Fascia is like Saran Wrap for our guts: It's a fibrous matrix that holds the bones, muscles, organs, and nerves and helps keep our physical shape. Without it, we'd be lumpier, flimsier, and less contained and connected versions of ourselves.
In that way, fascia is like our invisible second skin. It's not part of the dermis but rather connects to the muscles, ligaments, and tendons at thousands of different points of contact. It's the ultimate communicator, taking inputs from one part of the body and reacting accordingly in another. Although there is very little research on fascia as we're just beginning to understand its role in the body, there are a few leading philosophies that guide much of the bodywork that's done today. In fact, a good deal of the literature on fascia is written for the trade: massage therapists, personal trainers, body workers, Pilates instructors, yoga teachers, and other movement professionals, which is why reading up on it can feel overwhelming, foreign, and/or unapproachable to the average Josie.
The good news is that whether you know it or not, you've been working on your fascia ever since you started to exercise. The fascia isn't new unto itself; it's the way we're looking at it that's new: as a body system that has major implications for our physical and emotional well-being.
While some will say that taking care of your fascia is optional and nonessential, we've heard it's pretty important. "If you look at the last 500 years of literature in Western anatomy, it is the one major body system that hasn’t really been studied," said Thomas W. Myers, author of the seminal text Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual & Movement Therapists and arguably the leading expert on fascia in America. Myers has studied directly with Drs. Ida Rolf, Moshe Feldenkrais, and Buckminster Fuller and has been practicing integrative manual therapy for 40 years, leading him to create the most in-depth education programming for movement professionals. "Fascia is the environment for all the other 'stuff' that goes on in the body. At first, it was viewed as the packing material and didn't have much importance. Every once in a while you'd hear something about the plantar fascia or something specific, but now people are seeing it as a system that provides context for all other body activities. It is the biological fabric that holds us together."
Using Anatomy Trains and Myers as a reference unless otherwise noted, here are nine things you need to know about fascia:
1. Your fascia wants to be treated like a sponge.
The best thing you can do for your fascia is to hydrate it but not by simply drinking more water. According to Myers, you could drink all the water in the world and have dehydrated parts of your fascia. "It needs to be squeezed and refreshed to clean it out, and allow it to absorb water," he said. How do you do this? Myers recommends yoga, foam rolling, exercise, and body work.
2. Building blocks of collagen form the fascia.
Collagen is more than skin deep. In fact, collagen is the most prolific protein in the human adult body—it's no wonder we're all so super-obsessed with it. In particular, collagen is the predominant protein in fascia made up of amino acids.
3. Fascia attaches to your muscles and is informed by them.
But it's not a muscle and will never replace the function of muscle, which is to contract. Your fascia most closely relates to the movement of your muscles. Since the fascia lays over them and connects to them, its shape is affected by how your move (or don't).
4. Yes, manipulating the fascia can change the appearance of your skin and cellulite.
That's not the "point" of fascia, to be clear. Because it's subdermal, changing the fascia over time through foam rolling, Rolfing, massage, or movement can actually change the way fat distributes under your skin, which is what creates the appearance of cellulite. While topical treatments typically offer temporary relief due to increased circulation, changes in the fascia can be either temporary, semi-permanent or permanent, depending on whether the structural changes are maintained. As for those newfangled fascia tools? "They're great, but only as great as the person using them," said Myers. "A trained professional could use a spoon to get the same results." In other words, do your research before engaging in fascial self-help. Better yet, see a professional who can show you movements and techniques that are specialized for your body.
5. There are 12 myofascial meridian lines.
According to Myers, the myofascial meridians are different from Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture ones but follow similar body patterns. They run along "the girdle" of the body, tracing patterns that run up and down, front to back, and diagonally left to right, and vice versa. Therapeutically, these pathways also explain transferred pain: pain that originates in one part of the body but is felt elsewhere. If you've ever been to a healer—massage therapist, Rolfing, yoga class—who has helped your back pain by dealing with your psoas or piriformis (front hip), for example, that's an example of working along the myofascial meridian.
6. Fascia is thixotropic.
In other words, fascia responds to force with force. So if you're looking to stretch or massage a part of your body, ease into it. If you don't, you're more likely to create (or worsen) the injury, as the fascia will harden instead of giving. This goes for foam rolling, stretching, massage, yoga, and anything that asks for your flexibility.
7. It's a mix of pink, white, and yellow in color.
You know, in case you were wondering. A full human fascia without a body inside it looks like a loose mummy encasing. Fascinating!
8. Fascia unifies the body.
If you ever have the chance to see a photo of a person's fascia, it looks like a body-shaped glove of moderately thick, not perfectly smooth yellow-white tissue. It does have attachments here and there, but it's all-encompassing and leaves nothing behind. Connective tissue keeps disparate organs, nerves, muscles, and other systems all together.
9. An emotional release is possible with myofascial body work.
We're just beginning to understand how emotions process in the brain and actually don't have any quantifiable research about the connection between emotions and fascia. "But, yes, there is a practical truth. I've seen it time and time again in my practice. You work along the breastbone of a depressed person, tears will start to flow. Not because it's physically painful, but it brings some memory up or some kind of emotional process is being worked," Myers said. "The mechanism by which this works? We don't know yet."
Just when we think we know almost everything, the magic of the human body never ceases to amaze us.