Once consider inconsequential, fascia is gaining new interest from traditional medical and holistic sciences. So what the heck is it and why is it so important? Fascia is a very densely woven, specialized system of fibrous connective tissue that forms a 3-dimensional extracellular web throughout our bodies. It covers and infuses every muscle fiber, bone, nerve, blood vessel, as well as, all of our internal organs including the heart, lungs, brain and spinal cord. Not only is fascia central to the flexibility and function of vital organs, it also is vital for improving function of muscles and acts as a protective sheath for blood, nerves and lymph to flow through. The fascial system forms an uninterrupted continuous structure from head to toe thereby forming an “extracellular net that holds us together”, according to Tom Myers, author of Anatomy Trains and co-author of Fascial Release for Structural Balance.
If you are having a difficult time picturing the fascial network, here is an analogy that helped me. Think of a grapefruit and how each segment, and juice vesicle (pulp), is held together by a clear, strong layer of tissue. Similarly, this is how intimately we are segmented, yet connected by our fascia from head to toe. We are made up of approximately 70 to 100 trillion cells and it is the fascia that holds these cells together. Without this intricate supportive mesh we would be a mass of goo, so to speak. Hence, it is easy to see how the fascia creates our structure and form, shaping how we function and move through life in a whole and interconnected way.
Additional research is proving that fascia is more than just a connective web but it’s also a regulatory system in the same way that the circulatory and nervous systems are balancing systems and acts as a complex energetic communication system between all the systems and organs of the body. According to Tom Myers, during embryo development it’s actually the connective tissue cells that organize the brain and our neurological form, each new cell following the pathway of fascial connective tissue fiber. Therefore, this network of connective tissue is not only integral to our physical form, but also to our neurological system, brain chemistry, thoughts and emotions.
The fascial grid constitutes one single biomechanical regulatory system. The interconnectedness of the fascial grid means that the movements of our body cannot be separated. When one area of our body is impacted by poor posture, injury, emotional or physical stress, the entire network is impacted. Sitting for long periods of time can cause fascial bunching in the hip flexors leading to movement restriction in the hips, which can easily translate along the fascial grid to other areas of the body farther away from the immediate source of restriction. Sitting at length with shoulders rounded and head forward, (as we often do at our computers, in our cars, and on our phones) fascia can become restricted it the chest leading to a weakened upper back as well as, impairing our ability to breath fully. In response to restricted breathing the brain releases stress inducing hormones, changing our brain chemistry and impacting our emotional state.
So how does all this relate to Yoga? Ancient Yogic texts hold that the body is composed of a vast network of energetic pathways called nadis (Yoga) or meridians (Chinese Medicine) and in order to maintain optimal health, and a fully integrated body, these pathways must remain open for the flow of Prana or Qi (pronounced Chi), the life force considered to permeate the cosmos. There are 72,000 nadi / meridian lines that weave and interconnect throughout the human body and it is these pathways that the vital energy follows. Think of a complex interconnected highway system– When free from roadblocks, barriers or congestion, energy flows freely.
It seems the yogis knew all about connective tissue long before Western science. For years, modern science tried to prove or disprove the existence of the meridian system. Yet it wasn’t until researchers started to pay closer attention to the fascia that they found the evidence they were looking for. Research carried out at the University of Vermont and College of Medicine used high frequency ultrasound scanning acoustic microscopy to study the meridian channels commonly used in acupuncture (the same meridian pathways mapped out by those ancient Yogis) and found that most meridian lines follow the same connective fascial network including those between organs, in deep fascia, subserous fascia and membrane linings. According to Yin Yoga leaders Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers, long deep holds of Yoga postures clear up the meridian highways, allowing Qi energy to move freely through the more resistant connective tissues, joints, ligaments, tendons and skeletal system that may have become tight due to injuries, poor postural habits, repetitive stress or emotional trauma.
“What the people who developed Yoga recognized was that in order to change the person — not just to change the chemistry or to change the amount of strength that you have or your readiness to dive off a diving board — but to really change the person that you are, to change the issues in the tissues, then you really have to make a deep change in the pattern of your body.” – Tom Myers
It’s not only the Yoga postures that have an impact on the fascial network, but also yogic breathing, called Pranayama. There are 3 common forms of breathing: clavicular, thoracic and diaphragmatic. Yoga uses all three consciously. Various techniques of conscious breathing (pranayama) are utilized for a multitude of effects. Slow conscious diaphragmatic breathing, as with Ujjayi and Nadi Shodhana pranayama, increases alpha waves in the brain, helping induce an alert, yet calm state of mind while also heating the tissues of the body. Compressed tissues create dense roadblocks that restrict movement and the flow of energy along the fascial and meridian ‘highways’. By heating the tissues from the inside out, the restrictive fascia that weaves throughout the respiratory organs and musculature of the chest begins to soften.
It’s a fascinating realization that the ancient Yogis already knew the importance of the connective tissue and the energetic pathways of the body, building an entire system of practice around this knowledge. As Western research re-discovers this intimate relationship between the connective tissues of the body and the nadis/meridians of Yoga and Chinese Medicine—strengthening and stretching connective tissue may be critical for long-term health, according to Grilley. As our understanding of how the complex fascial network effects our postural and movement patterns, our ability to breathe and the overall mind body connection, we can expect new holistic strategies from our health professionals, healers and movement teachers. But we do not have to wait. We already have a guide to wellness within the tradition of Yoga. Ultimately, by learning the invaluable breathing techniques in conjunction with yogic postures, we increase our capacity to breath deeply; reduce stress levels, blood pressure, fascial restriction and muscular tension, thereby increasing the potential for mind-body transformation in a profound way.
“If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly.” — Andrew Weil