What is Fascia and Why Does it Matter?
Human bodies operate in a constant state of compromise owing to their needs for both stability and mobility. In yogic terms this is referred to as a balance between sthira, a tantric word meaning hard, solid and firm and sukha another tantric word meaning easy, pleasant and gentle. All living things must find balance between containment and permeability; between persistence and adaptability; between sukha and sthira.
In the human body the pliable protein known as collagen is the primary building fibre that allows for the structure to be stable enough to be physiologically viable and also allows mobility and adaptability within the structure.
Collagenous tissue is present in all tendons, ligaments, aponeuroses, organ bags, attachments and it is the main component of the connective tissue known as fascia. It is this connective tissue network or fascial web that is the intermediary between bone and muscle, between muscle and muscle and that connects the entire body to itself. In fact this is true down to a cellular level. New research has shown that collagen fibres run through the membrane and cytoplasm of all cells connecting to the nucleus of every cell of the body. When we ponder this it becomes clear just how profound the depth of connection within the human body actually is.
The Forming of Fascial Web
Our connective tissue cells are extremely intelligent in that they deal with a wide variety of forces by creating an equally wide array of building materials through modifications of few simple elements. Bones, cartilage, tendons and ligaments are just a few of the many structures made by connective tissue cells.
Tough collagen fibre is the principal element of our form. It is bound with other elements in varying amounts to assist the body in developing structures that offer the properties able to serve these variable requirements for stability and mobility.
Bone for example contains a dense web of collagen fibres embedded with calcium and mineral salts that together form the most rigid and resilient tissue in our bodies. Cartilage contains the same base with varying amounts of collagen and elastin and is filled with a silicon- more rubber like substance called chondroitin. Whereas tendons and ligaments are predominantly made up of collagen fibres containing small amounts of glycoproteins.
The fluid fascial network that connects it all consists of cord like fibres made of mostly collagen (with some elastin and reticulin) existing within a gel-like web of mucopolysaccharides , or mucus. Imagine that your entire body is glued together with a snot like substance and you’re on the right track!
This fascial web not only surrounds the muscle, but also invaginates the muscle tissue to the cellular level, as mentioned earlier, and morphs into the tendon that attaches the muscle to the bone (See diagram). One of the most clarifying perspectives for understanding this fascial web of the body is that it begins as a unified whole from about the second week of embryological development and then folds and refolds like complex origami throughout our development. That is to say that the connective tissue or fascia is laid down first and then through interaction with other substrates in the body bones, cartilage, ligaments, tendons and the like are laid down secondarily into this fully connected web.
In the diagram below we can see how the epimysium surrounds the whole muscle, the perimysium surrounds bundles of muscle fibres and the endomysium surrounds individual muscle fibres. These all morph together and join at the end of the muscle forming the tendon. Once again this shows the deep levels of connection that the fascial network offers the body.
Why Does is Matter?
The fascia affects the structure and function of muscles and therefore it affects the posture and movement of our body. Traditionally theories of body biomechanics offer a view of separation. The body’s parts are seen as though they are parts of a machine and all these various anatomical parts are glued together when actually it is more accurate to view the body as that complex organism of origami. In that rather than being glued together all the parts grew together within the glue.
As we can see from the diagram above no ligament or tendon exists on its own, instead they blend into the perimysium and then into the periosteum and via this into the surrounding muscles and fascial sheets.
So What Exactly Does This Mean?
It means that every part of the body is either directly or indirectly affected by all other parts of the whole. It means that our posture and function are affected by the form our fascia moulds into. Fascia has more of a plastic nature than that of muscle, while the elastic nature of muscle generally allows a bouncing back into position, fascia will hold the changes placed upon it and in turn the entire structure will be affected by this. This web of fascia acts like a spiders web in that pull on one side of the web transmits and affects the entire web. This is particularly useful in a yoga setting as simple adjustments in one area can create more ease in others, for example correct hand placement and full connection through the ‘four points’ of the palm can offer more support and opening through the shoulders. This holistic view is essential for developing the practice, it is useful to view the body as a whole and place attention on it’s entirety while in poses rather than just the areas the opening is felt.
As mentioned earlier this fascial connection has been found to exist even at a cellular level. This offers a major insight into the benefits of a consistent yoga practice. As practice deepens the level at which the pull on our cells affects the expression of the cells DNA also deepens. The mechanical environment around the cell changes and creates a change in the way it functions.
As the mechanical environment of cells is especially related to their function it is easy to see that as the environment improves so to will cell function. Cells need a constant supply of food and a removal of toxins. Tension in the body, for example the forward slump of the shoulders causes the connective tissue cells to lay themselves down along lines of tension. This bulking up of the connective tissue in these areas will create a thickening damn that can affect the exchange of food and toxins.
How Can Change Be Created Within the Fascial Web?
There’s nothing like a good stretch to help to create change in the fascial web. Each night when we sleep the body continues to lay fibres of collagen across lines on stress, that’s why when we wake a good, long stretch is the first thing the body craves, and wow does it feel good!
Not to mention a regular yoga practice. Deep strengthening and stretching, such as that practiced in yoga, squeezes your fascial network the way you would squeeze a sponge. This wringing out forces the removal of the build up of bi-products of metabolism and allows a flushing of new fluid containing everything cells need to fill it’s space. Regular yoga practice will also thin out and un-adhere fascial fibres that have thickened or become stuck allowing for more freedom of movement. The mucus that holds the fibres together also becomes less viscous and allows easier sliding and gliding of fibres and offers an ease in the resistance of the tissues.
Along with regular yoga practice Structural Integration can also offer a systematic opening within the fascial web. The aim of SI is the creation of space throughout the entire network working from the most superficial layers of fascia towards the deepest layers. The deep, intentional pressure of the practitioner is met by the movement and breath of the client and a dance ensues where together both client and practitioner assist in finding deep opening through the myofascial meridians. (Check out Blogs 1-5 for a deeper understanding of the myofascial meridians)
The meridians in this way act as seams of the body as they essentially work as guy wires in the body transmitting pull along the lines of tension. Bringing awareness and spaciousness to the seams helps to create an even opening throughout the web and helps the body to readjust postural misalignments and chronic patterns.