Why choose Dalton? In exploring the bodywork field, there are scores of teachers and practitioners who stake a claim on depth, in the literal sense of “deeper into the body”. Dalton’s method is termed Myoskeletal Alignment Technique (MAT), which surely by its very name declares to be deeper than, say, Myofascial Whatever or Whoosis Neuro-Muscular. I suppose if you follow this controversy, you would be left with the chiropractors as the rulers of depth, because they deal consistently with the deepest level of tissues we spoke of above, the bones and the ligaments right around the bones. However, I am not going there. For one thing, my intuitive sense resists characterizing the chiropractors as a group – however sensitive and nuanced some individual practitioners of the method may be – as masters of depth healing. For another, I want to focus on the domain of soft-tissue manipulation.
In the realm of the current soft-tissue resurrection in hands-on healing, structural integration (Rolfing and its derivatives, the beneficiaries of Ida Rolf, Ph.D.) have been widely endorsed – correctly or not – as going the deepest into the body, among the many methods available. Sometimes this assessment is made in admiration, sometimes in condemnation – “Oh, yeah, Rolfing – isn’t that the technique where they tear the muscles off the bones and make you scream about your mother?” Dalton is one of those successors of Ida Rolf, who is making a distinct claim to tissue depth in his teaching, so let us hear his story briefly told, and see what it can enlighten us about depth healing in general.
From the start, let me be clear that I am not saying that Dalton’s MAT work is a knock-off of Rolfing. Each of the beneficiaries of Ida Rolf – even those who claim her mantle – have built upon her work and made innovations (and maybe even lost some of her broad perspective, though who will admit it?). In the case of Erik Dalton, though some of the technique and outlook may have evolved from his Rolfing training in 1983. His additions and developments have come from his subsequent self-exploration after an injury, from osteopathy, and from the groundbreaking Czech soft-tissue researcher, Vladimir Janda, M.D.
What Dalton demonstrates to other structural integrators is the concept, as his ads proclaim, of “Don’t chase the pain!” MAT’s focuses on prevention – recognize the strain patterns, says Dalton, before they become pain patterns. Of course there are many other similarities in the emphasis on good body use, paying attention to the tissue and working with the Golgi tendon organ response, and obviously in the goal of total body alignment and ease. Where Dalton starts to carve his own trail is in bringing the soft-tissue worker closer to the individual joint facets in the spine. ?In the late 1980s, Dalton received two martial-arts injuries: one to his lower-back ligaments; another, far more serious, was a non-displaced fracture at C4-5 that occurred when he tried to resist a judo throw and landed on his head. Although after the injury he wore a halo to stabilize his neck, he had constant radiating pain down his right arm. As a Rolfing practitioner, he kept stripping and working the tissue around his own upper back and neck, which would bring temporary relief, but soon the drive-you-crazy pain was back, and Dalton was out searching for the miracle that would take it away more permanently.
Dalton’s miracle came, in fact, from his own hands. One morning, working his way through the paraspinal muscles, he happened upon bone-like knots in the soft tissue down near the level of the joint capsule, in the deepest layers of the multifidi and rotatores muscles, knots he had not run into before. “As an experiment,” writes Dalton in his manual, Myoskeletal Alignment Techniques, “I slowly began to steadily apply pressure directly to one of the bony knots in the laminar groove about the C5-6 level. Immediately, it felt as though the vertebral segment was pushing back at me. My fingers resisted the bony recoil in the same way I had resisted during deep tendon work many times before. To my surprise, the bone responded in much the same manner as the tendons – it retreated. As the vertebra retreated, I slowly took up the slack and waited for the recoil against my fingers.”
Dalton continued to evaluate this deep probing process of resistance and then taking up the slack, adding a respiratory component, working with the breath until the knot had disappeared and the bone had settled. Dalton worked on a few more of these knots over the subsequent quarter of an hour, and then, sensing that his body had had enough, left it alone to settle. From that day on, his pain lessened and his function improved, though his journey to understand what had happened had just begun.
Eventually, with more work and more investigation, Dalton realized that the fibrotic lumps in the fourth layer of spinal musculature – the deepest layers of the transversospinalis – were a key to analyzing and treating underlying vertebral dysfunction. This makes the relationship between osseous manipulation – chiropractic and osteopathy – and the soft-tissue work of massage therapists and bodyworkers. Dalton’s work concentrates on the usual myofascial balance that structural integrators aim for, plus this near-bone musculo-ligamentous layer – a “bony intent” that sees bone as a soft tissue – the deepest layer, and a slow-changing layer, to be sure, but still a layer of connective tissue. This is, of course, the actual fact, but the artificial division between hard and soft tissues is one that has instructed most of our education, and led to some separation between those who work with one (chiropractors and osteopaths) and those who work with the other (massage therapists and bodyworkers). Dalton’s work, by progressing more deeply to the junction between the two, starts to bridge the gap.
Bridging the gap, without crossing it, as Dalton is quick to point out. “One of the things that separates the MAT method from other modalities”, he writes, “is the importance placed on restoration of function to joint capsules; particularly, restoration of joint play to the capsular articulations. Cleary, all our joints have a capsule of some kind, often consisting of fibrous, fatty, membranous or cartilaginous tissue”. Although massage therapy schools commonly teach treatments for joints such as the glenohumeral, temporomandibular, clavicular or the knees, MAT techniques “are aimed primarily at the articulations of the vertebral, rib and sacroiliac capsules”, Dalton says. “Even though capsular routines are a major part of our program, I want to stay away from comparing the MAT program to chiropractic”. Dalton devotes ample space in his manual to separating the two. “We strive to restore mobility to the soft tissues of the joint capsules. When applying pressure to the articular pillars of the cervical spine, our intent is to not only mobilize the joint capsule, but to help release 4th-layer muscles like the intertransversarii that often cause joint fixations”. “Therapists should not be digging on the intertransversarii because of the neural structures surrounding the transverse processes, but these highly important and frequently hypertonic muscles need to be worked, to help restore cervical function,” he continues. “Consequently, we use the bones as levers to release these hard-to-mobilize soft tissues. This is a separate concept from chiropractic, where their focus is on localizing down to the dysfunctional lesion and thrusting the joint into a non-physiologic range of motion to unlock facets often stuck from adhesions caused by repeated friction to the articular cartilages. The [American Massage Therapy Association’s] rules make it clear that massage therapists are not allowed to take the joint into a non-physiologic range of motion. I intentionally do not disobey this rule, and this is what keeps the Myoskeletal Techniques within the massage therapy scope of practice.”
While zeroing in on these specific and deep soft tissues, Dalton keeps a broad focus: “My intention is to assist today’s therapist in recognizing that most of these chronic pain problems are much more involved than trigger points [or] muscle toxicity. Concentrating on neck and back dysfunctions, I try to teach that it is a waste of time to view chronic pain as emanating from a single structure. So we use (Janda’s) muscle imbalance theories, ligament work and capsular release techniques to achieve that goal.” ??Dalton further distinguishes himself from both Rolfing and chiropractic in two ways. One is through his concentration on assessment of the muscle firing order in walking (as developed by Janda, though the treatment is specific to Dalton). He also differentiates his work through techniques for generating muscle tone via spindle-stimulating techniques (see Body Language, “C,” November/December 2000), and frictioning techniques specifically designed to stimulate fiber proliferation in lax ligaments and capsules. Notwithstanding the fact that the proximal and distal crossed syndromes of Janda – looking for the muscle patterns that predictably contain the strain patterns that lead to the pain patterns – are a very important element in soft-tissue work, they will be considered in a later column. Right now, we wanted to explore Erik Dalton’s unique contribution to depth.