The John F. Barnes Approach to Unwinding

I should begin by saying that I have heard the term ‘unwinding’ used in various manual therapy disciplines, and although I suspect it is very similar, I cannot speak in blanket terms because I have not been trained in everything.  I have, however, done extensive training with the Barnes systems.

In short, unwinding is when your body goes into spontaneous movement patterns which serve to unwind tension, fear, stress, and trauma.  It looks different for every person who chooses to unwind.  In the video above, you may have noticed that the woman started on a massage table and ended up on the floor. That happens sometimes.  The experience may be purely physical, or it may have an emotional component to it also – laughing, crying, screaming…you name it.

I know that video looks strange, and I am fully aware that this quick description may initially put you off, but I encourage you to read further and experience it once for yourself!

Don’t Worry, You are Still in Control

Here’s the thing – there is never a second during the entire unwinding experience where you are not fully aware of what is happening and in control.  In fact, the only way your body will experience unwinding is if you allow it.  During our trainings, John Barnes repeats “take the brakes off” to help us shut down our questioning, critical minds and just experience.  People who are actively unwinding can talk to the therapist, ask for things they need, laugh about what their body is doing, or even terminate the experience.

Why Do I Need to Unwind? 

It all has to do with memory. Specifically, memories that have been processed and encoded into your system at such a deep level that they influence you at the level of your endocrine, immune, and autonomic neuromyofascial networks.

Hans Selye’s classical works touch on the concept of state-dependent memory, learning and behavior.  Simply put, the position (state) of the body during a trauma, injury, or stressful situation can be encoded into our system at a deep level.  In a natural response, wanting to avoid further trauma, fear, or memories, the subconscious tries to protect the body by locking down certain positions, or states.  Think about a common scenario in the aging population where after a bad fall, a person chooses not to sit on the ground anymore.  We see this in fitness classes quite often, where someone will say that they ‘do not get on the ground’.  It’s not that their body physically is incapable of lowering them to the ground, but that their mind has some negative connotation that being on the ground is unsafe.  In fact, just the act of being on the ground may set off anxiety, panic, sweating, fear, and even crying.

Subconscious holding patterns eventually lead to chronic tensions in the muscular and fascial components of the body.  You’ve heard the expression, ‘use it or lose it’.   A body under habitual strain will try and compensate, resulting in various movement limitations or injuries,  seemingly from nowhere.  In short, a lifetime of postural compensations, traumas, and psychological stressors lead to a tangled, twisted web of soft-tissue which has tried to adapt the best it can to allow the human system to continue to function.

Tapping into the Subconscious

Allowing the body to heal often requires the help of the mind.  In attempts to protect the whole system, traumatic events are locked away, resulting in an amnesia of sorts.  The severity of this amnesia can range over a large continuum.  Think about those forms you have to fill out when you go to the doctor or physical therapist – they ask you about previous injuries or symptoms.  It’s not uncommon for you to completely forget about a past injury and leave it off the form, but then something comes up either in conversation or movement that ‘reminds’ you of that past trauma.   On the flip side, severe abuse may be locked away so deeply that a person is afraid of the dark or small spaces, but does not ever realize one is caused by the other.

Unwinding allows a person to access these events which were previously forgotten, and undo the physical tensions associated with carrying those traumas throughout the years.   It is a form of inner resynthesis, reverse engineering long held fascial restrictions, which release improper postural responses, and bring forgotten events to the surface.   Through re-visiting these events consciously, the physical body can begin to heal, and with it, the mind.  It requires no psychoanalyzing, no talk therapy, and no sharing whatsoever if a person does not wish to.  In cases of severe past trauma, it is advisable to use the services of the appropriate mental health service provider in conjunction with unwinding.

How Does Unwinding Happen?

The process of unwinding can be initiated by one or more therapists, and eventually on one’s own.  It even happens naturally sometimes – just watch the way that dogs and cats roll around and stretch.  They are experts at unwinding tension!

The start of an unwinding session usually involves the therapist eliminating gravity on the system, or somehow unloading the structure.  This can happen from gentle traction or compression of one or multiple joints, allowing the protective responses and righting reflexes to inactivate briefly.  If the person is open to it, the body will begin to move spontaneously, often revisiting positions of past trauma or stress, and unwinding through them.  When a person’s comfort level is not where he or she can ‘take off the breaks’, the treatment session still provides benefit in the form of a good, prolonged stretch, which will also have a positive impact on the structural fascial system.

Therapist as Facilitator

It is important to note that unwinding is not something that a therapist does to a client.  By supporting a client’s leg or arm and eliminating the gravitational forces upon the limb, it simply provides an opportunity for the client to tap into their body’s inherent self-healing mechanisms.

To learn more about my personal experience with unwinding, check out my post The Experience of Unwinding.




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