An Interview with Eli Thompson on Tensegri-teach

When and how did you decide to become a bodyworker?
It was really a blessing in disguise.  During my third year studying Mechanical Engineering I caught Hepatitis A from a local fast food restaurant.  There was a small epidemic and about 100 people got sick.  It knocked me out for a couple of months and when I returned to school, I realized that I was really not that interested.  I was going through the motions.  I started looking for something else but also looking inwards.  I stumbled into the local massage school and the seed was planted.  It grew remarkably fast.  Working one-on-one on a manual level engaged me in a much more fulfilling way.
During the first year of my Massage training, I took Tom Myers’ Anatomy Trains (AT) workshop.  This really opened my eyes to the possibilities of the work.  Because the AT theory pulls from so many different fields it acted as a unifying field theory for me, unifying my two worlds.  It brought in my love for the new sciences as a foundation for this rather new and foreign interpersonal, touchy-feely stuff.  Three years later I was certified by Tom as a KMI Structural Integrator and three years after that as a certified teacher for his School of Kinesis.  Now I teach the Anatomy Trains and try to inspire others as Tom inspired me.  I love it!
Can you describe in simple terms the concept of Tensegrity.
Tensegrity is a wonderful design principle that is used by nature everywhere.  It was discovered by Kenneth Snelson, popularized by Buckminster Fuller, and a new field of research has grown around it called Bio-Tensegrity.
A Tensegrity model is composed of several solid struts that do not touch each other but rather float in a web of tension.  The struts resist compression and are always pushing out while the tensile bands are resisting expansion and always pulling in.  The balance between the two creates a very stable and dynamic structure.  Integrity through tension; thus the name Tensegrity.  The benefits of these structures is that they are always distributing strain evenly through-out the whole structure.  That implies that when a tensegrity structure gets hit the whole structure takes the strain, not just the part that got hit.  In comparison, a compressive model like a stack of bricks is not dynamic and all the strain accumulates at the bottom brick and the strain of an impact is managed very locally.  Another remarkable property that only exists in Tensegrity structures is that if you compress a model in one dimension, the whole model will compress in all three dimensions.  And the opposite is true, too.  If you expand a Tensegrity model in one direction, the whole thing will expand and grow.
How does Tensegrity relate to the body and how can it be used in bodywork?
If we consider the body from the old western muscular skeletal system, the body becomes a stack of bones with hundreds of muscles hanging off of it, somehow managing to create our graceful movement.  It’s a parts based view and it’s a hard for us to relate to it as movers.  However, if we consider the body from a myofascial-skeletal system, the image changes dramatically.  We start with one seamless fascial web organizing every stitch and fold of the body.  Within that webbing we find concentrated pockets of muscle fibres imbedded within that web, organized neatly around a skeletal system that is being balanced and organized by the tension within that web.  This is a much more holistic view that becomes much more viscerally believable.  Now, when you look at a Tensegri-Teach model it is not too big of a leap to visualize the struts as bones and the web of interconnecting bands as the fascia with the elastic nature of the bands representing the neuromuscular control of our bodies.
From a Tensegrity perspective it implies that the fascial web is always trying to distribute the strain in our body evenly, no matter what we are doing.  The more stuck our tissues are the less strain is distributed through-out and the more locally it is handled.  Also, the tighter we hold ourselves the more we compress globally.  Our job is to free up the tissues and help the body handle its strains globally, in an expansive way.
Unfortunately, Tensegrity is quite a hard model to visualize and explain to your clients.  They really need to see it and hold it and play with it.  Once they feel it, it becomes much more real and meaningful to them.  Only then can they appreciate the benefits of working with a manual or movement therapist who understands this.
How the Tensegri-Teach models can be used as a teaching tool for bodyworkers?
There are several obvious properties that people get as soon as they hold it.  The idea that the dowels represent the bones balanced in the web of tension of the fascial web and the elasticity of the bands representing the neuro-muscular control  of the tension in the web just takes saying.  When they start pushing and prodding the structure I will point out that as they move one dowel, all the dowels adjust.  This is the strain distribution aspect of tensegrity.  It represents the fact that no muscle ever works in isolation in the body and as soon as one thing goes off in the body, the whole body starts adapting and compensating for it.  The longer that happens the more it gets fascially grown into the system.  It helps show the client that their shoulder problem is not only in the shoulder and the body wide pattern must be considered.
These ideas are very holistic and naturally believable to even the lay man.  It doesn’t take much convincing to get the client to buy into it.  But being able to hold it and feel it and see it makes it even easier.
How did you come around making Tensegri-Teach model?
I was first introduced to Tensegrity by Tom in the Anatomy Trains workshop and his certification program.  Back then there was a nice tensegrity kit called a Tensegri-Toy available.  However, a few years later, the company closed.  I was already producing BenchWorks: The Bodyworkers Bench and so I recognized the need and took on the challenge.  A few prototypes later, the Tensegri-Teach model was born.
The standard Tensegri-Teach comes with the 6 dowels, are you able to do more with that? 
Yes, there are any number of shapes and designs you can create with the Tensegri-Teach system.  One model will allow you to create the basic Icosahedron which you can play with to create a number of different looks to it.  As you add more dowels you can create bigger and bigger structures.  Two Tensegri-Teach models will allow you to create a 12 dowel Octohedron.  With more models you can create towers, bridges, or dome like structures that are ever increasing in complexity and adaptability.  However, the simple 6 dowel and 12 dowel models are sufficient to explain the principles of Tensegrity to one’s clients.
I saw that you have created a Geodesic Dome model just by using simple plastic tubes.
Yes, the Dynamic Geodesic Model illustrates how the dynamic stability of a tensegrity structure dependences on the amount of tension within it.  If it is too tights it becomes stronger but more rigid.  If it is too loose it becomes wobbly and unstable until it eventually collapses under its own weight.  Most cell membranes use this property of Tensegrity to organize their internal structure.  For example, a Leukocyte cell holds a good amount of tension across its membrane most of the time and that gives it a spherical shape.  However, when it reaches a site of inflammation it reduces that tension and morphs into a flat cell that can squeeze in between the cells of the capillary wall.  Once it is through, it recreates the tension in its tensegrity structure and reforms into a sphere.  This kind of dynamic adaptability is happening all the time in our bodies.  This is illustrated marvellously in the Harvard Biovisions video available on Youtube
What do you find most exciting about bodywork therapy?
I find the potential for the personal, psycho-emotional, spiritual changes most exciting.  Even though this is something that can’t really be planned or expected through the work, when it happens its quite wonderful.  When I work with a client, I ‘see’ their structural imbalances and the resulting dysfunction.  That is something I can work with and guild them towards long term, dramatic changes.  However, I also know that as their body changes, they will change in a much deeper but more unpredictable way.  As their body changes, their awareness and understanding of their body grows, too.  They have the potential to live in that body differently and embody themselves differently.  To feel themselves differently.  To be different.  It may happen in recognizable ways or it may be unrecognized by me or the client.  If we change the vessel for the spirit, the spirit may manifest in new ways that can be quite wondrous.  That is the magic of this work.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
I would say that shifting from a parts based, reductionist perspective of the body to a systems based Fascial Tensegrity model has been the hardest process (learn more at the  We are so entrained into parts based thinking.  Almost everything is organized that way.  But when we fully shift into a 4-Dimensional (time being the 4th) view of a completely interdependent, interwoven system we start gaining a fuller understanding of the complexity of the human body.  We start being able to imagine how the changes we make will propagate over time and plan for it.  It allows a multi session series to gain greater cohesion momentum and cohesion.  It makes it more of a growth process than a foreign intervention that the body must struggle to adapt to and integrate.  It is not a science but an art and has taken me about 10 years to start thinking in those terms.
What is your current project?
I have recently redesigned the BenchWorks bench.  In Structural Integration, some of the work is performed on a seated client.  There are several benefits to that such as improved ergonomics, the client is more involvement in stabilization and weight bearing, and there is an increased educational component to the client of how to organize in the seated posture.  We do spend so much time in that position after all.  Ida Rolfs bench hadn’t been redesigned since she originally created it and it was not readily available at the store.  So I used my engineering background to create the BenchWorks bench which is lighter, easier to adjust, costs substantially less, and is available internationally.  This second version was an attempt to reduce the chance of human error in adjusting the seat height.  Overall, I am very happy with the improvements.
How do you see the future of bodywork and massage therapy?
I see the Manual and Movement / Strength Training professions as potentially leading the evolution of Spatial Medicine.  The appreciation of how the spatial relationships in the body impact our health and function is growing.  I feel that the more we focus on how seamless and integrated our Neuro-Myofascial-Skeletal systems are the more we will understand how to maintain a vibrant, dynamic body that can readily handle the changing stresses of life.  I think that over the next 30 years we will show to the medical community how much can be changed with manual work, and how effective and cost effective it can be in the long run.
Eli is the founder of Benchworks Bench and Tensegri-Teach: Dynamic Learning Tools for Manual Therapists.  He is also a Massage Therapist, KMI Structural Integrator, and teacher of Tom Myers School of Kinesis.