Beyond release—what is myofascial unwinding?
Myofascial unwinding is the body's innate ability to heal itself by moving into areas of ease. I explain unwinding in detail; but first, I go over the purpose of myofascial release (MFR), and what a release is.
What is the purpose of myofascial release?
The objectives of myofascial release are diverse. Myofascial release can be used as:
manual therapy to treat inflammatory responses, injuries, and surgeries—a practical application used for pain rehabilitation.
somatic therapy to help undo the fight-flight-freeze response—a method for healing trauma and PTSD.
embodiment practice to heighten sensory awareness—a way to feel more comfortable in your body.
What is a release?
Myofascial release techniques are gauged by how much force, or pressure the therapist uses. When the therapist uses a gentle approach to address the soft-tissue (fascia), it’s to try and initiate a release.
A release is a discharge of tension in fascia. It can be felt internally, or manifest as an involuntary movement. Releases can be subtle, or remarkably big. A big release looks like a person spontaneously turning their head towards their shoulder.
What is unwinding?
Unwinding is like an amplified release. It’s continuous movement in any given part of the body. An unwinding looks like a person doing rotations with their arm.
A full-body unwinding is when multiple areas of the body move simultaneously. The movements stem from the body's core. A person might, wiggle, twist, undulate; move left-right, up-down, and side-to-side.
What does myofascial unwinding feel like?
Unwinding is similar to an early morning stretch while still in bed. It feels different than a stretch a person does when they're completely awake. It's not a linear stretch, like what's done before working out, or running. An early morning stretch has a natural fluctuation to it, and there is a noticeable, subtle shaking that happens. This the loading-up of tension, followed by a small release.
When a person is just waking up from sleep, they're coming out of an alpha state (not focused too hard), and still a little bit unconscious. If you can imagine—multiply the feeling of an early morning stretch, and you'll get close to what an unwinding feels like.
Myofascial unwinding happens without a person's conscious effort. When the therapist creates enough safety for the client, their nervous system can relax enough to activate alpha brain waves; then an unwinding is possible. Unwinding can go on for a quite a while. When it does, the therapist holds the client and follows their movements. After people experience an unwinding, they describe a feeling of spaciousness in their body.
What does myofascial unwinding do?
Metaphorically speaking, the connective-tissue (fascial system) is like a battery. The battery can become energetically maxed out with age. The more stressful events a person experiences, the more wound-up their system becomes.
The fascial system stores information in the form of a visceral feeling, which becomes a visceral memory (cellular memory). A person who suffers from chronic pain, or trauma, will be apt to unwind because their fascial system is overloaded and ready to purge. That being said, you don't need to be stressed out to unwind. Anybody who desires to feel—more in their body—will be naturally inclined to unwind.
The body has an intelligence of its own, and when it’s tapped into, it can allow a person to unwind. A person might unwind their spine with a twisting motion that literally rings out tension.
Myofascial unwinding and emotional healing
The word psychosomatic is used to describe a disorder. It infers that a person’s sufferings are a delusion. Do you know how many people come to see me for this so called disorder—a lot. Have you ever had a tension headache? If so, you might have a psychosomatic disorder because a tension headache is brought on by stress—an emotion. Sarcasm aside, if a headache can be the result of stress, stress can manifest as phantom back pain, or many other things. In a way, psychosomatic disorder discredits mind/body awareness.
Releases and unwindings improve mind/body awareness. When a person is unconsciously unwinding, their body is relaying messages to the mind. This is the reverse order of a conscious command: the mind tells the body what to do. When the messages are from the body to the mind, the unconscious parts of a person get validated. This is an important piece of trauma healing. Physiatrists help heal the mind, but the body is storing the related tension—the feelings.
Myofascial unwinding and the nervous system
The fascial system and the nervous system are codependent on each other. One can’t function well without the other functioning properly. Tense fascia puts pressure on the nerves, and then the nerves start sending pain signals. After a while, an overactive nervous system starts contributing to anxiety, stress, etc. Releasing the fascial system allows the nervous system to breath again. Both systems release together, and then they can flow unrestrictedly.
Myofascial unwinding is not a requisite of MFR
Myofascial release calms the nervous system, sometimes to the point that a person experiences an unwinding. Most people take baby steps when they receive MFR treatments because their body needs to learn how to release first. Once they are familiar with the feeling that comes with a release, the releases might get bigger. Typically, a person responds a little more each succeeding treatment. When a person releases enough tension, their nervous system can become incredibly relaxed. That’s when they might start to unwind; however, some people might unwind right away.
Myofascial release opens-up the tissues, puts space between the joints, takes pressure of the nerves, restores motion, and relieves stress. Myofascial unwinding enhances all of these things. It refreshes the cells by purging visceral memory. It's an efficient way of healing.
When a client unwinds during a treatment, the clinical aspect of MFR morphs into—what feels to me like—hands-on energy work. Some of the positions my clients involuntarily move into would be hard for them to do consciously, if not impossible. Unwinding allows people to safely go beyond their perceived range of motion. Myofascial unwinding is an amazing healing process.
MFR therapist Brian Phillips