The roots of a tree are at the foundation of the health of a tree, the trunk support every leaf on every branch, and the branches span out into every direction. Leaves gather energy from the sun and make it possible for any flowers to bud and blossom.
Health from a movement perspective is like a sturdy tree. The roots are the movements we use to heal ourselves, such as self-Shiatsu and Sotai exercise. The Trunk includes movements that expand our freedom of motion by developing functional flexibility and real-world strength. Beyond the trunk are practical movement skills like those found in Parkour, or self defense, or aquatic skills like swimming and free diving. These are all branches of the tree that expand on the fundamental attributes developed in the trunk. The individual techniques within each skill are the leaves at the end of each branch, and our creative expressions, such as dance, and other expressive movements done for fun, are the flowers that bloom here and there among the leaves.
The branches can only grow as strong as the trunk, and the trunk can only grow as much as the roots support it. When there is a problem in the branches of a tree, the first place to look for the solution is in the roots. If the roots are strong, the trunk and branches have a solid foundation and are immovable. If the roots are weak, there is no way the trunk and branches can be strong. Weak roots make it difficult to grow vibrant leaves and allow beautiful flowers to flourish.
It’s the leaves and flowers that are the first to tell us that the roots are afflicted, but if we remain fixated on the leaves and flowers, we never address the cause of the deficiency. It’s easy to remain focused on the leaves and flowers when they are where the problem appears, but the solution is seldom found in the same place as the problem.
The Roots - Healing Arts
At the roots of our movement competence and fitness capacity, is the health of our movement system (musculotendinous tissue, fascia, nerves, blood vessels, bones & joints). Movements at this fundamental level serve to regulate the balance of tension in the muscles and nervous system, build postural integrity and resilience to injury. It also helps facilitate the full potential of the body’s natural healing capabilities; especially in conjunction with professional manual therapy treatment.
These “roots” include manual therapy, active joint motion, and functional stretching. Many disciplines exist that can suit each of those categories, but not all modalities look at the body in the same way. Working with the body as a whole, rather than as a consummation of parts sets apart the highly effective practices from the rest. The root of the problem, or the source of the solution lies in the whole-body connection. Approaches that focus only on the symptoms, digging into the area where the pain or tension is felt, or only isolated stretches that "target" the problem area, can achieve some temporary relief, but the pattern of tension that is causing the problem is not even observed. This is like cutting a weed at the stem and wondering why it keeps growing back. To prevent a weed from growing back, you must remove the part of the plant that is not so obviously exposed. Addressing the symptoms, and then following the breadcrumbs until you recognize the pattern tells you what movements and distal areas of the body need to be addressed.
The Roots - Musculotendinous Meridian Therapy
Manual therapy in Natural Mobility is expressed through Shiatsu, Sotai, and Meridian Stretching. These are all Japanese methodologies that emerged in the mid-late 20th century and are unique in that they all integrate modern science together with the wisdom of the meridian system as a map to help understand how the whole body is connected. This resulted in a very scientific approach to meridian therapy that relied more on the tangible physiological expression of the meridian system and less of the esoteric. The meridians most relevant to manual therapy and movements are the sinew channels, or musculotendinous meridians.
In musculoskeletal anatomy these meridians are expressed as the way tension is transferred from one muscle to it's related tendon, to the bone it's connected to, then to the functionally corresponding tendon and muscle on the other side of the bone, and so on, longitudinally, all the way back to the core. The fascia that connects these structures play a role in coordinating their contraction and synchronizing their efforts to make complex movement possible. Without following these patterns of tension, we are not recognizing the full extent of each movement. If there is abnormal tension and pain in the body, it's easy to get caught up in chasing the symptoms. If we recognize the pathways through which the whole body is functionally connected, we can address the tension in distal parts of the body that contribute to the problem.
Shiatsu is a method of applying pressure to the body along specific chains of musculotendinous meridians to regulate the balance of tension in the body. This can be administered by one person to another, or to oneself as a self-treatment. This effectively relieves abnormal pain and tension in the body, and has a lasting effect if practiced regularly.
The practice of Masunaga Shiatsu includes Meridian Stretching, which involves active stretches that stimulate the same musculotendinous meridians. These stretches can be done with assistance from another person, or they can be done by oneself. This helps the body become more responsive in its ability to relax and contract on command, and encourages areas of excessive tension to decompress and rebalance. As these stretches involves the whole body, they all revolve around the center of gravity at the hips. Regular practice improves mobility in the hips and the ability to sit on the ground or a chair without rounding the lower back, which impacts compensatory tension and alignment through the entire body.
Sotai is a method of movement therapy through neuromuscular reeducation that involves slow movement with a high level of attention given to one’s body awareness. These movements involve the whole body through the musculotendinous meridians. An important component of Sotai is comparing two directions of a bilateral movement to determine which is more restricted, then moving slowly in the direction of least restriction, synchronized with the exhalation. This can be done alone, or with gentle resistance from another person. The result is a restoration of balance in the restricted side and an improvement of postural alignment.
Between these three practices, abnormal pain and tension in the body can be relieved, mobility in the hips can be unlocked, and postural alignment can be corrected. One of these approaches involves direct manipulation of the muscles, another involves stretching, and the other involves active joint motion. Other practices can fit these categories, but what Sotai, Meridian Stretching, and Shiatsu have in common is their understanding and basis in the musculotendinous meridian system. This commonality recognizes the way that muscles are connected longitudinally from one joint to another across the entire body, which stimulates the body in a more functionally relevant way than looking at the body as muscle groups.
The Trunk - Freedom of Movement
When our roots are strong there is no glaring pain in the body, no restriction in natural ranges of motion, a relatively balanced postural alignment, and a strong sense of body awareness. From here you can grow vibrant leaves and beautiful flowers, but if you trunk is underdeveloped, your branches will be tiny and will only support a few leaves and flowers, as vibrant and beautiful as they may be. From here you can live comfortably by focusing on maintaining the roots of your movement practice, but if you want to grow a stronger trunk and more flexible branches, you’ll also have to focus on some functional movements. This stage of development is about increasing your capacity for movement in the form of building resilience and flexibility in the joints, along with more practical available strength and endurance to support your body in a wider variety of positions. This enables you to explore a wider range of movements, physical activities and hobbies without feeling overwhelmed or at risk of sustaining injury.
The “trunk” of the tree are movements that build strength, stability, coordination, and lay the foundation for locomotion, and manipulating heavy and light objects. The foundations of locomotion includes balancing, getting up and down from the ground, stepping over and under obstacles, and other actions that may be required of you in daily life. Other movements for general mobilization and strengthening of the joints in the body create the fundamental potential that allows freedom of movement and supports more dynamic movements. A strong trunk creates the potential for many flexible branches to emerge, and is ultimately about cultivating adaptability and resilience.
This is what people usually focus on when they think about fitness. Going to the gym and lifting weights, doing cardio, and using a bunch of contraptions or attending a CrossFit or Pilates class, all focus on developing the "Trunk" of our movement tree, but it ends there. What I mean is there is often little transfer between this fitness and real life physical competence. There's nothing wrong with these approaches, but it shouldn't be all you do.
The Branches & Leaves - Movement Skills
The branches of the tree are all about more dynamic practical movements that are innate to human beings. Ukemi (safe falling) skills like rolling, breakfalls and ground movement; Parkour (obstacle traversal) skills like vaulting, running, jumping, and climbing; combative skills like striking, grappling, and weapon manipulation; Aquatic skills like swimming, and free diving, are all examples of the branches. These are practical movements with survival applications that predate culture, and their individual techniques are the many leaves that wave in the wind.
The Flowers - Expressive Movement
Cultural movement like dance or yoga; creative self expression like tricks (flips, acrobatic performance, etc...), are the flowers that blossom among the leaves. If you are interested in cultivating a certain flower, you should make sure not to ignore the associated leaves, as they are what gather sunlight for the flowers to bud. The branches, trunk and roots must be developed and connected if you want the flower to have the strength to blossom.
A balanced movement practice involves an element of self-healing (roots), functional flexibility (trunk), joint strengthening (trunk), and practical, natural movement skill training (branches). This creates and maintains a strong foundation to allow you to enjoy cultivating the hobbies and passions that flourish as healthy flowers. Whatever hobby or activity of enjoyment that you want to partake in, the goal is to build the health and physical capability to feel like your body is empowering you rather than holding you back.