Are your issues really in your tissues?

Thinking and feeling through the issues in my tissues.

If you’ve taken a yoga class, you’ve likely heard some form of yoga-speak. Some teachers give instructions that don’t make any anatomical sense.

“Breathe into your toes.”
“Squeeze the toxins out of your organs.”

Then there are the more high-minded, inspirational phrases.

“Connect to your unbound potential.”
“We are all part of divine oneness.”

Depending on your state of mind, these phrases could induce an eye roll. But when I remove the snarky girl lens, I see that teachers (including me) are trying to inspire the mind-body connection, something we are deeply struggling with as a society.

I try to avoid any teaching guidance that lacks clarity but sometimes I find yoga-speak slipping in. One phrase, however, that has stuck with me because it feels true is, “the issues are in your tissues.”

But, what does that really mean, and is it actually true, scientifically speaking?

Emotions and the body

When we say, “the issues are in your tissues,” we are implying that our emotions are stored in our bodies. And the research findings basically agree.

We know there is a link between brain and body, or mental health and physical health. The pathway between them is fuzzy but is under investigation. One 2017 analysis of more than 10,000 individuals over the age of 50 found significant indirect and direct relationships between past and present mental and physical health. Another recent study found past mental health had an even greater impact on current physical health than physical activity level.

So, yes, mental health, which we separate, shame, and push aside, is critical. Research on trauma, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), has shown significant links between brain and body. While PTSD may be labeled as a mental

Researchers map link between emotions and body. Study: “Bodily Maps of Emotions” Source: Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Jan 14;111(2):646-651.

health issue, there are physical manifestations of it. These include hormonal disruption, adverse brain remodeling (a hyper-active stress response), insomnia, and disease (higher incidence of cancer, heart disease etc.).

An emotional mapping experiment from 2013 showed that, regardless of culture, different types of emotions have similar biological manifestations, further underscoring the brain/body link.

So, what about those tissues?

Connective tissue, which yogis are referencing in my aforementioned phrase, connects (winky winky), binds, and supports structures and other tissues in our bodies together. Fascia, which has been all the rage lately, is a web of connective tissue that wraps around all internal parts of the body. It enables muscles to move freely alongside other structures in the body and reduces friction.

If fascia is restricted then the contraction of muscles is restricted too. The idea that fascia could store emotional memory is controversial. While body workers and patients may physically experience the release of trauma when working on dysfunctional tissue, the larger medical community remains skeptical as the evidence isn’t available yet.

If you speak with body workers or other health care providers who have been trained in an integrative medicine approach, you might hear them describe trauma as an energy that is stored in fascia and muscles. And, this is what leads to pain.

So are your issues in your tissues? Well, I’ve pointed to a small fraction of the evidence that the health of mind and body are (undoubtedly) connected. We know trauma and emotions are experienced in the body. We also know that dysfunctional tissue leads to pain, and that our stress response manifests in potentially long term physical symptoms.

From a Western scientific perspective, we still have more to learn and discover. Right now the idea that fascia is actually an organ is under debate. So, yes, I’d say the issues are in your tissues. But we may need a way to reframe that phrase for accuracy. And, for you dear reader, I’d suggest to become aware of your own biases, take what is meaningful to you, and leave the rest.

Up next: 5 practices to build a greater mind-body connection

*This is part 2 in a series on the mind-body connection*