Push & Pull Now & Then...
One of the first things we learn as bodyworkers is the idea that muscles have partners. Or perhaps I should say counterparts. A muscle has an action and its counterpart - or its antagonist in anatomy speak - does the opposite action. The classic example of this is the relationship between the biceps and the triceps. The biceps flex the elbow and its counterpart, the triceps, extend the elbow. So when one of them fires, the other one has to relax in order to allow for movement. For example, as you bring your excessively large cup of coffee to your mouth every morning, your biceps (among lots of other moving parts and addictive internal processes) do the contracting. And if your triceps were to contract at the same time, well that would be ugly. Not only for that cup of coffee but also, I would guess, for anyone in your path.
Luckily the body moves in a way that does not typically create a multitude of tiny wars. Our systems - all of them - work to constantly bring us back to homeostasis - or some semblance of balance. It is kind of like we all have this little Avatar inside of us (the Airbender kind, not the blue kind) who runs around putting out fires and preventing floods. And although this is an entertaining way to educate ourselves about the lessons taught in Eastern theory, there are no little bald guys with arrows painted on their heads to be found anywhere in our anatomy.
The truth of it is, our musculoskeletal system is in constant communication with our brains. There are afferent, or sensory nerves that run from a muscle up to the brain informing it about how it feels, where it is, whether or not it is tired or in pain. And then there are efferent, or motor neurons that run from your brain back to your muscles signaling them to stop or go or calm down or speed up. There is a lot more to it than that but I’ll save that for a future article.
So this constant communication is telling the body what it needs to keep things in check. Within our musculoskeletal system, it is telling one muscle to fire and its antagonist to relax so that we can walk without falling and drink a cup of coffee without jettisoning it across the room.
But it is not all unconscious chatter. There is also this part of your brain called the Insula that interprets a lot of this information. More specifically, the posterior part of your Insula offers you the gift of interoception. This is the feature that allows you to understand your somatic experience. In other words, interoception is how you know when you're hungry or full or tired or just feeling good. Even cooler is the knowledge that there are specialized neurons within the Insula that can help you make the decision to lean into pain or discomfort if you know it will be productive.
At this point in the article I might usually present you with a problem that I have a solution for, or some new perspective that I think is important to understand. But instead I want to highlight how cool it is that we, in this modern era, are still decoding what we, as a collective species, have known for thousands of years. Within all of the jargon I just listed above, there is knowledge that you already have. You may have gotten foggy about it through the years, but you know your own body better than anyone.
Take for example Tui Na. This ancient form of bodywork rooted in Daoist principles, translates into “push/pull” or “push/lift”. A practitioner will sometimes pull or lift a muscle or a joint, and then sometimes push. Or they will shake a limb, and then squeeze. Or they will twist in one direction, and then the other. The application of opposing techniques within a small time frame brings the recipient into a deeper awareness of self and a greater perception of balance. The ability to lean into sensations of discomfort for personal gain is also not new. The experience of good pain during a stretch or deeper therapeutic work is a well known phenomenon. All of this wisdom was achieved and passed down before we even knew that neurons were a thing.
Working in our current culture with all of this in mind, we are at an advantage. We understand the wisdom of ancient philosophies that teach us about the power of push and pull. Plus we have the knowledge that current science has given us about internal processes and how they work. When you are seeking to find the right technique for your client, don both your modern, scientific hat and your age-old, philosophical hat. Begin pushing and pulling, engaging and relaxing, frictioning and compressing. Approach the tissues from agonist to antagonist and pay attention to their relationships with each other. And remember that your client has the choice to lean into the work. In our ceaseless efforts to achieve homeostasis, the answer, it seems, hangs somewhere in the balance of then and now.