A view of the body from the inside out (part 1)

By Stew Wild, RMT (TMANZ), CNMT Part 1;

The Gamma Sensori-motor System

Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is — Will Rogers.

It’s been a few years since my last contribution, so for that I start with an apology. I now live in Florida, the home of the Upledger Institute, The Touch Research Institute, both variations of Neuromuscular Therapy, Aaron Mattes stretch, and 22,000 licensed massage therapists and their various skills. It is an area of ideas, creativity, vast experience, and a refreshing public acceptance of all things massage (oh, and sunshine).

A few years ago I described in a Hands on article how there had been an explosion in the field of bodywork knowledge. A lot more has happened since then.

The body, always indescribably intricate, has allowed a few more insights. Especially interesting are the various works of Deane Juhan, James Oschman, Helen Langevin and Robert Schleip. These innovators are exploring the vitality of the connective tissue system with regards to communication, emotion, energy and contractility. They are proving the relevance of cytokines, integrins, titin, the gamma sensori-motor system and nitrous oxide to bodyworkers.

Nitrous oxide, a byproduct of nitroglycerine (the one pre-scribed for angina), seems to be a super fast, short acting form of somatic communication, instantly able to cross cell membranes. More about this next time. For now, I would like to connect together two different ways of thinking about the body, one from the inside out and one from the outside in. I will compare two methods of treatment, one the gentle art of Trager™ therapy, the other a vigorous form of active stretch. They may have a common link.

There is this medicine and that medicine, and this method and that method, and then there is the way the body really is — Kerry Weinstein We learn from this sentence not to be so attached to, or dogmatic about, any therapeutic approach where we cannot accept that the body will unlock when we provide the right key at the right time, thus healing itself.

I first heard it quoted at a Deane Juhan workshop. Juhan is the bodywork genius who wrote the book ‘Job’s Body’. This book took him five years to research and four more to write. His topic, at this quite impromptu and informal workshop was the ‘gamma sensori-motor system’ of the body. He kept the inexplicably small gathering enthralled for three days with his knowledge, skill and personal stories of famous bodyworkers, clients and events.

The gamma sensori-motor system is a regulatory system that runs parallel to the voluntary ‘alpha’ sensori-motor system. It is a more primitive, low profile, automatic circuit running subconsciously. It enables us to store repeated or learnt movements and so ‘wires’ them in.

The more times we choose a specific motion the more automatic and obligatory its particular operations and limitations become. They become facilitated. Gamma actions can usually be over-ridden or remodelled by voluntary ‘alpha’ movement.

An example of this working well is when you drive along a highway while day-dreaming. You come to a realization that you don’t remember how you got there. This has not been dangerous because if something unusual had occurred you would have immediately snapped from ‘auto-pilot’ into the present.

Sometimes, unfortunately, these habits are learnt poorly, or become poor due to laziness, gravity, bad habits and lack of vigilance. They may manifest as irrational joint holding, muscle tension and poorly coordinated movement, often involving pain. These irrational holding patterns can block any attempt to re-configure them.

Deane Juhan’s therapeutic method of choice to address these aberrant primitive neural loops is by employing Trager™ therapy. Trager™ involves lots of repetitive, gentle stroking, vibrations, jostles, oscillations and joint movements to remove these counter-productive blocks. This can be likened to ‘sliding under the radar’.

It also appeals to the ‘pleasure principle’ of the body — a much under-utilised therapeutic mode. We tend to neglect the pleasure principle because of the need to avoid both the sensual and the sexual in these politically correct times. Juhan also loves to say ‘work softer’. Many bodywork techniques try to manually force the tissue to obey. I don’t know about you, but I have had unexpected success in chronic pain rehabilitation when I’ve done almost nothing. In fact, sometimes I’ve been marking time, wondering what to do next, when the client has sub-consciously allowed the internal change to happen. This ‘inside out’ train of thought has gotten me to thinking about other methods which may have a similar effect.

One of the many ‘softer’ manual therapies is Positional Release Therapy (PRT) and its many variations. This is a great non-invasive technique, especially for acute situations, and so easy to learn you can teach yourself. Others using the ‘gamma’ effect could include Myofascial Release, and Cranio-sacral Therapy. You will no doubt have your own techniques.

A mind stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimension. Despite Descartes’ dualism theory the mind and body should be thought inseparable. The mind, in accepting a new idea undergoes plastic change in much the same way as soft tissue undergoes permanent change when effectively stretched.

Effective stretch follows a safe progression of first ‘taking up the slack’, then passing through an elastic phase, and finally into plastic change. Imagine a tug boat pulling a tanker. The rope, when pulled, never becomes completely straight — it tightens, stretches, then something has to give, in this case the tanker. The tanker is muscle and connective tissue. In the vast field of stretch and flexibility there are many methods available to ‘get the tanker to move’. Most of them have merit if they do the job without causing collateral damage.

Examples include PNF, contract-relax methods, the static hold methods of Yoga and myofascial release and Ruddy’s pulsed muscle energy techniques (one of my personal favourites). Most use reciprocal inhibition or post isometric relaxation or a combination of both. Reciprocal inhibition relies on the antagonist letting go when the agonist contracts. Post-isometric relaxation occurs when the load sensing Golgi tendon organs in the origins and insertions promote muscle relaxation for a short while after the load is removed. Traditional stretches appear to be of an ‘outside in’ or superficial to deep nature, but there may be more to it than that.

Flexibility may also accrue benefit from a muscle learning or ‘gamma’ process; a more ‘inside out’ benefit. The Mattes method of stretch The one method I want to fully explain is known as the Mattes method of active isolated stretch (AIS), named for the Kinesiologist, Aaron Mattes. Last year I spent a long apprenticeship with Aaron and I like his method for a number of reasons. It is client active, quick, relatively painless, repetitive, thorough, open kinetic chain (more on this later) and effective. Best of all for we massage therapists it can be performed on a massage table.

Aaron has clients who fly in from all over the country, many of whom spend four hours per day over four days getting stretched! I have seen near miraculous reversals of dysfunction with sufferers of spinal cord injury, scoliosis, trauma, operations gone wrong, fibromyalgia and difficult sports injuries. In treating these ‘end of the line’ cases, his method is to stretch them and strengthen them in very specific ways. AIS employs some unique factors not utilized by many other stretch methods.

Firstly, it uses client active movement. This means the client repeatedly puts the joint into the stretch position; the therapist merely adds a gentle 2-3 seconds of overstretch. Therefore, this repeated pumping action has a hydraulic effect throughout the fluid in the muscles and connective tissue and the joint. Blood, lymph, interstitial and synovial fluid all slosh about to replenish and revitalize, lubricate and flush. Each AIS method attempts to position the body so that the stabilizing muscles of the target joint are not doing work.

The preferred leverage is open kinetic chain, meaning the distal end is floating about. Those with children will have seen the baby learning to control their limbs. Arms and legs appear and disappear from in front of their face. They are learning to communicate with their proprioceptors so as to later perform set tasks.

AIS uses visual reinforcement and phased breath work to help increase joint range. In the next issue more about the Mattes Method of stretch and a comparison to traditional stretches.

Stew Wild is a New Zealand trained RMT, CNMT and is a licensed education provider and certified NMT instructor (USA)

Email: stew@ybsore.com


Oschman, J.L. 2000, Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis, Harcourt Brace/Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh

Oschman, J.L. 2003, Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance, Butterworth Heinemann, Edinburgh

Chaitow, L. & DeLaney J. 2000, Clinical Application of Neuromuscular Techniques, Volume 1 – The Upper Body, Churchill Livingstone Press, Edinburgh

Chaitow, L. & DeLaney J. 2002, Clinical Application of Neuromuscular Techniques, Volume 2 — The Lower Body, Churchill Livingstone Press, Edinburgh

Chaitow, L. 2001, Muscle Energy Techniques, 2nd Ed, Churchill Livingstone Press, London

Chaitow, L. 2004, Maintaining Body Balance, Flexibility and Stability, Churchill Livingstone Press, London

Juhan, D. 1998, Job’s Body, Barrytown Ltd., New York

Mattes, A. 2000, Active Isolated Stretching — The Mattes Method, Mattes Publishing, Sarasota, Florida