Updated: Nov 15, 2020
“There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.” - Miyamoto Musashi
There is no debate in healthcare that lean muscle tissue is advantageous to our health. Lean tissue helps us burn more fat, strengthens our bones, and makes us more immune to common illnesses. What about the connective tissue (fascia) that surrounds our muscles, organs, and other structures? It's not something the fitness industry zeros-in on for a healthier lifestyle. You won't, for example, hear someone say, “I'm going to the gym to work my fascia.” There is an evolving amount of intriguing research that shows fascia has an integrated role in our health, and that focusing on this tissue has enormous health benefits. It's really what the movement arts are designed to do (more on that later).
Yet there is also an ancient history involving fascia in the movement arts of budo (tai chi, qi-gong et. al), yoga, and so on. The current science backs up what the great masters knew a long time ago — optimal health exists within.
The Supreme Sensory Organ
The connective tissues in the body run posteriorly from the base of the skull (occipital) to under the feet to the toes, and anteriorly just under the mandible at the hyoids (jaw). Of course, there are different layers and different thicknesses, but the front and back lines collectively are really a stirrup, much like a suit (see Gil Hedley's work), that we “suspend” in. Fascia wraps our muscles and tendons, and also buffers and supports the internal organs.
Recent studies show fascia is a supreme sensory organ, with many more sensory nerve receptors than muscle tissue. These receptors, such as proprioreceptors and nociceptors, sense body position and pain respectively. Without them, we would not sense our bodies in space, nor feel temperature or pain.
To understand what proprioceptors do, and how vital they are in the body, check out Ian Waterman's incredible story. He literally "lost" his body from the neck down, unable to move and control his limbs. He was not paralyzed, but had lost all proprioception in his body. A major part of this man's recovery was his own intent. He spent hours, daily, thinking of his movements. Finally, he was able to control them by visualizing them in his brain first, and then by using his own vision. If the lights went out, he would collapse. He had to be able to see his limbs to move them. He now has to plot his movements in his mind and then fire the right muscles to walk, brush his teeth, or any of the daily tasks we humans take for granted. Interestingly, this man did not lose feeling of pain (nociceptors) or temperature. It’s a powerful story.
Fascia is a connective superhighway. It transmits forces that used to be held accountable to only muscle, so forces applied to the body are shared by fascia. “The fascial continuum is essential for transmitting the muscle force, for correct motor coordination, and for preserving the organs in their sites: The fascia is a vital instrument that enables the individual to communicate and live independently. The transmission of the force is ensured by the fascial integrity, which is expressed by the motor activity produced; the tension produced by the sarcomeres results in muscle activity, using the various layers of the contractile districts (epimysium, perimysium, endomysium), with different directions and speed.” (Clinical and symptomatological reflections: the fascial system
So what does this have to do with a workout? Because forces are shared and distributed across the fascia sheet, this changes the physiologic approach to conditioning the body. A bicep curl, for example, shifts the force of the weight to the ground on the up and down phase, and the force does not stay in the muscle. Conditioning the connective tissue system is what having an integrated body really is, because you are training the brain and the nervous system. But how do we do this?
Performing yoga, qi-gong, or any movement art are valid beginnings to fascial integrity. People often begin yoga and say, “I need to get more flexible.” Yet yoga is not entirely about muscular elasticity; it's really about training the mind and body (connective tissue) as a unit for better health, including the brain and nerves for emotional enrichment. In its essence, the yoga asanas are meant to re-wire the brain and nervous system. Its postures are designed to make you healthier because of the effect is has on the tissues.
One of my favorite Patanjali (a yoga seer who was believed to have written the Yoga Sutra 1,700 years ago) quotes is this: “Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.” After all, it is a moving meditation. And more importantly, Patanjali wrote, “It is only when the correct practice is followed for a long time, without interruptions and with a quality of positive attitude and eagerness that it can succeed.” And that is what true shugyo (determined self training that fosters enlightenment) is. Yoga is meant to be practiced alone, in silence. We'll return to this, but the body must be conditioned daily, and for a long time to achieve optimal health benefits and changes to the connective tissue. Once the brain connects the entire body as one unit, then you can control it for unbelievable power and health.
Fascia is a tensegrity structure. Man-made structures, like most buildings, are stabilized by gravitational compressive forces, yet tensegrity systems are stabilized by continuous tension, with intermittent compression. Since a tensegrity system is prestressed, it immediately resumes its prior shape when an applied force ceases. Again, forces are spread throughout the system instead of one location as they are lever components that function as one. The tensegrity system functions as a single unit, where if one thing moves, everything moves. This is how our body is constructed, as a tensegrity structure. (The Tensional Fascial Network of the Human Body, Churchill Livingstone; 1 edition (April 25, 2012) Fascia expands and morphs as forces are placed upon it. (To see live tissue doing this, I highly recommend Dr. Jean Claude Guimberteau's videos. He is a French plastic surgeon that used a camera attached to an endoscope to film living tissue.) The more we place force across it, the more the tissue remodels, and this includes stimulating nerves embedded within.
Fascia makes unconscious changes in the tissues of the body, especially the epithelial tissue surrounding internal organs. And this is something my surgeon friends often tell me, that when a kidney or other organ is ill, this tissue changes to support and nourish the organ. The tissue enclosing the injured organ is thicker and denser. Another example of this that I've experienced in my cadaver work is seeing dense, thickened tendons and ligaments in an obese specimen; because the person was obese, and more support was needed, the tissue was thicker at the joints. This is something I've never seen in thin specimens. While no true force was applied for this growth to occur (except for body weight and gravity), if the body does this unconsciously, can we change fascia via thought, movement, and an optimal structure when forces are placed upon it? Yes. Again, it's what yoga (alignment) and other movement arts are designed to do, although they are rarely taught with this scientific approach.
The Kangaroos Know
Kangaroos can jump some 25 feet, and cannot use their legs independently. So how do they jump? When researchers began to investigate the animals, they looked at muscles. Yet the muscles alone were not large enough to produce enough force to enable them to leap the distance that they do. What they discovered is that the animals store kinetic energy in the tendons and distribute forces through the legs to the ground (remember my bicep analogy?). They are able to use connective tissue to store the energy needed to jump. And guess what? Humans have the same ability to store kinetic energy. We may not be able to leap 25 feet, but we can store and use that energy when needed. In reality, our bodies are designed to be natural suspension systems. Another example of how incredible forces are generated in the body is this study at Stanford University. Using sensors, scientists measured the force generated by a tai chi practitioner, and that force was more than 14 times his body weight. And, he was able to create this weight then turn it off at will.
So if we look at fascia as a sheet from head to toe, and imagine it as a storehouse for energy (forces), it becomes a spring, able to produce incredible non-muscular power. This shifts forces away from our major joints – at least it should if your body is trained correctly. The result is less strain on joints. This is no secret to athletes; watch gymnasts, dancers, and Parkour athletes and you will see it. There is no conceivable way these athletes could perform the way they do without utilizing connective tissue. You cannot cling to a mountainside, barehanded, using only muscle, nor can you explode and leap as the gymnasts do using only your leg muscles.
Training the Tissue
The ancient arts — including budo, yoga, and even Tibetan monks — used connective tissue in succinct ways, both in movement arts and esoteric practices for health. They understood the value of training this tissue, even though they didn't define it in scientific terms. Instead, they spoke of alignment, breath, qi, prana, and the like (and this is still taught in this vernacular today).
In Japan, they stood (and still do) under waterfalls, watched by statues called Fudo myo-o (immovable-esoteric training) and performed misogi (purification) exercises that for certain had as much to do with training the body as anything. Look at some of the ancient texts, such as Illustrated Explanations of Chen Family Taijiquan, Chen Xin(published around 1919). You will see drawings with familiar fascial lines (much like those included in Tom Meyer's book Anatomy Trains), with spiral ink traversing the limbs, and front and lateral lines of the body. They got it. And it's how they taught movement, with spiraling of the limbs to place greater force on the tissues, and vertical and horizontal movements to increase tautness in the fascial sheet (again, look at tai chi and qi-gong).
So the body can be trained to target the connective tissue. But how? If you do a yoga class once a week, is that enough? While it certainly may help, a much more concentrated effort must take place to really change the body. The body must be set up to pull the tissues (also known as “pulling silk”) and challenge growth in the matrix. The fascial lines must be able to be connected at will. It's really what yoga asanas are supposed to do. Just like muscles, which should be challenged in every direction the fibers work, the fascia needs forces applied in axial and spiral motions. Axially, occipital to toes are pulled taught, and in spiral movements, the bones rotate to create soft spiral tension. If you look flamenco dance and other budo arts, the movements incorporate all of these directions (in fact, flamenco dancers are some of the most connected people I've ever met). While an instructor may never mention fascia, everything we've talked about is really what practitioners are trying to accomplish (even if they don't realize it).
I was in Seattle a few years ago to study and pick the brain of Stephan Berwick, a Chen-style tai chi artist that trained in China at an early age. I was writing about internal power, so I just had to get my hands on him. In his two-day workshop, we did a variety of ancient Chen body conditioning, yet he never once mentioned connective tissue or pulling silk — only alignment and breath control were discussed. And I was not surprised. His training under the Chen-style dictates body positioning and feeling the tautness and "root" in the body, so I didn't expect a science lecture. Still, it was interesting feeling his connection and getting his feedback.
So training the tissues and the body is vital for super health, and it can be as simple as yoga, but with a focus on the pulling aspect of fascia, and a daily practice that is consistent. This shugyo really changes the body, in ways I still discover. I have to mention one of the most profound benefits I received after starting this training years ago is my eyesight. I no longer need readers, and I cannot explain what else to credit this to. (I'm not alone; my budo friends say the same thing.)
Learning to train our connective tissues, training the mind/body, has enormous benefits. Yet it is a discipline not many adhere to. It takes tremendous focus, diligence, and self-introspection. No one teacher can place this in your body; each person has to find his or her own way to feel it in the tissues. You have to really think about the concepts all the time, with every movement (also called intent). Many yoga and martial arts practitioners, when exposed to shugyo don't want to do it. The occasional weekly classes, in their minds, are sufficient. And this is why the modern path of these arts is failing.
For more information, and if you'd like to be introduced to this journey, do a Zoom with me.