Picture this: You are in a Restorative Yoga class. As you approach the final moments of the asana part, you’re asked by the teacher to sway your body fully forward while seated, bending it over your legs to come into paschimottanasana. Easy enough. As you begin your descent, your backline contracts. Your head wants to go down fully and melt into your knees, but the natural reflex of your muscles faced with an unusually deep movement is to tense up. And so, your hamstrings and the back of your legs fire up to prevent overstretching, which means that your ability to bend is compromised. Nevertheless, you accomplish your version of paschimottanasana and then begin the static part of the work. A couple minutes in plus a few rounds of conscious breathing, you feel your body easing in further and, bit by bit, you can rest more calmly and comfortably in a deeper version of the pose.
Have you ever wondered why this is so? How does your body react as it does and how come over time you manage to bend forward a bit more? The answer has to do with ‘a new organ’: the ‘interstitium,’ but we bet you've never heard of that word before! The streets call it ‘fascia,’ and in the past few years it has become the it-girl of the anatomy world.
As its name implies, fascia is a pretty fascinating body element, one that has been there all along though for decades disregarded by the scientific community as a seemingly 'useless' structural component. If you are a meat lover you’ve seen (and eaten!) plenty of it, I’m sure; but even as a plant-based person, you’ve encountered fascia-looking layers in things like oranges, lemons, or even a simple pomegranate. Remember the white-ish dividing lines we normally discard?! That’s it!
When it comes to the body, the spaces left between organs and muscles, muscles and joints, joints and specific tendons or bones are often filled with a frequently slimy-looking or fibrous white-ish sheath or layer that fills every empty nook and cranny, helping connect everything to everything else. That’s the fascia right there –another type of connective tissue. And what it does, aside from a bunch of still unknown tasks, is to connect things to one another. Where it is located in the body, its function, and how it gets to be actually used determines its overall constitution; but in general, we can say that our fascia is mainly made up of collagen and elastin to different ratios.
Nevertheless, the reason why fascia is so fascia-nating and why it is so cool to see fascia become the object of so much ongoing research is because it is believed to have a much bigger say not only in how we move, but also in how we feel. When anatomy is taught to kids at school, they usually learn about bones and joints by looking at one of those human-sized skeletons. At least, that was the usual thing back in the 80s and 90s! But as great a tool as these dummies are, they tend to give kids the impression that all our bones are somehow magically connected to one another with no intermediators and that the skeleton can basically stand upright on its own. Needless to say, this is not 100% correct –not even when one inputs connective tissue like muscles into the equation; and though we have joints here and there, there is still plenty of space left 'empty' between our bones. So much so that, without the help of connective tissue like muscles or fascia, our 206 bones would just be lying in a pile on the floor...
Recently, the concept of (bio-)tensegrity was introduced into anatomy. Originally ‘invented’ by architect Buckminster Fuller who borrowed the idea from nature itself and then went on to build a bunch of super cool looking buildings, tensegrity describes the perfect homeostasis between stability and mobility. In our case, this perfect balance has to do with maintaining proper posture while at the same time having a healthy and juicy facial network. A juicy and healthy fascia ensures we remain limber and younger much longer, and who doesn't want that? But for this, we need ‘balanced tension.’ Indeed, too loose a fascia cannot give us enough stability to move, but too tight a fascia won’t allow for the necessary range of motion we sometimes require. The key to solve this conundrum is to train and attain bodywide equal tension and Yoga, as well as functional training are both good places to start.
Profound in more ways than one
We know for quite some time now that our fascia is highly innervated too. In fact, there aren’t too many other places in the body with more nerve endings and receptors than fascia itself. If our fascia only had structural functions (to help support our bones) this would not be necessary. Which begs the question of ‘is there more to fascia than we thought of?' The answer is yes, of course!
Research has shown that fascia actually plays a key role in proprioception. Proprio...what?! –you might ask. Just go ahead and lift your hand over your head, maybe even put it in front of you. You know where your hand is at, right? You know it intellectually (since you put it there) and now you are also able to see it, of course. But if you were to do it with your eyes closed, your awareness of where your hand is at would remain the same. Now imagine waking up in the morning, your eyes still closed. Without looking under the blankets, you are able to know that your extremities are somewhere down there relative to your surroundings. This is proprioception. A real miracle achieved by all those mechanoreceptors in your tissues working together to keep track of where your body parts are –in case you forget!
Hence, fascia is key to help us know where we are in space, but it is also key for what's known as interoception: the ability to sense the quality of our movements so we can feel their effects on both the body and the mind. But, when one learns that 80% of the receptors in our fascia are actually in charge of interoception, one has to wonder whether there’s also more to this latter task than it seems. As things stand, it appears as if one of the key responsibilities of fascia were to transmit information from all those receptors in the fascial tissue to other parts and organs in the body –information mainly of a sensorial-emotional kind.
Nevertheless, what it is that our fascia really does remains still a bit unclear. Contemporary research on the topic is currently trying to establish whether or not it's safe to say that there's a relationship between the way we move and how particular types of (un)processed feelings and emotions seem to be stored into different body parts. This would account, for example, for the types of releases people sometimes experience during a deep massage session, certain types of breathwork, craniosacral or Rolfing therapy, or long held poses like those characteristic of Restorative Yoga.
That fascia may aid in the communication and storage of memories and emotions at the level of the physical body (instead of in the mind) are assertions that still need more backing from scientific quarters, of course. But if this came to be fully demonstrated, it would go on to ratify findings made by yogis and manual therapists of different sorts centuries ago. For now, it’s fair to say that there’s a great deal of expectation and anticipation when it comes to fascia and its ability to help us better understand both our bodies and sensations, and that there seems to be good reason for it!