What is Fascia?

by Stephanie Cantu

That mysterious word: fascia. You hear it spoken by your massage therapist and your yoga teacher, and now your chiropractor wants you go through an agonizing ritual on a foam roller that’s supposed to “release” it.

But what is it? What exactly is fascia? And why does it matter? With so many parts of our body that we are already trying to understand, who needs one more thing to work on?

We all do. We all need to know about fascia because it is the key to reaching optimal mobility, decreased pain, and overall wellness.

Fascia is alive

If you were to look up the definition of the word fascia in Wikipedia, you’d come away with the idea that it is little more than filler or packing material — the styrofoam peanuts of the human package. And this is what most of us thought for a long time.

Well, we were wrong. Fascia isn’t merely the fibers that attach muscles to bone like internal twistie-ties, or the goo that allows skin to glide over muscle. It is an elegant and intricate network penetrating into every part of us — a dynamic and functional system that facilitates (and can also inhibit) the form and function of the body. This uninterrupted web of support and communication is completely pervasive, enveloping and permeating every muscle, bone, organ and blood vessel. Fascia pioneers into places even the nervous system doesn’t reach!

Fascia is responsive

Viscoelastic and contractile in nature, fascia transmits forces to other surrounding layers of fascia, causing a chain reaction that spreads to structures throughout the body. Much like pulling on one corner strand of a spider web affects the entire web, what happens in one area of our body can have an effect on every other part.

We’ve all experienced it: what began as a sprained ankle has now led to a knee click and low back pain. From top to toe, front to back, inside to out, we are not separate parts, but one complete and continuous being. This revelation that every last molecule of our being is not separate, but instead is connected and synergistically influenced by every other molecule in the fascial matrix is mind-boggling. What you touch on the surface, you touch in the depths of the body.

But how is that possible? There are many layers of fascia which can be grouped into two main areas: superficial fascia and deep fascia. The superficial fascia is the loose connective tissue below your skin and surrounding your organs. The deep fascia, also referred to as the fascicular fascia, consists of the epimysium (outer layer), perimysium (middle layer), and the endomysium (deep layer). While they may be grouped, sorted and categorized, the beauty is that every layer of fascial tissue turns into the next layer, which is connected to the next layer, and so on. It’s all one piece.

Fascia partners with muscles in a fascinating way. Contracting muscles produce heat, which triggers a heat-induced relaxation of fascia. This relaxation causes the fascia to become viscous, enabling it to lengthen and stretch. Halting of muscular movement causes the fascia to cool and behave more like a solid, giving the muscles stability and shape. So, muscles create heat by contracting, and fascia uses heat to lengthen. This symbiotic partnership is danced like a rhythmic tango, the muscle and fascial fibers giving and taking, acting and reacting, initiating and responding. Fascia balances and controls the mechanical movements we impose on our frame, and allows for the human body to organize and execute millions of functions simultaneously throughout every system of skeletal and smooth muscle.

Fascia remembers

This continuous fibrous web of tissue is comprised of collagen and elastin fibers, which line up based on lines of force in the body. In a positive and productive way, these fibers respond to movement by providing optimal glide, stability and strength. Repetitive motion, overuse, and injury, however, can put the fibers into disarray, which prevents smooth movement. Inhibited function can then result in stiffness, decreased range of motion, and pain. Fear and avoidance further limit the range of motion needed to reorganize and utilize the fibers once again, creating tighter and thicker fascial tissue. An example would be frozen shoulder. In this condition, movement is stopped to avoid the discomfort from a minor injury. Lack of use and normal function of muscular contractions lead to the unused muscle being replaced by thick connective tissue.

So, fascia holds onto—or remembers—the movements, events and patterns we go through and it will respond accordingly. This accounts for the negative physical manifestations of an emotional trauma, as well as the often positive emotional effects of physical release.

The fascial system responds not only to physical stimulation through exercise, stretch, injury, and repetitive movement patterns, but responds even to sleep, stress, attitude and anxiety. This means that this marvelous fascial matrix which influences our posture, flexibility and alignment, also acts as a bridge between our emotional self and our physical self.

As a simple self-experiment, look at the clock and take a solid minute to think of something very sad, negative, and discouraging.

What happened to you physically? Did your body sink down a bit? Did your neck tighten, your shoulders rise or hunch forward? Did your breathing become a little more shallow?

What would happen to your structure, posture, and range of motion if you were to continue this experiment for the rest of the day? The week? The year?

Yet, what happens to your body physically if you now concentrate on the happiest, most exciting event you could possibly imagine? Take an entire minute to visualize your happy place, perhaps imagining your fondest dream coming true. Surround yourself with nothing but joyful thoughts.

What was the physical effect of these mental thoughts and emotional responses? Did you lengthen your neck and spine and stand a little taller? Did your shoulders glide lower down your back? Perhaps your forehead relaxed, and you took a deep breath, a smile even unconsciously spread across your face. How has your musculoskeletal positioning changed?

In this experiment, your mental state was communicated throughout your body, causing the ripple effect that crossed the imaginary boundaries of separation between what is mental, emotional, and physical. The fascial network was never taught that these are supposed to be distinct and separate — it knows no boundaries and is the reason why our state of well-being is a holistic endeavor.

Knowing how essential fascia is for structural strength, posture, and stability, and respecting its deep connection to our overall wellness and functionality, we begin to appreciate that fascia is a fundamental aspect of our health. Learning how fascia responds to movement, heat, and attitude, we can begin to create the right environments to unwind long held patterns, and use this amazing and dynamic system in a positive way.

To learn more from Stephanie about improving our own fascia,
attend her workshop on Saturday March 12th at 1:00pm

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