Some thoughts on fascia

Fascia is the ‘new muscle’. Everybody is talking and writing about it and working with it.

Fascia is the connective tissue that envelopes and interconnects every part of our body. It is the thin sheath of stuff that covers each muscle, each muscle fibre, every organ, blood vessel – well everything actually. You may know it as a tendon when it becomes thicker at the end of a muscle and connects it to a bone.

I first came to understand about it when I was training in the early 80’s and I still remember some descriptions of it that made me understand the amazing interconnectedness of this extraordinary part of us. One image was that if you could take away everything except the fascia you would be left with a ghostly 3D image of the person, a bit like the ghostly outline of a stick insect after it has shed its skin, except it isn’t just the outside but it makes an internal outline as well. The other was something an osteopath said: Imagine that when the human being was made, with all the skin, bones, muscles, blood vessels, nerves and organs. And just when you thought it would be ready to go live you realised that all these parts would rub against each other. What a painful mess that would be. So you open up a little hole in the top of the head and pour in a thin film which would seep in between every little part of the body. This film would make the parts move and glide smoothly over each other.

Fascia is strong, elastic, moist and kind of slippery so it can move about easily when we move, breathe or eat. So that we can move about freely and easily!

It doesn’t act like muscles. Muscles get direct instruction from the brain via the motor nerves. You can talk directly to them asking them to contract or you can stop sending a contracting muscle and allow it to release. The way I like to think of the fascia is that it behaves as if its one and only purpose is to hold you together in whatever shape you make, whatever limit you put to it. So for example, if you are slouching at the desk for 8 hours it shrinks to that shape, if you use too much muscle effort to do everything or you over-tighten muscles with intense strength exercises without the release element, your fascia will hold you in that tight muscle bound shape.

Over time these habits of misuse will make the fascia, the tendons, shorten and that is why you might have a great Alexander lesson but the effects wear off. You have managed to let go of tension and feel longer, wider and freer after the lesson, but later you feel that you are ‘getting pulled back’ into the shrunken, tighter shape again.

That is because fascia takes time to change. It can be released by deep tissue massage of various kinds, and stretching and keeping mobile will help too. But as we know if we do these activities with the old habit pattern we will simply revert to the status quo. Alexander Technique aims to re-educate the way you co-ordinate your muscle use so that gradually you will free the fascia and prevent it tightening. As you learn to stop slouching down and to stop over-shortening muscles, the fascia will be stretched and gradually be longer as it get the message that this is the new limit you put on it.

An elastic stretchy fascia is wonderful for everyday life as well as for running, playing sports, working out, singing or playing any instrument!