears in its fabric. Since skin is our primary point of contact in massage, before pushing through it to deeper layers, we can help clients by nourishing it with gentle touch.
Exercise 2 — Touching Back Through the Skin
• Put your hand on your face. Can your face touch back?
• Explore this with a partner. Touch her and sense her skin. Then ask her to touch you back with her awareness.
• Move around carefully to different parts of her body. Notice where her skin feels receptive to touch and where it does not.
The Lymphatic System
Manual lymph drainage (MLD) uses a light, rhythmic touch that gently stretches and twists the skin to open superficial vessels and stimulate drainage. More massage therapists are adding MLD to their toolbox to reduce edema and pain common to injuries. It is also effective after deep-tissue work, which tends to irrigate the tissue bed, because MLD can effectively drain it.
The Muscular System
By teaching our clients to actively relax or contract muscles, we empower them with both relaxation skills and tools to improve posture and coordination. Although it receives a lot of attention in massage, I find the touch quality of most massage fails to make direct contact with actual muscle tissue.
Exercise 3 — Muscle Puttying
• Imagine the muscles as a layer of putty (or meat) right below the skin.
• On a partner, slowly sink your fingers into the muscles anywhere on the body. Then begin kneading them like you would knead putty, using slow, strong pressure. Methodically follow the muscles until you have covered the entire body.
The Skeletal System
Bony landmarks provide a great tactile locating system. When lost in a sea of soft tissue, simply palpate the nearest island of bone to identify your location. Since bones are rich in blood and nerves, they benefit from massage. Stretching the periostenum of a once-broken bone can release chronic pain, and repositioning bones can provide a passive education in optimal alignment and muscular span.
Exercise 4 — Bone Tracing
• On a partner, meticulously trace the bones in one hand using a clear, light, direct touch. Where the bone is close to the skin, feel the slippery layer of periostenum on top of it.
• Feel the difference between bone and joint structure, being careful not to squeeze arthritic joints.
• After you finish one hand, ask her to compare the right and left. Then, switch hands.
The Circulatory System
Massage mimics and accesses several blood rhythms: Petrissage mimics the pulsing arterial rhythm of blood; effleurage, the sweeping venous return and static contact, the slow suspension of blood in capillaries. Many address the heart as metaphor, yet we can make direct contact with it by holding it with nourishing touch; gently shifting it toward an easier place; or folding and unfolding the arms, chest, and lungs to massage it with movement.
Exercise 5 — Heart and Lung Relationship
• Put your hands over your heart and sense its beat. How fast is it?
• Next, take 10 deep, strong breaths, drawing in as much air as possible.
• Now put your hand over your heart and check your heart rate. Did it change? If so, how?
The Respiratory System
The Nervous System
The conglomeration of nerve cells living in the brain and spinal cord resemble a bulbous jellyfish with a long tail. Long fibers grow off each cell body, bundle into cord-like nerves, branch from the spinal cord at each vertebral segment, and thread through bones, between ribs, and within myofascia on their way to the periphery of the body. The natural elasticity of nerves allows them to bend and stretch during movement (see Figure 6). Chronic pain often comes from poor posture that entraps nerves in tight tissues, which can be released by repositioning the bones that nerves pass across, stretching shortening myofascia around them, then applying light neural traction to the limbs and spine.
Exercise 6 — Feeling Neural Traction with the Slump Test
• Then lift one foot and straighten the knee. Do you feel a stretch in your spine? If so, it is because the slump takes slack out of the nervous system so nerves in your leg actually pull on your spinal cord.
The Digestive System
Abdominal massage can loosen tight viscera, tone loose viscera, and drop distended viscera into the lower back, which can also relieve back pain, plus leave a client feeling thinner and taller. Organs are close-packed in their cavities, wrapped in pockets of fascia, suspended by ligaments. Torsions in fascial pockets can twist organs, causing indistinct discomfort and pain. To release torsions, gently cradle an organ until it relaxes, then slowly turn it until it shifts into a more relaxed position.
The Reproductive System
Naturally, issues around the reproductive system differ with gender. Massage can sooth menstrual cramping, release adhesions from large breasts and tight bras, and alleviate aches and pains in pregnancy. Careful inguinal massage can unravel myofascial tensions associated with hernias and release groin pain caused by entanglements in male reproductive tubing.
The Urinary System
The kidneys, which live under the posterior diaphragm and inside the floating ribs, also respond well to touch (done supinely) that helps them sink back and relax, particularly if under stress from overactive adrenals and tight lumbar muscles.
The Endocrine System
The endocrine system affects deep yet powerful aspects of somatic experience. Ample research from psychoneuroimmunology reveals that positive thoughts, feelings, and relationships boost immune function, whereas negative experiences have the opposite effect. With this knowledge, the physical and emotional environment we create for massage may have as much of a healing effect on clients as does our touch.
Our body systems are so interconnected that massage of one system always affects another. As the massage field grows in sophistication, so too can our fluency in addressing the tissues, organs, and fluid rhythms within all the systems. With diverse techniques and qualities of touch, plus receptive hands, we can develop the fluency to be inclusive of all the body systems and switch among them as individual needs arise.
Mary Ann Foster, author of Somatic Patterning (EMS Press, 2004), has been a massage therapist and movement educator for 25 years. She teaches movement classes at the Boulder College of Massage Therapy in Colorado. Contact her at email@example.com.
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