What is fascia and why is it important?
Fascia is a complex network of connective tissue which lies just beneath the skin. Made of collagen, this stretchy, white, mesh-like substance interweaves through and around your musculature, surrounds and supports your organs, and shrink-wraps your entire internal structure like a second skin. Fascia has a key role to play in the everyday healthy functioning of the body.
The musculoskeletal system consists of thousands of separate parts: hundreds of bones held together by more than 600 muscles and vast numbers of ligaments and tendons. It is the fascia though that links the entire system, not just muscle to bone but muscle to muscle, along with all the other structures in the body, like organs, ligaments and tendons. Rather than thinking of the body as having 600 plus muscles, instead think of it as being one single muscle with 600 plus stopping points, all linked together by a fascial web that is sensitive, dynamic and extremely adaptable. There are 10 times as many nerve endings in the fascia than there are in the muscles, making it far more susceptible to pain and sensation in general than the muscles. Most injuries are in fact problems with the fascial structures, not the muscle tissue.
Anatomists say ‘muscles attach to bones’, but muscle can’t attach to anything. It’s the fascia that goes over, around and through your muscles that organises that tissue into linear pulling machines.
The fascial webbing itself is organised into distinct meridians, or “trains” — dense bands connecting multiple muscles and spanning multiple joints, tacked down at numerous bony “stations” along the way. There are about a dozen of these fascial superhighways, which help in understanding how we move and help in treating pain and dysfunction. Some run the length of your body, head to toe; others spiral the torso, pass over the top of your head, and run down the middle of your back.
Like guy-wires on a well-rigged boat, a balanced, harmonious tension among these myofascial meridians helps support fluid, effortless movement. Too much chronic tension or slack in key meridians can lead to poor posture and pain — and not always in the places you’d expect. Trace the fascial lines through the muscles and across the skeleton, and it’s possible to see, for instance, how shoulder pain might be caused by dysfunction in your opposite ankle, or how tight hamstrings might actually be caused by tension in the soles of the feet.
It is through these myofascial lines, moreso than through individual muscles, that the body adapts to and reinforces alignment and movement. Fascia adapts to every move we make — good, bad or indifferent. Over time, the fascia in the front of the rib cage of someone who sits at a desk all day may become thick and short to reinforce a habitually caved-in posture. And injuries, even minor ones, often result in fascial “patches” in the muscles that can cause restricted motion, leading to compensations in gait and movement. These might remain long after the injury itself has healed.
Injured or poorly adapted fascia can start to act like glue, binding to muscles, other fascia, even your ligaments. Your entire individual life history — exercise habits, injuries, common sitting and sleeping positions — is effectively written in your fascia.
How Pilates can improve your fascia
Targeted Pilates exercises which aim to strengthen and stretch the body in fascia-friendly patterns, can help to improve the quality and elasticity of the fascial web.
The Pilates method involves slow, controlled movements timed with the tidal rhythm of the breath. If we stretch too quickly or intensely the muscles go into a protective mode, contracting and resisting. Pilates gets round these protective mechanisms, by romancing rather than attacking the body. When we are in a relaxed, calm state, our muscles and connective tissue are much more responsive to working. Pilates favours smooth motion over thrusting, ballistic actions, and encourages us to work within a range of movement that feels comfortable.
Each Pilates exercise slowly and rhythmically moves our limbs in a series of shapes, which usually increase incrementally in size with each repetition. These gently expanding movements can elicit a soothing, parasympathetic response from our nervous system, much like rocking in a chair or swinging in a hammock. Pilates never pushes the joints to their limits, instead the exercises carefully test the boundaries of the range of movement we are capable of on that day and in that moment. The slow, rhythmic tempo provided by the Pilates approach to breathing, lowers apprehension, allowing us to get past resistance in the fascia and work the muscles more effectively.
This calm state also primes the client for learning new movement patterns, while at the same time, the broad, multi-dimensional movements associated with Pilates exercises, stretch the entire fascial fabric in ways that conventional stretching doesn’t.
Pilates is particularly effective at redressing imbalances in the fascia because rather than stretching one muscle group at a time, the exercises encourage us to stretch an entire plane of the body at once, involving long movements that extend and spiral the body head to toe. Pilates exercises also provide the chance to stretch the body in multiple planes, releasing the fascia and improving flexibility.
For greater suppleness throughout the fascial network, Pilates exercises that incorporate some kind of bouncing are beneficial. As we age we lose elasticity in our fascia. Children exemplify the bouncy elasticity in their fascia. Bouncing helps us hold on to this fascial elasticity.
The best safeguard against tightness and adhesions in the fascia is variety. Repetitive physical action — including forms of exercise like running or cycling — can leave its mark on the fascia, unnaturally tightening certain areas and eventually leaving us more susceptible to injury. The key thing to do is mix things up, constantly changing the Pilates exercises we do in class and finding new ways to move. Just as the fascia links the muscles together in interconnected chains, so integrated exercise and movement link the muscles functionally, through dynamic, coordinated movement patterns.
Source material for this article:
- Thomas W. Myers’ Anatomy Trains website
- Thomas W. Myers’ book Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists
- The Web of Life article at Experience Life
To close, here’s Bowie’s famous song about fascia…beep beep!