MyoFascial Yoga: what is fascia and why is it an important part of your yoga practice?
The word Myo means ‘muscle’ and the word fascia means ‘band’ (or connective tissue), so when you hear the phrase myofascial yoga, or myofascial release, we are talking about connective bands and spaces all around and within the muscle. But fascia is so much more than that.
I like to think of fascia as a bridge between the physical body and the yogic energy system. Yoga philosophy teaches that there are layers of subtle energy or prana that link us to an expanded field of consciousness. This energy body houses our life force and higher consciousness, which trickles down into our physical body. Without that ongoing process of prana entering our body, we very quickly get lethargic, depressed or sick. Part of the amazingness of yoga is how it puts practitioners in touch with the energy body. From there, we can learn how to rejuvenate ourselves on all levels.
In the yogic system, the body is considered a mirror of our belief system, and our connection with Divinity. But how exactly does this work? How are subtle thoughts and beliefs held in our energy body mirrored in the physical body? How does the prana entering our system slow down or get restricted in the physical form. My feeling is that understanding fascia, and how it works as a system is the key to understanding this cosmic mystery.
Let me walk you through why fascia is such an important part of your yoga lifestyle, both on and off the mat.
3 reasons why fascia is so important.
1. It cushions and protects: Fascia is the body's shock absorber.
2. It’s flexible: It ensures that you can move your body freely.
3. It’s strong and supportive: It keeps everything in your body in the right place.
In a healthy, happy, well-functioning body the fascial system is strong, fluid and flexible. Fascia has three main components: collagen, elastin, and a polysaccharide gel complex, often referred to as the ‘ground substance’ in the therapeutic practice of myofascial release. Collagen and elastin work together to create a web-like formation of strong and flexible fibrils. The ground substance fills the spaces within this web, lubricating the fibrils and cushioning the organs. These three aspects work as a harmonious system that ensures healthy movement, support, and protection of all body systems.
3 reasons why releasing the fascia is such a good idea.
1. Fascial tension is often the source of chronic, un-diagnosable chronic pain.
Chronic fascial tension and restriction can lead to a snowball effect of problems. Remember the web-like structure I described? It’s interwoven with blood vessels and nerves. When the fascia stays tight for a long time, it puts undue pressure on those nerves and blood vessels, creating symptoms of pain and poor circulation. Not only that, but these restrictions spread, just like a run in a nylon stocking spreads. In addition to the tightness around pain-sensitive nerves, the gel-like ground substance hardens, making assimilation of vital nutrients more difficult. The body is now working much harder than necessary to deliver essential nutrients throughout the body.
Over time, the fibrils will their elasticity and the shock absorption of the body becomes much less effective. If you have ever ‘thrown your back out’ doing a simple movement like taking groceries out of the car, you will have experienced just that reality. Releasing fascial restrictions is the best way to bring the body back into its harmonious balance of strength, flexibility, and protection.
2. Your fascial system and your belief system are intimately linked:
Try this exercise to feel how this feedback loop works in your own body:
- Lift your chest up and turn your head slightly towards the ceiling.
- Take a deep breath in and expand your chest a little more.
- Exhale and let your body relax and settle into this position.
- Stay here for a few more breaths, and ask yourself:
- What subtle sensations do you feel in your body?
- Has your mood changed?
- Does your body feel different?
Imagine that a loved one is coming to visit. You see them approach with their head down, chest collapsed and their body looking weighed down by gravity.
What do you imagine they are feeling in this moment? Do you think they are happy? Excited? Troubled? Overwhelmed? Depressed?
This example shows how an internal state of being translates quickly into a body posture. When we continue to hold a certain posture over a long period of time we are inadvertently training our fascial system to mold to that position in space.
This creates a feedback loop of posture and belief.
Now imagine meeting a person on the street modeling this kind of posture.
What types of beliefs do you think that person has? Are they a happy, trusting of life? Confident? I imagine this person’s core level beliefs are something like “I deserve great things, I am OK.”
When fascial restrictions happen in the chest area – as they usually do when we sit at a desk all day– it can much harder to stay positive in the face of stressful life situations.
When the chest is collapsed forward, we can default into negative and defeatist thought patterns. When chest restrictions release, it becomes easier to take a positive stance in our lives, both literally and figuratively.
Try it – can you feel the difference between these two postures?
3. When you unwind your body you unwind your life:
So many nerve endings (called nociceptors) rest in the layers of fascia that together they can be considered another sensory organ. This sense is called proprioception, and we use it to determine our body’s position in space. Have you ever tried to touch your finger to your nose with your eyes closed? That calls on your proprioception abilities.
Releasing the fascial system resets the proprioception mechanism, and trains it to attune to subtle shifts in position and posture. This allows for quicker course corrections when bad posture habits creep up on us. This increased ‘sixth sense’ spills over into many life situations.
Have you ever wondered why some people’s ‘gut feelings’ turn out to be right?
These are people I consider as having a strong sense of proprioception.
How to incorporate myofascial release into yoga
Here are just three different ways you can apply myofascial release principles into your yoga practice:
1. Hold your poses much, much (and in most cases MUCH) longer.
Two to five minutes is the magic window. Why? First, it takes that long for the ground substance to return to its healthy gel-like state and make that area more receptive to change in posture or unhealthy holding patterns. Second, it releases a chemical known as interleukin 8, which is the body’s natural anti-inflammatory agent. It also has cancer-fighting properties!
2. Apply a little bounce.
Rebounding is a term used by John Barnes which incorporates a gentle rocking into the body. This motion starts to retrain healthy elasticity back into your fascial system, giving it proper flexibility and support. Imagine taking a straightening iron to curly hair, effectively making it lose its bounce. Over-stretched fascial tissue does much the same. A loss of bounce means a loss of its shock absorbing properties, making the body vulnerable to injury. To make the hair curly again, we ‘d likely need to shower and shampoo to help it back to its original state. With fascia, we want to add a little bounce or wiggle into our practice. Though the bounce is best done after the pose has been released, in my classes I do rebounding in between poses; injury can result if you bounce *during* a stretch, but it’s very helpful if done right after a release has occurred.
Try this sequence the next time you finish your standing sequence of yoga poses: Stand in simple standing pose and let your knees come to a slight bend. Imagine you are standing on a trampoline and allow your body to bounce about 1 centimeter up and down. Close your eyes and feel the bounce in your whole body. Imagine that you are holding a bowl or bottle of water, and each little bounce is creating waves of motion through the whole body of water. Then imagine that water is inside you, and feel the spring-back effect of rebounding the to create a whole-body wave of motion. If you can’t feel this with up and down bouncing try to do the same with a side-to-side sway.
Or actually go and get a bowl of water and stand with it in your hands as you sway very slightly back and forth. Next, place the bowl of water aside and close your eyes, returning to your side to side sway; stay connected to how it felt to watch the impact of the sway on the bowl of water. Can you feel the sensation of your body as a liquid mechanism? Did you know that your body is 75% liquid? When I demonstrate this in class, most students report that the moving water visual makes the concept of rebounding click for them.
3. Stretch your attitude
Perhaps most importantly is how you approach stretching. In MFR the main principle is to move in to the body slowly, gently, and very mindfully until the first layer of resistance is felt. The key is to gently lean into this barrier until it relaxes naturally. I like to think of that moment as though the body is graciously allowing me to enter it and make changes. This approach has everything to do with ahimsa, or non-violence, one of most important principles of any yoga practice. If I force through my body’s barriers, it feels violent, and usually there are no lasting results because my body resists me.
To apply this gentler attitude to stretching, make sure you move slowly and mindfully into your poses. When you become aware of the first sensation of 'stretch,' stop there and wait. In time (usually about three breaths or so) you will feel the body bow to you and allow you to go further. Then lean in until you find the next sensation of stretch. Wait there for that second release, and then go for the next. Move into your pose this way until you are at your full expression of the pose. It should take you 90 seconds to two minutes to get into your full pose, and from there, hold for at least another minute. When you are ready to exit your pose, do so with slow deliberation. Let your yoga practice become a dance.
Think of it as entering into a sacred and intimate relationship with your body. Love your body, and let it love you back; communicate and cooperate with it. In return, you will discover the most important relationship in your life: the relationship with your body. While it may seem obvious, this body is the only lifelong friend you will ever have: there with you from the moment of birth to the moment of death.
Literally and figuratively, the fascia teaches that everything in the body is connected, without exception. Learning to identify the sense of connectivity from the inside will help reveal that same sense of connectivity in your whole life.
We are all connected, from the cellular level to the cosmic level. Discovering this connection has been the most important realization of my life, and it can be found right on your yoga mat.
Guest Author: Christine Wushke
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Christine Wushke is the author of Freedom is Your Nature: A Practical Guide to Transformation and creator of the “Easy Yoga for Beginners” DVD. She is a certified yoga and meditation instructor with over two decades of experience. Her aim is to create a sacred space for students to effortlessly find the presence of stillness and an inner silence. Her mission is to raise consciousness on the planet by empowering people to realize their own Divinity and to uncover a deep peace within. She runs the Journey to Light Wellness Center in Canada and regularly conducts fascia yoga retreats in the Rocky Mountains and Hawaii. In addition to yoga classes and retreats, she is also a registered massage therapist specializing in John Barnes myofascial release and Hakomi. For more information, email Christine or visit her website. You can find her book here.