You have probably noticed the increased prevalence of the term ‘Fascia’ in recent years. Maybe you’re wondering what all the hype is about? Is this just the next goji-berry, fad-diet, conspiracy-theory BS? Well, it depends on how it’s used and applied.
To say that a form of bodywork or movement is “Fascial” or “Myofascial” is to specify an intention, not a technique.
Any and all movement and bodywork unavoidably contacts the fascia, whether we realize it or not. To specify an intention with Fascial or Myofascial work is to acknowledge the unique properties of fascia, and the interconnected nature of the body, through the Fascial web, but to be clear, moving and pressing on the fascia is unavoidable. It’s the alignment with the pathways and tendencies of this web that makes bodywork or movement ‘Fascial.’
First, it’s important to understand why fascia appears as a recent discovery. The Fascial Web wasn’t deliberately obscured. It was simply ignored for the most part, due to the prevalence of reductionist thinking in biological science, and our tendency to isolate parts out of the whole in the search for clarity and knowledge.
In the quest to dissect and identify every part of the human physiology, we inadvertently removed and discarded the thin connective tissue (fascia) which wraps and connects everything. The surgeon slices through it to access the the muscles, bones and organs, and while good surgeons work WITH the directional fibers of the fascia, they’re mostly concerned with what’s under it. While reductionist thinking is certainly a precise and powerful tool which has allowed us to catalogue the cells, nerves, bones and muscles, at a certain point we see the necessity of looking at how things actually work together. Our somatic (bodily) awareness is not compartmentalized into isolated cells, bones and mechanical levers.
-When we consider how our our consciousness relates through our body, it’s the connections that are arguably most important.
-We don’t ‘see’ individual muscles in our mind map.
So if there is one biological system that represents this interconnectedness, it’s the Fascial Network. Fascia connects every cell in the body, and it distributes strain through broad bands and slings, using tension and compression to transmit mechanical input, and it’s important to note that this aspect of mechanical tensegrity actually works independently from the central nervous system. But the Fascial web is also rich in nerve receptors, especially the Ruffini and Golgi receptors (which DO relate directly with the central nervous system), sensing pressure, stretch and vibration, thereby giving us our spatial awareness.
The fascia responds both immediately to mechanical pressure (faster than the CNS) and over time, laying down thicker layers of directional collagen fibers in response to repeated stress and strain over weeks, months and years. Fascia is NOT a problem or pathology which we are trying to remove, but the patterns which we develop through habit and repetition can become pathological, keeping us locked into chronic tension, lack of adequate range-of-motion, and leading to chronic injury.
When we practice Myofascial Release in a Structural Bodywork context, our intention is to release harmful patterns of adhesion in the Myofascia (muscle-related fascia), and encourage a more responsive, resilient and supple quality in our fascia.
This is where conscious myofascial movement comes in.
I’m not talking about a specific brand of movement (although “Anatomy Trains Slings In Motion” and “Functional Range Conditioning” are both excellent movement forms if you’re looking for something highly specific and precise), but simply taking what you learn and feel during the Myofascial Release work and gradually applying it to your favorite movement forms can yield great results over time.
It’s best to start with a simple, controlled movement form such as foundational Pilates, while avoiding anything that has too rigid of dogma, as you need to be able to adapt, shift and feel what’s happening. The point is to tune in with your body and see what it’s telling you.
Notice the connections from the feet to knees, knees to hips, hips to shoulders, spine through the fingers, and sacrum to occiput. Holding a subtle inner core presence, tuned in with your breath, allows you to activate the long, more superficial slings of myofascia which guide you through bigger movements.
As you practice in this way on the mat, you cultivate more functional body-awareness, and your fascia gradually becomes more supple, elastic, and responsive. Your comfortable, useable range opens up, bringing new options for movement which may have caused too much strain or instability before. I’m not talking about end-range flexibility, I’m talking about USEABLE RANGE. We want to encourage supple and elastic movement through a comfortable range.
The emphasis when we’re moving with the Fascia in mind is on suppleness, resilience, and integration of the whole body. We can develop this ‘skill’ of body-awareness, and gradually refine our movement patterns. There’s no immediate fix, or one-size-fits-all approach to posture and movement. It’s dynamic and adaptable, not static and isolated.
This is a physical, visceral and somatic practice. One of the great things about working with the Fascial system is that it allows you to feel constant, direct feedback and know if what you’re doing is working or not. You don’t need to place faith or belief outside of yourself. It’s quite the opposite: it’s using your somatic awareness and direct experience as a feedback loop to gradually develop your form in a way that allows you to connect with your environment in a more complete way.
This somatic awareness becomes less of a cerebral concept, and more of a presence. That’s when it starts to really connect into more challenging situations, whether that means at work, at the crag, in the water and on the trail.
I've really only just scratched the surface on the science and the current body of fascia-based research in this short blog post. My intention is to present just enough information to understand the concept, without ‘front-loading’ too many concepts and theories, but I encourage you to look into recent fascial research.
The Fascial Research Society (fascialresearchsociety.org) is a good place to start, along with my group and individual online classes for your own personal exploration into your Fascial Web.
When we engage in natural movement forms such as rock climbing and bodysurfing we connect directly with our environment, through our body in a somatic and visceral way. So what gives our body form? More importantly, what aspects of our form are receptive and adaptable, giving us proprioceptive feedback along with the means to respond and shift our course through space?
The Fascial network is the largest sensory organ in the body, and it also gives our body it's shape and form. All movement and bodywork engages with the myofascial system, whether we realize it or not. To say we are working with the fascia or myo-fascia (muscle fascia) is to specify an intention; to engage with this vast, body-wide web, with an emphasis on the connections and continuities, as opposed to the reductionist approach of isolated muscles, joints and bones.
The individual names of the muscles and boney landmarks are still important to learn and use as an 'area code' to get to the correct region. The difference is that we understand each part to be interconnected with the rest of the body through tensegrity, or the distribution of tension and compression throughout the fascial network.
These fascial continuities are in direct connection with our movement patterns and posture.
Take for instance, the crux sequence of this route at Mokule'ia which involves standing up onto a small and high left foot, then reaching up to an awkward left hand side-pull. The tendency is to look to the fingers and the toes as the only body parts doing the work.
In reality, what actually make these holds usable is our ability to drive energy and engagement through the long lines of fascia, from a strong, centered inner core.
The Deep Front Line of fascia (as named and described by Tom Myers' Anatomy Trains Myofascial Meridians) maintains engagement deep in the Psoas, connecting the lumbar spine and breathing through the pelvis, into the adductor muscles along the inner thigh, across the medial ligaments of the knee on into the deep Tibialis Posterior muscle of the lower leg, which connects into the medial arch of the foot, giving the big toe strength, support and sensory feedback to keep the toe securely pressed into the dime-sized edge in the rock.
^Deep Front Line. Image Credit: Tom Myers, Anatomy Trains
^Photo Credit: Ryan Moss
Bodysurfing is another example of how we connect with our environment directly through our Myofascial Meridians. Bodysurfing is the most adaptable form of wave-riding, and it offers us a more visceral connection with the energy of the wave. To 'hold' a steep, fast highline on a barreling wave we can extend the inside arm out overhead (in front of us on the wave), while the inside leg extends out with strong engagement behind us, all the out through pointed toes in our surf fins, giving a 6' tall human an 8'+ rail to hold a steep line on the face of the wave.
The Superficial Front Line of myofascia provides engagement, awareness, feedback and adaptability from our toes to our occiput. The Deep Front Line allows us to feel centered and present through the inner core, modulating subtle flexion/ extension in the pelvis and lower back.
Following the Superficial Front line from the pelvis out through the toes, we start at the ASIS (anterior superior iliac spine), or the "headlights of the hips." The Rectus Femoris muscle connects directly into the ASIS, but also with the fascia of the knee, so this segment flexes the hips and extends the knee, giving it importance also with kicking to catch a wave. From the patellar ligament in the knee we connect into the Tibialis Anterior, which we follow down along this thick and dense muscle into the fascia of the extensor retinaculum on top of the foot, and the extensor tendons leading out to the toes. This implies that as you extend your foot and toes out straight to drive with your fins and accelerate the release of water off the tip of your fin, you're also connecting up through the knee into the hip, and deep into the front of the spine, or inner core.
As stated before, hip flexion/ extension and lumbopelvic stability is connected with the Deep Front Line on the inner core level, and the Superficial Front Line builds on the stability (or lack-there-of) in the inner core.
The correct amount of hip flexion will vary depending on the wave, and its best if we can subconsciously adapt our level of hip flexion as we move along the wave face. Generally more hip FLEXION gives more hold; too much and we stall out. Too much hip EXTENSION and we slide out to the bottom of the wave, and put undue strain and compression on our lumbar spine. But just the right amount of hip EXTENSION in the right part of a wave can allow us to glide through a soft section with less hang-up.
^Superficial Front Line, Anatomy Trains
Moving up the myofascial meridians from the inner core into the shoulders, and out the arms, we connect the inner core through the spine into the Deep Front Arm Line (DFAL), and the Superficial Front Line binds with the Superficial Front Arm Line (SFAL) through the Sternal and Pectoral Fascia, all the way out through the fingers.
The Deep Lines fine tune our posture and articulation in response to the wave's constant movement, and generally have more involvement when using a small hand-plane, which can be felt as increased force in the lower back. We are also shortening or engaging the Deep Front Line and the DFAL when the arm is swept back along side the body, while rolling the shoulder slightly in to direct the flowing water down through the venturi made by the subtle flexion at the inner core. On a side note, this is the same body position used to track away from a cliff when BASE jumping, so these myofascial meridians also connect us to the air (which is just another form of liquid).
The Superficial Lines build on top of our Deep Lines, and help support us through extension and length, and they help propel the bigger movements of swimming, paddling, and rolls or spins.
Rolling onto the side to stall out and hang in the hook of the wave engages more of the Lateral Line, activating the Quadratus Lumborum, Hip Abductors in the Trochanteric Fan, and the Intercostals in the rib cage.
^Lateral Line, Anatomy Trains
These analytical and cerebral concepts are great to study and slowly digest, but attempting to hold this kind of mental chatter while actually climbing or bodysurfing is NOT recommended! While I'm isolating out one myofascial meridian over another, its important to remember that the body is much more subtle and complex than even the intricate connections of these meridians, and the amount of antagonist engagement or supporting tension, compression and extension happening from head to toe during any given movement is unfathomable. These meridians I'm describing are just the most likely to be used the most heavily during these movement forms, and can help us visualize or feel these connections.
One of the main points of Myofascial Release bodywork and movement work is to gradually cultivate an awareness of the myofascial continuities in your body in a safe and controlled space, and then bring this awareness to our outdoor playgrounds.
Locating active Myofascial Trigger Points which are often far away from the localized pain or tension, then calling for subtle movement and activation as the tension releases gradually reprograms our bodily awareness. Instead of feeling isolated clumps of pain and compartmentalized movements, we start to feel an almost subconscious presence in our body, or a somatic awareness which transcends analytical, conscious thought. We learn to move effectively with less force, using longer lines of myofascia, and generating movement without impingement or undue tension.
In my experience, this somatic presence allows another level of connection nature; our proprioception (awareness in space) is enhanced, so we can directly engage with the stone, water, air and earth without over-analyzing our experience. This brings us into a more immediate, present state where we can step our ego mind out of the way for a while and learn from our environment directly through our body.
-HEALING HAPPENS WHEN YOU ARE DIRECTLY ENGAGED AND AWARE IN THE PROCESS-
During a good acupuncture treatment you FEEL the connections happening through your body, and you feel changes happening, even if its hard to mentally articulate. The entire process of Structural Bodywork and Rolfing relies on CONSCIOUS ENGAGEMENT AND AWARENESS of the myofascial system as the practitioner makes contact with different points and regions, encouraging release and lengthening in some areas or increased tone and engagement in others. In Medical Qigong breath and awareness link together to illuminate imbalance or stagnation in the body and help to create the subtle shifts which lead to healing.
Yet still, a majority of people approach these forms of healing as a magical cure-all, in which the PRACTITIONER heals or fixes the PATIENT. Many people expect a practitioner to fix them and all their problems while they lay on a table passively. In these situations we can usually temporarily 'disarm' or break up a pain-cycle, but there's no engagement in the process, and the issues usually come right back.
The focus in this case is exclusively on the GOAL, NOT THE PROCESS.
Our modern-day culture is undoubtably obsessed with goals and finish lines. It seems to go without saying for many people that if one achieves their goal, they won; end of story. No matter the trade off. This mentality works in a closed-circuit where people keep checking boxes and achieving material goals which confirm that they're doing it right.
BUT.... Organic processes including the human body don't work in a world of isolated goals. If we don't respect and appreciate the process in life then we miss the opportunity to learn and change. THE HUMAN BODY NEEDS TO PROCESS THE EXPERIENCE TO UNDERSTAND IT SOMATICALLY.
Guiding people through self-treatment bodywork requires that they engage in the process. Yes its challenging, and it can be uncomfortable at times. But when you feel a change or shift happen, and consciously move through the process, then something amazing happens; you begin to understand your body. It may not even make sense in words or cerebral concepts, but you begin to unlock an inner-sense and body-awareness which can be applied to everything else in your life. When emotions are too much to process in the moment we store them as tension in our body. When we release this tension we also learn to release and process the subconscious and somatic aspects of our thoughts and feelings.
I find that guided myofascial work is a direct and effective approach in helping people find this awareness and healing in themselves. People feel empowered as they learn to work through their chronic pain and tension. They have the opportunity to slowly build up their skills each session, engaging in the endless process of somatic (body)-awareness. The body is an incredible source of wisdom, and learning self-treatment techniques can help to open up this realm to everyone. I believe that it is our inherent right to fully-inhabit our own body and learn to be present in our own form. My intention with the guided myofascial therapy is to help people find this space and presence for themselves.