The Architecture of Living Tissue with Jean-Claude Guimberteau (LBP 059)


Today I’m talking with Dr. Jean-Claude Guimberteau who practiced for many years as a hand surgeon specializing in microsurgical replantation and transplantation. Many of you listening know him best for his current groundbreaking work exploring and defining the movement of tissues beneath the skin using an intra-operative endoscopic camera to record living tissues, and from that to  develop concepts related to the new paradigm of biological structure in human beings. He is the author of many books including the book and DVD set, The Architecture of Human Living Fascia.

In our conversation today we talk about how he transitioned out of performing surgery and into this discovery of form. We talk about the Multimicrovacuolar Collagenous Absorbing System, or MVCAS for short, and what it has to do with form, how we are volumes, that the traditional anatomical view point of movement happening in 3 planes is incorrect, how each movement is unique, and that structurally we are an apparent, yet intelligent, chaos.  




Conversation highlights

  • The inspiration to film tissue endoscopically came from taking pictures in reconstructive surgery. He was initially impressed by how tendons were sliding in the connective tissue- to understand that you have to observe it you need a camera.
  • Wan not prepared to find what he found, "I found a very strange world,a  world of fibers, a world without order.
  • MVCAS used this abbreviation 15 years ago for the sliding tissue around the tendon because when you are moving your tendon, the tendon inside this part of your hand is moving but if you observe the surface of the skin of your palm it’s not moving.
  • Between the tendon and skin there is an absorbing system. When you observe it you observe fibers and between them some small vacuoles- the frame is made of collagen.
  • The MVCAS is in fact the fibular network you can find everywhere.
  • Vacuole- this term is not the best, have also thought about using areolar, but too irregular. Aveolar, also interesting. I use vaculoe because it is a small volume with apparently nothing inside.
  • I think of it as a 3 dimensional structure and it’s not made from solid material but it contains proteoglycan gel- it is responsible for our fluid volume.
  • We are volumes. If we are volumes you can’t think the structure of the body only in 3 dimensions otherwise it’s drawing on a book. You can explain how a body is organized only if you accept that we are volumes. Microvacuoles are everywhere made by the intertwining of the fibers in 3 dimensions.
  • It’s made of proteoglycan gel and it’s attracting water. You have a constant volume, so the volume is maintained. It’s adaptable. You can preserve the volume during the movement. From the mechanical point of view this behavior is interesting and for me it’s been a discovery. I was never taught about that. During the first part of my surgeon life I never imagined how it was working.
  • The traditional way of thinking about anatomy tries to explain mobility by a stratification of 3 planes. But in fact that is wrong. If you only think of the traditional anatomy description you can’t explain many things. You can’t for example explain why all these small vessels has such surprising design without any order. Why is it a sort of chaos? How will this chaos assume the perfect blood supply of an organ?
  • When people listen to the world of chaos they think it is completely no sense, but in fact if you look to say a tree try to find an order along the branches. There is no order that humans consider order. It’s a disordered pattern but it’s a tree and it’s a perfect tree. Our body is made with a similar architecture.
  • I think for the moment that biotensegrity is the only one concept able to explain how a body can resist gravity. There is no other concept able to describe it.
  • At first, what I found is not icosahedron [considered the building block of biotensegrity], I found microvacuoles which are not empty, there is glycosaminsoglycans inside the volume. In biotensegrity you never talk about what is inside the icosahedron- We talk about the frame and the tension/compression but never what is inside the volume. This why I have some nuance with the global concept of tensegrity, but I agree with it.
  • Biotensegrity is a theoretical model and I don’t think our body is made of icosahedrons, that’s wrong.
  • You have to have an understanding of the gel volumes with the glycosaminosglycans or proteoglycan gel.
  • How does the system move- sliding vs. gliding  John Sharkey and Joanne Avison  discuss the difference between glide and slide but for a Frenchman this is difficult to understand. At the beginning used gliding. Then met some American and English friends who said use sliding.
  • The mobility of the fibular frame- all these fibers are moving. When you have a movement, 3 or 4 or 10 minutes after if you think you are going to make the same movement, it is not. There is another way that fibers are going to adapt. The external factors are different, and for each movement you have a particular behavior of the fibers. Each movement is unique.
  • At 20 years old you are at optimum of tension inside your body. Little by little all these elements are decreasing slowly in quality because we are not plants to be alive for eternity. We are not as able to resist gravity as well which explains aging. It also explains scars. All the fibular harmony is completely destroyed the result is a true chaos, not an apparent chaos. All these behavior disappears and never returns. A scar is a scar for life.
  • Is it possible to get some of that glide/slide back with a manual therapy approach? Yes, but i think it’s better to hope you never lose the original state. You can largely improve and have a good result but you need time. It’s not in one instant, you need patience.
  • Now we know not to use too large incisions. Surgeries have changed so much over the last several years. It’s a surgical revolution.
  • The ideas are parallel- the body is a perfect harmony and so you use very small incisions to avoid destroying the harmony.
  • Talking about the Theil dissection coming up at Dundee University with John Sharkey and Joanne Avison- it is more difficult to do a dissection with an old cadaver. If you use a tree  cut one year before and if you use a tree still living it’s different. Our idea of anatomy has been built on cadavers, thanks to technology we can change that.


Jean-Claude Guimberteau's website

Book + DVD: The Architecture of Human Living Architecture

Paper: The role and mechanical behavior of the connective tissue in tendon sliding

Stephen Levin on biotensegrity

Joanne Avison on biotensegrity

John Sharkey on biotensegrity and glide vs. slide

The Dundee University biotensegrity dissection

If you’re inspired to support the show, you can do that here. You can also leave a review on iTunes or Stitcher  or simply tell your favorite body nerds about the show. It keeps the show rolling and connects us more as a community. Body nerds unite!

A New Paradigm of Anatomy with John Sharkey (LBP 055)

In this episode I am talking with John Sharkey who is a Clinical Anatomist, Exercise Physiologist, and European Neuromuscular Therapist. He has developed the worlds only Masters Degree in Neuromuscular Therapy which is Accredited by the University of Chester, he is on the editorial board for the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, the International Journal of Osteopathy, and the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. He is also a member of the Olympic Councils medical Team and a founding member of the B.I.G, otherwise known as the Biotensegrity Interest Group. He has also authored several books including the 3rd edition of The Concise Book of Muscles which we talk about in the interview.

John and I are talking here in great depth about the old paradigm of anatomy and biomechanics and what the new paradigm holds. This is critical stuff here. We are on the brink of a new understanding of the living human body and it’s time to look at the old models, where they come from, and why they are outdated. So if you’re interested in living tissue vs. cadavers, biotensegrity vs. biomechanics, continuity of form vs. origin insertion, and how individual human anatomy is and what that changes about our often dogmatic approaches to the body this episode is for you.




Conversation highlights

  • What is a clinical anatomist?
  • For a long time there was a big gap between the medical field and massage therapy. He made the decision that physiology and anatomy were gong to be the foundations that he was built on.
  • Alma mater is Dundee University in Scotland. The clinical anatomy department there was within the department of anatomy and human identification so it was a broad speciality.
  • Clinical anatomy is all about "where". Where is the phrenic nerve? Where is the... and not just where, but what is its path? What structures lie close to it? This informs surgeons as to where the nerves are and in what percentage of population would you find it 1cm lateral or medial etc. Anatomists feed on technicalities, detail, and specificity.
  • Me: If clinical anatomy is about where and about knowing the names of structures then it is steeped initially in the old paradigm. Yet you are also a champion for the new paradigm. Do you agree with terms old/new paradigm and how would you differentiate them?
  • His work with Dr. Stephen Levin who was investigating the biotensegrity model.
  • When studying anatomy, new students are given a textbook like Grey’s, they open it up and will tell them how to carry out a dissection. They will follow the dissection descriptions the same way previous students carried it out the same way students previous to them carried it out and on and on... from that viewpoint dissection always the same.
  • We also want to get through the skin and get to the structures that matter the most like the nerves, blood vessels, and viscera. This is the focus of parts and the language of parts. John wanted to explore the language of wholes and appreciate the relationships and continuities.
  • John's work with Dr. Levin's BIG (Biotensegrity Interest Group).
  • Definition of biotensegrity in his terms.
  • To give a visual people will often use the Skwish toy made by the Manhattan Toy Company. However we are not made of wooden struts and elastic bands.
  • Words are hugely important. Human tissue is not supposed to be stretched. It does not stretch.
  • Once tissues in the pelvis have stretched they will not return to their former state. There are many people who will spend hours stretching- gymnasts for example. How are they achieving this new range of motion? We don’t want to take the origin and insertion further away, so we are changing the tissues that lie between them.
  • Also doesn’t like the term sliding. Many people use that term. However place one hand on top of the other and move your hands back and forth. Feel the heat which is the consequence of friction. This is not a good way to build a body. In living architecture tissues do not slide, they glide relative to each other. Guimberteau’s videos demonstrate that beautifully.
  • We talk about stretching in a Newtownian way. If we take the Newtowninan tube- for example the heart or blood vessels- the tube would lengthen and it would expand under pressure and with all the pressure the blood vessels of the brain should also expand and would squeeze the brain out of the ears. And that doesn’t happen because of non-linearlity.
  • Language has to evolve alongside our models as they evolve.
  • We’re getting a very antiseptic view of the human body. However let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. He loves the history of anatomy.
  • The icosehderon as the building block of biotensegrity. We will never get to see that because the icoshedron is a 3 dimensional version of a 4th dimensional thing.
  • We have a right eye and a left eye. All the visual information you take in that goes to the brain will cause the brain some problems because the images from the 2 sides do not correct, and the brain fills in gaps. At best we see in 2.5D, but tensegrity icosehedrons happens in 4D. Like a mobius strip- there is no inside or outside but only continuity- that is what living architecture is like.
  • We need to recognize that what we are dealing with requires soft matter physics. This will give us the mathematical models that will provide us with computer graphics to help us to explain the multidimensional dynamics. 
  • It's amazing to me that we are still working on the idea that the body is a lever based system. In an x-ray we can see there is space between those bones. Why are the bones not crushing each other? People have this notion that there must be a lot of fluid in the knee joint. However if you lick your hand- that’s how much fluid is in the knee joint.So what is keeping the integrity of that joint space?
  • People like Serge Gracovetsky have demonstrated that to do a deadlift it would have to demonstrate so much intra abdominal pressure that they would explode.
  • Bone is soft matter- it is all it is is a continuation of the fascia.
  • Me: You recently co-authored 3rd edition Concise Book of Muscles. What was the approach to building bridges between new and old paradigms in that book?
  • Change takes time. Origin and insertion type of detail is important for med students. However, the other aspect is introducing a section co-authored with Dr. Stephen Levin to introduce biotensegrity for a new anatomy of the 21st century. In the next 10 to 15 years the 6th and 7th editions will look very different.
  • Working with cadavers treated with formaldehyde changes the texture and color- everything looks same.
  • Once you make an incision to skin and allow atmospheric air to touch what is beneath the skin you will begin to see changes taking place. From that viewpoint if someone takes a tissue out of the body and investigates it what you are actually witnessing are emergent properties. You have to see it in situ.
  • Jean Claude Guimberteau could do what no university would allow. He got permission from patients to place a camera under their skin. For the first time in history we have recorded images of our connective tissue in living tissue. It has blown people away.
  • This is the type of evidence that demonstrates to people that you cannot stretch tissues. Tissues glide relative to each other. In fact in Dundee we are going to bring in an endoscope and use it on the Thiel cadavers. The cadavers hold on to original colors, fluids move, lungs inflate and deflate. It is as close to being a surgeon as possible. However there is no life in the tissue.
  • Aliveness changes so much which is why Guimberteau’s films are so important.
  • Individuality is the norm of human anatomy.
  • Every bone is a sesamoid bone.
  • Anatomists have discovered a new muscle in the quadriceps- not sure what we're going to call the quadriceps group now...
  • In the dissection room students will take out boxes of femurs and pelvises and they will measure them. When they come back they will find none of the measurements are similar in any of the bones. This tells you that there is no one squat that fits all. You have to work with people as individuals.
  • There is nothing perfect in human anatomy or neurology.
  • The real motors for movement in shoulder come from lower limbs. So many people who train things in isolation do it for purely for cosmetic reasons. If you think of it in terms of chains and links you have this massive link with no relationship to the entire chain. Now it produces forces out of sync with the entire chain.
  • Our strengths used to be dictated by needing to climb a tree or over rocks. We didn’t have a fitness center where we could put our legs in a leg press and disassociate these structures and ask them to repeatedly contract. When we do this we are teaching the body new neuromuscular anagrams and losing the connection between the whole body.
  • People should be informed. Once people understand the ramifications they can make an informed choice.
  • Children involved in sports and demanding activities will have long term ramifications to their adult form.


John Sharkey's website

Upcoming event pre-conference day of the British Fascia Symposium

Upcoming event Dundee University Biotensegrity dissection

Dr. Stephen Levin 

My interview with Dr. Stephen Levin

Skwish Toy

Dr. Jean-Claude Guimberteau

Serge Gracovetsky

Concise Book of Muscles 3rd Edition

If you’re inspired to support the show, you can do that here. You can also leave a review on iTunes or Stitcher  , or simply tell your favorite body nerds about the show. It keeps the show rolling and connects us more as a community. Body nerds unite!

Born to Walk with James Earls (LBP 047)

James Earls joins me to talk about his book Born to Walk. We discuss how the whole body walks, and some of the different schools of thought that have looked at walking in “parts” instead. This brings to light how we are seduced into seeing anatomy with the same eye that we look at the manmade world around us, and how biological systems don’t follow the same rules as solid objects. In our conversation James also illuminates how ground reaction force works, the essentialness of efficiency in our evolution, the debate about whether or not walking is controlled falling, fascial wrappings as hydraulic amplifiers and oh so much more.




Conversation highlights

  • Some of the schools of thought on walking that look at it in parts: Jacqueline Perry talks about the locomotor portion and passenger portion of walking, Serge Gracovetsky has his spinal engine theory that says we basically don’t need legs to walk.
  • It’s all working together- In order to get the bigger picture James needed to weave these ideas together.
  • How does the whole body move?
  • Different styles of walking- museum walking (with one or two steps and a stop_ makes us more tired because we don’t get to use any of the energy we create with each step. Whereas with a long continuous walk we don’t feel the fatigue the same way because we get to use the energy the system is creating.
  • Movement exploration- reach back with one leg and touch toe behind- feel the leg swing forward again. Keeping same position drop head forward and do same thing- the leg doesn’t come forward again with the same efficiency, recoil, and speed. This is because we lose some of the tension of the anterior tissue. The whole body is continuous.
  • We have all these different catapult-like mechanisms.
  • Lorimer Moseley says we are bioplastic. It’s like neuroplasticity but the whole body can do that in different ways.
  • We are seduced into seeing anatomy with the same eye as seeing machines.
  • Our world has gone into trying to understand the detail of the part. It’s an inside out strategy rather than outside in.
  • Going into natural world a lot things don’t fit the same rules.
  • It doesn’t work, because we are not solid.
  • Born mid 16th century Robert Hooke challenged Newton. He drew one of the first very detailed pictures of a flea which alluded to some of the elastic mechanisms. Hooke’s law- length of the spring is correlation to the load placed on it.
  • Ground reaction force- the body is a tensegrity structure. Ground reaction force is variable- concrete floor vs beach sand. One gives a lot of energy back vs dispersed energy.
  • We have evolved to make walking incredibly energy efficient- why is efficiency important?
  • The debate as to whether or not walking is controlled falling- how are we like trampolines
  • How walking takes advantage of tensegrity’s elastic properties.
  • Fascial wrappings are hydraulic amplifiers.
  • James gives some universal principles/movement experiments to try out in your walking.


James Earls Born to Walk

James Earls Kinesis UK

Jacqueline Perry gait analysis

Serge Gracovetsky spinal engine theory

Lorimer Moseley on bioplasticity

Hooke's Law

If you liked this episode

How We Form and Move with Joanne Avison

Pain Science and How to be a Happy Mover with Todd Hargrove

Mapping the Anatomy of Connection with Tom Myers

If you’re inspired to leave a review on iTunes or Stitcher I would be oh so grateful! If technology isn’t your thing however you can just tell your favorite body nerds about the show. It keeps the show rolling and connects us more as a community. Body nerds unite!

How We Form and Move with Joanne Avison (LBP 045)

Joanne Avison, author of Yoga, Fascia, Anatomy, and Movement, talks with me about fascia and why it has been overlooked historically (which includes a fascinating tour through the history of anatomy and its relationship to the Catholic church), how we form embryologically and what implications that has for biomechanics vs. biotensegrity (or biomechanics vs. biomotion). We also discuss what that changes when we have to reconfigure the language we use about movement and the body.




Conversation highlights

  • Why has fascia been so ignored historically?
  • Andrew Taylor Still and John Godmen before him first mentioned the fascia as highly significant
  • Back in history- Rene Descartes did a "turf deal" with the Pope. Human dissection was not allowed. The Pope sanctioned it except the church held jurisdiction under the mind, spirit, soul, and emotions- the physical body only could be taken to science.
  • Candance Pert points out in Molecules of Emotion that this took us down a road where we thought about the human body functioning like a clock, or like any other automaton. It was divorced from its surroundings.
  • Anatomy then progressed by scraping away anything that wasn't a "thing".
  • John Godmen was the first to have students to open the body and see what they see without their ideas from their anatomy texts. What they saw was fascia everywhere.
  • Andrew Taylor Still is the father of Osteopathy, Thomas Findley has done a lot of beautiful pieces on Still and his story of fascia [in resources].
  • Fascia is continuous and ubiquitous.
  • No one is saying throw out the old and in with the new- we're inviting an evolution of perspective. We have to include this highly inclusive tissue.
  • Biotensegrity- one of the big difficulties about understanding the fascia is that if we take the fascia out on its own- is that the architecture of the body is under tension. It is pre-tensioned. It's under a kind of stretch already.
  • The visual metaphor of a circus marquee- this is not a biotensegrity structure because it is attached to the ground- but it is easy to imagine tension-compression architecture.
  • We are a closed structure but we are formed under this tension. It's the appropriate tensioning of the tissue that gives it its characteristics
  • When a muscle contracts it has got something to pull on in order to move. You can't separate one from the other.
  • This is why levers give us a tough time- because they are open chain mechanisms.
  • According to the naming of the different types of fascia, it has to be continuous to be called fascia, but the bone has to be discontinuous in order for us to move as we do. Bones are omitted because they are considered discontinuous, yet in a tensegrity structure we need those discontinuous structures.
  • If the elbow is a lever, where is the pin? (!!!)
  • We are formed in the round- how do we work if we are formed in the round?
  • Jaap van der Wal did his PhD on fascia. What he found was a whole and complete architecture full of proprioceptive nerve endings. His work wasn't published because it was so controversial. [in resources]
  • He also said there are only 6 true ligaments connecting bone-to-bone, the rest are continuous with the joint structure, and in essence accused anatomists of carving ligaments.
  • Jaap van der Wal says "ask the embryo" because the embryo forms in the round.
  • Joanne does an amazing job of taking you on a gorgeous tour through how an embryo forms- don't miss it.
  • It's like bio-organic origami.
  • No one really knows how an embryo "knows"how to specialize. We've grown up in a culture where we have inherited a foundation in fact, and science has come to mean that the spiritual side of things- or accounting for anything that can't be seen by data- gets lost.
  • John Sharkey facilitated the first human dissection program looking through the lens of biotensegrity. It was a Thiel dissection- meaning the body was treated for 5 months in a different way than the standard formaldehyde cadaver- and therefore they behaved like anesthetized bodies in the operating theater.
  • Joanne could look for membranes instead of which bone is which and which muscle is which. She was allowed to look through a different lens.
  • The second you put the knife to them you have destroyed their wholeness, but they found the membranes. They were so fine.
  • So-called "muscles" are continuities.
  • Anatomists "designing" anatomy.
  • What was so amazing was the folds- you don't get to see this in a typical dissection. If we learned movement in terms of folds I don't think we would make so mamy mistakes or have so many injuries.
  • Muscles are turn-buckles- they tension the whole matrix. People can tighten them in uneven ways with movement patterns and repetitive fitness habits.
  • If we follow the laws of fascial fitness we bring in diversity.
  • We have to be stiff enough to hold ourselves up- yet we use the word "stiff" to describe pathology. We need to think differently about the words we use- particularly "tight" and "stiff"
  • The idea of the plumb line and how it is a faulty view of how gravity works.


Joanne Avison

book: Yoga, Fascia, Anatomy, and Movement

Thomas Findley: The Fascia Research Congress From the 100 Year Old Perspective of Andrew Taylor Still

Carla Stecco: Fascia Redefined: Anatomical Features and Technical Relevance in Fascial Flap Surgery

John Sharkey and Joanne Avison: Terra Rosa magazine: Biotensegrity, Powering the Fabric of Human Anatomy

Jaap van der Wal: The Architecture of the Connective Tissue in the Musculoskeletal System- An Often Overlooked Functional Parameter as to Proprioception in the Locomotor Apparatus

John Sharkey anatomy events

About the Thiel embalming method

If you liked this episode, you might also like

Biotensegrity with Dr. Steven Levin

Exploring Inner Space with Gil Hedley

Mapping the Anatomy of Connection with Tom Myers

If you’re inspired to leave a review on iTunes or Stitcher I would be oh so grateful! If technology isn’t your thing however you can just tell your favorite body nerds about the show. It keeps the show rolling and connects us more as a community. Body nerds unite!

Dr. Stephen Levin: Biotensegrity (LBP 035)

Dr. Stephen Levin originated the concept of Biotensegrity more than 30 years ago. He originally trained as an Orthopedic and Spine Surgeon and was formerly Clinical Associate Professor at Michigan State University and Howard University. He studied General Systems Theory with noted biologist, Timothy Allen, and now, retired from clinical practice considers himself a ‘Systems Biologist’. He has been closely allied with others working in the field of Design Science, emphasizing the work of Buckminster Fuller and its applications. He has written numerous papers that contribute to the understanding of how biological structures function like tensegrity structures.

In our conversation today we get into, well, first and foremost what biotensegrity is, the many ways that we are not like skyscrapers, how the difference between the bicycle wheel and the wagon wheel can illustrate the concept of how we are “pre-stressed”, what viscoelasticity is, the scapula as a sesamoid bone (every bone as a sesamoid bone really...), some examples of the many tensegrity structures we can find in nature if we know what we’re looking for, what the ichosahedron has going for it and why we should care, and more!




Show notes

Brooke:            For those unacquainted can you give us a simple, kind of nutshell definition of what biotensegrity is?

Stephen:          Tensegrity is a word derived from tension and integrity which is a Buckminster Fuller term to indicate a continuous tension network. It's actually more than that. It's the compression elements of the structure are meshed within the tension elements so that the compression elements, the rods, the skeleton, do not press on one another.

It was derived from Kenneth Snelson's  sculpture actually [Needle Tower, in resources]. Snelson was student of Fuller but it was Snelson who really made the first structure. He describes it as a closed structural system composed of three or more compression struts within a network of tension tendons. He says the compression rods float within this structure and they press outwardly against the tension member so it's a self-contained unit, and it's pre-stressed tension and compression unit. Tensegrity as a word sort of had lost its meaning so that we put bio in front of it, which is a biology adding to it, and it's really more narrowly defined and more specific than using tensegrity, which everybody uses for everything else. You can get away with things in tensegrity you just can't get away with in biotensegrity because lifeforms have their laws that they have to stick to.

Brooke:            The difference between the mechanics of a bicycle wheel as opposed to a wagon wheel- that's a nice illustration of how we are pre-stressed. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Stephen:          Aside from the Snelson sculptures, the closest you get to everyday life as a tensegrity is a bicycle wheel where the hub is suspended in the middle of a tension network of spokes. All your spokes are always under tension. In a wagon wheel, each spoke bears the full weight of the wagon, of course divided by the number of wheels you got on the ground. Each spoke bears the full weight and you actually are vaulting from one compression pillar of the spoke to the other compression pillar of the spoke.

The bicycle wheel, it works the opposite. All the spokes are working all the time. When you set a bicycle wheel, you tighten all the spokes, you pre-tension them, and then it stays that way even when you ride on the bicycle. Your load is distributed through the tension elements of the spokes. All the spokes are pulling on the hub all the time. It's by the opposite pulling of the spokes that the hub stays in place. It's like if you were doing tug of war and you had an equal side and the rope wasn't going anyplace. They're not staying right in the middle because it's equally pulled on both sides. Just as the spokes in that bike wheel are pre-stressed, all the tissues in the body are pre-stressed. They are always under tension. So muscles are never programmed lax. There's always muscle tone present. All the fascia and connective tissue, in fact all collagen have intrinsic tension within them. Even under deepest anesthesia, when you cut muscle it retracts and pulls apart. There's always tone to muscle, and you can never say your muscle is completely off.

Brooke:            I think that's a beautiful illustration. Speaking of visuals, you say that tensegrity structures are ubiquitous in nature if you know what to look for. Can you give some examples of what we might be able to notice if we do know what we're looking for?

Stephen:          There are no true man made tensegrities because even the man-made tensegrity structure itself uses the linear materials, the regular materials people build with. Tensegrities in themselves are non-linear, and we'll probably talk about that later. They're ubiquitous in nature; it's just recognizing them. Most of the obvious ones look like the Buckminster Fuller geodesic domes, like the Disney Epcot Center. Those can all be built as tensegrities. My favorite one is the dandelion puffball because that was of course a large structure that I recognized as being consistent with a tensegrity. The concept has been around for a long time. Icosahedrons were described in the mid-1960s I think it was in the lymphocytes and red blood cells, pollen grains, when you get down to the little things, but if you start looking at bigger things, things like raspberries and similar fruits and berries, puffer fish. In fact, most round spiky thinks are pretty obvious tensegrities when you look at them. Tensegrities actually can be recognized more from the mechanics of the structure than its outward appearance.

Brooke:            That makes sense. On the opposite side of the spectrum, bioengineers oftentimes will describe human bodies or say that they are like skyscrapers. What are some of the many ways that we are not like skyscrapers?

Stephen:          Tensegrities are built up from smaller units. In biology, the subunit, the cell of the tensegrity structure is the icosahedron, which is polyhedron with 20 triangular faces, and triangles are the only structures that are inherently stable with flexible hinges. These structures can have any outward appearance, from spheres to towers with limbs sticking out. It doesn't make any difference. They're all self-contained entities. They don't require gravity to hold them together.

Skyscrapers and towers need gravity to hold them together. The bottom bricks are held in place by the bricks above them, one on top of the other. When you build a skyscraper, the base has to be bigger and stronger and stiffer than the top, and if you tilt the tower over it not only will fall over, but it will pull itself apart because of the intrinsic sheer forces that develop. If you build biotensegrities, they really join together like bubbles in a foam and they sort of share walls and structural continuity.

If you go back to towers, I lived in Washington, D.C. area, and the classic model might be the Washington Monument, which is 550 foot tall, it's 30 foot thick at the base, it's five foot thick at the summit, and it's built stone on stone on stone held together with rigid mortar. The Washington Monument was almost toppled in an earthquake a couple of years ago. It got shaken up and got cracked because it has no flexibility in it. Trees on the other hand are broader at the top. They have much more weight at the top than the bottom. They withstand big winds, and they're sort of built upside down from a Newtonian concept.

You stop and think about animals including ourselves- we have our small and light bones in our feet. We actually stand on two little sesamoid bones under the first metatarsal, a little thing at the fifth metatarsal, and the heel bone, the calcaneus, which is as soft as eggshells. So we stand on our calcanei and of course we often have dense heads that put a lot of load on these structures. We're built upside down. We don't make sense in a Newtonian concept. All biological structures also have flexible joints, and we are omnidirectional. We don't break apart when we're turned upside down and shake it.

Brooke:            I like how you mention that we don't need gravity to hold us together. When we have people who go into space or even just diving in different pressures under water and things like that, that we don't come apart.

Stephen:          It's one of the characteristics of the tensegrity structure that is independent of these outside forces. It holds itself by internal forces.

Brooke:            It's interesting, and the foam, the soap bubbles is a really nice one too because that's something we can interact with pretty regularly.

Stephen:          We essentially are foams.

Brooke:            I love that image. We are foams. You had mentioned icosahedron, which is pretty important I think to the concept of tensegrity. Can we break that down a little bit more and why we should care about this structure?

Stephen:          When I started doing this, I tried to find some structure that looked like a cell and that would build from a cell. The icosahedron is one of the platonic solids going way back. It's a fully triangulated structure. Again, only triangles are inherently stable, so if you're going to have flexible hinges, you have to be triangulated. It's omnidirectional so that you can turn in any direction. It has the largest volume for surface area, so it's energetically in the sense of using materials that are most economical. It can be close-packed to fill space or would fill spaces like cellular space filling. It joins together. When it does join together, it'll share structures. It's like sharing the faces in the bubble, as we pointed out. The individual icosahedrons can actually then function as a one unit structurally, but it also has the ability to function as the individual unit. They become independent and interdependent at the same time. It can have an external or internal skeleton. You can internalize the compression elements instead of keeping it in the outside shell, and that internal creation is a self-emerging property that comes from the structure itself. It also has mechanical properties that are non-linear, viscoelastic, which is the same as biologic materials, so why wouldn't you use it?

Brooke:            Can you describe viscoelasticity a little bit more, since you just dipped into that a bit?

Stephen:          Viscoelastic suggests the material property has some qualities of a liquid, the viscus part, which is liquid, and some qualities of so-called the solid part, the elastic part. Elastic just means that the form may never return to its previous shape. The rubber band elastic is not a really good elastic. When you apply the term viscoelastic to biologic material, it's really a misnomer. Biologic materials are not hard matter; they're called condensed soft matter, or just simply soft matter. As a class of behavior, the hard materials side has been described as viscoelastic, but it's really a breed of its own.

The best example I can give you of this is silly putty and the green slime that the kids play with. If you recognize silly putty, it's a polymer, it's a mixture of things. Sometimes it's rigid, sometimes it's soft. You can bounce it. You can do all sorts of different things with it, and it behaves differently the different ways you load it. It depends on the rate of loading, the surface area, the temperature. By temperature, I mean only a few degrees. We operate in a very few degree level. Steel, you need to really get it hot. Biologic things have very slight temperature changes can do different things. The silly putty and the biologic density can be malleable, brittle, elastic, all these things at the same time.

Soft matter physics is the science of gels, foams, emotions and some composite mixture like cornstarch in water will show these kind of behavior. The Oxford University Lab actually has on their website, "Biology is soft matter come alive," and that's a quote right off their website. If you think as foam as behaving as silly putty, as it probably does, we have all these properties built into the viscoelasticity and the characters of biologic tissues. All the structures in biology behave the same as icosahedrons do, which have this viscoelastic property, which really isn't that, it's soft tissue mechanics.

Brooke:            You mentioned the cornstarch and water thing. We used to use that at the Rolf Institute just to get a tangible sense for viscoelasticity, and it's really fun if you mix up a tray of it because if you touch it hard and fast, like with really pointed fingers, it just firms up like a wall and kind of pushes you away. If you touch it slow and broad, your fingers will sink in and then getting your fingers out, if you pull real quick, it'll keep you in there. It's really cool to play with that quality with touch and to get a sense for how responsive it is.

Stephen:          I frequently use the example when you pull on your lip or your earlobe, and you'll get that kind of sensation where you can pull, it'll first give easily and then it stiffens up as you pull on it. It's not a linear stiffening up where you get an incremental point by point. It actually gets structurally stiffer in many ways. The harder you pull, the stiffer it gets. The silly putty gets stiffer the harder you pull on it or the faster you pull on it.

If you look at things like fascia for instance, then you're right, just as you play with it that the fascia does that. If you attack a body and push on it hard, it's going to resist you. You'll never get into its deeper layers. If you just sort of lean on it and move into it slowly, you'll get into the deeper tissues of it, and that's very typical of these kind of things. If you think silly putty or these slimy gel things, you'll see that's exactly the way it works. You look at something like the heel pad for instance. You run on your heel pad, and every time you hit it hard it protects you. When you walk on it, it gives you a soft, gentler kind of response and a more of a shock absorber, and if you touch it you can just sort of sink your finger into it. It's the same material. It depends on the rate of loading it that makes the difference.

Brooke:            You mentioned how delicate a structure our calcaneus bone is, that heel bone, and that this model of us like skyscrapers just doesn't hold up. If we were loading it that way with all the force of everything else piling down on top of it, they wouldn't last us very long.

Stephen:          The calcaneus is really very soft bone. If you get it in surgery, you can actually just poke at it and it'll break just by poking at it. It's really quite soft. One of our problems is that when you take these things out of the body and let them dry out, they become stiff and hard, and you're not dealing with them under normal test conditions that the body uses. If you're testing things at room temperature, well the body doesn't operate at room temperature. It operates at body temperature. If you take a thing like petroleum jelly, you keep it at room temperature and it's a thick jelly and you put it on your skin, it just slides all over the place. You have to now think of how are these people testing these materials outside the body? If you're not testing it at room temperature and using body conditions, then you got completely different results.

Brooke:            That makes perfect sense. You point out that in the traditional paradigms of Newtonian biomechanics, these are some examples you gave: “The forces needed for a grandfather to lift his three year old grandchild would crush his spine, or touching a fish at the end of a fly rod would tear the angler from limb to limb.” I think these are some good examples about how this bioengineering Newtonian model doesn't really hold up to how we actually use our bodies.

Stephen:          Rather than go through the math with you- it's difficult without a blackboard- let me point out at the Newtonian biomechanics calculation of spinal loading and joint muscle loading are based on a 350 year old model that assumes biologic material is hard matter, and we just discussed that it is not. We now know it's more like silly putty. That muscles act as binaries because they're on and off. We've already talked that muscles are always on. There's always tone in muscles. The assumption is that the muscles act as agonists and antagonists, when they mostly act synergistically. That the muscular system is an open kinematic chain system, one we know that much of if not all of muscular skeletal mechanics is really closed kinematic chains. We move one thing and something moves at the other end of this chain. You also understand that muscles are internal forces and can't resist external forces without external help. They're using the calculation as if the internal muscles can resist gravitational forces, and they cannot. You can go through all this and I don't have to use calculations or any math. I can just talking about this and say, "Hey, they're using the wrong model. You got to start over again."

Brooke:            Perfectly said. We dipped into this a teensy bit, but going back to it, biologic systems are pretty invested in using the least energy expenditure necessary. What are some of the ways we've developed to use the least energy needed?

Stephen:          I'm old enough to been in the Army, and the Army maxim was, "Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lie down. Never stay awake when you can be asleep," and that applies to biologic systems. A non-linear stress strain curve is initially flat. The disc is flat. It just sort of flows along and then starts getting stiffer and stronger. The biologic system always wants to operate at the least energy point at the low part of the curve because as you increase that strain and it gets stiffer, you need much more energy. It's interesting that in the laboratory, most of the testing is done on the steep part of the curve and they sort of ignore the bottom part because the math there is very difficult.

Brooke:            That's interesting to know. Diving into one structure in particular here, the shoulder is one of the least successfully modeled joint complexes using Newtonian mechanics, and you have a great paper on this, which I'll put in the show notes. It's titled The Scapula is a Sesamoid Bone. I love that image. For those listening, can you briefly touch on what a sesamoid bone is and how the scapula functions as one?

Stephen:          The sesamoid bones, are those bones considered outside the axial skeleton that don't contribute to direct support of the body. Of course they're thinking of the body that has a column of bones, and the most common one that everybody knows about is the patella, the kneecap that sort of floats outside the knee and is buried within the tendon of the quadriceps muscle. There are others. One you don't think about very often is the hyoid bones in your neck where your voice box is. There are bones there, and that's sort of sitting in space not supporting anything. Of course while there are supporting ones, but not thought of those, are the two little sesamoid bones underneath the first metatarsal. These things are about the size of small peas, and they crush easily. They are like peanut shells. They'll just crush very easily and they're sitting there, and you'd expect it to get all this force. They're sitting in tendons, and those tendons act like leaf springs on a car and actually keep you from striking the bottom there. If those little sesamoids got hit by the first metatarsal, they'd be crushed like hammering against enamel.

I looked at the scapula, and the scapula sits there and it floats inside the chest wall. There's no direct loading between them. It's buried in muscles. It fits the definition of a sesamoid. Of course, I take it a bit further and I say in the biotensegrity model all bones float because that's a definition of tensegrity, and therefore all bones are sesamoid bones.

Brooke:            Right, yeah, because the scapula, we'll think about that continuity with the clavicle bone, for those of us who are anatomy folks. That doesn't mean that it's not floating just because it has that bone nearby.

Stephen:          If you look at the clavicle, it's also floating up there. It's only hinged to the sternum by a little ligament there at its joint, and of course the chest wall is moving up and down 16 times a minute through these flexible ribs, so there's no way you can pass a load through the chest to the axial spine.

Brooke:            Thank you for that description of the float of the scapula and the float of everything. You've been working in the biosentegrity field for a long time and you've contributed a lot of wisdom in this field. Is there anything that you're currently really fascinated by in your own work?

Stephen:          Actually this year is my 40th year working in biotensegrity. My original concept was sort of a eureka moment 40 years ago when I was sitting outside the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. contemplating the skeletons of dinosaurs when I recognized Snelson's sculpture across the lawn. The museum there where his sculpture is is directly across from the Natural History Museum, and I put the two together and then started building from there. Since then, I have been working on this concept and trying to figure out how these two mesh together.

The most recent things I've been working on have been the soft matter physics and the closed kinematic chain mechanisms, which are how these structures move and how they behave under different forces, which completely gets you away from the hard matter physics that is the staple of the present day biomechanics.

Brooke:            Wonderful. That was a really fortuitous day at the Natural History Museum to see those two things together.

Stephen:          The Hershell Museum opened a year before and I had gone down to the museum and walked around and couldn't figure out how this structure stood there. I just left it at that. I was a year later, sitting across the mall and I said, "Oh my god, the two of them match." I went across and then figured out from there, and then it took me a long time to figure out how to build the tensegrity. I called Snelson and got hold of Buckminster Fuller people and I did all sorts of things to finally figure it all out and get down to the icosahedron and then work back up from there.

Brooke:            That's wonderful. Those giant dinosaurs couldn't have really existed with this structural skyscraper model.

Stephen:          Absolutely not. There's no way that they could have functioned in any way but a tensegrity concept. Even more than anything else, the Diplodocus had a tail that was over 100 bones long and was held up in the air. It didn't drag on the ground. It used to whip around. There's no way that that that could have functioned unless it was in a tensegrity structure. The muscles are adjacent to the bone. There's no lever that you can possibly make out of it, so it has to function as a tensegrity.

Brooke:            My son went through a very intense dinosaur period for a long time, so I'm pretty well versed- Because the tails were so long on these skeletons they were finding, they just always assumed and created the skeletons with the tail dragging on the ground until they finally realized they'd never found a fossil with a tail drag.

Stephen:          Exactly. That was my professor. I was trained by the head of the Paleontology group over there, and he used to say, "In the sands of time there are footprints but no tail tracks."

Brooke:           Which means we have to think of these things totally differently than we have. Thank you so much for all of the amazing work that you have been doing and for talking with all of us today.

Stephen:          It has been my delight. Thank you very much.

Home play!

Let's play with viscoelasticity by getting in touch with our preschool selves. Either get yourself some Silly Putty, or make a cornstarch goop. How you ask? The recipe is right here:

  • Grab a large-ish tub of some kind. Flat on the bottom is best (because then maybe you can even stand in it- jump on it and it's firm, stand still and you sink.)
  • Add cornstarch
  • Add water very slowly and stir. You will know when you have added enough water when it's consistency gets goopy but not too liquid.

Then- once you have either Silly Putty or the cornstarch goop- you can play with its viscoelastic qualities:

Pull the Silly Putty apart quickly and it will snap and get more brittle. Pull it apart slowly and it will get soft like warm taffy.

With the cornstarch- touch it firmly or quickly- slap it, poke it, etc and it will firm up like a wall. Touch it broadly and softly and it will soften and become more like  a liquid. The same goes for getting your hand out of the goop: pull your hand out quickly and it will firm up and hold on to you, pull your hand out slowly and your hand will be released.

Now you know what working in fascia feels like! And you have a better sense for how our bodies operate in both a viscous and elastic state simultaneously. Have fun!


Biotensegrity- Stephen Levin's website

Buckminster Fuller Institute

Kenneth Snelson's Needle Tower sculpture

How Does the Hirshorn's 60 Foot Needle Tower Stay Upright in A Stiff Wind- Smithsonian Magazine (includes video of its installation)

Tensegrity the New Biomechanics

The Scapula is a Sesamoid Bone

If you liked this episode

You might also like

Tom Myers: Mapping the Anatomy of Connection

Gil Hedley: Exploring Inner Space

Gary Ward: What the Foot?

Gil Hedley: Exploring Inner Space (LBP 031)

I have long admired the work of Gil Hedley who is the founder of Integral Anatomy and Somanautics Workshops. For those unacquainted, Gil Hedley is an ethicist and anatomist who runs unique human dissection labs. They are (very) unique in the field of anatomy in  that they are about discovering the reality of our connectedness, rather than about finding the separations between things. We talk about this viewpoint and what it changes,  how our model of the body determines our relationship with it, the superficial fascia and why everyone is either ignoring it or hating on it, different tissue layers as different kinds of antenna of the body, insights into the famous “fuzz speech” (in the resources below if you've never seen it) and more.




Show notes

Brooke: Can you define what integral anatomy is?

Gil:  Integral anatomy is my way of describing a field of study, or of naming a field of study. I use the word anatomy very broadly, and that's what integral earns me. I put integral in front of anatomy and I get this whole world that I can play in beyond what folks normally consider when they use the word anatomy, which of course means to cut up with a knife. I do some cutting up with a knife, but my approach to anatomy, the intention is not to anatomize things for the purpose of naming bits, or establishing mechanics. My entire reason for cutting things up with a knife, or anatomizing is to put myself together, and to help other folks have a more integrated experience of themselves.

I do find that the study of anatomy does bring us into a much deeper understanding of ourselves if we'll let it. I was trained as an ethicist, and if I bring my ethics background to the study of anatomy, I find myself wanting to ask questions of the body of how I might live, as opposed to me showing up and telling the body what it is, and what I'm going to make it do.

Brooke: What are other parts of your background that have brought you to this fascination with the human body, but in this particular way?

Gil:  Like most people my keenest interest in the body sparked by the pain in the ass that it has been to me. So many people are in pain, and so they start studying the body, and I'm not different from that. I took an interest in my body very early on, and started lifting weights, and doing all kinds of wonderful damage to myself as an ignorant teenaged, 1970s weight lifter. However, that did bring me into an experience of my body, and I have a very transparent anatomy. At 13 years old standing in front of the mirror, I was like, "Shazam. Look at all them muscles. What are they all about?"

My ethics background, basically I went to college and learned how to read, which was helpful. Then graduate school ultimately. It was there that I took my study of the body past weight lifting into things like Tai Chi, and massage, and ultimately Rolfing, and then healing work. I'm a very head oriented kind of guy, and I found that practicing Tai Chi, and studying massage is very grounding. I took that desire to be embodied further through my study of dissection.

Brooke: You've created one of my favorite words of all time, somanaut. Can you define what that word means?

Gil: The word breaks down nicely. Soma is the body in Greek, but richly understood because there's also sarks which in Greek simply means flesh. Soma is maybe a richer understanding of the body, or a broader conception of form. Then naut would be the same root for sailor, or sailing, or to navigate that we have. The astronaut navigates the outer space, and sails about in outer space, and the somanaut then is the one who navigates the inner space of the human form. I made up the word basically to describe the wonderful healer, and shaman, and dancer Emilie Conrad who developed Continuum Movement, and many years ago when I was editor of the Rolf Lines Journal at the Rolf Institute, I interviewed Emilie, and to make an article for that. The only way I could describe that woman was to make up a word, because she was absolutely original.

I described her as a somanaut in that article, and that was maybe 22 years ago, or something. Ever since then I realized, "Oh, maybe I'm a somanaut too. Maybe all of us who are curious to explore the inner space of the bodies are somanauts." and it kind of caught on.

Brooke: You pointed out that regional anatomy is really about naming, which I think is so fascinating, because it's a distinction that's rarely talked about. Oftentimes I think we've believed that anatomy means understanding the human body.

Gil:  I haven't seen a whole lot of that going on.

Yeah, anatomy ... It would be wonderful if it were about understanding the body, and developing a relationship with it. But it tends to be more like if you can't come up with that Latin word in the right amount of seconds while someone is tapping their foot, and you're filling out little dots on a form- that tends to be what the words are used for. For testing, and professional trainings, or schooling situations. I feel that for anatomy to be a process of understanding, it needs to be an experience, and the words if we're going to use them should evoke experiences. The only way for that to happen is to connect with those tissues that are named in a way much more deeper than the flinging of intellectual vocabulary words.

Thankfully there are many who've plowed this field before me. People like Emilie, or Bonnie Banebridge Cohen, or Tom Myers, and ... I'm trying to think of, "Taking Root to Fly"- Irene Dowd. Irene, and Bonnie, and Emily all long precede me, and are inspirational to many. Just consider me a recent loud mouth.

Brooke: You've said that our model of the body that we're mostly functioning from, that it's determining our behavior towards our body. How so do you think?

Gil: The thing is that anatomy is generally understood as this naming of things based on the cutting up of them, generates a very abstract set of information and categories. I literally mean abstract meaning the levels of tissue have been drawn away from other levels of tissue. Abstraho literally means to draw away from, so we draw one thing away from another, and then we feed the thing that's left and develop a mental conception of it. Every time you approach a body with an idea, and then execute that idea with a knife, you're making up anatomy, because there is no thing as a liver on a tray. There is not such as a skin unto itself, except through a process of dissection, and abstraction. Those aren't realities. The reality is this whole flesh and blood pulsing experience that we're all wondering around with.

Then we get our abstraction built, and then we say, "Oh, okay. There's this muscle, rectus femoris, there this muscle adductor magnus, there's this thing in our chest, the heart, and that's a pump. The other one abducts and the other one adducts. We have all of these very abstract, conceptions. Then we approach with our techniques people, and we see them move, and we have that set of abstractions in our brain, and we say, "Well." It's like a math problem, and we add it up, and say, "Well, this should be doing that because of what they're doing there. Then we apply our abstraction to the form, and try and make it emulate what our abstractions tell us it should be instead of taking in a given whole set of compensations and helping it to function better.

Rectus femoris doesn't exist except as a mental construct, but in fact our human function is always a function of the whole.

Even my layered approach to anatomy is just a set of abstractions, which with the help of the folks who come to my class, I break down my model as I teach it, so as not to believe it too much, because it's just a way of getting in. The actual functional person is always a gestalt of all the systems, and all of the hopes and dreams, and all of the life processes, and all of the trillions of cells streaming. In other words, that's what's happening in front of you, not, "Oh, we're having difficulty abducting our x, y, z." Which would be cured by strengthening the a, b, c. I don't think we work that way.

Brooke: Yeah, for me one of the things that I'm most excited about ... I did an interview recently where somebody asked me, "What are you most excited about all of the current research into fascia?", and the honest truth is my most idealistic self would like to believe that maybe if we're approaching the body in this much more unified, whole way, maybe it can change culture eventually. Maybe we'll start to see ourselves as more unified.

Gil: I hope so. That was certainly Ida Rolf's goal. I don't think I've fallen too far from the Rolfian tree in my aspirations along with you to transform culture. She was looking to cultivate a more mature human being, and I feel that I'm wanting to do the same, at least for my part. I feel that part of that maturity lies in an acceptance and learning from the body. I may not carry an ideal of the body the way that maybe Ida Rolf did, like it should be this way, and then if it were, then that would be great. I don't have so much of an ideal. One thing I'm certain of at this point is that their ain't no single representation of human anatomy. Each one of us is an absolutely, 100% perfect representation of human anatomy. Not like you got it right, and I didn't.

In other words, that's another element of integral anatomy is to shift the focus from the idealization, and the consequent idealistic representation of the body as the point of reference for anatomy, and shift the point of reference for anatomy to the specific, to the individual, to the most basic living individual representation of it. Also, to spread the conception of the body much larger then that which is contained in our skin. You go to a lab and you see a dead human form, and you're like, "There's a lot missing there."And so what all that other stuff is to me is also deserving of our attention, and our anatomical inquiry, because we really don't know how that stuff on the table will ever work without considering the emotional life ors the spiritual aspiration, or the intellectual constructs, or the religious beliefs, or the cultural underpinnings. It does involve a culture shift to understand the body differently. This culture's got some serious opinions about the body-

I think the study of anatomy can challenge that. As an ethicist I was writing on family ethics, and stuff like that. A lot of considerations of the body were involved, and a lot of rules for embodied folks were being written without much consideration of the actual knowledge of the body, or experience of it. It's like how would our ethics change, not to mention our culture. How would our ethics change if they were informed by the truth of human experience as we might perceive it through the study of integral anatomy?

Brooke: You are particularly well versed in a tissue that has gotten totally ignored in most spheres, which is the superficial fascia. What is your fascination with the superficial fascia?

Gil: Well, it's there, but it wasn't in my book, so what the heck? I took the pre-training at the Rolf Institute, because as an academic, I didn't have that massage background, and Tom Myers had written this pre-training for the Rolf's Institute back in the late 80s, and early 90s when I was there. That was when I first was exposed to this very idea of superficial fascia, and I didn't have much of it. Still don't, but we did this layered meditation kind of experience with a partner to feel into the different layers, and that made a huge impression on me. When I went out eventually, a couple years later as a Rolfer and found myself noodling around in the body, I wanted to see that, and other things. I went to the lab, and it made a big impression on me, because it freaked me out.

I didn't have an instant love affair with superficial fascia. It was more like a total fear and loathing. I thought, "Well, that's interesting Gil. What's all that about?" It was extremely provocative and challenging to me to face my own cultural baggage that I carried with respect to that, and my own personal relationship to my body, and what it might mean. It took a lot of nightmarish self-work to come to what I would consider to be a much more mature, and loving, and accepting relationship with superficial fascia, so much so that I could help others to really love that tissue, and love themselves wearing it, because it is our anatomy. It is the fact. It is massage therapists touch. It's what every Rolfer works through.

When you look at a muscle chart at every school in the country, and that's suppose to represent human anatomy, and its so far from the reality. Again, it's a very crazy level of abstraction. I wonder to myself, "Well, why do we prefer that? It's all human tissue. It's all part of the whole, so why does one get preferred to another?" It gets into the culture critique, and what have we done to our self in the process of abstraction to alienate our self from certain tissue textures, and accept other ones, or to give preference to certain mechanical relationships, and to dismiss, or ignore other mechanical relationships. Even the mechanistic approach itself has within it strong preferences for one tissue relationship over another. You have to do culture critique to actually embrace the whole body. My comfort did not come easily.

Brooke: What are some of the gifts that our adipose tissue gives us that we miss sense we've decided it's a bad tissue to have too much of in our culture? I'm sure there's a long list.

Gil:Our superficial fascia is this sort of glowing leaf that we all wear, and it's a sensual, slippery slope, it's an emotional ride, it's part of our sexuality and our sensuality. I would go so far as to say it's part of how we listen to our world. It's a kind of antennae that we pick up information of a certain type. In other words, texture has specific structure, and therefore specific tone. We can go very far into it. Superficial fascia is an endocrine organ. It's an organ of metabolism. We could go on with it's many different features, but that's only because I've come to notice and accept it as this thing that we all have. It belongs there.

We're depleted without it. If you consider also this is the place where a baby rests on it's mother's breast, and nurses there, that this is part of the layer as well. When we refuse it, or curse it, and hate it, we hate all that it brings to us as well, and separate ourselves from that comfort, from that sensuality, from the ministry of the superficial fascia to our personalities in a life. We put ourselves away from our self when we hold up to brutal criticism, a tissue. Some day down the road maybe we'll hate muscle the way we hate superficial fascia now, and it'll reverse. We didn't always hate it. It's a new thing to hate that tissue.

It's a very American movie culture thing to hate that tissue. Before the movies, a beautiful woman was portrayed as fleshy. You can look at the arc, the curve of decline of appreciation for a tissue over a century, or less. Really less than a century. Near 60-70 years where we've started to put that aside. I'm trying to rehabilitate a little bit. I'm putting a little energy into rehabilitating our cultural connection to it by helping people see what it is.  Can the hand say to the foot, "I don't need you."? Can the mouth say to the superficial fascia, "I don't need you."?  We do need you, but in my mind the only way to create a revision of the connection is through appreciation, and it's very hard to appreciate something if you keep chopping it up, and throwing it in a bucket, or if you refuse to draw it, if if you refuse to give it a chapter in your book.

If it doesn't even rank a chapter, then how can anyone ever have any regard for it? I'm giving folks a visual connection, and then maybe a whole bunch of people will do me the favor of adding chapters to their books that acknowledge this tissue. How can you be a massage therapist touching people all day, and not have spent a couple of weeks in your training connecting to this tissue as opposed to this bodily prioritized muscle layer.

Brooke: I love this idea of it being an antennae of sorts for receiving a certain kind of information. That's going to be on my mind for a long time now after this interview.

Gil: I personally see each texture of our body as having a quality of an antennae. I mean it very specifically as a transducer of signals from one kind to another, like a radio antennae transduces the radio waves into an electrical wave. Our eyes transduce visible light spectrum frequencies into neural impulses. Our ears, we transduce warping of the air into frequencies. Similarly, all the impressions made upon our body are transduced by the different tissues, and delivered different kinds of information into the whole system that we are.

Brooke: What are some of the ways that the superficial fascia differs from the fascia profundus, or the deep fascia?

Gil: Well, it's all squishy and yellow for starters, and it changes it's dimension very much so over the course of a life. Different parts of your life cycle, and in different areas of your body. The superficial fascia is interesting. It's a loose areolar connective tissue with variable adipocytes deposition. Adipocytes are connective tissue cells. Folks don't really know that for the most part, but an adipocyte is a connective tissue cell. In the deep fascia, we don't have that. It's more of a dense material.

We could get into fascia definitions, and category charts all day long, but for the most part, superficial fascia, I would call it a fluffy layer, and deep fascia, I would call it a thin layer. We have an alternating sequence of thin, and fluffy layers in our body. Skin is thin, and superficial fascia's fluffy, and deep fascia's thin. Maybe we could look at their relationship as one of like insulative, and conductive. Maybe that the superficial fascia is an insulator of the conductive properties of the deep fascia. That's one way to hold it in your head. In structural terms the superficial fascia is movement, and the deep fascia is stability.

The superficial fascia moves relative to the stable deep fascia. The muscle tissue is also a fluffy layer. We went to thin skin, to superficial fascia, to deep fascia thin, to muscle fluffy. We have to fluffy layers, muscle and superficial fascia sliding relative to the somewhat fixed deep fascia. They have very different functional properties in our body. They're both contractile. I know folks have gotten a lot of sense of the contractility of the deep fascia from Robert's [Schleip] research and his company, and friends. Superficial fascia also is a highly contractile tissue, perhaps more so than the deep fascia, and the superficial fascia. We know in wound healing if you slash your body with a knife, the superficial fascia will pulse, and contract to close the wound. It's really ... It's alive.

Anyway, that's just a few snippets. I could go on-

Brooke:You did a talk a while back that really got around. Did it's viral thing on YouTube called the "Fuzz Speech." Personally, I love the "Fuzz Speech," I have heard that you have come to clarify some of the concepts in that talk. I was wondering if I have a chance to talk with you here, if you can speak to what you would change about that discussion now?

Gil: I pretty much stand by what I said in the "Fuzz Speech," although I don't feel that visually I represented it in the least confusing way possible.  That's partly because 10 years ago, or when I made that, it represented the culmination of 10 years of thinking, and experience that needed another 10 years of maturing to make more sense. As a Rolfer I was told that the muscles should glide, so when I touched somebody I was hoping to facilitate the silk stocking gliding between the gastrocnemius, and the soleus when I was working on someone's leg.

In my mind, "silk stockings" were independent things, and didn't have any actual relationship. Here's a stocking, and here's a stocking, and they're sliding against each other. When I got into the body and started doing anatomy, it was like, hey, these things are connected. There's fuzzy stuff in between the gastroc, and soleus. Does that belong there? I didn't see it drawn in Netter. I didn't know what it was, so I called it fuzz. I was like the bodies are full of fuzz! I speculated about that for a long time. What is this stuff, and does it belong there? Do some people have more of it? Some people have less or it? Does it inhibit movement? Is that what I'm trying to get rid of? Should my hand be obliterating that when I'm working on a client because it doesn't belong there? But it seems to be everywhere. Maybe it's some kind of an artifact of the lack of movement? There is some truth in that in that we can have a tissue agglomeration. Sticking together of tissues. Tom [Myers] had taught us back in that initial training that there's hydrogen bonding going on in our tissues at night, and that would increase our inner stickiness. I pieced together the idea of that along with the fuzz that I was seeing, and came up with my theory of the fuzz. What I would change is my now knowledge that, that tissue is anatomical, it does belong there.

It never was my job as a Rolfer to make it go away. What is my job is to facilitate the level at which a tissue that's all about movement helps you move. If you are frozen, or stuck in that tissue which facilitates movement, then the play in the tissue can be enhanced through movements and touch, which really is a kind of movement. What I would change is the visuals and say, "Our job isn't to make the fuzz go away. Our job is to facilitate the quality of the tissue so that's it's hydrated, and so that it has optimal play." That, what I call, filmy fascia now. Filmy fascia is in between any tissue that moves relative to the other tissue.

Superficial fascia can slide a bit over deep fascia. It does so because they have a filmy relationship at certain points. Similarly muscle tissue isn't only fixed into deep fascia with say, septa, but with what I would call filmy fascia. Now, if I'm taking the body apart, we're going to call filmy fascia fuzz, because it looks like cotton candy, but if you lay it back down, it looks like a film again, and that film is the principle of movement in our bodies. Fuzz permits movement. On the dark side, it can also limit movement. If it's inhibited, it glides, it's through dehydration, or through scarring, or through adhesion, then it becomes a limitation on movement, and we need to melt it.

In the viscera, every word I'll stand by in my fuzz speech, because in a viscera you have tissues like say a stomach to a small intestine, they have greasy sliding relationship, and if see a fixation here that's non-anatomical, then I'm saying, "Hey, that's an adhesion. That's a pathological fascial relationship relatively speaking." It might not cause a whole lot of trouble, or maybe it will, but in either way it's not standard issue anatomy. It's a fixation that subsequent to inflammation, scarring, injury, surgery, whatever.

I can see those aberrant relationships with my eyeballs when I do dissection of the viscera, but when I'm dissecting muscle tissue, I can't at any point say, "Hey. There's too much fuzz here," because it's already connected, so I'm not in a position to evaluate the quality of the relationship of tissues that already have a filmy, gliding relationship in the cadaver. I can see it in the living though. In other words, if I'm evaluating tissue movement with my hands, or with my eyes, I can say, "That ain't moving there," and then facilitate the movement. In the dissection process I can't really say, "Hey, there's too much filmy fascia between these two things," although I have ... You can read up surgeons, and whatever who will confirm the kind of thing I say with respect to the tissues I say it about in the "Fuzz Speech," that it gets agglomerated basically. It gets solid.

The deception that carries forward in the "Fuzz Speech", and I feel bad about this, sometimes people think, "I should get rid of my fuzz" , and it's just one more thing on themselves to hate. Now, there's also many thousands of people who've told me, "You inspired me to move," and then I'm jumping for joy and clicking my heels, and that's why I don't take it down. I think I've inspired more movement then self hatred with with the "Fuzz Speech", and I'm going to run with that.

Brooke:I believe you have. We'll make t-shirts that say, "Love Your Fuzz and All Will Be Well," When I was at the Rolf Institute we did a 5 hour dissection lab with a medical student in Denver at the teaching hospital. We were basically working with this medical student who got stuck taking the body workers through a 5 hour tour of a cadavear already cut up via med student specs. He was stuck with us for the day, and there was really this glibness in his attitude. This real intentional disregard for the human being on the table by the med student. A lot of us, being sensitive Rolfer types, I think we felt really uncomfortable and irritated quite frankly by this guy.He really had this very intentional way of taking advantage of this person who donated their body to science for us to learn. I know you create a very different atmosphere in your dissection labs, and I was wondering if you could speak to that a bit.

Gil: The atmosphere that I create is very much based on a similar negative experience that I had. When I was as senior in high school, and in the advanced biology class for AP Bio, or whatever, back 100 years ago, our teacher took us to a school in New York City, and we were brought down to the anatomy lab. I tell you, the fellow might as well have been John Belushi who took us through this cadaver lab. He was glib, and disrespectful to us I would say, not only the cadaver. He was trying to get a charge. He was playing with the charge of it. Instead of serving us, he was playing with us. I found it offensive and didn't eat chicken for 2 years. I thought to myself, well, when you enter a laboratory you literally go into an altered state. It's no time to mess with people.

That's your big chance to serve them. When a person is brought into a state of tremendous vulnerability, how will you act in their regard under those circumstances? That's the guiding principle for me. It's like, "Okay. I've got a bunch of people in altered state here, I'm going to be a little bit careful, and try and serve their interests. This is no time to trick them into voting for my candidate, or to provoke them, or traumatize them. This is not a hazing." I'll only say, with regard to whoever took you through that experience that it represents a certain maturity level that your group exceeded. Some other groups he might have done that for, and they all would have laughed along with it as a quirky yada yada, but when you're trying to cultivate regard instead of disregard, then there has to be a whole other kind of approach.

This isn't to say that I don't have fun in my class. We have a blast, but the fun that I have tends to be at my expense rather than the donors. I'm a donor family. My uncles body, and my father's body I gave to medical establishments, and I know what it's like to have offered a family members body up for study. Believe me, it's not that I don't hope that people didn't laugh when they were working on my father's body. I hope they laughed and had a good time, and made as many jokes about his giant testicle as we did, but that having been said, it was done in good spirit.

Not at his expense, but in the love play. You know what I'm saying? It's a fine line to be walked when you're in a lab, and given that my intention is to cultivate self-appreciation, and inner connection, I do try to take advantage of that altered state in a best a way as I can.

Brooke: You're in the midst of a big project related to a recent 3 week dissection that you held. Can you talk a little bit about that, and what might be coming up for people.

Gil: I stated my intention publicly to produce the atlas of integral anatomy. Now what that means to me, and what that means when people hear the words, are probably very different things, because there's conventions around the word "atlas", and "anatomy" that may lead people to believe it would be a certain thing, but I'm imagining a more multi-genre effort. My first efforts toward producing anything called integral anatomy ended up yielding a book called, "Reconceiving my Body," that's many years old now, then I was like, "Okay. I'm going to do this. I'm going to do integral anatomy." Then it didn't turn into a book, it turned into a DVD series, and that was a multi year project.

Now I have 6 books, and a DVD series, and I still don't have the atlas of integral anatomy. I thought, okay, well I'm going to run these 3 week dissections then I'm going to collect incredible stuff towards that. I absolutely had an unbelievably powerful learning experience doing that, but because I am compelled to teach, I spent more time teaching then recording in both of the sessions.What I found myself doing presently, and I'm working day and night on it, I swear to you, is a subscriber site into which I'm going to put all my content, and I'm going to build what I call, "Atlas Galleries."

The atlas galleries will consist of something like this, an image, and then so there's an image right? Then the image will have accompanying with it some explanatory video. You'll see an image, you'll get me explaining the image, maybe some audio of that, maybe some textual accompaniment, maybe a set of references, maybe what other people think about it. Each gallery entry will be a little lesson, a story that can be gone into as deeply as the interested party wants to, and that it will connect to different learning styles so a person can listen to something, or watch something, or do something with regard to the entry, as opposed to a regular regional anatomy atlas where there's a picture, and then a bunch of lines, and then a bunch of typed words with names of things.

Again, I'm not so much interested in naming things as exploring relationships, as exploring continuities, and connections of that thing. Helping not to separate that out in someone's mind, so that they can spot a liver when they see one, but rather to help there to be so many roads going into it that you can go there if you choose to. They'll be maybe this abstract thing, but then I'm hoping to provide many paths into it, and many paths out from it so that it becomes the truly contextual related reality that we are living with more so. Then my idea is that after several years of building these atlas galleries, and adding video, and basically putting my entire professional archive online, which is what I'm going to do ...

Everything that I've ever shot, and everything I've ever snapped a picture of is going to go into this site, and be nicely sorted over time, and then my idea is to go backwards from that, and produce "The Atlas of Integral Anatomy," so that I'll pick and chose from those presentations something that could be textualized, put into a book, and then there would be a very intimate connection between the atlas itself, and the website. They would be mutually supportive, and inter-functional learning resources.

Brooke: Sounds amazing. Consider me in the proverbial line with everyone else waiting for that. Sounds great.

Gil: The site I'm going to open soon actually-In a couple of months. Basically, the content initially will consist of- I'm just going to put my 1 day workshop that I filmed a couple of years ago in Los Angeles, I'm going to have that whole thing there available for viewing, and I'm going to have a course option, so you could potentially get credit for watching that, or for watching my integral anatomy series. Then I will get the gallery opened with a couple of entries and continually add video, and topics. I have so many things that I want to build into this thing over time, that really could be a project going forward for many years. I'll build a very rich learning resource hopefully. If I don't, well you can all say, "He had a big mouth."

Brooke:            I doubt we'll say that. Just to wrap it up I always like to ask all the amazing people I get to talk to, is there anything you're currently fascinated by in your own practice right now?

Gil: The thing is that what's turning me on is that nothing stays that same. What's turning me on is that if I attach myself to any particular idea the dying process has begun. I am willing to suffer the indignities of constant change until death. I'm on that ride. I'm not going to be one of those persons who picks a set of ideas, and then marries them until death do I part, and defends them. I'm willing to constantly have my projects broken down in front of me so that the shells keep it being cracked, and that I can continue to expand as a variable amorphous light, as opposed to a dried stone.

Home play!

I don't know about all of you, but after the holidays I have a bit more adipose tissue then I did when they kicked off... all the more to explore with! Can you notice how you ignore or hate on your adipose tissue? Can you get to know it in a friendlier way? To not look away from it? Embrace it even? Let me know how it goes!


Gil Hedley- web home of Integral Anatomy Productions and Somanautics Workshops

Gil's book Reconceiving My Body

Numerous dissection videos (viewer discretion is advised) 

Gil Hedley's fuzz speech (including notes on his current thinking about it)

Continuum and Emilie Conrad 

Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen

Thomas Myers

Taking Root to Fly  by Irene Dowd

Robert Schleip

If you liked this episode

You might also like

Tom Myers: Mapping the Anatomy of Connection

Steve Haines: Body Maps and Interoception

Mary Bond: Posture is an Exploration