In part one of Fascinating Fascia we found out what fascia is. If you haven’t read this article, have a look here. In a nutshell, fascia is a body wide, three-dimensional interconnected web of sliding, fluid filled tissue. It cushions and connects each and every muscle, bone, organ, nerve and blood vessel. Every movement within the fascial web affects the web as a whole, due to its biotensegrity structure.
Fascia As an Sensory Organ
Scientists used to think that fascia was inert, just packing material. Yet we now know that fascia is highly enervated. New research is discovering that there are more sensory nerve endings in the fascia than there are in the eye or the skin. This recent revelation means that fascia may be viewed as our richest sensory organ. Whereas the eye is the organ of our visual sense; the fascia (or the interstitium) is the organ of our kinaesthetic sense. This sense is vital for our health and wellbeing. The nerve endings most commonly found in fascia are called mechanoreceptors. Tiny, yet highly complex, sensory nerve endings are distributed thought the fascia. They sense and communicate information about pressure, movement and direction.
Fascia and the Nervous System
The mechanoreceptors generate electric fields that send information back to the brain, through the spinal cord. However, these electric fields are also able to communicate through to different areas within the fascial net. As fascia is a water-based medium, the electric fields ripple through it much faster than they can travel through the nerves (750mph through fascia; 150mph through nerves). This means that each part of the body is aware of and responds to every other part. The response time between sensing and action is very fast. This enables us to to get out of danger very quickly, in fight or flight mode. This interconectedness through the fascial net also enable us to feel ourselves as one piece, rather than as a collection of pieces, all connected to each other via the brain. Whole body movement is an important concept to embody if we are to become more resilient and free of strains, aches and pains.
As this is such a young science, little is known currently about this fascial communication. It is thought that the mechanoreceptors are able to influence the hormonal system. The receptors are able to trigger the release of substances like histamine (contributing to an inflammation response) and serotonin (contributing to wellbeing and happiness). This might explain how postural stance has such a quick and measurable effect on both mood and hormonal profile. What we do know is that these tiny receptors in the fascia give us our most important “sixth sense” – kinaesthetic sense. Kinaesthetic sense can be divided into to main parts: proprioceptive sense and interoceptive sense.
Proprioception – External Awareness of our Body in Space
The mechanoreceptors enable us to get a sense of where we are in space. However if we don’t consciously evaluate and calibrate where we ACTUALLY are in space (using our eyes) with where we FEEL we are (using our kinaesthetic sense), we can have a false idea of how we are holding ourselves. One of the main reasons we need a teacher is to see our unconscious holding patterns and to guide us in a new more aligned way of moving. All conscious movement enables us to fine tune this proprioceptive sense.With practice we will start to recognise when we are holding ourselves unskilfully in every day life. We will make better use of our bodies because we can sense more readily where we are in relation to gravity and to our central axis – our spine.
Interoception – Internal Awareness of Our Soma
Interoception is how we feel inside ourselves. When our stomach feels cramped we may not sense it unless we have a practice of checking in with how we feel. Doing a simply body scan might help us notice other places where we are holding unconsciously. Areas of tension might include the throat, chest or upper back, the pelvic floor, the solar plexus. Many of the these bodily sensations occur around the chakras. Cultivating this sense helps us to learn how to use our intuition, or our “gut feeling”. We can avoid danger and make better choices by honing this sense. On a more mundane level this sense tells us when we are hungry, thirsty, tired or need to go to the loo. Our interoceptive abilities are diminished if we spend too much time outward looking at computers, phones and TVs. Giving ourself the time to direct our attention within (in yoga is this called pratayara) is becoming scientifically acknowledged as important for mental health and wellbeing. Interoceptive practices like yoga, meditation and mindfulness are helpful when we feel over-stimulated, overwhelmed or anxious. These practices are now used to help counter addictive behaviour and the effects of trauma and prolonged stress.
Yoga for Health and Longevity
This understanding of the fascia as a nerve rich organ of kinaesthetic sense helps us to understand why yoga is so beneficial for our body-mind. Yoga engages us in physical movement, taking us through the full range of movement of all of joints and muscles. With the help of a teacher, we are able to calibrate and realign ourselves so that we place far less stress on our joints and muscles. We can, in many cases, increase our energy levels as we age as we learn to use ourselves more efficiently. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness helps us to withdraw inwards. We can focus on the breath or simply be present with sensations in the body. This helps us to relax and manage stress. By engaging in regular yoga practices that are designed specifically to improve proprioception and interoception, we are giving ourselves the best chance to cultivate a healthy mind and a healthy body. We can counter the negative effects of modern living and become more resilient to physical, mental and emotional stresses as we grow older and wiser.