The Impact of One Man's Fascial Journey on Us All

By Thomas Myers

The first glimpse of Dr. Jean-Claude Guimberteau’s unique imagery of living fascia at work in the body—mine was probably 10 years ago—strikes the viewer as unbelievable. There must be some trick or joke here—this cannot be the reality of tissue. But the unbelievable, when it is right in front of one’s eyes, requires a shift of fundamental premises. As a result of studying his films, my ideas have changed, my teaching has changed, and my touch—already honed from 30 years of manual therapy practice—was compelled to change as well.`
When I comprehended the fluidity and adaptive nature of what Guimberteau calls the sliding system, I stopped trying to “stretch” fibrous tissue and was able to use my touch in a much more gentle manner along very precise planes to persuade adhesions to loosen and to promote healthy movement in the tissues. Structurally oriented therapists are not stretching mechanical ropes, wires, and fabric as if tuning the rigging of a sailing ship. In light of Guimberteau’s audacious exploration, we can now see that we are really altering the sol-gel state of the mucopolysaccharides, and thus the flow of interstitial fluids, neural messages, and mechanical forces in the living matrix of tissue. To touch the surface is to stir the depths.
We are in the midst of a fundamental rethinking of how we move—or, more fundamentally, what moves. We know body movement has to work biomechanically, thermodynamically, and hydrodynamically. We know it has to work cellularly—from the massive proliferation and diaspora in the embryo, through the short sharp shock of moving from the womb to the “air world” at the moment of our first breath, to function in the adult as 70 trillion humming units surrounded, protected, and encased by the extracellular matrix. How?
From the pia mater to the interosseous membranes, we have seen that matrix in books: tough and dry. We have seen that matrix in cadavers: unstretchable and adhered. Even in untreated cadavers, the fascia lies passive. To journey into the living body with Guimberteau is to wonder at a previously inert tissue come to dynamic life. Seeing the poetry of the dewy strings with shifting attachments and bubbly membranes is to understand anew how the body deals with movement—specifically with when to slide and when not to slide.
Our traditional way of parsing the cadaver in anatomy has been tremendously useful, of course, but it has obscured our knowledge of what is between things, as “between things” is exactly where we slipped our scalpel to reveal more defined structures. But between more durable structures is also precisely where the movement happens, so our fundamental misunderstanding of movement has persisted until Guimberteau showed us the simple but startling reality.
The idea of fascial continuity has been abroad in the world for some time. My own published work has been an attempt to map functional and stabilizing connections among the muscles, following the grain of the fabric through the parietal myofascia. Such maps as the Anatomy Trains—and there are a number—make predictions that lead to innovative strategies for chronic difficulties in posture and movement, a small part of a larger cultural movement to halt reductive parsing and look at the synergetic properties within systems as a whole.
What Guimberteau has done is far more profound: he has discovered what amounts to a new system—which, once seen, becomes obvious—of how a colony of cells such as ourselves actually manages the “disruption” of movement, a disruption between cells that must happen a million times a day in even the most sedentary person, without breaking cells, tearing tissue, or interrupting flow. We have for centuries contented ourselves that the “muscles-fired-by-nerves-move-bones-across-joints-limited-by-ligaments” model explained human shape and stability.
Osteopaths, Rolfers, and some others paid lip service to the idea of the body-wide fascial net, but still explained therapeutic effects in terms of the biomechanics of levers and forces generated by individual muscles working from end to end via tough, identifiable connective tissue structures.
By now, it is clear that this model is inadequate to the task; to progress beyond its current limitations, biomechanics is going to need to include the implications of tensegrity engineering, fractal mathematics in fluid flow, and cybernetics in the play of individual neuromotor units. Guimberteau’s explorations reveal a highly adaptive system of fluids, gels, and fibers everywhere across the body that respond instantly and internally to the forces applied to them, mitigating any damage to the cells in the moving area and distributing strain efficiently into the tissues under the skin.
We are very aware when we see the femoral artery that it is part of a larger circulatory system. Likewise, the brachial plexus can be identified as a structure, but it is also clearly part of the whole nervous system. But those of us who labor in biomechanics often work on the Achilles tendon, semispinalis, or thoracolumbar fascia as if they were independent structures, without the same awareness that these structures exist within a third body-wide effective system—the fascial web—that is equally dynamic and as autoregulatory as the other two.
Through Guimberteau’s images and research, we now see a body-wide continuity of biomechanical response, far more fluid, chaotic, and self-organizing than we have previously conceived. Future generations will say “of course,” dismiss our mechanical model as quaint, and build on his pioneering insights. But I am glad to have been of this generation, and to have been shocked, humbled, delighted, and finally changed by the arresting and important images Guimberteau brings back from his journey to see for himself.