Fascia is fasci(a)nating

That’s a picture of yogis practicing their respective butterfly poses in Yin.  Yin is all about the connective tissues, but really, what is this fascia and what can I really do to help it?

All of us know about muscles, joints, ligaments. – how to stretch, how to build strength. And now in recent times, bootcamp instructors are talking about fascia.

What on earth is fascia? And could it be that the years of being told to exercise ‘go hard or go home’, may actually be bad for you?

“Our muscles are encased in fascia, a continuous web of tissue that weaves in and around our muscles, our organs, nerves and lymph and bones.”

Like a silk body stocking, only on the inside of our bodies. The whiteish, sometimes glistening fibres you see when you pull a piece of meat apart – that is fascia. 

Our body is a sea of organic tension from top to toe, muscle and bones, organs with the fascia surrounding connecting and holding us together. We call this ‘tensegrity’. And it suggests that fascia is far more important than we knew 5 years ago.

Fascia coordinates every move of your body, and western science now believes it is far more ‘intelligent’ than muscles. It carries electrical impulses, responds to feelings, so more than our structural ‘glue’.

When we trip or fall, it is not only our muscles that are hurt. In most cases, our fascia takes the brunt of the injury. And stores it for longer.

“Ever had an injury you can’t quite understand? Painful, but you’re having a hard time diagnosing exactly what it is? This could be your fascia talking to you.”

When healthy, fascia allows our body to move as freely as it can, yet holds us together (it connects the upper part of our body with the lower part, for example). When it is unhealthy or restricted, it binds the muscles making movement and exercise limited and can cause tension and pressure as great as 2,000 pounds per square inch.  Ouch.

This explains why sometimes we have an injury that just won’t go away, with a pain level far in excess of what may have caused the initial injury, and also appearing to be larger than the initial injury point. (If you have ever had an Achilles tendon injury, you will know exactly what I mean).

On average our body is 60% water (the brain 73%, the lungs 83%). Muscles are 80%. Fascia is only 12% water.

This makes fascia very strong – any stronger and we would be bulletproof.

So fascia is strong, holds us together, yet up until the last 5 years, the only people talking about it were medical scientists and ‘loony’ fitness fringes (not my term BTW).

How magical is fascia?

With the discovery of fascia, a large array of alternative physical therapy from the more ‘mainstream’ to the esoteric, leapt onto the fascia bandwagon. Fascial release, rolling to name a few have become trendy.

WanderingYogi’s meta-research of journals, articles written by mainstream and alternative therapies, indicates that much of the hullabaloo is just that. Many of the claimed benefits tread on shaky logic.

Many of the recent claims have major internal logic contradictions.  Examples:

Claim 1 – Deep tissue massage helps the fascia – given the toughness of fascia, you would have to be massaged not only deeply, but for a very very long time for any impact on it.  Longer than the usual one hour massage, more like three hours.

Claim 2 – Myo-fascial release (trigger point therapy) delivers low load pressure to release tension in the muscle area.  If you have an injury, working at the external source of the pain, may only reach part of the problem (remembering that fascia is connective and connected from the top of our head to the tip of our toe – it transfers pain).   Given the nature of fascia it is highly unlikely to respond to trigger point, and even less so, with low load.

HOWEVER….

If you spend time studying biology, you know we consist of a diverse and interconnected community of cells. If we were to draw the internal workings of our bodies, the only areas with clear delineations are our organs and bones, everything else has fuzzy connections at their edges to each other, muscles, fascia, tendons, joint capsules.

Mainstream anatomy atlases and kinesiology texts tend to reduce us to Newtonian biomechanics of forces, vectors, and levers as if we are manufactured from parts like a car or a computer. This is a very limited viewpoint that explains some behaviors of our system but obscures others.  Particularly that of fascia.

And there is the rub. Western science still cannot explain, by their own standards, why some days we feel absolutely fantastic and others not so.

“It’s not that nothing’s going on … it’s that nothing in particular and knowable is going on that western science can easily explain.”

There is a greater purpose for fascia than the structural ‘glue’ of our body.

And that greater purpose is the transference or flow of emotional energy in our body. We know we can feel emotions from the top of our heads to the tips of our toes.  At the same time.

How does this happen, if emotion is purely a cognitive reaction? Because fascia is our biomechanical regulatory system –  and must this not also include feelings?

How often have you had sore shoulders, and you feel like you have the world on your shoulders? All that worry.

Or when you have a broken heart, how come we feel aching in the tips of our fingers or toes?

Eastern science however, has an explanation for why we feel like this. TCM  (Traditional Chinese Medicine) believes we have energy lines (meridians) for our major organs which are also linked to feelings. The meridians run through our body, in a pattern, but not very ordered.  The Hindi culture believes that our body is a sea of nadis, or energy whorls where there are key intersections in our body (known as chakras).  Also a pattern, but not very ordered. Both map remarkably similarly to each other.  Both are thousands of years old view of the human body.

By applying pressure to certain points or areas along these meridians, emotional energy is released – our body experiences positive or negative changes depending upon whether the pressure is positive or negative.

Korean researchers have recently discovered there is a microvascular system running through our fascia which appears to move in much the same way as the meridians that Chinese medicine discovered a few thousand years ago.

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ANZA WanderingYogis in Sleeping Swan with Namaste hands – traditionally a 4 minute hold on each side in yin.

 

 

Ask the ANZA yogis who regular practice yin yoga – a form of yoga that connects both western and eastern science in nourishing and restoring our fascia – and they will describe feelings of over-whelming physical and emotional well-being. Yin yoga works the physical and emotional components of our fascia, while also calming our minds (an essential component for restoring or rejuvenating stressed bodies). Yin yoga teachers often say our deep connective tissues house the chi force.

How can we keep our fascia happy and healthy?

Our fascial web is plastic, meaning we can change it, often more permanently than muscles.  It takes positive or negative actions and lifestyles – which is good or bad news, depending on how you want to live life.

Some tips:

  • Stretch or Physical Therapy: Fascia is strong and stubborn – once it’s tightened, you have to move slow and hold gentle stretches for long periods of times (at least 3 times longer than any other form of physical activity, including more traditional yoga). Yin yoga is brilliant (I consider it the sleeping giant of yoga). If you have significant body issues, see a good physiotherapist or other bodyworker who understands the practicality of fascia. But the good news is, once you have a regular practice of stretching, fascia will hold its new place for much longer than muscles do.   
  • Acupuncture: Reduces local inflammation and enhances blood circulation to reduce the pain in western science. It also rebalances and shakes up the energy lines within our fascia. Yin yoga uses self-acupressure.
  • Drink Up: Your mum used to say it – and it is true. Your fascia is made of water but not a lot – you need to drink loads more than you do now if you want to move and feel better.

And come to yin yoga…. Join the ANZA WanderingYogis for a dose of yin and see what I am talking about.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the June 2016 edition of ANZA Singapore Magazine. Become an ANZA member, and as a ANZA Yogi,  you enjoy discounted rates for yoga classes and many other benefits.

 

 

 

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