What is Fascia?
When I mention fascia while teaching a yoga class, I’m often asked: “What is fascia?”
Fascia is a huge and complex subject. Consequently, I often feel I don’t have the time to answer this question properly. So I’m excited and delighted to finally organise my thoughts into an article about this fascinating subject.
If you look at a medical dictionary or Wikipedia, you’ll get a definition something like this:
Fascia is a “band or sheet of connective tissue, primarily collagen, beneath the skin that attaches, stabilises, encloses and separates all muscles and internal organs.”
This definition alludes to parts of the body that are predominantly fascia. Such as the plantar fascia (the section of fascia under our heel that can get inflamed and sore if we walk incorrectly). Another lesser-known body area of fascia is the thoracolumbar fascia. Tightness here is a little-known cause of lower back pain). Yet this definition is very limiting. It completely fails to communicate the truly awesome nature of fascia.
A New Anatomical Model
We tend to think of our bodies as built on a framework of levers (bones) and pulleys (muscles). The sacks of fluid (organs) are hung or squashed in between. Traditional anatomical drawings were created without reference to the fascia. In fact, the anatomists would discard the fascia, viewing it as mere “packing material.”
This old understanding of our body structures being separate and unrelated, like the pieces of a Meccano set, no longer serves us. A modern view is to see the body as layers of stretchy interconnected wetsuits. The bones, muscles and organs hold the space within this stretchy continuous webbing. Every movement is communicated throughout the whole structure. This type of structure, known as a tensegrity structure, is prized in architecture for being very light and strong.
Tensegrity – Fascia, Pain and Dysfunction
Tensegrity allows a distribution of forces throughout the structure. As result of this property, when you move your toes, the effects are felt globally in the fascial network. This means that when a part of you is hurting or stuck, it affects movement in your whole body. This can be good in the short term, as it enables you to find a way to work around the injury while it rests and heals. However, it’s important to repattern this coping strategy, once the injury is healed. Otherwise, you’re likely to get stuck using a less efficient pathway through the fascia.
A tensegrity model of the body allows us to realise that problems can originate at a distance from the site of pain. For example, a knee joint may be affected by difficulties in grounding a big toe or engaging the outer glute muscle. This is true, despite the fact that there is no clear connection through the musculature. Understanding fascia helps us to solve the puzzle of chronic pain and strain in the joints. In addition, it may also help us to understand the chronic pain of fibromyalgia (more on that in Part 3).
Fascia and Breathing
Whole body breathing is key to sensing the global nature of fascia. This practice creates release and openness throughout the fascial net. Consequently, there is a strong emphasis on breath and pelvic tilting in the Holistic Yoga classes. These foundational movements cultivate a conscious connection to your whole body. The rhythmic nature of the thoracic diaphragm massages the internal organs and moves the spine. The result of this is a movement is a constant wave pattern flowing through the fascial network. If we are consciously breathing (the breath doesn’t have to be a big breath) this wave creates pliability, hydration and awareness within the fascial net.
Learning to whole-body-breathe unconsciously, allows us to benefit the fascial net, even as we sleep. Students of the Yoga for Healthy Lower Backs course find that by changing the way they breathe, they start to release tension in the back by creating more slide and glide in the thoracolumbar fascia. As a result, they find the stiffness and pain in the lower back eases and becomes less painful. For many students, the change from unconsciously chest breathing (reverse breathing) to diaphragmatic breathing is key to creating this change.
Both images above are from commons.wikimedia.org and licensed for use, click the image for more details. The left image is an outdated hierarchical structure, the right is a visualisation of how people connect through a social media networks.
From Hierarchical to Networked Systems
Another notable quality of the old anatomical model of levers and pulleys is that is a hierarchical system. The brain is at the top, the central processing unit, the supreme leader. The feet are very lowly items, not worthy of much attention, similar to the pelvic floor. We stick our feet in casts (AKA shoes) and forget them. We sit on our tailbone and switch off awareness in the pelvic floor. Foot problems and pelvic floor issues are very prevalent. Unfortunately, modern medicine addresses these problems pretty inadequately.
The fascial net recognises the importance of the feet, it requires them to become free and intelligent. Healthy feet are the key to creating balance, strength, resilience and intelligence in the whole body. A balanced, toned pelvic floor is essential in addressing hip, leg and back pain and intrinsic in improving the health of pelvic organs.
This democratisation of the body is a wonderful development. Perhaps if we start seeing ourselves as a complex interconnected system, we’ll be able to solve our body problems more easily. Giving our brain the highest priority and our body a lower status has not served our health and wellbeing. As a result of accessing the hidden strengths of underused parts of the body, we benefit both these parts (say your abdominals or your glutes) and the system as a whole. In addition, if parts of the system are protected at the expense of other parts, without eventually redressing the situation, an imbalance occurs. Ultimately, the whole system will suffer.
As Within so Without
Earth’s population has become more connected via the internet and mobile devices. Consequently now, more than ever, we have the capability to share ideas and resources more equitably. This bodes well for our planet as we face so many enormous challenges. Problems like plastic pollution, climate change, poverty, war and mass migration are huge. The hierarchical economic, political and social institutions that created these problems cannot find a solution. This is because they are based on competition, not collaboration.
Networked systems (including the fascial network) offer dynamic models for people (or muscle cells) to work together in balance rather than to dominate each other. We can increase efficiency by moving away from hierarchical systems. This is because more people have more access to the information and resources needed to solve problems. These resources are in the hands of the many, not the few. This approach creates a more intelligent and equitable distribution of energy, skills and information for the benefit of all.
Perhaps, by taking a kinder and more conscious approach to our movement, we might find ourselves discovering innovative, collective solutions to our planetary problems. Consequently, awareness of our fascial network may help us to walk more lightly on the Earth, both literally and figuratively.
In Part Two we’ll discover how the fascia is our major sensory organ and how by using it more consciously we improve both our physical and mental health and wellbeing.