This is Article #4 in a Series on Yoga Injury Prevention
Article #1 is HERE. | Article #2 is HERE. | Article #3 is HERE.

An Overview of Principles & Techniques for Recovery from Yoga Injuries: Self-Care with Yoga Therapy & Yoga-based Bodywork and Working with Therapists & Physicians

Ida Rolf & Fascia

Yet we observe the yoga community in America, and maybe world-wide, has become quite enamored of Ida’s perspectives on fascia.* Several well-known teachers have embraced the fascia (also called "connective tissue") concepts extensively. Notable in the yoga world are Paul Grilley and Lilias Folan. In bodywork, John Barnes is another main figure.

The focus for some theorists has moved so strongly toward the fascia that other body systems, especially the muscles, have fallen into comparative irrelevance in the minds of many practitioners of various natural healing arts. (Many massage & bodywork practitioners have fallen, along with many yoga teachers, into this way of thinking as well.)

* Fascia — On one hand, the 37th Edition of Gray's Anatomy: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice (considered one of THE most authoritative books on medicine) said the word fascia had come to mean so many things as to have become meaningless. There are so many different kinds of tissue that can at their base be called fascia that use of the term almost dilutes the terminology. … (The 38th Edition, and subsequent, having a new editorial staff and redirection of focus, removed that reference, by-the-way. However I believe it was and still is a valid observation.)

On the other hand, the modern alternative health care community refers to fascia as the all pervasive Connective Tissue that, in progressively smaller and deeper layers, wraps everything from the entire body (just under the skin) all the way down to the smallest component, especially the muscle cells. It is a contiguous system that is at once a protective casing of the body, a series of tissues — including the tendons & ligaments — delivering power from the muscles to the bones, a metabolic & hydrostatic transport system, a bio-electric communication system, and a veritable shaper of life. …

Most of that is, by-the-way, quite true.

Because it is a foundational "colloidal structure," it has certain remarkable physical properties giving it a LOT of flexibility & resilience yet amazingly high tensile strength. It can quickly change from a soft, resilient, malleable structure to a tough, hard, resistant structure that instantly stiffens to protect the muscle cells, organs and other tissues of the body.

On the other other hand, Fascia has, in the minds of many, assumed mythic if not epic proportions, in great part because so much of it is unknown and apparently mysterious. So rather than being a complex and important component of a wholistic system, it is treated by many as more like a Holy Grail of Health Care.

Not that it is NOT important. IT IS. Yet, it has, in my and many other's minds, been elevated beyond it's proper proportions, assigned characteristics not warranted by known facts. That's why I refer to the Psycho-Neuro-Musculo-Fascial-Skeletal System … with some organs inside there somewhere. But of what good would fascia be without all those other components? Probably … not much.

Anyway …

The relevance of Ida Rolf and her thinking should at this point be obvious to a modern Yoga Teacher. Why?

For one thing, Ida's ideas have shaped the thinking and teaching of many yoga educators & schools in America, especially if they have a therapeutic focus. As well, many yoga teachers have over the last decade or two also become Rolfers, in a perfectly logical and legitimate step toward providing a more complete, wholistic experience and benefits for their Students & Clients. And because so many yoga teachers, educators, therapists and writers talk about the fascia, frequently in isolation of other tissues, especially muscle.

So many people talk of "stretching the fascia" it has become commonplace in the literature and classrooms of various healing arts, including yoga. But as we'll see along the way here, the idea of stretching the fascia independently of the muscles is a nearly pure fabrication of the mind. One can only stretch the musculo-fascial units as … integrated units. They are so intimately entwined as to not really be separable yet still maintain a fully functional, living system.

Yes, the superficial fascia, a very thin layer just under the skin, might have SOME specific effects from stretching. Yet such fascia has little or no structural or kinesiological effects on joints, structure, posture or movement. Any real effects from fascia are probably more from the sensory inputs to the nervous system and brain, NOT because the fascia has "contracted" around the joint or bone. With no contractile fibers, fascia has little to almost NO capacity to actually do that. Please See my article: What Ever Happened to the MYO– in Myofascial Release? [ … Opens in a New Window.]

(Actually, a few stray contractile fibers have been found to grow in the areas of tissue injury. They are thought to be participating in tissue repair. But their effect on structure & posture is nearly non-existent.)

Ida, Fascia & Posture, and Yoga

Ida Rolf was a major and early proponent of the idea that fascia is the primary component of structural and postural integrity as well as distortion, imbalance, pain and other dysfunction. Ida in turn was heavily influenced by very smart people like Andrew Taylor Still, MD, DO, the great researcher & practitioner of osteopathy, and Alfred Korzybski, the linguist, philosopher and engineer.

Both had a lot to say about the system- and bodymind-wide affects of fascia on physical & mental health, and Ida was one of their most eager & motivated students. She in turn imparted much of what she learned from these two men, and others, to her early students.

Many yoga & bodywork therapists, and others, have today embraced Ida’s point-of-view that postural, structural & functional distortions are primarily the result of fascia getting “too tight” or “displaced” or whatever. Fascial “adhesions” and so-called "scar tissue" have become a big focus, as well. We are frequently told how we must address adhesions and scarring to get better posture, freer movement, more energy, and pain free existence. … That's just for starters.

The point is that many yoga teachers & therapists today have been educated with perspectives giving a very high weight to the views of Ida Rolf and Structural Integration, and her views on fascia. In the bodywork field there is even an annual conference devoted to fascia. (I think that's a great idea. It's just that much of their work has maintained this bias about excessive exclusivity of fascia.)

Yet if you look at the actual science behind it all, and the clinical experience of many practitioners, there are many and significant problems with such speculative theories of fascia. We'll look more into those issues in subsequent parts of this article series, and again, my article What Ever Happened to the MYO in Myofascial Release? [ … Opens in New Window.] Here, you'll get a more clear, in-the-clinical-trenches perspective on some of the the differences of fascia & muscle and how they intimately work together.

Regardless, over the years, many people have found Yoga & Rolfing to be a perfect compliment to each other, and rightly so. Rolfing has indeed — despite Ida's eventual warnings against yoga, and Rolfing's excessive applications of painful pressures — helped many people, for example, get deeper into and perfect their yoga practices. My own indirect studies of Rolfing (by way of Daniel Blake, who had been trained directly by Ida Rolf) certainly contributed to my development both as a yoga teacher and yoga-based, hands-on bodyworker.

But as I've mentioned, as the years went by, Ida began to have doubts …

A Primary Difference Between Fascia and Muscle

Now, Bringing the Tangent Back to Light: Here's the Issue … Muscle cells have MOTOR nerves allowing you to turn the nerve charge to the muscle cells ON (contraction) or OFF (relaxation), to a great degree with your mind or other physical/mental processes. This ability to Voluntarily and Intentionally turn a muscle cell ON or OFF with your Conscious Mind is a primary element of what makes "yoga" yoga, rather than just a mechanical "stretch."

In the far more common, mechanical stretching, we operate as if the tissues "out there" in our periphery are merely subject to mechanical forces, such as pulling or "stretching" taffy or waiting for ketchup to pour.

Yet the main difference between a Yogic Stretch and an ROS (Regular Old Stretch) is that in yoga, you are NOT relying on "the tissue" to soften up or "give in."

In Physical/Mental Yoga, or Conscious Stretching, you are searching for your deeper, subconscious, inner ability to reach into your own psycho-neuro-musculo-fascial system to discover ways to Turn OFF the nerve charge holding your muscle cells in a contracted state. … THAT is what "relaxation" is all about.

Fascia, however, has, for the most part, ALL sensory nerve endings, sending important information into the central nervous system. Fascia has NO motor nerves telling it to contract or relax, to shorten or lengthen. Fascia can NOT "relax" in any way similar to how muscle cells do.

Fascia, if it softens at all, is by way of a mechanical or chemical process, NOT a volitional, conscious process. In stretching fascia, you just put the tissue in a lengthened or "stretched" state and wait, hoping the biological processes "out there" in your periphery do their job before you get too bored or tired and give up.

The problem with fascia, then, is you cannot "tell it what to do" in any direct way, the way you can a muscle cell group. Your work with fascia is a nearly purely mechanical process, rather than an exploration of conscious self-control.

As well, most, of if not all, of the "tension" in fascia is the result not of "tight fascia" but of contracted muscle cells. It is the contracted muscle cells creating the hardening of the tissues, including the fascia, rather than a "contraction" of the fascia itself. (There are other "hardening" processes such as dehydration and chemical bonding or "gluing." But those are outside of direct volitional control.)

So the hardness of the tissues you feel is, for the most part, the outward water pressure generated by the muscle cells. And rarely is it from "calcification" or "bone spurs" or "crystallization" of tissues. The so-called adhesion and scarring ideas are usually WAY over done, too.

Therefore, as generally presented, from a consciously yogic point-of-view, much of the recent, therapeutic focus on fascia is highly misdirected.

Worse, practitioners such as Rolfers then give the impression that your fascia needs to be "pushed back" into more appropriate locations and "stretched" to be relaxed or "released." Since there is no conscious, motor component allowing you to control your fascia, you are at the mercy of your fascial practitioner, who will do this "pushing back into place" or "releasing" for you.

Yet research by fascia practitioners over the last few years disproves this. A top Rolfer "Rollfed" someone under anesthesia. Result? No change. He concluded that fascia was so tough it could not be "stretched" or "relaxed" by manual pressure. It is pretty clear, then, increased pliability of the tissues is from muscle cells being internally "turned off" and reducing their contracted state. It is the relaxation of muscle cells that softens the fascia.

Yet if you focus on "stretching the fascia" rather than becoming more internally competent with controlling your psycho-neuro-muscular structures, you become more externally dependent on outside forces.

Now, that's not always bad. A helping hand from a great teacher, coach or therapist is a welcome assist. However, if the external dependence is unnecessary or misdirected, or excessive, then that is not so yogic.

Finally, if the tissue were actually "hardened" through non-conscious processes, the tendency is to treat the fascia by increasing the forces upon it in an attempt to coerce it into compliance. Again, it's like waiting for the ketchup to pour, and hitting the bottom of the bottle to get it to pour faster, or pulling a little harder on the taffy, waiting for it to separate.

And it is this increased force we impose upon our own body that adds pressure on the joints and other tissues such as tendons, ligaments and opposing muscles.

The difference, then, is a matter of Conscious Focus. Are you attempting to indirectly "get the tissue to stretch out"? Or are you looking for your internal, psycho-neuro-muscular activities, your neurological holding patterns, that are, via increased charge in your nervous system, contracting & hardening your musculo-fascial cells?

It is my view that WAY to many yoga practitioners AND teachers are treating their tissues way too mechanically, too forcefully, too "externally," waiting for or pushing them them to "let go" without looking for the inner mental & emotional processes creating and holding such tension patterns in place.

That change of focus itself is a major step in changing how you do yoga more safely.


David Scott Lynn (DSL)
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