The word "fascia" is often dropped on us like a literal F-bomb. With no explanation attached, the word can leave students confused and intimidated. What the F is fascia? It’s a big topic, so we’ve tried to keep it simple and tackle the topic for you in a mere thousand words. Prepare to appreciate the depths of your anatomical layers.
When my dad dissected in medical school, fascia was discarded, not studied. Who cared about the glop that just obscured the muscles and bones? That went in the trash.
Today, when you google what is fascia, a Johns Hopkins’ definition pops up stating “[fascia] surrounds and holds every blood vessel, bone, nerve fiber, and muscle in place," adding that fascia is innervated which makes it “almost as sensitive as skin.”
Sounds like something worth studying.
Fascia is connective tissue. Blood and bone are also considered connective tissue, a designation which never ceases to impress me: what a broad spectrum this term “connective tissue” covers – from liquid to bone. What exactly is fascia’s place in this spectrum? Why should we care?
Pull somewhere on the shirt you are wearing right now; a little tug affects the way the shirt fits you. A little pull in one spot leads to a tightening in an area and a loosening in another. Imagine this in terms of your fascia.
Since fascia is ubiquitous and interconnected, what is happening in one region of the body can impact or disrupt another. A tightening in your arm might cause neck pain. Plantar fasciitis in your feet may cause problems up the anatomical chain in your hip.
You are wearing a fascial suit beneath your skin-- one as form-fitting and personal as a superhero getup. Think of the spider web of tissue under the peel of an orange. Fascia is a layer just beneath the skin that is incredibly adhered to your skin. When dissecting and removing the skin from a cadaver, this is when you go through the most scalpel blades, carving the skin away from the next fascial layer. Skin removed, the fascial layer revealed dives deep into the body and shows up – you guessed it! – everywhere. Fascia serves as the pathway to every single cell in the body. This is why one modern theory in regards to the meridians postulates that fascia is the highway for chi.
Fascia, in its multifunctional wrapping capability, can exhibit varying degrees of texture and design. I have handled fascia inside a cadaver surrounding a pain-dosage implant that felt like Tupperware, thick and opaque. I've seen pericardial layers of fascia surrounding the heart in an unfixed body slide gracefully over one another, each translucent layer -- thin, like Saran Wrap -- presenting its own enthralling cardiovascular tributaries, embedded in the fascia, interrelating with each other like a moving landscape painting.
My Rolfer friend once described fascia to me as “the body’s duct tape”: it's helpful, but you don’t want to rely on its sole support. Fascia can help surfaces to slide, and it can bind surfaces together, which means fascia can sometimes become sticky in places that should slide. If you don’t move enough, fascia can become stagnant and bound up; this inactivity will most likely create tension.
Keep moving and I’ll be fine, right?
Not exactly. Repetitive movements can cause uneven rigidity of fascia and can cause fascia to thicken. The body is offering more support to the area that is overused; the problem is that we must remind the body daily that we want balance, not contracture.
Have you ever seen the image of the Amar Bharati? One day he decided to hold his arm over his head in dedication to Shiva, and he never brought it down. His fascia eventually hardened, creating an internal cast that held his arm like a statue. After years of having his arm raised, the appendage became “stuck,” and he was no longer able to lower it. Incidentally, he was often sitting on the ground in his meditative homage, and his hips and knees conversely provided ample mobility into his later years.
We must move often, and diversely, in order to keep our fascia healthy. Just like eating a variety of foods will ensure a balance of nutrients, we need to "season" our fascial recipe with a wide variety of activities.
I kept a detailed journal throughout one of Gil Hedley’s three-week dissection classes, enabling me to capture the exact words of an enlightening moment. Gil was talking about his “Melt the Fuzz” video, and he lamented, "So many folks misunderstand that video: don't get rid of the fuzz, it belongs there! It is the anatomical basis of movement! Hydrate it! Move it! What's the quality of the fuzz?”
Before hearing this, I had been moving in my yoga practice with the assurance that I was cleaning out the fascial fuzz-- like I brushed my teeth to clean away plaque. I didn’t want to get a buildup of connective tissue! But this comment changed my attitude towards movement. I needed to take care of my fascia. Nurture it. Heal it.
These days, when I pick up a heavy load and I feel my back seize, I pause and “talk” to my fascia: I use slow, considerate movements that gently massage the tensed area to coax the fascia out of its stressed state. I have an internal conversation with my fascia through my breath.
After my daughter was born, I was convinced that my fascia was waking me up before my newborn even cried. I would feel a little internal nudge to rouse me from my slumber-- and then soon thereafter, I would hear the soft whimpers of a hungry infant. New to motherhood, I was amazed at the connection my fascia still had with this being that had once lived inside me. My fascia felt like a giant antenna. The next time I dissected with Gil, I asked him if I was onto something. Could my fascia actually be a receptor to another being’s energy? He looked at me dispassionately and replied, “Of course.”
Become fascinated with the mystery of the universe of tissue beneath your skin. There is a wealth of information to be collected from this internal suit you wear every day. Tune it. Tune into it. Let it support you in ways you can only imagine.
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