Rebecca and I have been getting our house ready for sale in the last couple of months. And, of course, I’ve been spending lots of time fixing those things that I never seemed to get around to. I think about how those new owners will never know how hard I worked getting the place ready for them as I get out of bed in the morning with the aches and pains that come from spending unaccustomed time laying flooring, attaching new screws into loose hinges or moving wheelbarrows of earth. I have some empathy for Jonathan Swift’s character, Gulliver, who awakes in Lilliput to find himself anchored to the ground, bound by the ropes the nation of diminutive people have laced across his body.
I know that what’s going on inside my body is not too different from Gulliver’s experience. Little strands of connective tissue are slowly but incessantly binding the different parts of my body together so that the shape of my constant bending and kneeling makes it harder to stand straight and move with ease.
Connective tissue is everywhere in our bodies. It is the cartilage in our nose, ears and deep on the sliding surfaces of our joints. It creates nets that hold our fat cells, intestines, nerves and vessels in place. It forms sheets that cover bones and muscles spinning the cables of tendons that connect muscles to bones and the tapes that hold joints together.
Of all connective tissue, these sheets, called fascia, have the greatest effect on our movement. From the smallest bundle of muscles cells to the largest muscle masses, fascia helps create not only the shape of muscles but also allows a sliding of each bundle against those around it. They are instrumental in the dynamic strength of muscles that allows subtle responses of the smallest bundles while at the same time binding them together for focused action. With that strength they give our bodies an essential sense of its limits so that we don’t over-reach the range of motion of our muscles and joints. Fascia doesn’t just help shape the inner landscape of our bodies, it shapes the way we move.
Connective tissue draws its amazing adaptability – forming itself to the needs of each part of the body – through a unique combination of two components: 1. fluid and 2. long, rope-like strands. The fluid, called ground substance, is the basic ingredient of gelatin. Like Jell-O, it is able to respond to temperature changes, moving from liquid to gel as it cools. The strands, known as collagen fibres, are the longest molecular formations in the body. They are also the strongest, with higher strength than steel cables of the same size. Collagen fibres get a lot of that strength from being twisted together like ropes and bound with hydrogen bonds that hold the strands together with Velcro like strength.
Our most direct and dramatic experience of connective tissue at work is when we injure ourselves. The ground substance of connective tissue helps to create a thickening of the fluids in the wound while the collagen fibres throw themselves across the wound, binding it together and creating scar tissue.
On the inside of the body, when not called to emergency duty, the fascial sheets adjust themselves to the strains that go through our muscles, tendons and ligaments, thickening themselves to help carry greater load and shaping themselves to the limits of our movements.
This is exactly what has been happening as I work. As I hammer a new baseboard or lay paving stones, my fascia begins to thicken in my quads and calves. My chest muscles shorten with the load of carrying boxes full of books into storage and the fascia begins to shrink-wrap itself to the new shaping of my body. The deadlines and long hours I require of myself mean that my body isn’t given range of movement experiences. Not using my full range of movement between the muscles means that the Velcro of collagen fibres begins to create stickiness between the surfaces of muscles. At night these adhesions throw down even more strands so that, like Lilliputian ropes, each tiny strand contributes to and causes the profound limitation of movement and achiness I feel when I wake in the morning or try to stand erect after a long time spent bent over.
Thus, several weeks later, when I finally appear in yoga class, my hands can barely reach my feet in sitting forward bend, paschimottanasana and my heels cannot find the floor in my downward dog, adho mukha svanasana. Where I might have once blamed “tight muscles,” I now know the truth. My inner surfaces are sticky, my fluids have gelled and my fascial sheets have thickened around shortened muscles.
I know I have to travel slowly on my road of re-inhabiting my body. In its essential nature, fascia is like Silly Putty. Pull too hard, too fast, and it will pull back against you and maybe snap! But go slowly enough and it melts, giving way before a gentle, engaged stretch. The gel begins to warm, melting into its fluid nature. The Velcro begins to pull apart, allowing the surfaces to slide to greater length. The thickened areas become more flexible as the load is shared across my body through the wisdom of the asanas. I return to a deeper relationship with the life of my body as their busy Lilliputian work returns to providing strength and flexibility on the journey to embodied engagement in life.
Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of the “Yoga Bridge”, the publication of the Yoga Association of Alberta.
Myofascial release balls such as those used by the Yamuna® system are an excellent way of working out adhesions and thickened fascia. You can find more at https://www.yamunabodyrolling.com
An insightful (and very entertaining) video on the restrictive power of fascia can be found in anatomist Gil Hedley’s “Fuzz Speech”