As science uncovers the ways in which the body holds onto tension, we begin to understand the physical and emotional releases we often experience in yoga and medicinal movement.
By Jessica Humphries
I was born with a hole in my heart. At two years old I had surgery to resolve it and I haven’t experienced a single problem since. It’s all but a distant memory. However, since becoming a yoga teacher I’ve become acutely aware of the tightness in my shoulders – especially compared to my students. This tendency to curl into myself has left me constricted, and strong backbends often bring up feelings of extreme fear and vulnerability. Over the years, as I’ve enquired into this restriction, I’ve been flooded with memories of this childhood experience. Certain movements, when explored, often come with a primal surge of emotion – a strong feeling that I want my mother, and a deep sympathy and sadness for my two-year-old self.
You’ve likely had a similar experience – perhaps something that you can’t quite explain. But you know that there’s something going on. Something that connects your body to your mind, creating strong sensations and emotions when you move through certain shapes.
There are many theories about what is going on here, and one particular area that is being delved into more deeply within both eastern and western communities is fascia – the connective tissue that permeates your entire body. In fact, many researchers of fascia see this connective tissue as the part of the body that bridges the gap between eastern and western philosophies, finding evidence to explain the connection between the body and the mind.
Fascia has become a buzzword within yoga circles and beyond. Classes focusing on fascial stretching and releasing are taking off in Europe and slowly making their way to other parts of the world. And it’s easy to see why. I recently attended a ‘fascial fitness’ class at my local gym. Flowing, oscillating movements and slow journeys along foam rollers left me feeling softer, with the sense of more freedom in my muscles – the perfect antidote to the more dynamic movements offered in gym environments, and often now in yoga classes too.
It doesn’t take an anatomy or physiology expert to understand that something healing is going on beneath the surface when practicing these movements designed to release the body’s fascia – a mucus-like substance that penetrates your entire body. This matrix holds your cells together and is often referred to as ‘connective tissue’ (although not all connective tissue is fascia). Fascia is made up of fibrous connective tissue that contains tightly packed bundles of collagen fibres, oriented in a wavy pattern arranged in layers.
Fascia is like the clingwrap beneath the skin that wraps around all of your organs and muscles – fusing, separating, binding, and allowing glide between these muscles, organs and other soft structures of the body. It’s what holds us together, quite literally. Fascia is the biological fabric that connects, separates and forms the body. Like a big, internal spider web that penetrates all of you – from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes, fascia impacts on more of your physical and emotional life than you might realise.
Once you’ve experienced the physical and emotional release that accompanies fascial work, you’ll be hooked. There’s a subtle shift in the body and mind; a feeling of letting go. It’s hard to describe in words but you’ll feel it deeply on an experiential level. Even if you haven’t been to a fascia-focused class, you’ve likely felt it before. The long, slow holds of yin yoga invite the fascia to unwind. Or maybe you’ve experienced it while receiving bodywork. There’s a moment when your body softly shifts from resist to release. And as we begin to understand the ways in which fascia works, we can mindfully and consciously engage in activities that support the health of this connective tissue, leading to not only a healthier and happier body, but also a healthier and happier mind.
A new understanding
Until recently, we knew very little about fascia. Overlooked in mainstream medicine due to lack of suitable technology, its impact on our body and mind has been underestimated. Fascia was considered less important than the muscles, bones and organs, but recently fascia’s role in the body’s mobility and its contribution to generating pain has created interest within the western medical community.
The fascial network is now recognised by many experts as a rich sensory organ system, densely populated with nerve receptors that respond to stimuli in the form of pain, proprioception (the sense of knowing the position of your body in space – allowing us to move and navigate environments) and pressure.
Author of Fascia- What it is and why it matters David Lesonak, explains that “the most important thing to keep in mind…is that the fascial net is one continuous structure throughout the body…The ‘everywhereness’ of fascia also implies that, indeed, it is all connected.” Western science now understands that fascia connects everything in the body. What this means is that trauma in one area of the body can have a domino effect on the rest of the body, which can help us to understand the role of fascia in pain and its treatment.
Eastern medicine, on the other hand, has been curious about fascia for eons. In Daniel Keown’s The spark in the machine: How the science of acupuncture explains the mysteries of western medicine he explains that the acupuncture channels of the east are the fascial tubules of the west. According to Keown, fascia is what channels Qi, keeping everything in order, both physically and emotionally.
Why it matters
Fascia is fundamental when it comes to mobility and function because, as it thickens and becomes tight (due to sustained movement (or lack of movement) in a particular direction – like sitting, or certain exercises practiced over time), it impacts on our range of movement.
Inflammation causes fascia to tighten and lose its flexibility, and, because fascia weaves throughout the entire body, inflammation in one area can contribute to pain in an entirely different part of the body. Because the fascia is so connected throughout the entire body, it also contributes to the respiratory system and breathing mechanics.
Dr Robert Schleip is arguably the world’s greatest fascia expert and is the director of the Fascia Research Project at the University of Ulm in Germany. He explains that lack of movement quickly causes the fibres of the fascial tissues to lose elasticity. Think of a sponge. When it is dry, it is easily broken, but when it is hydrated it easily moves around. It’s like the difference between wearing yoga pants made from flimsy material that breaks when you move and your favourite Lululemons. Healthy fascia is hydrated fascia.
Schleip uses the example of an immobilised knee. After a few weeks, he says, you can no longer stretch the joint because there is a chaotic growth of collagen fibres, or fascia, in all directions. We can understand how this translates to the bodies of office workers, or those of us who spend a lot of time sitting in chairs. The fascia around the neck, shoulders and hips becomes tight and dehydrated, causing constriction, inflammation and impacting on mobility throughout the entire body over time.
Erin Bourne is something of a fascia expert. Currently writing a book on the topic, she is a qualified Exercise Scientist and yoga & pilates teacher who has also trained in Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilisation and Myofascial Release. She explains, “Fascia has more sensors than the eyes, tongue and muscles, and is able to communicate more about the body than almost all other tissues and organs.” There are many types of mechanoreceptors (a sensory receptor that responds to mechanical pressure or distortion) in the fascia that detect muscle contraction, muscle length and vibration – this is how the brain knows what is happening in the body, where it is and how to control it. The fascia stores and communicates information across the entire body.” And so, working the fascia through physical movements can develop its strength and responsiveness – giving us a much better sense of ourselves.
Given my own experiences it feels clear to me that our physical bodies can hold onto certain emotions, which can then be released through movement, accompanied by a kind of catharsis. This begs the question for many like myself: can our bodies actually physically store emotions or memories?
Can fascia hold and release emotions?
It is a common belief, especially amongst body workers, that fascia can store memories. Many body workers and their clients have experienced the sense that old pain and trauma is stored in the body. When worked on manually, this old ‘stuff’ can be brought up and eventually released. A physical sensation may be accompanied by a memory, and, when worked on, the potency of the memory may be eased along with restoration of the body’s tissue function. The issues are in the tissues!
According to Paolo Tozzi, an Italian osteopath who wrote for the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, memories in the body may also be encoded into the structure of the fascia itself. Most people believe that memories are, of course, in the brain. However, because fascia is so rich with nerve endings, Paolo explains that a neuro-fascial interaction may be responsible for the setting of a local tissue “memory”. Thus, touch or manual therapy may “unload” the tissue, causing a change in neural input to the brain, which may trigger the memory.
Tom Myers has been involved in bodywork for over 43 years. He is the author of the hugely popular Anatomy Trains and also lectures on the topic of fascia. He responded to Tozzi’s editorial, remembering the many instances during his own career where “touch has seemingly elicited memories of traumatic events (and occasionally simply pleasant ones…). These memories are not always of consciously remembered events, and the exposure and resolution of these ‘issues in the tissues’…can often involve dramatic emotional and physiological responses, followed by lasting relief from pain or somato-emotional ‘weight’, and occasionally a total change of course in life.”
However, Myers believes that ‘memory’ is not the best way to describe what is happening within the body, suggesting that we re-frame the question from ‘Can fascia store memories?’ to ‘Does fascia contribute to awareness/consciousness?’ Our experience of memory is always neurological, whereas emotional memory, such as that invoked in deep bodywork, is a fluid event – a change in the body’s fluid chemistry (i.e. an increase in the fascia’s fluidity due to changes in pressure and temperature brought on by movement or bodywork).
How to release fascia
It should be noted that there is some debate over whether fascia can be released through physical movements and therapies (it is difficult to find clinically relevant science to support the idea that fascial manipulation can actually alter fascia). However, many who are researching the topic believe that it is of fundamental importance for a number of reasons, and these people believe without a doubt that the fascia can be stretched, softened and released through certain practices.
We don’t know for sure that by releasing the fascia that the emotions that have caused me to curl in all these years will be released. We don’t even know for sure that the fascia can be released. But we can know from our own experiences that profound healing can come from moving the body in different ways – and these ways are often understood to work on the body’s fascia.
For Myers, changing the fascia changes everything. By changing the fascia, we can change the way that people breathe, and when this happens, “their chemistry changes and their outlook changes…shape is hugely important, and that’s where yoga and bodywork really shine.”
Myers stresses the many ways that show great promise in releasing the fascia such as yoga, bodywork, osteopathy, chiropractic and Alexander/Feldenkreis. He explains that long, slow stretches allow us to reach the deeper tissues of the body and change the fascia – like those common to a yin yoga practice. He says, “The muscles have to relax first and then the fascia starts to stretch and release. And that can facilitate the kind of repatterning that leads to lasting release of chronic holdings and, in many cases, a profound change of mind and body.”
Your own body can guide you towards a deeper understanding of fascia. When you’re practicing yin yoga, you can feel the moment when resistance subsides – a gentle unlocking in the body’s holding reminds you to soften. When you’re receiving a massage you can sense your body beginning to surrender in time. And when you glide your quads along foam rollers, you can feel the tension slowly increasing, until it releases and you can finally breathe and let go.
For Myers, finding this release always begins in the mind. “The way of the yogi is the path of disciplining the mind, and it’s good to remember that the fascia is part of the body’s mind, or an expression of the mind, if you will. The patterns of held tension we need to unravel are first in the mind, then neural, who export them to the muscles, which in turn shapes the fascia. Rollers and tools are great for hydrating and revivifying, but the greatest tool for unraveling neuromyofascial tension is you, a mat, and a practice that has you fascia-nated.”
Words by Jessica Humphries for Wellbeing Magazine.