Writing a blog post about fascia is like writing a blog post about water. Where do you start? There are so many aspects to this tissue: anatomical, physiological, movement-related, energetic, embryological and spiritual . A couple of blog posts will not suffice, so I’m going to share some basics with you and if you’re keen to hear more, there is a lot of really interesting material available online. I will provide a few links for you to explore, and a recommendation of two great documentaries at the end.
Fascia: A Definition.
I thought I’d start with a definition of what fascia is, but even this is not that easy, as there is no universally agreed definition. When you look for the answers given by the world experts in fascia (there are quite a few), you will immediately see they don’t always agree with each other (to be fair, do they ever?).
Until very recently, fascia was discarded as not so interesting. In their haste to study the exciting stuff like organs, muscles and nerves, anatomists would just get rid of this sticky, spiderweb-like substance that was everywhere. The first name given to it “connective tissue” already speaks of this disinterest. This tissue was regarded as glue, something to hold everything together. But oh my, there is so much more to it. It wasn’t until approximately 20 years ago that evidence of its amazedness started to become too strong to ignore.
From an anatomical perspective, I’ll use the definition given by Carla Stecco, one of the leading experts in the field of fascia. Carla says that all tissues that have collagen at its base can be referred to as fascia. This includes tendons, ligaments, bones, membranes, lining of organs, cartilage, lining of nerves, blood and also the fluid around our cells (some experts are bold and say the tissue inside the cell is included here too). This means that one basic tissue has a multitude of shapes and functions: connection, separation, protection and movement.
Movement is a fundamental aspect here. The way fascia weaves around and in-between structures will be fundamental for said structure’s health and integrity. Water plays a key role here, allowing for sliding, gliding and stretching of tissues without loss of integrity. If this movement is impeded, adhesions can occur, which may hinder the optimal functioning of the structures involved. Just to give an example of how immense and complex those ideas are, Carla explains that sometimes there are areas on the superficial fascia – the layer of fascia just underneath the skin that covers most of our body – that can be painful or inflamed because of a condition of the organ associated with it, even though the organ can be much deeper in the body. This opens many areas of possible therapies that could treat the organ through the superficial fascia, like acupressure, acupuncture and massage.
Fascia from the very start
From an embryological point of view, Jaap van der Wal (a Dutch doctor and professor who specializes in embryology and fascia) sees fascia as the third element in the formation of a human being. He explains it much better than I do so check out mine and Marcel’s interview with him here if you’d like to know more, it’s so so cool. In general terms, it goes like this, as the embryo is forming there are two clear layers of cells. One that will become skin and nervous system and one that will become organs. In between these two layers a third appears, this layer will connect and give shape to everything in the body: fascia. Without this third layer, a human body cannot be formed. Even if all the elements to form brain, nervous system and organs are there. Without that third factor the space in between where all relationships can happen, there will be no baby.
I studied with Jaap three years ago, he was inspiring then and our conversation for this newsletter just as much so. He isn’t simply a purist scientist, he also knows a thing or two about philosophy. He quotes the same philosopher that us yoga teachers quote ‘Lao-Tsé’, the author of the Taoist work Tao Te Ching.
“The Tao creates the One;
The One creates the Two;
The Two creates the Three;
And the Three creates the ten thousand things”
Facia is the three, the space in between, the element of relationship that makes creation take place. Jaap makes an important distinction though. He says that if you say one, two, three, it seems like three is simply more of the same. For him it should be one, two and third. Fascia is the third, the interface that will make one and two communicate and make something new. Jaap believes fascia is our organ of innerness and that the body develops from us and not the other way around.
There is so much beauty in this, it amazes me.
Fascia and movement
As a mover myself, understanding fascia has completely transformed the way I move and understand movement. The mind-blowing insights of Stephen Levin, a medical doctor who realized that we had been applying to our bodies the same laws of movement we apply to inorganic matter: the laws of Newtonian mechanics. We all learned them in school, and the one most visibly accepted and used is the concept of a lever. We use those laws to lift the car when we need to change a tyre, and we have been using it to understand the movements of the body too. If we want to flex the elbow, the power of the bicep muscle will be transferred to its point of insertion on the lower arm and bring the lower arm closer to the point of origin. Simple and clear.
The thing is, organic matter does not respond to stress in the same way as inorganic matter does. The lever model is not the correct one in the case of flexing the arm: when we activate the biceps muscle, not all the force generated will be translated to the lower arm. Some of it will be transferred transversally into other parts of the arm. And fascia is responsible for doing that. Between the fibres of muscle there is another layer of fascia with fibres running transversally, and this layer will be responsible for transferring energy and movement in multiple directions. This poignant insight completely changes the way we look into our bodies and how we move. Stephen Levin named this new model of movement Biotensegrity, and according to this model we understand that fascia is the actual skeleton of the body, holding other structures, including bones, in place.
It makes so much sense and it really changes everything.
And then, this
I think you can tell that I am pretty amazed by all this. And still, the most amazing part is still to come. We will explore it in our upcoming blog when we explore the topic of energy. Here’s a little teaser for you. What if this tissue that is literally everywhere in the body could also transfer information and energy? And what if fascia and Biotensegrity models for how the universe is structured too? Stay tuned.
- The Mysterious World Under The Skin, which you can watch on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNhKqwDbyyo
- The Secret Life of Fascia, which you’d need to purchase but is so, so worth it http://www.secretlifeoffascia.com/
- Gil Hedley has also spent much of his life studying fascia, and his website is full of great educative stuff https://www.gilhedley.com