“As yogis, we’re perhaps familiar with the concept of using practice as a means to dissolve the illusion of the individual self (atman) in order to connect to the greater transcendent oneness of which we are all a part (brahman). When we look to our fascia, we can see an alive, tangible representation of the principle of oneness within our very own bodies. Our continuous fascial network unites us on the inside and creates an environment where what happens in one localized area of the body (a yoga stretch, a massage, an injury) directly affects the body as a whole.”
– Jenni Rawlingsi
Oneness is a principle that applies to the entirety of the universe, and our bodies are no exception. Introducing fascia, the embodiment of oneness in our bodies that literally holds us all together.
If you look for a definition on Wikipedia it states: “Fasciae are normally thought of as passive structures that transmit mechanical tension generated by muscular activities or external forces throughout the body.”ii What an understatement! This reflects the outdated view that fascia is inert. As modern science progresses we are coming to realize that fascia is highly integrated with the rest of the human body.
Fascia is often referred to as a 3-dimensional spider web. It holds everything together: our nerves, blood vessels, organs, and so on. We can also think of it as the packing peanuts in our body or the saran wrap around our internal structures. It does everything from distributing shock and force throughout the body, to holding our organs in place, to drawing wounds closed, and so much more!
Fascia Can Contract!
Within the past 15 years it has been discovered that fascia contains myofibroblasts. So what’s the big deal? These types of cells can contract when stimulated, meaning our fascia has the ability for micro-contractions, it’s much more dynamic than we used to believe! As the tensile stress placed on fascia increases, more myofibroblasts develop in the fascia. When we have a wound, these myofibroblasts contract to help pull the wound together, allowing for the body to naturally close the wound and repair itself. Studies have found that fascial tissues with high levels of myofibroblasts can generate enough of a contractionary force to contribute to movement of the body!
Our Natural Shock Absorbers: Faster than a Speeding Bullet
Fascia acts as our bodies’ natural shock absorber, distributing force throughout the body so it does not stress one area too greatly. “It is now clear that fascia distributes strain laterally to neighboring myofascial structures; so that the pull on the tendon at one end is not necessarily entirely taken by the insertion at the other end of the muscle.”iii (Myers, 43). This is a much more efficient way for our bodies to distribute stress. If impact is spread over a larger distance it becomes less highly concentrated and places less stress on a single muscle or tendon, like a ninja rolling out of a fall.
Tension and compression forces travel as a vibration at the speed of sound, over three times faster than the speed of nervous system communication! Have you ever been deep in conversation and missed a step? Without visibly seeing the new elevation of the floor, your nervous system does not anticipate the drop and your responsive muscles are unprepared to absorb the shock placed on your legs. Here the fascial system immediately comes to the rescue, absorbing almost all of the shock in a fraction of a second (Myers 34).
However, communication around the structural body can be much slower. Recent tension in your neck may be related to an injury in your shoulder months or years ago as the body’s compensation for injury plays out slowly over time. That old nagging pain in your lower back might be derived from chronically spraining your ankle as a child. Our biography becomes our biology; especially encoded in our connective tissue!
The Arm Bone’s Connected to the…Whole Body!
Fascia is an integrative network from which we have made different distinctions, such as terming plantar fasciitis and the achilles tendon as separate identities. However it is all interconnected. Fascia is a single continuous network that scientists have separated into different components for ease of labeling and clarity.
Take look at the most glorified of all muscles, the biceps brachii. We say that the biceps has its origin on the scapula (via the supraglenoid tubercule and the coracoid process) and inserts to the forearm (via the radial tuberosity and the bicipital aponeurosis). Scientists have made the distinction between the tendons and muscle for simplicity and in today’s society we think of them as separate entities. In reality, the tissues of the muscle increase in density as they approach bones to become tendons. The tissues of the tendon increase in density to become bones. The process repeats itself as bone tissue becomes less dense to become tendon and then muscle. And thus our whole musculoskeletal system is interconnected!
Feel Your Fascia
Try this exercise to experience the fascial connection in your body.
- Come into a standing forward fold and find your edge, attempting to straighten the legs as much as is comfortable. Take note of the feeling and depth of your position.
- Now grab a hard ball, like a tennis or lacrosse ball, and roll the entire base of one foot along the ball for two minutes. Feel the difference between your two legs.
- Repeat rolling on the ball on the other side.
- Now attempt to fold forward once more and notice if you can go deeper.
Relaxing the fascial connection at the base of the foot helps to open up the hamstrings higher up the fascial line, allowing you to move deeper!
Fascia and Yoga
Anytime that we stretch a muscle, we are also always stretching the fascia that runs in and around that muscle. Our muscles are surrounded and interwoven with fascia. Certain styles of yoga, particularly yin yoga, place more of the stretch on our fascia. In yin yoga we hold poses for a longer period of time and attempt to minimize muscular engagement. Our connective tissues respond best to slow, consistent stretch in order to lengthen and strengthen. This is why it’s important to apply both yin and yang to our yoga practices to reach all levels of the body!
Hydrate for High Quality Fascia
Keeping our fascia well hydrated is pivotal in preventing injuries, increasing the efficiency of our movements, and even reducing the visible effects of aging. We are beings made of water, much of which is stored in our fascia. If our fascia gets knotted it can become similar to kinks in a hose, preventing the tissues from receiving proper hydration. This reduces the natural springiness quality of our fascia.
Try pinching and pulling the skin on your forearm. As you release, the elasticity of fascia causes it to spring back to its normal shape. As we age and our tissues start to lose hydration, wrinkles form as the springiness of our fascial tissues diminish.
Recall the post about tendons and ligaments? We looked into the elasticity of the Achilles tendon while walking and running. With each step our Achilles tendon absorbs some of the impact between our body and the ground and transfers that kinetic energy to spring the foot back up to take the next step. This reduces the amount of effort we need to apply and absorbs some of the impact on our bodies. Having healthy, hydrated fascia makes us more efficient in our bodies!
So the question remains how do we ensure proper hydration for our fascia? According to Brooke Thomas (fascia fanatic and host of the Liberated Body podcast) the answer lies in movement.iv The more varied the types of movement, the better. This means moving in different planes and at different intensities, not just repeating the same few movements over and over. This is why yoga and many different forms of bodywork (thai massage, rolfing, etc.) are beneficial for our fascia.
Fun Fascia Facts
- The striation in your cornea that creates amazing shapes is actually fascia. So is the enamel covering your teeth.
- Mood and emotions can affect our posture. Imagine a young child being scared. They tend to become stiff, curl up, and make themselves smaller as a result. Someone who is feeling proud tends to stand more upright and broaden across the chest. Studies are investigating how mood affects our physical bodies through our connective tissues.
- Fascia is under constant tension due to gravity called the human resting myofascial tone. This low level of tension helps to stabilize our posture. (This is why astronauts often have issues such as osteoarthritis after spending significant time in zero gravity.)
- Connective tissue has over 10x more proprioceptors than muscle (Myers 2011)v. This greatly aids in our balance and overall body awareness. (We saw in the Discomfort vs. Pain post how important proprioceptors are for our body awareness.)
- Fascia creates the slings that keep our organs in place
- Fascia develops around day 14 of embryology
- When we wake up our bodies typically feel tighter and less flexible than usual. During sleep we are immobile and our body temperature is at its lowest. This makes our fascia less elastic. In response we often unconsciously stretch our arms overhead to ‘unstick’ our fascia. (Watch a dog wake up from sleeping and you’ll likely see them stretch their arms and legs out as well!) As the day progresses and our body temperature rises our fascia becomes more elastic. This is due to the viscoelasticity of our fascia (the proportion of water, collagen, and elastin in our tissues and its responses to changes in temperature).
Over the next few posts we’ll dive into how fascia affects how we experience a pose in our bodies, how it can help us to protect our knees and hamstrings, and some of its applications in thai massage and other healing practices.
The connectivity of fascia binds us all. It creates that oneness within us, a microcosm of the onenees around us. There is an ocean within each of us, which is but a drop in the ocean of life. So stay hydrated and nourish the oceans both large and small.
iiiMyers, Thomas W. Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Maual and Movement Therapists. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingston, 2009. Print.
vMyers, T.W. 2011. Fascial fitness: Training in the neuromyofascial web. IDEA Fitness Journal, 8(4), 36–43.