For many years, I have been involved with the study of human fascia (connective tissue), not only from an anatomical standpoint, but from a physical one as well (more on that later).
In April of this year, I attended a fascia dissection seminar with Dr. Antonio Stecco at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. Unlike my past experience with dissection seminars where the instructor carelessly sliced through every layer of fascia so we could see the “magic” of the muscles, in this course we delicately separated the three distinct layers of connective tissue. It was a fascinating experience to see the myofascial expansions weave into muscle tissue in the upper and lower extremities, and see and feel the texture of fascia. I discovered that the trochanteric bursae — and bursae in general — are not “sacks” but rather continuations of the connective tissue. They are more like an envelope.
On this particular specimen, I inserted my hands within the bursa of the left hip, and it was filled with hard calcifications due to what we discovered was a hip fracture. And the much discussed “ridged” illiotibial band? For one, it cannot be separated from the fascia latae during dissection, as it is a continuation of the fascia. It’s an elastic tissue. (Yes, it can be stretched.) I will say it again — unlike what most textbooks teach (and you hard-nosed science writers say), fascia is not a ridged structure. It feels and looks like soft, elastic steel mesh, and it has incredible tensile strength.
After taking a sample from the fascia latae and holding it between calipers, we were not able to tear this tissue, regardless of the force we used. Holding the tissue up to a light, I observed complicated and multiple fiber directions; there are multiple stacked layers, with each layer going in a different direction. This is how it gets its strength. When the adipose tissue was removed from the facsia, Dr. Stecco noted the dense thickness of both the fascia and ligaments of the obese specimen. In his Italian accent, he noted: “See-a? Because-a obesity, the connective tissue is a-thicker,” he said. When I asked if he sees this with all obese cadavers he said “always, never in-a skinny ones.”
So human fascia “remodels” when it needs to support excess weight and when an organ is infected or traumatized. For example, someone with pancreatitis would have extra thick connective tissue surrounding the organ. This is found on sample after sample of surgery patients (and often reported by my surgeon friends who see it most often).
So if the body autonomously changes connective tissue to protect and support, can we consciously manipulate the fascial web in our bodies? Yes. But again, we’ll get into that.
The Expanding Science of Connective Tissue
Dr. Antonio Stecco and his sister Dr. Carla Stecco are a few of the pioneers in the scientific study of human fascia. Their combined research helped place fascia in a remarkable light, and the now yearly Fascial Congress has opened new perspectives into the science of soft tissue. (I recommend you read the chapters devoted to their combined work in the Tensional Network textbook.) Yet all of this attention to fascia has also generated a misleading label. There are health care professionals saying things about fascia that are simply unfounded. As health care professionals, research should always drive the treatment, and a few weekend courses do not make one a master of anything. To understand anything, you have to swim in it all the time. That said, I'd like to discuss the ancient traditions of warriors and yogis that the evolving research is just beginning to prove: they figured out soft tissue thousands of years ago.
Shortly before I began to read Fascia:The Tensional Network of the Human Body (TNHB), I began to study internal power (IP) with Dan Harden, a Boston architect who also studied, among other arts, the Japanese martial art Daitō-ryū.
If you look at the ancient arts, i.e. the Illustrated Explanations of Chen Family Taijiquan, you will see a pattern of an understanding of the fascial lines. Perhaps they could not explain it, but they understood that something was changing in their bodies. After reading Dr. Steven Levin’s chapter in TNHB on biotensegrity, I realized what he was saying was exactly what my teacher was trying to teach me. He often said, “One thing moves, everything moves.” Yet I had no concept what he meant. We are tensegrity structures, our bones “islands of compression floating in a balanced sea of tension.” I was beginning to understand that if we teach our bodies to be “stillness in motion,” we can create incredible non-muscular power — and incredible health — in our bodies. (Need proof? I no longer need reading glasses.)
In short, fascia is manipulated through the mind and intent; it’s what yoga and tai-chi are supposed to do, yet in all my years of martial study, a model that specifically focused on pulling connective tissue (what the ancients called “pulling silk”) was not made clear. In 25 years of aikido and qigong, I was told to “take the slack out and relax,” without really understanding what this actually meant.
When I have tai-chi students in my classes — some who have studied it for more than 30 years — I ask them what creates internal power in their bodies. They often say they don’t know, or that it’s “aligning the energy” (which it is, after you consider soft tissue and pezioelectricty). Others will list multiple possibilities and some even include fascia. Now that I understand the science, my course, The Integrated Body®, offers an in-depth study of the science of connective tissue and “proves it” with movement designed to change the fascial web in the body. It’s a daunting exploration; one can only change the fascial architecture through specific, intent-driven daily exercises. And it’s hard work. Levin’s biotensegrity model is what the yogis, for example, wanted us to understand — fascia heat is generated naturally, not through hot yoga (no offense to those who enjoy this modality). The fascial web is changed (and dantian is developed) through intent-dedicated movement; everything in the body is moved as one unit, one body, one point, through six directions.
“Remember, when moving, there is no place that does not move. When still, there is no place that is not still. First seek extension, then contraction; then it can be fine and subtle.” — Wu Yu-hsiang (1812–1880)