Fascia is big in the yoga world right now. I first heard about it when Paul Grilley’s book “Yin Yoga: Outline of a Quiet Practice” started to gain momentum, but I had only a vague idea about what it is and why I should care about it.
After my daughter was born my yoga practice changed dramatically. I became more interested in mindfulness and the ways that our practice life intersects with daily life. Yin Yoga emerged as the bridge I was looking for, but you can’t study Yin without also learning about fascia. This mysterious “stuff,” found everywhere in the body, captivated me.
Studying fascia doesn’t just end with understanding the physical substance we call “connective tissue.” Once you really appreciate fascia, it completely upends the way you think about the body. My ideas about movement and yoga, in particular, are forever changed.
Researches refer to the fascia as the “extracellular matrix” giving recognition to its ubiquitousness in the body. Consider that we normally think of the body as being comprised of about 640 muscles, give or take. This is only the truth when we remember that when anatomists dissect cadavers, they usually throw away the connective tissue!
But what if you didn’t throw the fascia away? What if you took the time to study it, look at it under powerful microscopes, and inquire into its scope and purpose? Surely it’s there for a reason.
Fascia science is starting to make clear that the way we have all learned musculoskeletal anatomy is misleading at best. Muscles aren’t these separate units of tissue that can be isolated from their neighbors; they are part of an interconnected web where even our cells are intimately intertwined with fascia. Fascia scientists have moved way beyond the idea that fascia is just Saran Wrap, but the movement world hasn’t quite caught up. Yet.
That said, the implications of fascial understanding for movement practitioners is just starting to be explored. But we do know a few things. Mainly, we need to move a lot more than we do. When we are still, the fascia cells (called “fibroblasts”) go about their microscopic business of laying down collagen fiber, which behaves like glue. When we move around, this fiber gets broken up, which not only helps us to maintain healthy movement patterns but also keeps the fluid in our body flowing freely.
Even those of us that think of ourselves as “active” spend the vast majority of our time barely moving. Think about it. We (should be) sleeping about eight hours a day, which is already a third of a day. Most of us move from our bed to our dining table to our car to our office chair to our dining table to our couch and back to our bed. Even if we exercised an hour every day, that’s still only one in 24.
We need to change that, and I don’t mean more yoga and fitness classes. We need to find ways of incorporating movement in our daily routines: walk instead of driving short distances, stand up and move around your office at regular intervals, and find other ways to replace sitting with movement. This is about behavior change at a fundamental level.
Of particular interest to yogis is that our movements need to be varied. While muscles may grow stronger through repetitive exercises, fascia thrives on novelty. Set asana sequences, repeated over and over, may make it easier to meditate while moving, but they don’t support fascia health. I don’t mean that we should find new and interesting ways to bend ourselves into pretzels; in fact, this isn’t really about flexibility at all. We need to move slower sometimes, faster at other times. We need steady and sustained movement as well as bouncy and playful swinging movements. Variety is the spice of life after all.
But the most intriguing feature of fascia for yogis is that it is the largest and most wired sensory organ in the body. The extracellular matrix contains more nerve endings than our tongue or our eyes! If one of the primary features of yoga practice is that it supports the mind-body connection, then fascia is the physical gateway for that connection.
As the main facilitator of our sense of touch, fascia is the organ that cultivates proprioception and interoception, or presence manifest in the body. My teacher, Sarah Powers, refers to it as “body-based consciousness.” When we practice movement with intention and attention, we promote fascia health by increasing its sensory features. Increased proprioception and interoception literally makes us feel more present and connected. It’s a lovely symbiotic relationship that isn’t a feature of many other movement systems.
But, as we all know, not all yoga is the same. We can’t just fling ourselves around on the mat and hope for the best, especially in an age where pushing and achievement are more interesting than beingness. This is one of the reasons I feel kind of “called” to teach gentle yoga, slow flow, and Yin Yoga. We need alternatives to the more goal-oriented, fitness-flavored styles of practice.
The truth is, the body, especially the fascia, doesn’t really like to be pushed beyond the edge. When we overdo it and damage our fascia, the fibroblasts create even more collagen to reinforce and protect the damaged area. This only makes us tighter and less mobile. More substantial injuries to connective tissues, such as tendons and ligaments, take a really long time to heal because fascia receives less blood supply than other tissues. This is why athletes can lose whole seasons from their injuries.
So, we need to be deliberate, playful, and above all, kind with ourselves. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t even need “exercise” because our movement nutrition would come from our daily activities. Nevertheless, in the absence of a more motile lifestyle, maybe we need to reconsider what an asana practice is really for. Are we tricking ourselves into thinking that we’re moving enough because we do a few sun salutations every morning? Is compressing our movement time and pushing ourselves for 60–90 minutes a day helping or harming? What are yoga’s true strengths?
Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, functional anatomy, and bit of this and that about living a healthy life. I teach yoga classes and workshops in the Washington, DC area, and you can find me online at Facebook or www.sati.yoga.
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