For years, I enjoyed the deep feeling of connection, relaxation, and satisfaction I got from yoga. It was an internal sense of groundedness, something which I couldn’t find in any other way.
At first I thought this peacefulness came because yoga was an ancient tradition and I was benefiting from centuries of wisdom. When that myth was debunked, I assumed I just liked yoga and that I could feel that way from any activity I enjoyed.
But now I’m onto a new theory: fascia.
My latest anatomy crush is fascia--what it is, how it functions (and malfunctions), and how to support its health.
But most of all, I’m obsessed with its role in wellbeing.
Fascia may be the key to why yoga felt so good. It may be an important piece in controlling pain and anxiety. And it may be a primary part of wellbeing.
Today’s blog is a complete guide to everything you’ve ever wanted to know about fascia and most importantly, why it makes a difference to your health and happiness.
What is fascia?
Fascia is connective tissue. It surrounds every organ, blood vessel, bone, nerve fiber, and muscle in your body--everything.
It’s quite likely you’ve seen fascia. You’ll recognize it as the white, fibrous sheath that surrounds cuts of meat. What you can’t see in your kitchen is that under a microscope, it’s a network of criss-crossing fibers. These fibers connect, hold, and influence all the structures of your body.
Fascia is made up of four components.
Need help visualizing all of this? Here is a fantastic video showing the structure of fascia.
What is the function of fascia?
Fascia is categorized into different types based on the structure and arrangement of the protein fibers. By varying the amount of collagen or elastin or by changing the structure, direction, or arrangement of the protein fibers, fascia plays many different roles in your body.
While all this can get quite complicated (and you need only to Google and land on medical anatomy sites to prove this to yourself), you can broadly think of four main functions of fascia:
How does fascia connect to the nervous system?
Of these four functions, communication is particularly interesting so let’s pause to let it sink in.
There are more nerve receptors in fascia than in muscle.
There are several types of receptors in your fascia that register motion, changes in position, or stimuli like pressure, touch, or stretching. These receptors send information to your nervous system to help regulate movement and tell your body where it is in space (proprioception). For example, the signals from these receptors can help prevent overstretching.
While proprioception is important, the most common type of receptors are connected to the autonomic nervous system. These receptors send information about interoception--the state of unconscious functions like digestion, blood pressure, pain, and temperature.
When you’re young, your fascia is neatly organized into a network of wavy, fascial fibers. However, as you age, the organization unravels. Your fascia becomes chaotic, losing some of its springy characteristics.
But all is not lost.
You can rebuild and reorganize your fascia. It’s not a quick process but you can regain some of the function of your youthful body.
The role of fascia in wellbeing
In the early days of anatomical study, fascia was seen as tissue that you looked past to get to the important stuff. It was irrelevant and disregarded.
Now research is showing a very different picture.
Fascia is very important to your sense of wellbeing, particularly because of its role in communications. The information sent to and from your fascia tells your nervous system to prepare for danger or to relax and calm down.
Proprioception and wellbeing
Fascia plays an important role in telling your body where it is in space. Obviously, this is important for movement. You need to know where your feet are in order to stand up.
Proprioception also plays a role in activating your autonomic nervous system. The relaxing effects of massage are more than just mechanical pressure on your tissues. By stimulating the mechanoreceptors in your fascia, your nervous system reduces your blood pressure, lowers your heart rate, and relaxes your muscles.
So by stimulating the mechanoreceptors in your fascia with calming touch, you are supporting your health and wellbeing.
Interoception and wellbeing
While proprioception gives information about the external state of your body, interoception delivers information about the internal state of your body. This can include information like your heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion.
The receptors that detect this information send it through the nervous system to the insula region of the brain. This part of the brain accounts for your sense of self and emotional state.
In this way, if you have a “gut” feeling that something is off, it’s your fascia talking to your brain. Your gut is giving information about your sense of wellbeing.
In the same way, there are links between disorders of interoception with depression and anxiety.
Poor interoception can deeply affect wellbeing.
Fascia and back pain
For years, back pain has largely been attributed to injuries to intervertebral discs, vertebrae, nerves, or weak muscles.
But human experience doesn’t line up with these explanations.
Many disc and vertebral repairs don’t give pain relief. Some people have damage to their discs and vertebrae but no pain. And having strong muscles doesn't make you immune from back pain. Just ask an athlete.
So what causes back pain?
Some research suggests that the answer is in fascia.
Fascial tissue has many pain receptors, especially the fascia in your back. In addition, lumbar fascial tissue has many contractile cells which contract under stress. And finally, studies found that patients with back pain had thicker than typical lumbar fascia.
All of this suggests that injuries to the fascia in your back may initiate or contribute to back pain. Scientists theorize that small wounds to your fascia, or irregular, one-sided strain may play a role. Once pain is signaled, your body might get caught in a cycle of pain causing muscle contractions which causes pain.
As scientists have been teasing apart the back pain mystery, they discovered something interesting. When patients describe their back pain, they use emotional language with words like “nasty” or “horrible”. These descriptions are not as common with other forms of muscle pain. Since we already know the link between fascia and a sense of wellbeing, this further supports a link between fascia and back pain.
Back pain is only one type of pain. However, if science can prove the link between fascial injury and chronic back pain, it’s not hard to imagine that there could be other links as well.
Fascial wellbeing and hypermobility
At this point in my post, I’m going to part from science and give my perspective. These thoughts are based on my observations and I don't know how scientists would view them.
Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) and other conditions on the hypermobility spectrum are collagen disorders. While different types of EDS affect different types of collagen, having EDS means that your fascia is built atypically.
In the studio, it’s easy to see how this affects the first two functions of fascia.
These challenges are important and can be difficult for bendy people to cope with. However, the even more far-reaching challenge is with fascial communication.
Hypermobile people have low proprioception. This can mean that they both injure themselves easily and that their body sends fewer calming signals to the autonomic nervous system.
Ironically, they also tend to have very sensitive interoception along with a poor ability to interpret the signals. In other words, a hypermobile person will sense her racing heart more easily than others, but might interpret the signal as anxiety instead of simply a fast heart rate.
All of this means that hypermobile people are statistically prone to higher than average rates of anxiety and stress.
And pain? Many hypermobile people have a lot of pain--from injuries to general chronic pain. My unscientific view is that the receptors in the fascia function atypically.
Many challenges of living in a hypermobile body point to atypical fascia. And these challenges make wellbeing particularly difficult. That’s why adding a routine to maintain your fascia can add to wellbeing and health.
Movement for healthy fascia
To support healthy fascia, you need a program that supports the four functions of fascia.
If you look at this list, it seems like you’d have to do hours of different practices each week just to cover the basics.
Don’t worry. It’s not that complicated.
In just 10 minutes, you can do a simple fascial workout.
- 1Start by looking at what you're already doing. Chances are that you've covered at least 2 or 3 of the fascial functions.
- 2Decide to add one simple routine to support your fascia. It could be as simple as rolling out your IT band (nourishment), jumping rope for 3 minutes (movement), or lying in constructive rest and noticing your breath (communication).
- 3Once you've done that one thing so often that it feels easy and natural, add another simple routine.
- 4Make note of how you feel with each new addition. Are you feeling more or less connected? Grounded? No difference?
Need help figuring out a good routine?
There's a wide variety of classes and workshops in my online program. Some classes specifically address building a healthy fascial network but all of them are supportive to fascia.
Fascia, yoga, and wellbeing
Looking back at my years of intense yoga training, I suspect that I was feeding and supporting my fascia.
The shapes of the poses, stretching, breathing, and mindfulness were all building a strong fascial network. I developed my sense of proprioception and interoception. I sent calming messages to my autonomic nervous system.
But intuitively, there was even more. The deep, profound sense of groundedness and peace after doing yoga was distinct. I have rarely felt it in any other circumstance. It was both a physical sensation and an emotional state, a real-world event and spiritual experience.
Could it have been the sensation of a fascial workout? Does fascia play a role in our perception of ineffable events?
I’ll never know and honestly, I don’t care. As much as I love anatomy, I’ve never thought that the science of the body is more important than the experience of living in one. So instead of getting philosophical, get healthy. When you plan your workouts, consider how you can support your fascia as well as the rest of your body.