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Senior Yoga Medicine teacher Rachel Land says don’t worry if you’ve never considered the health of your fascia. As a yogi, you may already be doing what you need to anyway. Here, she outlines what it takes.
After long being overlooked in favor of muscles, fascia has been receiving some much deserved attention as of late. As fascia expert Gil Hedley, Ph.D., says: “If you want to understand human movement, study fascia!”
But this soft tissue component of the connective tissue system isn’t new—in fact, researchers like Robert Schleip, Ph.D., director of the Fascia Research Project in Germany, and Thomas Myers, author of Anatomy Trains, have been studying it for years. While our understanding of fascia and how it functions has a long way to go, their work offers some interesting insights into how you can help your fascia function better. And it’s a little more involved than running on the treadmill! The work of Schleip and his team suggests that healthy fascia requires a new approach—the involvement of the whole body, as well as the mind.
6 Steps for Fascial Fitness
Step 1: Move more mindfully.
Because so many of our nerve endings are embedded in fascia, it’s almost like an extension of our nervous system. Dr. Schleip describes fascia as “one of our richest sensory organs…certainly our most important organ for proprioception.” So the more a practice includes a proprioceptive awareness of the body, the more involved the mind is in the movement, and the more effective fascial work will be. That’s good news for yogis, since mindfulness is at the core of our philosophy and physical practices.
Step 2: Focus on whole-body movements.
Fascia forms a whole-body, three-dimensional matrix of structural support like a spider web, permeating the entire body, surrounding all of our organs, continuous with the connective tissue of all of our muscles, bones and nerve fibers. So the best movements for it involve the whole body, targeting large myofascial chains, rather than focusing on isolated movements. Consider the difference between a simple bicep curl and a complex, multidirectional yoga posture like Gate Pose or Revolved Triangle.
Step 3: Vary your movement.
With the right amount of stress, muscles, bones, the cardiovascular system, immune system—and yes, fascia, too—grow stronger, faster, more efficient. Fitness, essentially, is responsiveness and resilience to the challenges presented by life. Fascia has four types of receptors, each of which respond to different stressors. That means fascial fitness requires variety in movement. The key is to stretch, compress, and twist tissues in multiple directions, at varying speeds, and under different loads. Fortunately for yogis, the physical practice typically involves varied whole-body positions, speeds, and loads (especially if you explore different yoga styles).
Step 4: Don’t forget to rest.
No matter how much you love your yoga practice or exercise routine, it’s best for your fascia to rest regularly to allow time for recovery. Acute (short-term or varied) stress is much more useful than chronic stress, for two reasons. First, healthy fascia also requires proper hydration. It derives its strength partly from hydrostatic pressure, or the pressure its fluids exert on it due to gravity. After stretching or compressing fascia, it takes time to regain (and then surpass) its previous hydration level. Rushing from one activity straight into the next doesn’t allow the fascia time to regain its fluids and full strength. Second, chronic stress creates cortisol, which makes it harder for the body to produce the sugars that retain fluid in fascia. Cortisol also down-regulates the synthesis of collagen, delaying the healing process. So lack of rest makes fascia weaker and slower to heal from injury.
Step 5: Be patient.
Muscle strength training creates rapid strength gains, but if training stops the results atrophy just as quickly. In contrast, fascia responds to training slowly and subtly. Fascia is made of collagen, which takes anywhere from 6 months to 2 years to change in strength and elasticity. The results are slow, but lasting.
Step 6: Let the rest of your lifestyle follow suit.
Because fascia permeates every system of the body, its health is influenced by the food you eat, the quality of your breath, the chemicals and hormones you are exposed to, your level of mental and emotional tension, and so on. Fit fascia requires respect and attentiveness to every aspect of your life. Fortunately for yogis, the mental and spiritual practice almost invariably overflows off the mat and into the rest of our choices in life.
About Our Expert
RachelLand works internationally as a Yoga Medicine teaching assistant, and for the rest of the year teaches vinyasa, yin, and one-on-one yoga sessions in Queenstown, New Zealand. Rachel’s interest in anatomy lead her to a 500-hour teacher training with Tiffany Cruikshank and Yoga Medicine. She is currently working toward her 1000-hour certification.