Paul Thornley isn’t afraid of making enemies, clearly. Almost everything this Dubai-based former British military neuromuscular therapist and body movement specialist — and Pilates instructor — says challenges fitness and movement as we know it. What does he believe in? Biotensegrity, which is all about understanding fascia, how to maintain our most efficient movement, and adaptation, without compromising structural integrity. And stretching? As he told The Livehealthy Podcast on March 9, not so much.
You ask ‘should stretching be the new taboo?’ What do you mean?
We are told and informed that stretching is good for us. If this is true, then why do we get stretch marks? Why do babies not just fall out of vaginas?
Why is jujitsu so effective? Why do we not fall over easily? The fact of the matter is, as a human organism that is self-organizing, we’re not designed to stretch ourselves. We’re designed to recognize that our body is threatened by a change of environment. It needs to organize itself in such a way that it performs efficiently and manages threat through excitement or through pain or through anxiety or through pleasure. We still have to manage it.
Most people think we’re a physical structure. What we really are is a sensory solar panel. As we have to respond primarily to our emotions, what we feel and what we interpret we’re going to do and where we’re going to do it, and how that environment influences our choices and essentially has to respond to, that then decides how we will then move.
Now, people don’t know that. What they know is the health and fitness industry and a conforming nature of just copy and paste. You must do a warm-up, then you’ll do a pre-warm exercise stretch, then you’ll do your main phase and you’ll do cool down and you’ll do cool-down stretch. Who on earth invented that? It was just basically to try and make sure that people were enjoying them, to conform within an exercise environment and have structure.
But what if you feel tight?
You’re told if you feel tight, you must stretch. If you feel tightness, you’ll stretch it and you’re trying to aim for those pleasure points where it feels good. People then explore that until it feels so good. They must keep seeking it like a drug. You only know how you’re guided from the authorities. Well, unfortunately, the people that invented all of this are trained in a term called biomechanics.
Biomechanics in the language of biomechanical anatomy, has been around for 400 years. The language is embedded within our society and within our communities and within our allopathic approach to health and it’s outdated by about 400 years. Because under no circumstances can we be considered to be mechanical.
We’re a very living organic structure that is governed by the rules of invisible forces and that concept is known as living tensegrity. Once you understand what living tensegrity is, then you understand that those forces must come to life through the tissue that we are, and the tissue that we primarily are is fascia. What constitutes fascia is how it responds at a sensory level.
Once you understand that, you then move with more efficiency and more precision, and you stop attacking it because it will develop how you approach it. Often in the muscular-skeletal world, they’ve ignored the very environment that the muscular-skeletal system must exist in because they didn’t understand it and it was confusing. That’s like scuba diving, and understanding all your drills of scuba diving so that me and you can dive safely together.
How did you find your way into this work?
I used to refuel airplanes and trucks as a main profession and didn’t see myself doing that for 40 more years. Twenty years ago, I’m 51 now, I was lucky enough to meet a gentleman named John Sharkey. He was a clinical anatomist in Ireland and his college is called the National Training Center. He was running a course called neuromuscular therapy.
I started on that course because it was part-time and I could facilitate being a dad and a part-time student. It was created by him and a gentleman named Leon Chaitow. Leon Chaitow is the nephew of Boris Chaitow, who invented osteopathy. Leon was a senior osteopath himself, and he was retiring.
I was one of the very first batches on the course. I took four-and-a-half-years, and it was all based around biotensegrity and fascia. We didn’t learn an origin insertion [traditional anatomy], because they don’t exist. There are no layers. We learned how to negotiate with living tissue with our hands.
We learned how to negotiate and understand what was creating dysfunction or have a good interpretation of it, understand the biological effects of it, rather than the physics of it, making sure we understand the chemistry, we understand what is a myofascial trigger points, and why they formed in the first instance, but where do they live. Once you understand where they’re existing or why they’re formed, then you understand why you may or may not try to influence them, whether to try to eradicate them or negotiate with them so that they provide the service that the body requires structurally.
In that, then I got into Pilates, because they said, “If you’re fixing people with your hands, you need to reteach people how to move more effectively”. Pilates is one of the better ways to do it. I went on the Pilates journey, I became a Merrithew instructor trainer in 2009, after five years of training with them. I’ve been teaching globally since 2009, as a tutor.
Again, I’ve navigated away from that, because they decided they would reinforce the biomechanical principles, which went against everything I’ve ever tried to do with the human body. Try to get away from being mechanical, even when using mechanical machines like the Reformer, Cadillac chair, and all these other amazing props, but if we don’t understand that they are to facilitate our movement, we tend to end up trying to mimic their movement.
You end up becoming a machine and that’s what happens in a gym. I’m not trained in a gymnasium; I’m ex-military and I have been a lifelong martial artist since I’m seven, that’s 44 years. I’ve not been in a gymnasium or any sort of weight training scenario for over 20 years, because I just find intensity shortens longevity. Because you’re governed to work hard at the sacrifice of position and sequencing.
Whereas in the martial arts world, we focus on position and then sequencing. Then you reinforce those two elements with the quality of intensity that reinforces the sequencing you’ve learned and the position that you began from. That way you have efficiency, and you attain longevity. Then you can manage the consequences of movement because all movement is bad for you, all movement will have an effect on your body, or we’re always wearing and tearing, and we have to manage the consequences of life and movement choices.
Most people wait until it’s too long before they try to address them. I try to adjust them daily so that I can continue to enjoy moving. I love to exercise, I love moving even though I know it has a detrimental effect on me physically but emotionally, I feel great. I need to understand the physical implications of the move I’m doing so that I can continue to do it.
Okay, what does your exercise look like?
Like human movement. We do individual movements, and we do a class, but we just don’t stretch in any of it. There is no stretching. Just going back to that one point for a moment, if words matter, then you must understand that it’s not the word stretching as the problem, it is the interpretation of the word. Everybody goes and stretches our legs in the morning or in the evening.
We take our extra stretch. We have a yard and we stretch and in science that’s called pandiculating. All animals, all organisms do it, because it’s a partial reset, a reset to move. You yawn loudly and it really invigorates our neurological system. It’s amazing. We don’t see a cat doing 55 cat stretches, just one.
It just does one move and then gets on with its life, it goes and eats, sleeps, does something, have sex, goes back to sleep, or moves somewhere else. It doesn’t do 1,000 of these sun salutations, I don’t understand it. However, if you like them, then crack on, but understand the actual value of them. If you understand the physiology and construction of your tissue, you’ll understand that you cannot stretch living tissue without damaging it. It’s not possible. There’s a certain physiological barrier that’s applied to it. In my movement classes and how we apply this, we find and explore those boundaries through movement.
So how do your movements work?
If you’re moving, then you are managing contractions, you’re managing shortening and lending effects of your living architectural tissue, which is being created by your muscular tissue. You cannot separate them. They’re totally intertwined. The word fascia is the wrong word. Fascia means to envelop or sheath. This is a real explanation of what fascia is. Fascia comes from embryology, ‘you are fascia’. Your fascial envelope is your whole structure, your whole architecture, and everything that you become and specialize in, from a brain to a heart, to intestines, to your bones, they form within it.
They’re intertwined within it. It’s impenetrable. It’s not separate. You don’t get attached. You grew yourself from within, you grew yourself in the round. There’s no straight lines in the body. Everything has a spiral and a chirality to it because we need those counter-rotations to move efficiently. In my movement classes, one of the major things we do, we focus on how the ankle moves, because the ankle is a mirror of the pelvis. Any pelvic issues come from your foot. We make sure that our grounding is appropriate, that we make sure every single search in your body counter rotates his neighbor. Again, people don’t know that, because they’re not used to walking efficiently anymore.
We make sure that we’re approaching distances and we understand speeds and temples and that we’re going from ground to ceiling and back down efficiently. Instead of doing exercises in sets of repetition of a particular movement, we just move over a period of time with efficiency. That might be five minutes where you’re just constantly changing and transitioning from floor to ceiling, to kneeling, to side, to back, to front. It shows that you can control yourself. You know how to apply the right constraints, so you don’t collapse or stiffen or use momentum. Then we do that. If you can do that then in an environment like a class, we want to aim for 55 minutes of non-stop movement. As a human, not as a cat, not as an animal flow, because animal flow changes the constraints of your tissue, animals don’t have fascia like we do, because they don’t need it. They have four legs on the floor. W
What kind of a reaction do you get from people?
Well, they love it. It is absolutely unacceptable to be in pain, but people have considered that’s a bit normal now, no pain, no gain. This thing from Jane Fonda that rattles everybody’s head. You must sweat to be working hard. You must sweat your core. What is a core? In a human one-cell structure there is no core. People say, ‘We’ll core train or we’ll work our arms, or we’ll have a leg day’. This makes you dysfunctional. People love the fact that integrating their whole body all of the time in every moment. When they realize that there is no front or back or top or bottom or side-to-side of a body that they’re complete and whole, they move very differently. You see them move differently. You see them think about moving differently and they’re not confined to a machine or a repertoire, they’re encouraged to move. We try to avoid mats because mats become like a cage that you feel you must stay on. It’s like a prison. The mat can often inhibit movement, because you’re frightened to get to the edge like you’re right to fall off a shelf. The mats are to keep the floor clean. If they feel comfy, then use it, but know that it has a position that is helpful. Also, it can inhibit your natural movement. If you get to the edge of the mat, it’s almost like you got the edge of a curb on the road. You’ll pause. You’ll automatically come to a stop and that might help you, but it also might inhibit what you are actually trying to achieve.
What about those aches and pains that people get?
Well, this is the very thing. If exercise is so good for us, why is everybody so broken? It’s all based on biomechanics. Your approach is biomechanical. Your rehabilitation is biomechanical. Your medical treatment is biomechanical. Your pharmaceutical relies on biomechanics. We’re geared to conform like a herd and follow one modality, which does not represent humanity in any way. You have to be brave and step outside the herd and say, ‘Hang on, is there another way here? Why are we doing this? Why are we conforming to a modality that does not serve us in the long run?’ That’s why I’m like the antipathy of what health and fitness is, because I don’t believe in it.
You must have to be very brave, because I can just feel the reaction from people in the health and fitness industry…
I don’t care because I’m not doing it for me. I’ve already been convinced. By the people that I associate myself with and the cadaver courses I do every year and the specimens that I create that have preserved for life to show the science and the passion that I’ve understood, I’ve already been convinced. I’m happy. When I share a message, I’m not trying to change somebody’s mind. I’m telling them what my mind is. If they find that challenging and uncomfortable, then that’s their mind that’s being challenged. Now it’s their choice to either be open-minded and come back with a good conversation that we’ll talk about, or they can ignore it or, and defend their own position and go, ‘that’s rubbish’.
Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.