Thomas Myers is the founder and creator of Anatomy Trains, a method rooted in structural integration that provides a system of understanding the fascia and how the human body negotiates between stability and mobility.
He has practiced bodywork for more than 40 years in Europe, the UK and the U.S., and has presented frequently at the prestigious International Fascia Research Congress and many other bodywork and massage conferences.
Tom is also a MASSAGE Magazine All Star, one of a group of body therapy masters who have dedicated their lives to empowering and informing massage professionals.
These innovative therapists and teachers are educating the magazine’s community of massage therapists in our print magazine, on our social media channels and on massagemag.com.
Karen Menehan: Tom, let’s start off with you telling us what your life was like before you became a bodywork practitioner.
Tom Myers: Well, I grew up where I live now, in a very tiny town in Maine. I went to a two-room schoolhouse. I had a very much of an outdoor education to myself—but I also grew up in a New England Family where we didn’t touch much.
We’re not a demonstrative family. So, it was a revelation to me when I ran into massage in my early 20s and just was fascinated by what could be done by putting your hands on somebody else’s body.
It was not only about fixing things, but about healing oneself more. And that was just such a revelation to me that I guess I have been at this for almost 45 years now and am still fascinated—still very much interested and curious about this profession.
KM: So, that was back in the ’70s. And when you say that it was also about kind of that self-healing and exploration, do you think that’s true of bodywork today?
TM: Well, there was a whole thing in the ’70s that they ended up calling it “the me decade,” which I think was unfortunate.
But I think we were paying not so much attention to me, the ego, but to me, the embodied person. There was certainly a feeling in the ’50s and ’60s of really going for the mind.
And the body was just this thing used to carry the mind around.
And as we began to realize in the ’60s that the body and the mind were so much connected, then massage began to talk to your emotional reality and even your mental reality, as well as the physical reality of how your body itself heals.
We realized that body, mind and emotions are—I would say spirit too—are all part of one thing.
And so, massage therapists, or any kind of manual therapist, reaches in through the body. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not touching the emotional self, the mental self or the spiritual self in doing so.
KM: So, how do you feel like you’re different—or how were you different in your ’20s— after you learned bodywork compared to before you engaged in that?
TM: As I got into bodywork, I think because of my New England upbringing that I ran the emotional gamut from A to B, and that bodywork for me was really such an emotional opening, an opening to different feelings, an opening to different ways of relating to people.
So, it was much more about that for me than it was about fixing a shoulder or the kinds of things that we see in medical or orthopedic massage now, which is great.
I love that whole movement within massage. It’s very, very valuable.
But my own interest in this is how people live on a day-to-day basis and how they relate to their children and their parents and their friends and that there’s a role for that part in it, too. I’m very interested in anatomy.
I’m very interested in what we can do on a clinical basis. But there is a whole area beyond the clinical basis that was certainly the interest of people in the 1970s, and I hope it will sort be of interest to people now.
KM: One of the things that you have written about on your website a lot is how deep bodywork releases tensions and how bodywork connects [the client] to the “essential individual,” as you turn within. I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about that.
TM: Yes. There’s a kind of thing … this idea that we’re going for some ideal posture or we’re going for some ideal place where we’ll be totally balanced. And that isn’t my experience of life.
I don’t think you ever get really terribly balanced—or if you do, you’re enlightened and then you can go do something else. But for most of us going through life, it’s a question of how responsive we are. Fodywork has made me more responsive, and it’s sounding as if it has also allowed you to be more responsive.
But what I’m looking at is if people are more responsible. I love that word, it’s the ability to respond, it’s being responsible for something. And so, that’s what I’m seeking with my clients.
And that’s what I’m seeking for myself when I get bodywork, is to expand my ability to respond to the multiple situations that come up in life, no matter how enlightened you are.
KM: [Bodywork] improved my life immeasurably, just as a human being on this planet.
One of the things that you have written about on your website a lot is how deep bodywork releases tensions and connects us to the essential individual, as you term that, within.
Something else I’ve read, not on your page, is that Americans spend on average two-and-a-half hours a day, or about 75 hours a month, on their smartphones.
I’m wondering what you think our culture would be like if they spent at least two of those hours getting a massage or bodywork every month instead.
TM: I’ve got to tell you, I’m 70 years old and I’m as addicted to my phone as anybody. So, even old people [have] really glommed onto this idea of connecting to the rest of the world [and it’s] a joyful thing that we’ve all been really excited about.
Now, right now, that means we’re interfacing with screens that are 25 centimeters away from our eyes, so we fix our eyes. We fix our hands. We fix our shoulders. And often we’re sitting in a slumped position when we’re doing it.
So, sure, it would be much better for bodies if we spent those two hours getting a massage or indeed, spent those two hours moving in a healthy way. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, Karen, because I think people really like being connected to their cell phone and connected to the rest of the world.
I think we should watch because this is a temporary time when we have these devices in our hands and in our pockets and we’re always looking for them. And I think technology will change how we interface with it.
Right now, this technology that we have is audiovisual. You can see things on the internet or you can listen to a podcast or watch a YouTube video. But there’s nothing in the kinesthetic sense.
The three major senses that we learn [with are], visual, and auditory, and kinesthetic. And the unfortunate thing about the internet is it’s visual and auditory, but it is not kinesthetic
So, if you’re getting a massage or if you’re moving in a healthy way, you’re getting a kinesthetic stimulant that you simply do not get, so far anyway, from the internet.
I remember Brave New World, the science fiction story. And he talked about “the feelies.” So, you would go to the movies. And instead of just seeing and hearing the movie, you could put your hands on a couple of knobs and that would enable you to feel the movie as well, to feel what was going on in the movie.
And if you don’t have that, and we don’t have that on the internet so far, and so, we have something that is very audio-visually dominant. We are a kinesthetic being, as well as an audio-visual being.
So, you have to counterbalance the time that you’re spending on your smartphone with time inside your own body, inside you own experience.
KM: Let’s move on and talk about the type of hands-on work that you teach. Your work, Anatomy Trains, is rooted in structural integration. I’m wondering if you can kind of just give us an overview of what kind of manual therapy this is and how it’s different from traditional Swedish massage.
TM: Many of the people who are doing structural integration started out doing Swedish massage.
It’s a great introduction, although we have people coming from physiotherapy. We have people coming from Pilates and other movement realms that are coming into our school, as well. And we really welcome people from all walks.
And I love a Swedish massage. I get one every week if I can. And that is the kind of thing where you often are lying on the table and you go off into dreamland and somebody works on your body.
It feels much better and that’s great. I love drooling into the sheet as I’m taken down into my parasympathetic side by a Swedish massage.
That’s not what we’re trying to do in structural integration. What we’re looking at in structural integration is “Where are the places that you haven’t moved for a long time?”
We all move our bodies. But that doesn’t mean we’re moving the whole body.
So, structural integration is designed to do three things that are a little bit different.
One is we look at people beforehand to see those patterns. We watch them walk. We watch them do things and see where are they moving and where are they not moving.
And we’re tending to get our hands not where they’re painful, not where they are already moving well, but going into the parts that don’t move well. Parts that don’t move well get stuck in the fascial fabric of the body.
It’s not enough just to relax the muscles. It’s not enough to give them a different kind of mindfulness. We actually have to open the tissue that has been closed for many years.
Now, it could be closed many years because they don’t use it. It could be closed for many years because they have a surgical scar or an accident [or] some kind of trauma that happened there, or it can be an emotional thing.
For myself, I had a period in my life before I came into this kind of bodywork where I was really quite depressed. And most people who are quite depressed, their chest falls down. And they get stuck at the exhale end of the breath spectrum.
And so, when the first person who did structural integration with me came to work on me, they were really working around my rib cage and really opened up my breath. And that also opened up my depression in a way that I moved through it and a way that I hadn’t been able to before.
In structural integration, we’re looking for how can we get the body fully moving, and can we find those places that are stuck either due to physical trauma or emotional trauma, and get those to be included in the body image, and get those to be included in the body movement? So, that’s number one.
The second thing is this orientation to the fascia. Now, I want to be clear. You can’t touch a body without touching the fascial system. It’s not that the fascia is new. That fascia has been there all along.
And we’ve been working with it all along. Every time you put your hands on a body, you’re working with the fascia.
But if you’re thinking muscles or you’re thinking joints as a chiropractor or physiotherapist might, you could miss where this fascial fabric has been tied down.
That becomes a limiting factor in people [when] restoring their movement. So, the second thing is this fascial idea.
And the third idea is that we work in a series of sessions so that we work progressively over the whole body, rather than doing the whole body in one session.
KM: Can you talk a bit about what the latest research is saying about fascia and manual therapy?
There are four properties of fascia that we really need to understand, if we’re a manual therapist or a movement teacher or trainer, Pilates trainer, any of those.
Now, one is that the fascia is viscous, that we’re used to thinking of the fascia as the sinews, as the fibrous stuff, that holds us together. But there’s also another part of it which is a gel, very much like egg white.
That gel is inside your joints. It’s called synovial fluid. And that’s pure gel. But even in around your tendons, and around your ligaments, and around your muscles, and around your fascia, and around your organs, you have this gel.
The viscosity of this gel is designed to distribute force throughout your body. So, if your people out there reading clap their hands together, they won’t damage the bones of their hands, even though the bones are very close to each other, because the fascia just under the skin distributes that force over all of the hand.
So, you don’t crack your bones when you’re catching a fastball or, I don’t know, happen to slip and fall on the ground. So, the viscosity of the fascia is an important thing.
The second thing is we now know that fascia is elastic. We didn’t know that before. We thought the muscles were elastic and the fascia was stiff and stable like a … rod. But we know now that it’s like a spring and that you can train it.
And so, when I got ahold of that research, I started running on my forefeet because I’m getting older. I don’t bounce the way I used to, you know.
Elasticity is what you think of in your children, not in your grandmother. So … if elasticity is trainable, then I wanted to train it into my body. and I did. And I feel better at 70 than I did at 55 by employing this idea of fascial elasticity with skipping rope or doing the forefoot running, that kind of thing.
Then the third is in which structural integration and myofascial release, those kinds of techniques, depend on is the plasticity of the fascia. And that means that if you put a stretch on our fascial structure and you hold it for a period of time, then you can get it to glide on each other.
There’s a question in the research now as to whether you actually are making it longer or not. That’s an open question. But you’re certainly getting parts that didn’t glide to be able to glide on each other. And so, that’s an important part.
And then the fourth characteristic of fascia that we really ought to know as a manual therapist is its ability to regenerate. So, we know that the fascia can regenerate when you break a bone. It takes you about eight weeks to regenerate the bone. And that’s happening all over your body with your fascia all the time.
The kind of work that we do, the massage therapists do—that anybody with their hands on the body can do—is to help that restoration that could happen after an accident or just as part of your daily life.
A lot of people these days are running themselves faster than they are regenerating themselves. This is characteristic of our way-too-fast 21st century life. And so, people are not recovering fully from their work, their exercise, their emotionality, whatever.
And so, to help the body recover is something that massage therapists all over the world are helping people to do. And structural integration I hope reaches a bit deeper into that process.
KM: You spoke about training the fascia in your own body by changing the way that you run now. Is that a component of the structural integration, retraining or training the fascia?
TM: No. Structural integration is when you put your hands on the body and you’re trying to change that tissue from the outside with your hand. However, I don’t see much of the division between that and training your fascia in your day-to-day movement, as well.
In fact, there’s the third one, which I’m sure you’ve put on your magazine, which is people working with balls and other self-myofascial release tools, which is not a substitute for a massage therapist but is a good thing to do when you don’t have a massage therapist available or you’re just treating yourself.
All kinds of people have put out therapy tools that people can use to go into their own bodies to get things to change. I’m sorry, I may have lost your question there. So ask it again.
KM: I was just fascinated by you talking about how you’re retraining your own fascia. And I’m just wondering how that kind of was differentiated from hands-on work.
TM: When I do hands-on work with people, I’m always giving them homework, either exercises or awarenesses or practices, sitting or standing, that they can help themselves with between sessions.
This is a project in which the client is involved, as well as me. And therefore, the boundary between massage therapy and training is a very fluid one for me. And I like training myself. And I like it when people are interested in training themselves into a new pattern.
The idea that you can just come and lie on the table in a passive way … that’s another thing that makes structural integration different, by the way, is the client is always moving under my hand.
So, you don’t go to sleep and let yourself drool into the table … as that would be, I need people awake and with me and moving. And the manipulations themselves can be quite intense, like a yoga stretch.
So, people are not generally falling asleep during my sessions, during our sessions of structural integration, because we need them awake.
But I do think that I had that kind of prejudice against trainers as I started into the massage therapy realm. And myself, I wasn’t an exerciser when I first started this.
And I kind of thought, “Oh, people with no brains are in the gyms lifting all this weight and without a particular effect.” And I still think that you ought to get in shape in order to be useful, not in order to impress somebody else.
But be that as it may, the line between training and massage therapy seems to me to be quite a fluid one. And I have learned a lot from very, very smart people in the athletic training and in the personal training realm.
KM: So, we’ve been talking about fascia, and about the need to be in shape. And one of the things that MASSAGE Magazine is continuously telling our readers is the need for self-care, you know, that massage therapy is demanding on the body.
I’m wondering if there’s anything that you could tell our readers to do differently with their own body while working that would kind of shift them from focusing on the client’s body toward focusing on how they’re using their own body.
TM: Yes. And I recommend [doing this] when you’re working on a friend— or even better during your training because if it becomes just part of your daily life, then you don’t have to think about it when you do want to be thinking about your clients, which is when you’re working on them.
I am very grateful to Judith Aston, who really taught me good biomechanics. I have to say Ida Rolf did not teach me good biomechanics, but Judith Aston did. And I’m forever grateful because I’ve been doing this work, which as you say, it’s physically and emotionally demanding. And after 40 years of doing it, I feel great.
So, let me give you a few of those principles.
One is to work from your feet. I see too many massage therapists with their thighs against the table just working with their upper body, and their legs are not involved because they’re just kind of leaning against the table and working from the waist up.
So, taking a principle from tai chi or the martial arts and … having your hands be moved all the way from your feet is a really important thing.
Second, of course, is to breathe, to be in a position where you can breathe. I always tell people, “You’re not going to work as hard as you did in massage. But it is intense work and does require some strength in the body to do.”
So, you really don’t want to do it in an effortful way, for two reasons. One is you’ll be less sensitive, if you’re effortful. so, you won’t be able to feel the client as well. And secondly, you’ll be, over the long-term, damaging your body.
In our school of structural integration, we teach bodies very, very strongly in the beginning of the training so that people are using their shoulders in such a way that they’re sitting down on the rib cage and using their breath in such a way that they’re continually breathing during their work and working all the way from the bottom of the body to the top.
You know, it’s a great thing to check yourself while you’re working. Is my neck tensed? Am I breathing? Could I let my low back go?
Other than that, I really have to see somebody—and then I give them personal direction which … [helps them move] in a direction that would help them work without effort.
KM: We touched a bit on technology and, you know, some of the challenges that that presents. But it also presents an amazing opportunity because a lot of massage therapist are able to get their CEs online and do so.
For you, specifically, you also sell training in DVD format and webinar format. But you also offer in-person trainings.
I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit about the benefits of earning at least some CE requirements one-on-one with a bodywork master like yourself just as you did, you know, when you were training with Ida Rolf and other luminaries.
TM: Well, I always advocate going to the person who originated something and sitting at their feet as much as you can because there’s something in the originators that is a little bit magic.
So, I’m very glad, very glad, that I got to work with Ida Rolf, and Moshé Feldenkrais and Emilie Conrad and some of these people before they passed. And so, there’s absolutely an argument for getting the one-on-one stuff. You get things you cannot get.
But if you are geographically isolated it or financially strapped and this is the way that you can get your education, there is so much now in the online world.
Now, to learn technique online or to learn protocols online, you have to have had some basic training first so that you can absorb the techniques in such a way that you can use them.
So, online training in myofascial technique or any of the concepts, advanced techniques, that are available from some of your other All-Star luminaries … get them online and get them by a video. If you have basic training, you can absolutely absorb these techniques on video.
If you haven’t got basic training, I really highly recommend just getting the intellectual part of this, that cognitive part of this, on your online CE. But make sure that you are training your hands and training your body by showing up for at least some of those CEs in a personal, one-on-one-presence context.
KM: And you have launched the Anatomy Trains Structural Integration Certification Program, which is kind of a hybrid learning experience for people. Could you talk a little bit about that and who that would be most appropriate for?
TM: Yes. As I said, we do accept people from outside the massage profession who have hands-on skills. But most of our students are people who have been massage therapists for, I don’t know, anywhere between three and 10 years, and have kind of hit on the top of their original training and they’re now looking for something else.
And there’s lots of stuff out there. There’s you know, craniosacral. There’s visceral. There’s all kinds of approaches that may be suited to one person or another.
The structural integration is suited to those people who would really like to take the massage deeper and to be able to affect people’s movements I think in a more profound way.
I’m not saying anything bad about massage by saying that. The regular massage is great stuff. It’s just when you start looking into changing people’s patterns, then you have to be able to work with more depth, with more anatomical proficiency, than is usually given in the initial massage therapy training.
So, what we’ve done with our training is to try to put everything that we can online so that our students can use their own time and their own schedule to get the anatomy and the background and evolution and embryology and things that we’d like them to have.
And in that way, we can use our in-class time maximally for the kind of stuff that you can only get from hand time. We have about 500 in-class hours …
But with the online stuff and doing practicum stuff that you can do outside the classroom, what we’re trying to do is maximize. We are appreciative of people paying tuitions and then additionally paying for our transport and additionally losing work income that they otherwise would have.
So, we want to make those class hours as efficient as possible and as effective as possible.
KM: That’s exciting!
And tell us, what are some of your most memorable or proudest moments as a bodywork practitioner?
TM: The moments that are just what I live on are when I see the light dawning in the client’s eyes about how they’ve been working with themselves in one way—and now they can see that they can work with themselves in another way or work with other people and be in another way.
It’s that light dawning in the eyes of either a client or a student that has kept me going through these many years.
There are times when you have a miracle … I was working on an old Greek woman. She was all dressed in black, you know, this image of a Greek older women that you see all wrapped up in black clothes.
She was somebody’s grandma and had trouble with her knees. And I was working on her in her dirt floor of her house in rural Greece. And she got up and walked across the room, which she hadn’t done in months.
And everybody thinks I’m a miracle worker, and that’s great.
Those are wonderful stories. And we all have those stories.
But I don’t know what I did to that woman or whether it was pure placebo or faith healing.
So, it’s wonderful to have those miracle stories. But I’m always a little suspicious when people are pulling out their miracle stories because often, we don’t know why they worked the way they did.
It’s wonderful that it did. But we don’t know the exact mechanism by which it happened.
So, I’m also just pleased to see the incremental changes that can happen with people from session to session that bespeak a ever-increasing, even if a slowly-increasing capacity, to handle life in a different way, in a way that they haven’t before.
So, that also keeps me going. I don’t need to have it be a great, big miracle for me to be happy.
KM: And then, what do you kind of see as the future of massage and bodywork or the future opportunities for practitioners?
TM: Oh, the future opportunities for massage and bodywork are absolutely rife. There are so many that we’re just beginning to explore them.
This is going to be a long answer. Let me go into this a little bit.
If you look at the history of humanity, and I don’t mean to get too cosmic here, but this end of the industrial era here really since the ’60s and ’70s, during the time that most of your readers had been alive, the demand for the body to move has been getting less and less.
We spend so much time sitting in cars and airplanes and other forms of transport. We spend a lot of time sitting, connecting to our computers, which connect us to people all over the world.
That’s all great.
But, for the first time in history, we don’t move enough to keep our body healthy.
And that means that there is a tremendous opportunity for a massage therapist ,and also for trainers, to create a new kind of movement for this electronic era.
Most of the exercise systems that we have, and I would even say, most of the massage systems that we have, are built around the industrial view of the body.
The body is a machine. And I’m going to make that machine work better.
The heart is a pump. And the brain is a computer. And the kidney is a filter. And the lung is a bellow. And we just think of the body in a very industrial, machine-like way.
And now that we have the internet, we have to start … we will start thinking … [and] this is really going to develop over the next 40 to 50 years.
We’re going to think of the body in a different way. We’re going to think of the relationship between consciousness and the body in a wholly different way than we did during the machine era that was really governed by the laws of Isaac Newton and the biomechanics that we have been working with for the last 400 years.
And I really think that that’s about to change.
I’m arrogant enough to think that Anatomy Trains was one step along that path—but just one step, and that more of those things will be coming up [along with] opportunities for bodyworkers of all kinds, massage therapists, to work not only with the worried well and the upper-middle-class neurotics that we often deal with, but also [with the] prison population, and children in school and [the] differently abled.
I was just speaking the other day with somebody who’s doing wonderful work with Parkinson’s patients. [And there’s all the] work that I’ve noticed featured in your magazine on cancer massage. I just think the opportunities are very, very wide.
There are two big social trends going on today. One is taking people away from their bodies. That is the internet that’s keeping us sort of audio-visually entertained, but not having our body moved.
There is advertising, which tells us that we’re not good enough, unless we are driving this car or using this shampoo. And that makes us feel not good enough.
There’s the cover of Allure, which is way more beautiful than you and I will ever be, because first they put her through an hour of makeup and then they put her through an hour of Photoshop.
So, some of these pictures that you see on the front of the magazines are anatomically impossible to achieve.
The same with men’s health, although it’s something that affects women more than men. Even men are getting into this now. “Oh, my abs aren’t tight enough or my pecs aren’t big enough. And I’m gonna get silicon gastrocnemius so I look in shape even though I’m not.”
This is a really crazy kind of dedication to the outside of the body. Massage therapists are bringing people back to the inside self-sense of the body. I just think that that’s a very, very important thing for us to do.
But the opportunities are [here] because people are going farther and farther away from their bodies. We have to be that counter-social strain that is bringing people back to their self-sense, back to their intuition, back to the intelligence that’s in the body that people have abandoned largely by the time they’re 20.
KM: Yes, I agree, it’s an exciting time for massage therapists and other bodywork practitioners.
So, we’re probably getting down to the end of our time together. And I’m just wondering if there’s anything that you feel we haven’t covered that you’d like to share with our audience.
TM: Well, I’d just go back to the thing about self-care and how you use yourself and in your practice is that a lot of us, and I number myself in this, that we got into the bodywork profession because we wanted to be of help.
It’s quite easy when you want to be of service to other people to say, “Oh, well, don’t mind about me. I’m just going to be in service to you. So this is all about you. It’s not about me.”
And that’s true. But if you really want a long practice, you have to pay attention to yourself, to your own development.
Am I developing spiritually? Am I developing emotionally? Am I getting bodywork, this stuff that I give out? Am I actually going and getting some myself?
Self-care for a practitioner is really part of your responsibility as a practitioner. It’s not extra. It’s not required. It is a requirement of the job that you take care of yourself and you develop yourself.
So, I would ask people not to feel bad about getting themselves more training or getting themselves more massage. It’s really part of how you keep yourself together.
I’m definitely interested in the long-term. You and I know—we looked at the statistics that a lot of people get into the massage profession and they’re back out of it again within five years. You can probably tell me the figures of what it actually is.
KM: Yeah. It’s closer to three years, unfortunately.
TM: Yeah. So, I’m very sorry to say this. But I’m an old man and I can say it. You don’t really get good until you’ve been at it for at least five years.
And so, we need people to be earning a living and taking care of themselves so that they get to be those long-term practitioners who will, one, teach the next generation, and two, push the profession along by developing something new, and number three, really be able to work with their clients in a holistic way, not just the way that you happen to have been trained or just the way that you like to work.
You really need to be working in a way that that person needs to be worked. And that means having a wide vocabulary of touch. You just can’t do that if you’re asleep. You’ve got to be awake in your practice and taking on new stuff.
KM: Thanks, Tom.
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s Editor in Chief