Pilates Meets Myofascial Stretching

For the past couple of months we’ve been exploring in class a range of Pilates exercises I’ve adapted to include more myofascial stretching.  Here is some background information on fascia and myofascial stretching which might help you get more out of your practice…

What is Fascia?

Fascia is the fibrous connective tissue that surrounds every part of the body.  Think of it as a three-dimensional spider web that holds together the muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, organs, nerves etc.  Fascia, like all connective tissue in the body is made of water and this water is arranged in microscopic tubules.

A key feature of fascia is that it is one continuous entity, which informs how we can stretch most effectively when we practise Pilates.  It is useful to think of muscles and other structures like bones, ligaments, tendons etc as links in various chains or slings which run throughout the body.  These links work together to move us about in different ways.  Fascia is the fibrous web that weaves in and around the different chains or slings of the body, supporting and nourishing them.  This view of anatomy is a holistic one, which respects the global organization of our tissues.

What is myofascial stretching and how does it work with Pilates?

Myofascial stretching (MFS) is a relatively new technique and differs markedly from traditional methods of stretching. Instead of focussing on stretching a specific muscle, MFS works on the fascia surrounding the muscles, ligaments, tendons etc in a specific chain or sling, e.g. extending from the toes to the back of the knee and into the pelvis.  

The Pilates exercises I’ve adapted to involve more MFS encourage us to move into and hold certain shapes with the aim of improving the quality of the movement of each link in the chain relative to another.

Other features of MFS I’ve incorporated into the Pilates exercises we perform in class include:

  • certain stretches being held for 90-120 seconds rather than the traditional 30 seconds to allow time for the fascia to “let go.”  This results in tissue releasing permanently rather than just temporarily.
  • active elongation and perpetual motion, two more ways of encouraging the fascia to “let go.”  These help us experience the natural elasticity in the body.
  • being present during each stage of performing an exercise. I provide cues to help you focus on any tension in the body, encouraging you to breathe into it, to notice the resulting slack as the release takes place, then inviting you to lengthen further and wait for the next release.

The benefits of Pilates exercises that incorporate myofascial stretching

Pilates and MFS together are a powerful combination.  They help to nourish and rejuvenate the tissues throughout your entire body and can be used to:

  • treat injuries and tight spots gently without the pain associated with traditional stretching and massage therapies;
  • enhance muscle performance. Particularly useful for sportspeople looking to go fast, be stronger;
  • improve muscle recovery.  MFS improves the blood flow to tired muscles, helping them recover faster from intense periods of physical activity and with less soreness;
  • increase flexibility and range of movement;
  • improve posture and alignment;
  • encourage the balanced use of muscles;
  • promote spine and joint health;
  • promote good hydration of the tissues of the body.

We will continue to explore myofascial stretching through specific adapted Pilates exercises in the classes I run each week online.

Bowen Therapy

I’ve been road-testing a number of treatments over the past six months and by far the strangest and yet most effective is Bowen Therapy.  Developed in the 1950s by Tom Bowen, Bowen therapy, or the Bowen technique is a non-invasive, complementary holistic therapy, which works with the fascia of the body.

What is Fascia?

Despite the fact that it impacts on every aspect of the human body and was discovered thousands of years ago, the importance of fascia is still greatly underestimated.

Fascia runs in strips over structures, inside them like a cobweb, in “blank space” as a kind of jelly, as well as in and around the spine. It penetrates and surrounds every part of our body, from just under the skin to deep within muscles, the brain, other organs, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, blood vessels, nerves etc. If we could view fascia independently from the rest of our body, we would look like a huge candy floss in the shape of a human.

Some of the fascia is able to contract, relax and stretch, just as muscles do. The denser fascia that runs in large strips, cross the body like highways and interchanges. They have the ability to pull the skeleton as well as surrounding structures out of alignment. Where fascia crosses, it has the ability to disrupt the function of joints, including those of the vertebral column.

What is the Bowen Technique?

The Bowen technique involves a distinctive move applied at very precise points on the body which are dense in receptors. The move is a rolling-type movement of the soft tissue using thumbs and forefingers.  It is designed to stimulate the tissue and nerve pathways and hence focus the brain.  The aim of Bowen therapy is to challenge the nervous system at a subconscious level, encouraging the body to adjust and/or heal by releasing the fascia.

Bowen Therapy is the polar opposite of more hands-on therapies like chiropractic, osteopathy, physiotherapy, sports massage, which are characterised by forced adjustment, hard manipulation and deep pressure.

What can it treat?

Bowen therapy treats the whole person rather than a list of symptoms or conditions.  However Bowen has been found to be highly beneficial for clients suffering from the following dis-eases of the body:

  • back and neck pain
  • sciatica
  • sports injuries
  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • IBS
  • migraines
  • frozen shoulder
  • stress

What happens during a Bowen Treatment?

A Bowen consultation and treatment lasts about an hour and is usually performed through light clothing, e.g. a t-shirt and leggings or jogging bottoms.  An experienced Bowen therapist identifies the often very subtle imbalances in the client’s body and starts the process of correcting them with a few well-chosen moves.

For most clients, the strangest aspect of Bowen Therapy is the frequent breaks that take place during the course of the treatment.  The Bowen therapist performs the gentle rolling movement in a specific area then leaves the client for a couple of minutes, returning to check how the body has responded and to determine what more, if anything, needs to be done.

This element of allowing the body to rest for a few minutes is important as it initiates the process of repair. The length of the breaks varies from client to client and with different procedures, but on average the therapist will leave clients for around two minutes in between each set of moves.

The breaks are probably one of the least understood parts of Bowen and yet it is during these breaks that the work starts to take effect and change occurs. The most fundamental principle of Bowen is that it’s the client doing the work, not the therapist, and for this to happen the body needs time alone to process what has been experienced.

To close, one for Nashville fans.  Here’s Clare Bowen (wink) and Sam Palladio with a woozy, bluesy kinda number…


Pilates to Work the Fascia

Veiled dancer

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.

Lady beneath the veil statue

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.

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To close, here’s Bowie’s famous song about fascia…beep beep!