Posted on in Healthy Living by Joanne Avison

The Fabric of Our Form


Fascia is creating more than a whisper in the bodywork world. Fascia is changing how the manuals are written for anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics. It is changing how we adjust the different bodies that come into the classroom. Most of all, it is changing our sense of ourselves moving in space or sitting still, whether we are a yoga teacher or a lover of the feeling we get after being in a class.

Yoga is about balance, the delicate poise between strength and resilience, sthiram and sukham, the steady and the sweet. It is about the internal awareness as much as the external shape we make in movement or meditation. Somehow, the various aspects of yoga accumulate to become the backbone of our movement practice, whatever our age or stage of health and well-being. When we allow the energy of movement to be both active and passive, dynamic and still, fast or restorative, we greet the range and possibilities of the different types of fascia in our bodies, designed to foster the variability and responsiveness we were born to enjoy.

The more we learn about the fascial matrix, the more we have to wonder how much the ancient yogis already understood the exquisite sensitivity and variability of this internal connective tissue from which we are made. They may not have had the benefits of modern scientific technology, yet deep to the ancient knowledge behind the Yoga Sutras there is an understanding of the geometry of form. Fascia is many different things and in some ways, as its role in the body is beginning to be understood, it is validating some of the deeper teachings of the mystery schools from which yoga emerged. Let’s explore a little.

The name fascia is derived from the Latin for “band” or “binding,” and in the living body it is the tissue of “the in-between.” It binds everything in the body to everything else on every scale. However, it doesn’t just hold things together. What is fascinating to discover is how it also holds things apart, creating the spaces in our bodies that are as important as the parts that surround, and are surrounded by, the inbetween. Unlike Eastern medicine, Western scientific history studied the body by breaking it down into its components. This led to the idea, when human dissection was first permitted and the earliest anatomical theaters were presenting the human form, that the parts could somehow be studied separately, without recourse to the context from which they arose. Indeed, if it can be called a context, the fascia was routinely scraped out of the way to get to the parts that were under examination. Consigned to the cadaveric bins—for centuries to come in most cases—this tissue was only named in discrete places of the body architecture, where it was revealed as a tendon, a ligament, or specific type of fascia. With one or two notable exceptions, Western medicine, and movement and manual therapies, evolved as if the musculoskeletal system exists as such.

Fascia is now being called the “Cinderella Tissue of the Movement Apparatus” because without her, no muscle or muscle fiber connects to its neighbors, nor does it connect to any bone, nor does any bone get to form a joint. She manages the housekeeping, looks after the details, and literally holds everything together, silent and neutral (and often ignored) in the background. We are not made up of a system of overlapping joints held together with pins, as a robot might be made. Indeed, not only are there no pins, there are no levers in biologic forms. We do not conform to the laws of hard matter. We are made—indeed self-assembled—in the round. From embryonic beginnings to elderhood, we have no corners, no right angles, no straight lines, and no true symmetries. We abide by the natural structural geometry of soft matter: we embody variation and variability, much like a good yoga practice.

From our embryonic self-assembly, we are self-motivated to form through the genetics and kinetics of the remarkable human blueprint. The trillions of spherical-shaped bubbles and foam-like arrangements of our internal colloids, emulsions, and gels are held together and apart by this sensory fibrous matrix called the fascia. It binds, it tensions, it compresses, and it honors the balance of these movement forces within and around the body. It is at once paradoxical and demanding of a new language to describe its many and various expressions. All-in-all it is causing a paradigm shift in our understanding of yoga and its value to health and human performance.

Eastern understanding of the body never separated mind from physical form and metaphysical being, such as occurred in the Western world of the developing science of medicine. Treating the body as a whole throughout its history, yoga itself seems to be restored to wholeness by this study of the fascia. Perhaps that is why it is so compelling. It provides us with a model that makes sense of what we actually do on the mat and why the postures, the breathing practices, and the meditation all feed different aspects of our psychosomatic being, in unique ways for each of us. Indeed, if we probe a little deeper, we begin to see why doing yoga as a regular practice takes us into the possibility of improved strength and resilience way beyond the yoga mat. We discover that the fascia responds slowly and quietly over months and years to its loading history. Unlike muscle tissue that responds within weeks of strength training, the fascia quietly negotiates our long-term cumulative style of movement or posture, over one to two years of transformation. No wonder we find so many yoga elders enjoying their practice to an age and stage of life where mobility isn’t taken for granted and the possibility of aging gracefully really does seem to be feasible and attainable.

Yoga seeks balance in body, mind, and being. When we go deeper into the understanding of the fascia, forming as it does the connective tissue matrix that literally holds us together, we discover a similar thing. We find a huge range and variation: fine gossamer mesh between muscle fibrils, strong sheets of tendinous wrapping around the torso, exquisitely fine membranes around each lung, each organ, and indeed each vessel of the blood and nervous systems. At one point it has the tensile strength of steel, holding a joint together, and yet at another it has the subtle ability to glide when you move the skin on the back of your hand. Pinch and lift that skin up and it settles back rapidly. How does this elasticity occur, and why is it that this magical material is bringing such a revelatory shift to our understanding of how we move?

We might say the fascia is causing a silent revolution. Far from being new, it is actually part of the oldest living forms on the planet. What is new, however, is our appreciation of the significance of this sensory and sensitive connective tissue.

A Tensioned Matrix

Fascia is not just a living tissue forming membranes, sheaths, sheets, and pockets either. It is structured, and it structures the body chambers within chambers. We don’t deflate; our bladders and bellies and lungs stay open in healthy, living motion. They can expand and contract, but they don’t collapse. The fascia forms a tensioned, woven, multidimensional architecture that is also a force-transmission system. Its structure is responsive and literally signals and communicates subtle and gross movements as does a string instrument.

This multidisciplinary and sensory organ of form is being considered as the basis of our proprioceptive sense. That is the sense that tells us where we are in space and the energy required to move ourselves with detailed precision—on or off the mat. Interoception is the name given to our internal sense, something we might liken to the gut reaction of instinctive awareness. One way and another, the fascia is being considered as a sensing and sensory architecture that changes how we know ourselves in every aspect, from embryonic beginnings to the wisdom of elderhood and the ability to move.

This fabric is taking a new place in the emerging science of body architecture. The model that binds calls in a very important aspect of this tensioned instrument, strung like a fine musical potential for rhythm and resonance, harmony in movement from speed to stillness and beyond. That is biotensegrity, the name given to the tensional integrity of our architecture, wrapped as it is in this living matrix. Much misunderstood, it is in fact the geometry of our form that allows us to have suitable strength and sufficient stiffness to move well and hold a posture. This calls in a completely new perspective on the values of stretching for its own sake and the need to balance, as always, the strength and the softness, the speed and the stillness, the steady and the sweet.

Perhaps we really are finely tuned instruments, responsive like any piece of music to the notes and the pauses. Paradoxical as it may seem, the mystery schools understood this balance at its finest level of meaning; geometry emerged from the ancient Vedic sages, and the meaning behind the sutras conforms to the algebra of living geometry. Much like the fascia, meaning is being revealed about nature that tells us the yoga we practice on the mat is only the beginning . . . fascia is teaching us how profoundly mysterious we really are.

Joanne Avison is a best-selling author and educator in movement and manual therapy including yoga and Structural Integration. Her specialties include soft tissue organization and movement patterning. Joanne is the director of the Art of Contemporary Yoga Teacher Training school. JoanneAvison.com

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