Fascia: What Every Teacher (and Practitioner) Should Know
Although our fascia (a vast network of fibrous connective tissue within the body, pronounced “FAH-sha”) has been with us all along, it's only recently being appreciated for the invaluable role that it plays in the body's health and functioning. Much has been written and taught about the more familiar structures of the body—our bones, muscles, organs, blood vessels, and nerves—and for years of anatomical study, fascia was disregarded as nothing more than an inert “space-filler” inside of us. In fact, the field of fascia research is so new that there is an incredible amount that we still don’t know about this mysterious tissue. But one thing we can confidently report is that fascia is a much more dynamic, communicative, and integral part of the body than we previously realized.
For years of anatomical study, fascia was disregarded as nothing more than an inert “space-filler” inside of us.
Fascia: It's Everywhere Inside of You
Instead of thinking of fascia as an inanimate space-filler, we now know that this fascinating system is a 3D web of connectivity that surrounds and interpenetrates all of our various “parts." Our fascial system is technically comprised of all of the soft tissue connective tissue inside of us. This fiber-and-fluid-based system includes what are known as our superficial, deep, and loose fascial layers, as well as our ligaments and tendons.
In Latin, the word fascia means “band," which is quite appropriate considering the way this tissue “bands us together” on the inside. Although we often picture our individual body parts as independent structures, in truth, our fascia weaves our muscles, bones, organs, nerves, and blood vessels together into a 100% interconnected network that is much more whole than it is separate.
Take our muscles, for example. When we talk about the physical benefits of an asana, we often focus on which muscles are being stretched or strengthened in that particular pose. We’ll say that pashchimottanasana (seated forward fold) “stretches the hamstrings." But in reality, our muscles are completely surrounded and interwoven with three distinct layers of fascia. In fact, these three fascial layers blend together at either end of a muscle and become its tendons. Muscle and fascia are so intertwined that a muscle, collectively with its tendons, is often referred to as a myofascial unit instead of simply a muscle.
This means that during asana practice we are always manipulating both our muscles and our fascia at the same time. There's not a single pose out there that targets only our muscles or only our fascia. Additionally, our muscles (or myofascial units) never truly operate as individual, isolated muscles, even though we often talk about them behaving that way. Via fascial connections, muscles are linked into long functional chains, and really, it's these larger myofascial chains that are responsible for our movement. Instead of focusing on the separateness of our “parts," fascia gives us the opportunity to appreciate the reality of our interconnectedness.
When we look to our fascia, we can see an alive, tangible representation of the principle of oneness within our very own bodies.
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.
A Dynamic Organ of Communication
In addition to creating our literal interconnectedness, fascia also plays the remarkable role of helping the body to sense itself without using the eyes to see itself from the outside. Fascia is full of innumerable sensory nerve endings that are in constant communication with the brain about the body’s position in space. This ability for the body to use “inner vision” to sense itself is called proprioception, which is sometimes referred to as our "true sixth sense." In fact, you are actually using proprioception right now as you read this article. That's because if we didn’t have the ability to sense the body with our “inner vision," we wouldn’t be able to move through life in a controlled way. Without our proprioception we would all probably be lying in helpless, uncoordinated heaps on the floor—it’s really that important of a sense!
Because our fascial system is a major organ of proprioception, the health of our fascia is directly connected to how developed our “inner vision” is.
We all possess an acceptable level of proprioception that allows the body to move through life, but we’re now learning that high-quality proprioception can be an extremely important key to healthy aging. Researchers have recently uncovered a link between increased levels of proprioception and decreased levels of pain in the body. In other words, the more that your brain can sense your body accurately, the less pain you tend to experience. In addition, the more developed your proprioception is, the more skillful your daily movements will naturally become, reducing your chances of injury in the first place (and this becomes increasingly important as we grow older).
Variation is Key
Because our fascial system is a major organ of proprioception, the health of our fascia is directly connected to how developed our “inner vision” is. One of the main ways that fascia stays healthy is by experiencing varied (as opposed to repetitive) movements. If we load our fascial tissues the same way all the time (as in repetitive activities like running, biking, too many chaturangas, or sitting at a computer for eight hours every day), they will grow weaker and more prone to injury. If we instead feed our fascia a wide array of movements—from non-repetitive yoga and therapeutic exercise to walking on varied terrains to climbing rocks and trees to regular bodywork and massage—our fascia will respond by adapting to this diversity of movement input and it will grow stronger and more resilient. Movement variability and high quality proprioception are some of the most powerful tools we can utilize when it comes to aging gracefully in our bodies.
Fascia research has offered many new insights about the structure and function of our bodies, and as this emerging field develops there will be much more fascinating information to come! In the meantime, let’s take care of our fascia through yoga practice and other healthy forms of movement so that it can continue to do its amazing job of supporting us from the inside out.
Jenni Rawlings is a yoga teacher with an emphasis on anatomy, biomechanics, physiology, and movement science. You can find out more about her offerings and teachings at www.jennirawlings.com.