Attend a yoga class and chances are you will hear your teacher say, "Create space! Open your heart! Let go!" I was gravely mistaken to think that this these were a metaphor; a closer study of the body’s anatomy reveals that this is exactly what you are doing when you do yoga: creating space, opening, and letting go. For those who have never taken a yoga anatomy class, or prefer to practice yoga in a more secular setting, let’s explore (yet another favorite invitation of yoga teachers).
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? If you’re an animal, you stretch. If you’re a human, you likely hit the snooze button on your alarm clock or head into the kitchen for a cup of coffee – but what you should do is stretch. Those stiff muscles feel great when they’re stretched out, and for good reason: we are meant to move.
Fascia is connective tissue that’s found all over the body. Western science and medicine has largely ignored the role of the fascia in good health; but because it’s found literally head to toe, (and because yogis examine everything), the functions of fascia merit a closer investigation.
Healthy fascia, composed of layers of collagen and elastin, is smooth and slippery, so that it can “glide” and move. When your muscles are stiff, it’s because something is causing the fascia to meet resistance. That something is “the fuzz”, which is actually the growth of sticky cobweb-like collagen fibers that solidify the muscle, making movement difficult. This fuzz forms during periods of long inactivity, such as when we are sleeping, watching a movie, on a long car trip, or when we don’t exercise. As the fuzz builds up and knits together, what was once muscle stiffness can turn to a limited range of motion.
Warning: Video may be graphic; anatomist Gil Hedley shows us muscle tissue from a cadaver:
Your range of motion won’t be the only thing impacted. According to Dr. Frank Lipman, an internationally renowned expert in integrative medicine, tightened fascia can lead to other health problems, eventually squeezing nerves and veins, which may stop areas of the body from getting much needed nutrients.
Yoga, acupuncture, foam rolling, and deep tissue massage are great ways to free yourself from the fuzz. As you see in the video, when Hedley runs his fingers over the fuzz, it yields to his finger and disperses. This is similar to what happens when we stretch- the fuzz breaks up and disperses. You are literally telling these collagen fibers that knit together to “let go” of each other, allowing the muscle to move freely and “creating space”.
A perfect example is the suggestion to “open the heart.” The heart is located in the thoracic cavity, which is supported by the rib cage. Each of the 12 ribs is connected by fascia. When the fascia here becomes rigid and restricted, the ribs, which shield the lungs, may not allow the lungs to expand to full capacity. Besides restricting airflow, a rigid ribcage may also limit blood flow to and from the heart. This combination of a lack of oxygen and nutrient rich blood is detrimental and deadly to your cells; long story short, it is the beginning of an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment in which disease can survive. Stretching not only feels great, it helps you stay healthy!
The next time you’re on yoga mat, be mindful that these invitations to move your body in particular ways aren’t just metaphors – they are the literal language of love and light manifesting in your body on a cellular level.