There’s a brand new dance but I don’t know its name …………Fascia!*
A theme that keeps coming up for me lately is the connections that exist right through the body and the importance of working the body as a whole unit, rather than isolating parts of the body when doing yoga poses. We develop from a single cell that grows and multiplies in different ways to form our body, a body that is made to work together, not to operate in isolated parts. Some like Tom Myers are presenting a perspective that there is only one muscle in our body that spreads throughout our entire body and is held in place and defined by fascia. So what is the brand new dance called Fascia?
Many people liken fascia to the pith in an orange. The white fibres that hold the different pieces of the orange slices together, is similar to the tissue running through our body called fascia that holds our organs, muscles, nerves, bone and other structures in place. This tissue has 6 to 10 times more sensory nerve receptors than muscles. It is considered to be the most pain sensitive tissue in the body and it plays an important role in knowing where your body is in space – proprioception – which is important for posture, balance and motion. In studying fascia you begin to see the running connections through the body (termed anatomy trains by Tom Myers) and it can change the way you understand and experience yoga poses.
One of these anatomy trains is known as the superficial back line. As you can see in the image below it runs from the base of the feet, up the back of the legs crosses at the hips and runs up our back to the back of neck and over the crown of our head to our eyebrows. When you map the body this way it changes the way you perceive and experience a pose such as paschimottanasana (forward fold).
Many people think of this pose as a hamstring stretch and about getting your head to your knees. But in yoga this pose translates as the “great western stretch” with the west being the whole back of your body and so it is working to extend the whole back of your body from under your feet to back of legs, upper and lower back, back of neck and crown of head. When doing the pose think about the connections from feet through to head the role they are playing in the pose. Play with the position of your feet. Instead of letting the feet roll outward draw them in so they run parallel, instead of holding your head to look forward, raise and release, raise and release the head – what happens to your experience and understanding of the pose? Can you work to get the sensation running along the whole of the body. A great video to watch that shows the role of the back of the neck in helping to experience and release into this pose can be found here http://yogaanatomy.net/ao-joint/
The importance of building awareness of the interconnectedness throughout the body and bringing a little of bit of movement to a lot of places while doing yoga is raised by the well-respected yogi, BKS Iyengar in his book, The Tree of Yoga:
You can lose the benefits of what you are doing because of focusing too much partial attention on trying to perfect the pose. What are you focusing on? You are trying to perfect the pose but from where to where? That is where things become difficult. Focusing on one point is concentration. Focusing on all points at the same time is meditation. Meditation is centrifugal as well as centripetal. In concentration you want to focus on one point and the other points lose their potential. But if you spread the concentration from the extended part to all the other parts of the body, without losing the concentration on the extended part, then you will not lose the inner action or the outer expression of the pose and that teaches you what meditation is. Concentration has a point of focus; meditation has no points. That is the secret.
BKS wrote this with no thought of fascia but when you overlay this comment with the map of the body’s fascia lines and think about these lines working together you begin to think of all parts of the body and you build an awareness of whether you are overcompensating in one area while locking up in another area, learning to observe and work on the pathways of weight and extensions through the body and according to Iyengar learning the difference between concentration and meditation. To again quote BKS Iyengar from The Tree of Yoga:
In concentration you are likely to forget some parts of the body…the unattended muscles lose their power and are dropped…In yoga there is one thing you should all know: the weakest part is the source of the action….In any yoga pose 2 things are required: sense of direction and centre of gravity.
Our tendency to subdivide the body into parts and to focus only on those parts is very much influenced by the way western medicine has traditionally viewed anatomy and broken our body down into smaller parts and described certain moves as focusing on a part of the body, such as the hamstrings. While there is a place for mapping the body in this way, it does stop you being able to see the bigger picture, the “whole” and in yoga, which means union, our goal is to build an awareness of the whole.
In doing yoga, we are building our proprioception, our understanding of ourselves and of our body and of where we are in space. We are doing this by working on the health of our fascia. Happy fascia is fluid, well patterned and strong. When we have restrictions in the body these can be adhesions in the fascia, where the fascia is dehydrated and stuck. We keep our fascia healthy through varied movement and moving out of long term habitual shapes. Through movement we are working with how our body shapes itself in space, how we occupy the space and how we move through and interact with our environment and how we perceive this movement and as such we can work to improve our posture, movement and balance.
Our lifestyles means that we are moving less and moving in less varied ways and as such we are losing our perception of how we occupy space and how to negotiate our inner and outer environments. Variation of movement also applies to when you are practicing yoga. Yoga is about breaking habits, including our yoga habits. To finish with the wise words of Mr Iyengar again:
You should go on analyzing and by analysis you will come to understand. Analysis in action is required in yoga..Analysis and experimentation have to go together and in tomorrow’s practice you have to think again. Am I doing the old pose or is there a new feeling? Can I extend this new feeling a little more? If I cannot extend it what is missing?..Let me try this. Let me try that. Let me do it this way. Let me do it that way. You proceed by trial and error and when you find the right method the effort becomes less because the energy is controlled and not dissipated further…and when you go in the right direction wisdom begins..you no longer feel the effort as effort…you feel the effort as joy. – The Tree of Yoga (pp 42-43)
*apologies to the late and great David Bowie