Fascia and Yoga

Fascia is an extensive network of fibrous connective tissue, which covers your body completely from head to toe. It wraps around each of your individual internal parts, separating your muscles, organs, bones, blood vessels, and nerves, allowing them to slide easily with your movements. It’s strong, flexible, slippery, and wet.

A metaphor of an orange can be used to explain fascia. Peel an orange and you will see that it is divided into wedges by a connective membrane. This membrane also holds them together to create an orange, while it divides the orange into segments. Within these segments, there is more segmentation by this same type of tissue, forming the pulp. Inside each sack there is juice, protected and supported by the connective membrane.

In your body, fascia wraps each internal part, connecting every part of the body to every other part. This allows your muscles to slide across each other without friction, it allows your heart to beat, the blood to flow… It separates each individual component of your body and at the same time unites them in an integral whole. Exactly as each tiny sack of juice is surrounded by more membrane to keep the liquid from draining out, every cell in our bodies is shaped by fascia. We are segmented yet intimately connected by fascia.

Thus, fascia is the framework of your form; it’s your organ of form. It’s a hundred per cent interconnected network that shapes, supports, and organizes everything inside your physical body.

Imagine your insides in 3D. Remove your bones, organs, skin, blood, lymph, and other fluids, and what is left? A 3D model of yourself: your height, size, facial features, the position of your lungs, the form your right elbow takes from that fall you had as a toddler… Fascia has been called the internal architecture of the body.

Tom Myers, one of the professionals that have brought attention to fascia and author of Anatomy Trains, wrote: “While every anatomy book lists around 600 separate muscles, it is more accurate to say that there is one muscle poured into six hundred pockets of the fascial webbing. The ‘illusion’ of separate muscles is created by the anatomist’s scalpel, dividing tissues along the planes of fascia. This reductive process should not blind us to the reality of the unifying whole.”

Fascia is made up of three things:
1. Tough collagen fibers, which provide our support and strength
2. Elastic fibers, which enable the possibility of movement
3. A gelatinous texture substance that allows organs and muscles to slide over each other without friction.

Imagine pulling up the collar of your shirt. What happens? The entire shirt moves, becoming more rigid and stretched. What happens if you keep on pulling up the collar for a couple of hours? The entire shirt crumples. The same way, if you injured your left shoulder, your entire spine might get affected. No ailment in the body is just local. Your posture, that ankle you broke in your teens, the way you choose to relax or exercise – all of these things affect your overall muscle and bone health, organs, your circulation, your immune system, your emotions, your whole wellbeing…

So, a person that spends long times sitting in front of a computer in a hunched over position will develop much more than back and shoulder pain. Tension in any area of your body has a domino effect. If you are constantly in front of a computer or TV, your hip flexors tighten, your spine becomes more and more rigid, the back muscles get strained, which with time might result in restriction of the hips and require a hip replacement. You might suffer from headaches, knee disorders, and even depression, just for lack of the right movement and rest. At the same time, the tendons, ligaments, and muscles will lose strength and flexibility.

How many people do you know that started to shrink with age, becoming also less mobile and less flexible? This does not have to happen. The health of our fascia contributes to the state of our body, and as we get older it can get much worse -more time damaging our fascia. But it can also stay wet and healthy.

When fascia is healthy and happy, it’s like a wet sponge. When fascia is unhappy it’s like a dried up sponge. When a sponge dries out it becomes brittle and hard, and can be easily broken as it is too crunchy. It doesn’t absorb any liquid. The same way, you might drink lots of fluids, but unfortunately, when your fascia is too dry, it doesn’t absorb and the liquid is flushed out of the body. But when a sponge is wet and well hydrated it becomes elastic and malleable. You can squeeze it into a little ball, twist it into different ways and it bounces back into its original form; it’s very hard to break. And more importantly, it absorbs water and stays hydrated and healthy, supporting everything inside the physical body.

Fascia can be hindered due to disease, overuse, trauma, infection, or inactivity, which tends to bring about pain, ailments, muscle tension, and an unhealthy blood flow. Does this mean we need to move as immobility is death for fascia? Yes and no, as repetitive movements like running and contracting movements like weight lifting tend to tighten the body, affecting the body adversely leading to the possible death of your fascia in the long term, if done without the proper care.

Consciously move. Remember that your fascia runs from the tip of your head to your toes, and covers everything inside your physical body. Thus, it’s vital to choose full body movements like those of yoga.

In yoga, we lengthen and expand the body, not only our muscles, but also our entire network of fascia. But it needs to be a yoga where positions are held for a long time, not a yoga that is mainly aerobics. This conscious yoga practice changes your connective tissue with mindful poses that let you become more and more flexible, stronger and healthier, reaching the deepest fascia by holding and relaxing in the postures for longer times, restoring also your fascial fluidity.

Take our muscles, for example. When we talk about the physical benefits of an asana (yoga postures), we often focus on which muscles are being stretched or strengthened in that particular pose. We read that Paschimottanasana stretches the hamstrings and energizes the legs. But in reality, all our muscles are totally encircled and braided with three different layers of fascia. This means that during an asana practice we work both our muscles and our fascia at the same time. There’s not a single pose that targets only muscles, organs, or fascia.

Breathe. Take deep breaths, practice yogi breathing, and do pranayamas, as these help oxygenate the tissue and even release endorphins when done consciously.

Variation. Movement needs to be diverse. What do you think happens when you load your fascial tissues the same way incessantly, as in repetitive activities such as biking, running, or sitting at a computer for many hours every day? They will grow weaker, more prone to injury and at risk for joint damage. Repetitive movements can set you up for that brittle tissue if you don’t do something about it.

So, should you stop playing tennis, swimming, or riding a horse? Of course not, these are excellent exercises when done properly. But add something else. If you feed your fascia a wide array of movements, starting with a genuine non-repetitive yoga like described above, and adding walking, dancing, and lots of rest, your fascia will grow stronger, more elastic and more resistant.

Stretch. When your muscles are regularly tight, the surrounding fascia tightens and becomes rigid, squashing the muscles and the nerves. Once your fascia has tightened up, movement and flexibility are limited. Fascia is very strong, so you need to start stretching gently for longer times, relaxing into a hold.

Hydrate. Keep the sponge wet: Make sure your diet includes plenty of water and is low in pro-inflammatory foods, such as refined sugars and grains.

But remember that if you have dehydrated fascia, all that water you drink while you are spinning will be urinated, not reaching that dehydrated and crispy tissue that can’t absorb. The domino effect again as repetitive movements and lack of movements injure our fascia. So drinking water might not be helping you as much as you think, especially if you are not resting adequately.

Rest. Rest is extremely important. Fascia needs to rest, to relax to stay wet. That is one of the reasons to stay immobile in the final relaxation in yoga, Savasana. That relaxation in our fascia, muscles, organs, minds and every cell in our bodies is crucial for the absorption of the whole practice.

Tom Myers assures that “rest is how the tissues rehydrate. When you do heavy exercise you are driving the water out of the tissue in the same way that if you step on a wet beach you push the water out of the sand, and when you pick up your foot the water seeps back into that sand. You’re doing the same thing with tissues, when you’re really working out you are driving the water out of the tissue while you are working…The rhythm [of your fitness regimen] should include some rest… When you take the strain off of the tissues, like a sponge they will suck up that water and be ready for more exercise.”

Fascia is a concrete representation of the principle of oneness within our very own bodies. Yoga has always spread this principle of integrated wholeness. Of course, yoga goes deeper than just fascia, but fascia is something crucial in genuine yoga.

Atabey Yoga does not focus on repetitive, fast movements that only work in the superficial tissues of your body and that can actually harm your fascia, without proper precautions. In Atabey Yoga, following my schools’ traditions (The Yoga Institute in India, and Agama Yoga in Thailand) we work with your body as a whole. Yes, most asanas (postures) and pranayamas (breathing technique) focus on specific and wide-ranging areas of your body. Not only do we support, fortify, flex, and relax a specific area, but we know that everything is interconnected, that your back pain is probably the consequence of your bad posture, that your depression might be connected to your lack of sleep, which might be a consequence of a lack of well-directed movements…

Most of the damage you have caused your fascia is reversible. Take care of your muscles by conscious, long and varied movements, stretching, and resting. Be aware of your diet. It’s time you start taking care of your fascia. It’s easy, you may get rid of that nagging injury and prevent so many more, feeling healthier and happier.

IrmaFascia and Yoga