What is this magical thing called fascia that I keep talking about? Chances are, unless you’re an anatomist, bodyworker or yin yogi, you won’t know that much (or maybe even anything) about your fascia. We are used to hearing about bones, muscles and organs, but fascia is that elusive structure in the body that is rarely referenced and even less understood. To put it simply: fascia is a type of connective tissue that surrounds and separates your bones, organs and muscles. Think of it like a set of bags or sheaths that runs through the body, each one connected to the next. Another image I like is that fascia is a web or matrix of soft tissue that holds the different parts of your body together.
So why does it matter? Here are a few reasons:
- Fascia is innervated
Innervated means it contains sensory nerve endings. Your fascia is filled with thousands of nerves that allow you to feel sensation and pain, as well as gather information about your position in space (proprioception). In fact, when you move or stretch, it is likely that what you feel most or first is your fascia being pulled or compressed, rather than your muscles (though of course, when we work hard we feel the burn of muscular strain too).
Fascia is an organ of perception—and as bodyworkers and yin yogis know, when fascia is manipulated it can bring up intense feelings and a diverse array of sensation. If you want to enhance body awareness, or be more grounded, fascia is what you might consider focusing on. This is also why it’s so nice to bring a somatic perspective to fascial work, whether that be manual therapy, myofascial release or yin yoga.
- The fascial system is continuous and holistic
Unlike the way we think of muscles, bones and organs — as individual and unique entities, the fascia in your body is actually more like one big web with lots of different strands and sections. This is important because fascia helps us adapt to strain and loads. Since it is a continuous system, however it adapts, it is affected along its whole length, rather than just at a particular spot. Even if you injure or pull something in a specific area, the impact of that pull travels along the whole fascial line, which can extend from head to toe. This is why tight plantar fascia in the feet can bring on pain in the back or even the neck. Working holistically along entire lines of fascia can help release sticky spots throughout the fascial system.
- Fascia is plastic
When working with fascia, it is important to remember that it is a different type of tissue than muscle. Muscles are elastic: when you stretch them, they respond like a rubber band by lengthening and then returning to their original length when released. Fascia does not respond like this. Think of fascia more like putty or play-doh. If you stretch it as you would a rubber band, it will not go back to its original length. Moreover, if you stretch it fast, instead of lengthening, it simply slides over the muscle or bone that you’re moving, and you get no benefit. If, however, you apply a gentle pressure along with a slow, easy lengthening action—imagine pressing down into a piece of play-doh and then gently pulling the sides of it away from each other—it will slowly start to thin and stretch out. And then it will stay that way (unless you happen to load it in the reverse direction). Crucially, unlike play-doh, your fascia is alive, so over time it will respond to this approach by:
- untangling fibres that have become stuck to each other or to surrounding structures, and
- laying down more fibres in the direction and areas that you’re working with,
so you end up with a lovely, supple and strong matrix of tensile support. Sounds good, right?
To learn more about your fascial lines and ways to work somatically to release your fascia, join Vaishali for her Somatic Yin series, Saturday mornings in June.