by Dawn Lefebvre, BScN, BScKin
Think about the word ‘fascia’ – can you describe what it is? Most people can’t, but you know you’ve heard of it and feel like you should know what it means…
Fascia has become better understood in the last few years, but previously it was mostly considered a covering for muscles. In dissections, it was the white stuff that needed to be taken off to get at the muscles (think of the white stuff you scrape off a chicken breast). We are starting to learn just how important and valuable fascia is, and there will be much more information about it in the next few years as more people recognize its significance.
Fascia is an elastic connective tissue that runs throughout our whole body. It’s like a second, deeper layer of skin, made up of several different levels and types of fibres. It looks like a thin layer, but microscopically it’s actually a dense web of fibres. One of the greatest characteristics of fascia is its interconnectedness – because it is present throughout our bodies, it connects everything to everything else! Fascia connects the sole of your foot all the way up to the back of your head, and everything in between!
This really helps remind us how related different things are in our bodies; because of the high degree of connection, something affecting one part of your body can very easily affect another part, even if it’s not nearby or doesn’t seem like they should be related. For example, if you have surgery on the front of your abdomen, like getting your appendix removed, the fascia in that area is affected and you would expect to have altered sensation and pain in that area for awhile. But then maybe your shoulder on the opposite side starts to hurt – you probably wouldn’t relate it to your surgery. Imagine that you are wearing a tight shirt, and the fabric is twisted and knotted around the incision site. Think about how that twisting would pull on the rest of the fabric, even affecting the way the fabric sits on your shoulders. It would feel tighter and like it was pulling at a funny angle. This is what happens to your fascia inside your body! Any injuries, surgeries, and even just tension that you have in your body pull on your fascia, and affect everything else to varying degrees.
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So, how do we work to fix this? Release work is very helpful in working with fascia, especially when it’s done slowly and connected with the breath. When you get a massage or use a foam roller, you might think the purpose is to release tension in the muscles. Your muscles are definitely affected, but these types of release work also address the fascia. And of course, because everything is connected, release work doesn’t just target the muscles or the fascia, but both at the same time, so it also addresses adhesions that can occur between muscles and the fascia surrounding them. Adhesions occur when the muscle and fascia get stuck together, and can be the cause of tightness, pain, and even injury.
Foam rollers and balls are self-massage tools that you can use to release your fascia, and are an important part of keeping your body healthy, even if you aren’t very active. You might expect that athletes would have a much higher risk of injury and need more body work, but inactivity can put us at risk too.
Fascia holds a lot of water, and if you’re not moving that water around through activity or foam rolling, it will get stagnant. Imagine your muscles surrounded by murky, stagnant water full of waste products from your cells, and then imagine squeezing all the old water out to allow fresh, new water to take its place! (Sounds pretty great!) This helps with circulation and improves the health of all your tissues. After exercise, fascia is dehydrated and foam rolling can help encourage rehydration of the tissues.
Another way that inactivity puts us at risk is that if we aren’t moving much or challenging our bodies, our fascia becomes disorganized. The network of fibres will develop in relationship to the stress put on them, so if we don’t train our fascia the arrangement of the fibres is affected. Rather than having a regular, organized, functional arrangement, the dense web will become chaotic and lose its elasticity, and eventually function is decreased or lost.
Fascia responds to specific types of training. Because of its elastic properties, movements that challenge recoil, like bouncing or jumping are important. The great news is that it doesn’t have to be huge, ballistic movements – you can begin to train your fascia just by bouncing on the spot without your feet leaving the ground! Challenging the body to move in different planes and directions is also great for promoting optimal fascia training and development.
The great thing is that by doing Pilates you’re already training your fascia! The fluidity and grace that Pilates builds relates to the whole-body integration that reflects healthy fascia. Approaching the body as an integrated system rather than focusing on separate muscles also relates to the fascial network.
The spring resistance used in Pilates relates closely to the elastic properties of fascia, and the types of movements and stretching that we do in Pilates provide what fascia needs to be healthy. Think of jumping swan, jumping exercises done on a jumpboard, and running on the reformer, or recoil pushups on a wall. The different types of stretching we use address fascia differently, both moving fluidly in and out of a stretch and melting stretches which are held for a longer time.
The Pilates focus on body awareness and proprioception (knowing where your body is in space) also relates to fascia. Fascia has been found to have much greater proprioceptive ability than muscles, so it’s actually your fascia telling you if you’re not sitting up straight doing armwork on the reformer, or that you’re extending more in your thoracic than lumbar spine doing a swan. By doing Pilates, you’re improving the mind-body connection and increasing your ability to listen to your fascia!
Try out our fascia class to learn more about it, and get practical experience stretching, releasing, and training your fascia! The class starts in mid-April and runs on Monday nights and Wednesday mornings. See the fascia class blog entry for full details! Spots are filling quickly, so register soon! Everyone is welcome, no experience needed!