Fascia is a form of connective tissue. Connective tissue refers to any tissue that connects one part of the body to another. Ligaments, tendons, bone, cartilage, and even blood are other forms of connective tissue. While ligaments connect bone to bone and tendons connect muscle to bone, fascia is pervasive throughout the body. It helps to provide form and structure to the body, balancing strength with appropriate flexibility.
There are three layers to fascia, superficial, deep and visceral, (the layer which lies between the deep fascia and the organs). Fascia connects, envelops, surrounds and supports every structure in the body including body tissue, muscles, organs, bones, nerves and blood vessels.
Superficial fascia is a thin layer of tissue just below the skin and surrounds the body from head to foot in a single covering. It is composed mostly of collagen and elastin (protein fibers) and contains various degrees of fat, nerve fibers, and blood vessels. You are probably familiar with what this layer looks like though you may not realize it. When you pull the skin away from an uncooked chicken, you have probably noticed a very thin, almost translucent layer of what you may have thought was part of the skin or fat. However, this is fascia and it lies between the skin of the chicken and the meat itself.
In its normal, healthy state, fascia is stable enough to provide integrity to our bones and alignment yet elastic enough to facilitate flexibility, movement and range of motion to muscles and joints.
However, when subjected to trauma, (physical or emotional), habitualy bad posture or repetitive and sustained muscle tension, fascia will actually de-form and remold itself to conform to misaligned, tight or over stretched muscles and tissues. When this happens, the fascia can tighten and bind muscles, press on nerves and blood vessels and constrict range of motion, all of which lead to pain. To keep the fascia healthy, it needs nourishment, movement, relaxation and awareness.
This, of course, leads us to how and why yoga can help. As we already know, the mind and body are integrally connected. Our emotions can affect our movement and our posture, and movement can affect our mind and emotions. Yoga teaches us to move our bodies with mindfulness and awareness. It helps us focus on our breath as a means of releasing tension and deepening release. Under sustained and low intensity pressure, fascia can regain it plasticity and remold itself back to health.
The flow of a Yang practice can help keep muscles moving while the slow, sustained pressure of a Yin practice can help release the deeper tissues such as fascia. Both are important. Fascia will adapt and mold itself to muscles so we need our joints to be in alignment with proper muscle engagement and support. We can then bring integrity back to our alignment and movement and our fascia will be there to support us.
However, the mindfulness component of your practice is just as important. Deep breathing helps release tension, which can help soften tight and harmful holding patterns of the fascia. Body awareness can help us bring healthy alignment to our posture and restore healthy moving patterns. Negative emotions can affect our posture and movement so we need to learn and use the skills of yoga, meditation, breathing and other disciplines to help manage negative thoughts, emotions and depression.
Our cells need nutrition and fluids to function at their optimal level. Nutrition for cells comes from food, oxygen, blood and lymph fluids and water. That translates into making healthy eating choices, moving your body and drinking lots of water.
In addition to yoga, other body work modalities can be excellent options for helping with fascia release, relaxing tight muscles and increasing oxygen and nutrient flow into body tissues. Massage, Rolfing, Feldenkrais, foam rolling, and physical therapy are just a few examples of the current and emerging techniques available to help restore our minds and bodies to homeostatic health.
Dr. Tom Meyers is the Author of "Anatomy Trains" and is a leader in the field of researching, understanding and working with fascia. Here is a brief clip from one of his DVD's. Warning, dissections and cadavers are demonstrated in this clip.
Update: Excellent discussion on the interconnectedness of the body through fascia and how yoga can help. From Seed to Plant: Yoga and New Anatomy of interconnectedness.