How Fascia Can Help Us Unravel Deeply Held Tension

BY Jessica Humphries
How Fascia Can Help Us Unravel Deeply Held Tension
The Gifts of Fascia

Once you’ve experienced the aha moments that accompany practices that release the body’s fascia, there’s no going back. You know it. A subtle shift. A feeling of letting go. Maybe you haven’t been able to describe it in words. It’s an experience that needs to be felt. But you know it. You may have felt it in a hip opener or a backbend. The moment your body goes from resisting to releasing. It’s the thing that keeps us coming back to our yoga mats; it’s all about fascia.

Anatomy expert and author of Anatomy Trains, Tom Myers, when describing fascia tells us that, basically, our cells “are glued together with snot, which is everywhere, and is more or less watery (hydrated) depending on where it is in the body and what condition it’s in.”

The wonderful thing about the journey to understanding fascia is that you don’t need to have an acute understanding of the ins and outs of anatomy in order to see how it operates within your body. I recently attended a fitness class at the gym titled ‘fascial fitness’. Long journeys along foam rollers were intercepted by oscillating movements that left me feeling spacious and free–despite the pop music in the background and lack of savasana at the end of the class.

As the research on fascia evolves, we learn new ways of unravelling deeply held tensions in this connective tissue, which greatly impacts our mobility as we age, as well as affecting our mind. And although we yogis often hear the word fascia associated with yin yoga, Western science is continuing to discover new ways of releasing and rehydrating through different forms of movement.

FasciaFascia is a flexible and sturdy material that covers every muscle, bond, organ and nerve.

Fascia, Simply

Author of Fascia–What it is and why it matters David Lesonak, explains that fascia is like “a silvery-white material, flexible and sturdy in equal measure–a substance that surrounds and penetrates every muscle, coats every bond, covers every organ, and envelops every nerve.” He says:

The most important thing to keep in mind… is that the fascial net is one continuous structure throughout the body…The ‘everywhereness’ of fascia also implies that, indeed, it is all connected, and thus is ‘connective tissue’, which is a term often used interchangeably with ‘fascia.’

The Connective Tissue that Weaves Through Us All

Ariele Foster is the founder of Yoga Anatomy Academy. She’s also a personal trainer, yoga teacher and anatomy teacher for yoga teacher trainings. Foster explains that fascia is “the network of connective tissue that surrounds and includes your muscles”–like scaffolding throughout your whole body. While the fibres of your body are supposed to slide easily over one another during movement, that’s not always exactly how it happens. “Whether due to injury or repetitive actions [such as running, hunching over computers, or even yoga poses] areas of tissue can become thickened and inflamed and tug on fascial network further up the chain,” Foster says. The result of these repetitive movements is that “the fascial sheaths that encase the muscles no longer have as much give and can become wound up like a wrung-out dishrag, contributing to restrictions, strain, and eventually pain.”

Erin Bourne holds a Bachelor of Exercise Science, as well as extensive training in Yoga and Myofascial release. She describes fascia as a dynamic and highly sensitive tissue that’s always listening and responding to what is happening throughout the whole body.

If we stop moving one part, or all, of the body then the fascia starts to dehydrate, solidify and constrict. This spot becomes like a dam for the energy, the information and the signals. We lose awareness in that part of the body and healthy function.

Foam rollers for fascial releaseBalls and foam rollers are great for fascial release.

By including exercises that help to release the fascia, Foster says, “we improve the slide and glide of the tissues whilst hydrating them through the act of compression and release.” And by doing this in one part of the body, it affects the whole. So, for example, if we release (or restrict) the fascia in the feet, it can have an impact all the way up to our neck.

Eastern Thoughts on Fascia

According to eastern philosophies, energy flows through fascia. In The Spark in the Machine: How the Science of Acupuncture Explains the Mysteries of Western Medicine, Daniel Keown says, “Fascia is everywhere–controlling everything; forming our body; channeling Qi; keeping everything in order.” Keown explains that the acupuncture channels of the East are the fascial planes of the West, and Western science is beginning to support these philosophies as it discovers parallels between the anatomy trains and the meridians. 

Releasing Fascia

Research on fascial release shows that there are a number of ways that we can start to unravel the deeply held tensions that lead to constriction and pain in our bodies and minds.

Tom Myers has been involved in bodywork for over 43 years. He is the author of the hugely popular Anatomy Trains and also lectures on the topic of fascia. He explains that we need long, slow stretches in order to reach the deeper and denser tissues of the body, such as fascia. He says:

One of the wonderful things about yoga is that because of the sustained stretch held in many yoga poses, you actually do change the connective tissue.

For Myers, once you change the habitual patterns of the fascia, you can start to address the chronic tension lodged in the tissues. The long held poses of yoga, especially yin, give the muscles time to relax and release, which can ultimately lead to both physical and emotional healing. Myers explains that when you first stretch a muscle, its own stretch reflex tries to contract the muscle back to its original length, but maintaining the stretch allows the body to relax into the shape and as the muscles relax, we begin to work into the deeper layers, like fascia.

Move it or lose it!Moving our bodies prevents fascia from dehydrating, solidifying and constricting.

The muscles have to relax first and then the fascia starts to stretch and release. And that can facilitate the kind of re-patterning that leads to lasting release of chronic holdings and, in many cases, a profound change of mind and body.

Myers notes that there is no amount of time that works for every body. For some, physiological changes can happen in a short time, and for others, long-held poses are required for release. It’s also important that we don’t push ourselves to our full capacity, so that we remain fluid; subtly moving within a pose to allow optimal hydration of the fascia.

Foster points to a 2015 review in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy that looks at 14 scientific papers illustrating the positive impacts of fascia release exercises. The studies suggested that gently rolling different muscles over balls or foam rollers (like in the newly popular ‘Yoga Tune Up’ classes) “pushes on fascia between your bones, muscles, organs, and nerve fibres—freeing up more mobility than is achievable with passive stretching alone.”

Fascia, Feelings, and Letting Go

Alexa Nehter is a long time yoga teacher who has delved deeply into the fascinating world of fascia. She’s studied with Tom Myers and has been blessed with the opportunity to meet with Dr Robert Schleip, one of the most well known fascia experts in the world and director of the Fascia Research Project at the University of Ulm, in Germany. Nehter muses about her love affair with fascia: “Fascia is our biggest sensory organ, our organ of awareness, our internal ocean. For me the current fascia research brings everything together with what I’ve learned through surfing, meditation and yoga.”

Foster tells us that impacting our fascia can affect our nervous system. She says, “Gentle pressure on your fascia may help communicate to your nervous system that there is no longer any need for increased tension in that area.” And so, by influencing these deeply held tensions in one part of the body, we can start to not only unravel and release tension in other parts of the body, but also in the mind.

Yin yoga for fascial releaseLong-held yoga poses help release tension in our muscles, fascia, and mind.

Nehter understands wholeheartedly. She explains how her life changed when she began exploring the world of intuitive fascial movement.

I began to undo the knots and complications in my life that had been getting bigger and increasingly restrictive.

By exploring fascial release, and the movements and practices associated with it, Nehter explains, “you’ll notice the places where your body is holding on at a deeper level than your muscles or connective tissue.” She says:

You learn to feel the fast and slow vibrations of your neurological patterning, and, when you allow yourself to let go and open even deeper, you notice these openings giving way to your life force… Interoceptive movement teaches us higher sensitivity and, the more sensitive we are, the deeper the patterns we are able to unwind. The more we do that, the more freedom, love and passion for life we can experience.

There are a number of ways in which we can release, hydrate and revitalise fascia, leading to profound changes in the body and mind, and while the research continues to unveil these methods, our own body’s intuition can also certainly point us in the right direction.

When we’re practicing yin, we can feel the moment when resistance subsides–a gentle unlocking in the body’s holding reminds us to soften. When we’re rolling around on balls in a Tune Up class, we sense our body surrendering. And when we glide our quads along foam rollers, we feel the tension slowly increasing, until it releases and we can finally breathe and let go. That’s the magic of fascia, and it’s only the beginning.

BY Jessica Humphries
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Grounding, Holding & Relaxation  : หลักแห่งการฝึกตนสู่ภาวะ “มั่นคงและสบาย” พื้นฐานแห่งร่างกายเดิมแท้ - วัชรสิท
6 months ago

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9 months ago

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4 years ago

I notice my fascia in my feet tighten when I emotionally feel under threat. It just won’t let go until the emotional state moves on.

Victoria Ashton
4 years ago

Thanks for a lovely interesting article. Would you have any suggestions on easing Plantar Fasciitis ( chronic foot / Heel pain) I’ve been practicing yoga for around two & a half years & I really love my practice. I can feel warrior pose is really stretching my whole side right down to my foot & it feels wonderful but I’ve developed Plantar Fasciitis & it’s causing me a lot of discomfort & stopped me practicing as much as I would like to. I’ve been trying to work through the pain for about 6 months hoping it would resolve itself but it hasn’t. Would be really grateful for any insights/ advice you may be able to share

Ronelle Wood
4 years ago

Yes and…
There is soooo much more information about fascia beyond what is presented here. It isn’t too much for the layman to comprehend. Fascia functions with the sympathetic nervous system to protect you during “fight or flight”. So, even if you intellectually know you have tight fascia, it isn’t always possible to voluntarily “let go”. Meyers says relaxing muscle in long held yoga poses then allows muscle to let go. Actually the opposite is often true. Softening the grip of fascia must occur first because it surrounds muscle and inhibits elongation. And patterns of thought contribute to fascial tension. One cannot address only one area of the body at a time and ignore the chemical/emotional component of fascia. It is important to know about the emotional release inextricably tied to freeing fascial restriction (evident in the comments here). Beyond Meyers, Schleip, Lesondak, yoga, and rolling etc. there is the treatment of fascia known as myofascial release taught by John Barnes, PT. There is an understanding of movement taught by Katy Bowman that goes beyond “poses” to supply nutrients to areas of the body starved because of repetitive exercises that address the same muscle groups while neglecting others, leading to “common aspects of aging” like plantar fasciitis, joint degeneration and replacement, neuropathy, osteoarthritis, pelvic floor disorder, high blood pressure, foggy brain, depression, COPD and other breathing disorders and cardiac disease.
It is time to update the information about fascia and how to heal restrictions.
I wrote “Touching Light: How To Heal Your Fiber-Optic Fascia” for exactly this purpose.

May Kesler
4 years ago

Fascia surrounds every cell in the body including bone cells neuron cells etc. Theres a thread from the fascia into the neucleus of every cell even possibly to the DNA. This means every cell in the body knows what every other cell is doing so we are connected intomately at the speed of light to sensing everything in our body. Fascia is a web of light filled fluid filled tubules so when the light changes that is how communication in the body happens.
See Jean Claude Guimberteau, Robert Scleip, Carla stecco , And others for the newest information. Im happy to discuss it further and teach about it.
May Kesler PT, Mth, Dancer Kesler Physical & Massage Therapy

Dr. Ariele Foster
4 years ago

Thank you for quoting me, Jessica! Just a quick correction: I’m not a personal trainer. I’m a doctor of physical therapy :). It’s fascinating to watch the evolution of the science of connective tissue evolve. I love seeing the larger role that fascia is playing in fitness generally and especially in yoga.

4 years ago

Great article. I did yoga for years then surfed for a year when I suddenly developed plantar fasciitis. Tried various cures I found online but none of them worked. Then BAM! I tried the gallon of water a day challenge and my plantar fasciitis was miraculously gone after a week. I do want to understand fascia and how it works, and this article hit home for me. Thank you!!!!

Jill Miller
4 years ago

Wonderful round-up on fascia. Thank you for mentioning my Yoga Tune Up program! Truly appreciate it.

4 years ago

I dod feel better when going to Yoga. I have Fibromyalgia..also connective tissue weakness..someone suggested there was with an issue related to fascia. Is this a fact. Or just an idea with no proof at all.

4 years ago

I find the rythmn and movement of The GYROTONIC System has done wonders for my fascia!

5 years ago

How can this help or explain Duypetrens Contracture which I have in both hands . The connective tissue in the palms thickens and pulls on the finger joints .

5 years ago

Thank you for this. I have been increasingly loosing my mobility after a lifetime of athletics, aerobics and strength training. After becoming more sedentary with some health issues I have been getting increasingly stiff and it all revolves around my core and hips….. and I am a thin man! This is giving me some hope and a light at the end of the tunnel. Beginning exercises today to remedy my new understanding of the issue

Tracy Stackhouse
5 years ago

Good article but would have appreciated on more exercises that help. For the plantar fascia, I learned from a rheumatologist years ago, that standing on a step or a large, thick book with only the toes and their joints on the step and then lowering your heels slowly as far as you can and holding that stretch for as long as you can will release the pain of plantar fasciitis. Aim for holding for 3 minutes, several times a day. When the pain disappears, you can back of to whatever maintains the status quo for you.

5 years ago

This is very interesting!

5 years ago

A wonderful article from Uplift. Thank you. It helps me understand why the subtle, focussed way of Scaravelli influenced hatha yoga is so enlivening…. “subtly moving within the pose to allow optimal hydration of the fascia. “. An aha moment for me. Makes all my cells smile in recognition.

Christine Van Hoose
5 years ago

Thank you for this beautiful article.

5 years ago

Fascia Blasting with Ashley Black. Google it.

5 years ago

Distilled water. Water is essential to movement. Distilled water drags out INORGANIC debris. FAKE science says it has cause there are no minerals. That is like saying you can ONLY get vitamin c from oranges!. Get a distiller and make tap w ater, good water!at

5 years ago

Am working with a Hellerwork therapist who has me dialogue with her while I’m “on the table”. Working winders!

5 years ago

I suffer from a connective tissue disease called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. Im suffer from chronic pain in most of my joints among other things. I always knew that depression and anxiety affect your body, but this article helped me piece a few more things together. I always hear about the lack of collagen being tbe source of my physical pain. I also suffer depression and anxiety, which are known symptoms of a person with EDS. Usually I would focus on one thing at a time, physical OR mental. I see know though, if we look a little “deeper” I can treat both at the same time. Understanding, awareness,insight, positive vibes, and letting go have all been game changers for me. These articles truly help.

5 years ago

Where can I learn yin yoga to help the fascia. I already have excruciating pain in the neck, shoulders and shoulder blades.

Mary Ellen Smith
5 years ago

OMG! fascinating! Informative! Wonderful insight! Thank you for this post. It has created a longing in me to go deeper into this topic for me and my yogis!!!

Frances Frith
5 years ago

I can’t believe how Yin Yoga has helped me. When I started in September 2017 I was wearing a back brace to help herniated disc and problems with L5 and S1. Within about 6 weeks I did not need the brace and 7 months on I still enjoying the benefits of regular yin classes. It affected me emotionally in the beginning, I couldn’t think why I was crying until I realized and understood it was also helping me on an emotional level and I gave myself up to how I was feeling. It’s helped me so much and I can’t thank my yin teachers enough or the relaxing atmosphere of Qihai. I still have a way to go but I am enjoying the journey and benefiting too

5 years ago

Great article. Something not mentioned enough about fascia is that it is reshaping itself in every moment. You can spend an hour in a yoga class working your fascia, but the 23 other hours you are moving through your life equally affect you. It is in constant interplay with your nervous system, in a sense they are not separate. You can stretch it and “blast” it, but it is equally transformed by subtle movements. Fascia is literally what you do and how you are. It follows function in every moment.
So, while an hour of “working on it”, whether it’s yoga or massage, feels good and is helpful, it never stops responding to your directives. It can hydrate and change shape easily through awareness of self, especially gaining an intimate connection with your held tension. When you hold tension, fascia follows suit and “densifies” itself to support that tension structure. It just does what you do. It is a genius way to support the body and save energy.
I believe that releasing tension from the body through awareness is by far the most valuable way to healthy fascia. You can experience this easily if you attend an Awareness Through Movement class. There is no stretching or direct fascia manipulation but an obvious change in fascia quality just through awareness of movement.

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