Fascia [fash-ee-uh] is tissue that is made up of wavy collagen, elastin and reticular fibers that run in parallel to the direction of movement. Fascia or the plural, fasciae [fash-ee-ee] surround all structures in our body, from a cellular level all the way up to nerves, muscles, organs and bones. It helps to maintain the form and shape of our bodies and acts like cellophane or cling wrap binding us together which makes sense given that the word fascia in Latin means band. Fascia is most easily visible as a thin, transparent layer when jointing a chicken or as a thicker more fibrous layer across the back of a rack of ribs.
Fascia are classified into 3 types based on function and location:
- Deep fascia (muscles)
- Visceral fascia (envelopes organs)
- Superficial fascia (primarily subcutaneous – determines body shape)
Whilst they all play important roles, this article will focus primarily on deep (muscle) fascia, which despite making up 30% of our muscle mass, is not frequently talked about in anatomy, doesn’t show up on medical imaging and for a long time wasn’t believed to be important but this is changing and fascia is proving to be incredibly important for the healthy function of our bodies. Fasciae provide a number of important functions that include:
- Binding muscles together and allowing muscles to change shape
- Maintaining the alignment of blood vessels, nerves and muscles fibers during muscular contractions
- Helping to distribute loads across muscles
- Lubricating the surface of muscles and other tissues that come into contact during movement
In the context of muscles, fascia can best be thought of using Bernie Clark’s analogy of hot dog sausages in a plastic wrapper. Each muscle group is wrapped in fascia in the same way the hot dog meat is contained within a sausage casing and these groups are in turn enveloped in yet more fascia like the shrink wrap plastic bag keeping all the sausages together. This extends from the smallest muscle fibers all the way up to and beyond the entire muscle structure. In fact, if it weren’t for fascia our bodies would fall apart!
Because fascia is made up of the same components as tendons and ligaments, the boundary between muscles and tendons is gradational, there is no immediate muscle-tendon boundary, it’s just fascia surrounding the muscle that becomes more dense and eventually becomes a tendon. This is called the myotendinous (MT) junction and is where a lot of sports injuries occur.
The hydration of fascia is bio-mechanical, not chemical, and stretching the fascia squeezes out fluids and cellular waste. After exercise fresh fluids are drawn in and during this hydration phase we may also feel stiffness. Stiffness can also be experienced as a result of fascial adhesions, damage to the fascia, through excessive muscle use when cross fibers form creating a net like structure that resists stretching.
The good news is that by doing yoga not only do we refresh our fasciae but we also stimulate the growth of fibroblasts (cells which create collagen and elastin) helping to repair our fasciae (and ligaments and tendons) and improve not only our flexibility but our overall wellbeing. This is because fasciae do not just play a physical role of holding us together, they also act as pathways for immune cells to travel around the body and are believed to play an important role in the flow of prana.
In summary, do yoga, stretch your body, improve not just the flow of the blood and lymphatic systems but also stimulate and regenerate the components that make up a hidden treasure, fascia.
Jean-Paul Lassale (200hr Jan-May 2014)
1. Clark, Bernie. The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga. The Philosophy & Practice of Yin Yoga.
2. Lopedota, Anthony Gary. http://www.ashtangayogatherapy.com