This article is a primer about fascia, it's benefits and how ancient techniques can be used today to help you heal and recover better and faster!
“There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.”
- Miyamoto Musashi
Want to get in shape?
Join a gym and work those muscles! Perhaps even get a personal trainer, or do CrossFit and push a tractor tire end-over-end? (Just kidding — don't do that). Right? Well, you certainly could.
Lean muscle tissue is certainly advantageous to our health. But what about the connective tissue (fascia) that surrounds our muscles, organs, and other structures?
You won't, for example, hear someone say,
“I'm going to the gym to work my fascia.”
As I discussed in my last blog, there is an evolving amount of research that shows that fascia has an integrated role in our health, and that focusing on this tissue has enormous health benefits.
It's really what yoga, tai chi, and other movement arts are designed to do (more on that later).
I'd like to discuss the recent studies on connective tissue yet again, and introduce you to the ancient history involving fascia, including the arts of budo, yoga, and so on. As you will see, the current science backs up what the great masters knew a long time ago — optimal health exists within.
Fascia Reigns Supreme
In general, the connective tissues in our body run posteriorly from the base of the skull (occipital) to under the feet to the toes, and anteriorly just under the mandible at the hyoids.
Of course, there are different layers and different thicknesses, but the front and back lines collectively are really a stirrup, much like a suit (see Gil Hedley's work), that we “suspend” in.
Fascia wraps our muscles and tendons, and also buffers and supports the internal organs.
Recent studies show fascia is a supreme sensory organ, with many more sensory nerve receptors than muscle tissue.
These receptors, such as proprioreceptors and nociceptors, sense body position and pain respectively. Without them, we would not sense our bodies in space, nor feel temperature or pain.
To understand what proprioceptors do, and how vital they are in the body, check out Ian Waterman's incredible story.
He literally lost his body from the neck down, unable to move and control his limbs.
He was not paralyzed, but had lost all proprioception in his body.
We will talk more about this later, but part of this man's recovery was his own intent. He spent hours, daily, thinking of his movements.
Finally, he was able to control them by visualizing them in his brain first, and then by using his own vision.
If the lights went out, he would collapse.
He had to be able to see his limbs to move them. He now has to plot his movements in his mind and then fire the right muscles to walk, brush his teeth, or any of the daily tasks we humans take for granted.
Interestingly, this man did not lose feeling of pain (nociceptors) or temperature. It’s powerful stuff.
Fascia is a connective superhighway.
It transmits forces that used to be held accountable to only muscle, so forces applied to the body are shared by fascia.
“The fascial continuum is essential for transmitting the muscle force, for correct motor coordination, and for preserving the organs in their sites: The fascia is a vital instrument that enables the individual to communicate and live independently. The transmission of the force is ensured by the fascial integrity, which is expressed by the motor activity produced; the tension produced by the sarcomeres results in muscle activity, using the various layers of the contractile districts (epimysium, perimysium, endomysium), with different directions and speed.”
(Clinical and symptomatological reflections: the fascial system Bruno Bordoni 1,2 and Emiliano Zanier 2,3.)
Because forces are shared and distributed across the fascia sheet, this changes the physiologic approach to conditioning the body. Conditioning the connective tissue system is what having an integrated body really is, because you are training the brain and the nervous system.
But how do we do this?
Let's discuss yoga for a second.
People often take up yoga and say, “I need to get more flexible.”
Yet yoga is not entirely about muscular elasticity; it's really about training the body (connective tissue) as a unit for better health, including the brain, nerves, emotional enrichment — I could go on. In its essence, the asanas are meant to re-wire the brain and nervous system.
One of my favorite Patanjali (a yoga seer who was believed to have written the Yoga Sutra 1,700 years ago) is this:
“Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.”
After all, it is a moving meditation. And more importantly, Patanjali wrote,
“It is only when the correct practice is followed for a long time, without interruptions and with a quality of positive attitude and eagerness, that it can succeed.”
I'll come back to this, but the body must be conditioned daily, and for a long time to achieve optimal health benefits and changes to the connective tissue.
Fascia - Your Body’s Potential
Fascia is a tensegrity structure.
Man-made structures, like most buildings, are stabilized by gravitational compressive forces, yet tensegrity systems are stabilized by continuous tension, with intermittent compression.
Since a tensegrity system is prestressed, it immediately resumes its prior shape when an applied force ceases.
Again, forces are spread throughout the system instead of one location as they are in lever components. The tensegrity system functions as a single unit, where if one thing moves, everything moves.
This is how our body is constructed, as a tensegrity structure.
The fascia anatomy means that it expands and morphs as forces are placed upon it.
(To see live tissue doing this, I highly recommend Dr. Jean Claude Guimberteau's videos. He is a French plastic surgeon that used a camera attached to an endoscope to film living tissue.)
The more we place force across it, the more the tissue changes. What does this mean?
Let's look at an example of unconscious change in the tissue surrounding internal organs.
And this is something my surgeon friends often tell me, that when a kidney or other organ is ill, the tissue surrounding that organ changes to support and nourish it. The tissue surrounding the injured organ is thicker and denser.
Another example of this that I've experienced in my cadaver work is seeing dense, thickened tendons and ligaments in an obese specimen; because the person was obese, and more support was needed, the tissue was thicker at the joints.
This is something I've never seen in thin specimens.
While no true force was applied for this growth to occur (except for body weight and gravity), if the body does this unconsciously, can we change fascia via thought, movement, and an optimal structure where forces are placed upon it?
Yes! Again, it's what yoga and other movement arts are designed to do, although they are often not taught with a scientific approach.
Kangaroos can jump some 25 feet, and cannot use their legs independently.
So how do they jump? When researchers began to investigate the animals, they looked at muscles. Yet the muscles alone were not large enough to produce enough force to enable them to leap the distance that they do. What they discovered is that the animals store kinetic energy in the tendons and distribute forces through the legs to the ground. They are able to use connective tissue to store the energy needed to jump.
And guess what? Humans have the same ability to store kinetic energy.
We may not be able to leap 25 feet, but we can store and use that energy when needed. In reality, our bodies are designed to be natural suspension systems. Another example of how incredible forces are generated in the body is this study at Stanford University. Using sensors, scientists measured the force generated by a tai chi practitioner, and that force was more than 14 times his body weight.
So if we look at fascia as a sheet from head to toe, and imagine it as a storehouse for energy (forces), it becomes a spring, able to produce incredible non-muscular power. This shifts forces away from our major joints – at least it should if your body is trained correctly.
This is no secret to athletes; watch gymnasts, dancers, and Parkour athletes and you will see it. There is no conceivable way these athletes could perform the way they do without utilizing connective tissue.
Now, it's important to mention in all this fascia jargon (especially in health care, where it's called “magical” and defined as the solution to all ailments), that while the science is quickly evolving on fascia and its role in the human body, it’s extremely difficult to measure the role fascia plays in force transmission, energy storage, and the exact directives it has regarding brain and nerves.
We've come a long way in showing the roles this tissue has. I've read many science writer's blogs that defy any of the supposed power fascia has in movement, especially those used in martial arts and sports.
I don't blame them.
It's tough to measure and prove, but I advise those nonbelievers to experience an adept's power in internal power (martial arts) so they can feel the difference between pure muscular strength and the coiled spring power of connective tissue.
(I have felt it and there is no describing it.)
And, from someone who has studied human movement for almost 30 years, I would tell them to really look at athletes. You cannot cling to a mountainside, barehanded, using only muscle, nor can you explode and leap as the gymnasts do using only your leg muscles.
Training the tissue
The ancient arts — including budo, yoga, and even Tibetan monks — used connective tissue in succinct ways, both in movement arts and esoteric practices for health.
They understood the value of training this tissue, even though they didn't define it in scientific terms.
Instead, they spoke of alignment, breath, qi, and the like (and this is still taught in this vernacular today).
In Japan, they stood under waterfalls, watched by statues called Fudo Myo-o (immovable-esoteric training) and performed misogi (purification) exercises that for certain had as much to do with training the body as anything.
Look at some of the ancient texts, such as Illustrated Explanations of Chen Family Taijiquan, Chen Xin (published around 1919). You will see drawings with familiar fascial lines (much like those included in Tom Meyer's book Anatomy Trains), with spiral ink traversing the limbs, and front and lateral lines.
They got it. And it's how they taught movement, with spiraling of the limbs to place greater force on the tissues, and front and lateral movements to increase tautness in the fascial sheet (again, look at tai chi and yoga).
So the body can be trained to target the connective tissue.
If you do a yoga class once a week, is that enough?
While it certainly may help, a much more concentrated effort must take place to really change the body.
The body must be set up to pull the tissues (also known as “pulling silk”) and challenge growth in the matrix. The fascial lines must be connected.
It's really what yoga asanas are supposed to do.
Just like muscles, which should be challenged in every direction the fibers work, the fascia needs forces applied in axial and spiral motions.
Axially, occipital to toes are pulled taught, and in spiral movements, the bones rotate to create soft spiral tension. If you look at tai chi and other budo arts, the movements incorporate all of these directions.
While an instructor may never mention fascia, everything we've talked about is really what practitioners are trying to accomplish.
I was in Seattle last September to study and pick the brain of Stephan Berwick, a Chen-style tai chi artist that trained in China at an early age.
In his two-day workshop, we did a variety of ancient Chen body conditioning, yet he never once mentioned connective tissue or pulling silk — only alignment and breath control were discussed.
And I was not surprised.
His training under the Chen-style dictates body positioning and “feeling” the tautness in the body, so I didn't expect a science lecture.
Still, it was interesting.
After 28 years of studying a martial art, I began to do what I should have done long ago – really research and understand the history of budo and the art I was training in.
Part of what fueled my studies was the recent focus in research on human fascia.
Everything I was reading, and all the study in human cadaver clinics, suddenly morphed into a profound understanding to all my years of training.
And then I met Dan Harden, an internal arts practitioner, who I credit with steering me in the right direction — that training the tissues and the body is vital. I will be attending his four-day intensive at his house in Boston in June. These four days will be spent exploring forces, body mechanics, and proper movement.
So now, all the techniques and katas (forms) no longer matter. (Yes, they are still fun, but katas will never give you an integrated body).
As Yukiyoshi Sagawa used to say, “People who think that they can ignore training their bodies and only work on technique are amateurs.”
I was now applying a scientific approach to what my movements really were supposed to be achieving.
And now, instead of only showing up at a dojo to train two nights a week, I am training daily, pulling silk, examining mechanics of movement that I never understood before, and making incredible progress — a progress that I previously did not get in 28 years of a martial art.
I felt as though I’d been doing it all wrong, and I was.
I have to mention one of the most profound benefits I received after starting this training is my eyesight. I no longer need readers, and I cannot explain what else to credit this to.
(I'm not alone; my training partners say the same thing.) My therapy practice has changed, too, because my touch is different, as it's coming from my entire body now.
Training our connective tissues, training the body, has enormous benefits.
Yet it is a discipline not many adhere to.
It takes tremendous focus, diligence, and self-introspection.
No one teacher can place this in your body; each person has to find his or her own way to feel it in the tissues. You have to really think about the concepts all the time, with every movement. Many yoga and martial arts practitioners, when exposed to Shugyo (determined training that fosters enlightenment), don't want to do it. The weekly classes, in their minds, are sufficient. And this is why the modern path of these arts is failing.
For more information, and if you'd like to be introduced to this journey, visit and apply for one of my courses.