What is fascia (and why should I care)?

Last week was one of new beginnings.  I started the new applied anatomy group and I also gave my first class on the yoga and anatomy immersion with Claudio. I love meeting the new students and seeing their curious and attentive expressions while I present the lesson. It’s very exciting! 

One of my favorite topics to teach is fascia. This part of the body isn’t very well known and sometimes it is hard to understand, as we don’t have much to reference back to. That’s why today’s post is all about this very important tissue and why it matters.  

Fascia is an opaque white tissues that ensheathes and connects muscles, organs and bones. It also envelops and protects joints, blood vessels and nerves.  To better understand fascia and how it works we’ll take as an example an orange. 

naranja en gajosUnderneath it’s peel the orange has a white layer of skin. This is how it is in the human body as well. Underneath our outer layer of skin you’ll find the superficial fascia which covers the body like a wetsuit. Ida Rolf considered fascia the “organ of form” as it holds the body together and preserves our individual shape. 

Back to the orange. The membrane that divides the orange in slices corresponds to the deep fascia of the human body. This layer separates muscles from one another. It has a liquid and slippery texture that allows the muscles to glide effortlessly over one another as when they move. Sometimes the fascia of adjacent muscles get glued to one another creating an adhesion. Fascial adhesions limit movement and cause compensation in other parts of the body. 

Visceral fascia invests organs and allows them to move independently of their adjacent tissues. An example of organ movement is the intestinal peristalsis, or the heartbeat, or the stretching of the lungs that occurs on inhalation. Visceral fascia has specialized names according to the organ it covers, some examples could be the pleura of the lungs, the peritoneum that encases the abdominal organs, or the pericardium, the layer of fascia that encases the heart. 

Examples of other types of fascia are the periosteum that ensheaths bones, the epimysium the external covering of muscles, and the tissue that makes up joint capsules. All these are specialized forms of fascia. 

Why is fascia important?

  • Fascia is important because it reserves the integrity of each organ, muscle and blood vessel in the body. It also protects them from external pathogens and is the first line of defense of the body. 
  • Thanks to fascia we can move! It’s true that muscles contract to create movement, however, without the slippery encasing of fascia there would be no movement. Fascia allows muscles to glide over one another completely free of friction. 
  • It also allows the internal organs to carry out their physiological functions.
  • The elasticity of fascia protects the body from harsh impacts. It acts as a shock absorber to protect bones and organs from injury. 

These are some of the reasons why fascia is important for a healthy body. Ida Rolf suggested that due to its complexity, fascia should be considered an organ rather than a tissue. 

Online resources

http://youtu.be/Ikx-0s8y480

This documentary is all about fascia. It discusses how fascia influences chronic pain and how complementary therapies such as acupuncture and Rolfing work with fascia. It’s really eye-opening!

Lastly, Tom Myers’ Anatomy Trains website has a section dedicated to fascia. It’s easy to asimilate and full of useful information. Enjoy!

Why the Head isn’t Meant to Bear Weight

sirsasana[Photo by Lauren Nelson]

One of the trademark poses in yoga is Salamba Sirsasana, better known as headstand. Sirsasana is often referred to as “king of all asanas” (yoga poses) because of its many valuable benefits such as longevity and increased mental clarity.

But is Sirsasana really a headstand? I don’t think so.

In Yoga Mala, Pattabhi Jois writes:

Aspirants should note that merely putting the head down and the legs up, and then standing upside down is not Sirsasana; very simply, this is wrong.

He then explains:

..no one should be deluded into thinking that Sirsasana is and easy asana. The proper method for it must be carefully learned. For example, the entire body must stand upside down on the strength of the arms alone.

According to this description it seems pretty clear that Sirsasana is a forearm balance rather than a headstand.

In my experience this is true. I find that resting the weight of my body on my head hurts my neck and is likely dangerous in the long run. I prefer to practice Sirsasana as described by Jois: using my arms to sustain the weight of my body while making sure that my head is only lightly touching the floor. This way I have to engage my whole body and cultivate a sustainable balance that keeps my neck happy.

When I look at the anatomy of the spine I find it corroborates this approach to the pose. Let me explain. 

antique print of vertebral column[Vintage Anatomy Print from Etsy.com]

If you compare the anatomy of the cervical spine to that of the lumbars you will find some important differences. For example, the lumbar vertebrae are quite thick and wide, becoming progressively larger towards the base of the spine. This is because they have to bear the weight of the entire trunk. Also, notice how the disks between the lumbar vertebrae are really thick. Their job is to provide shock absorption to the spine when we walk, jump or run. They thicker they are the more shock absorption is needed from them.

By comparison, the cervical spine is not as sturdy. (If you like these images you’ll find more here). The vertebrae of the neck, and the disks that separate them, are much smaller. This affords the head and neck a lot of freedom: we can turn our head with precision so as to focus our gaze on what we want. More mobility however means less stability. Often the more movable joints in the body are the most susceptible to injury. We need to take care of them. 

tumblr_mtwud2sy7P1r77ccao1_1280[X-ray Image found on Tumblr]

In addition to this, we must also consider that our lifestyle puts our necks under a lot of stress already. Most of us, myself included, suffer from tight neck and shoulders. This is likely due to the fact that we spend many hours a day typing on our laptops and straining our gaze towards the screen. Moreover, a lot of people tend to accumulate tension in their neck as a result of stressful life situations, tense work environments or both.

This is why I think Shirsasana is to be approached with patience and care. It is important to take the time to build the strength and coordination necessary to enjoy this posture for many years to come and reap it’s incredible benefits.

Ever wonder why yogis are strong but don’t have bulky muscles?

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I did. My curiosity lead me to do some research and this is what I discovered. In yoga we spend a lot of time engaging our muscles isometrically as well as lengthening our muscles both actively and passively.

In technical terms these actions are called isometric muscle contractions, isometric stretching and passive stretching. These types of practices tone and lengthen our muscles and give us both the flexibility and strength we need to prepare for more advanced poses.

How to build strength and flexiblity

An isometric muscle contraction is when we activate a muscle, or group of muscles, without movement.The name isometric comes from greek and means “same length” as in the muscles don’t create movement though they are engaged.

This means that the muscle fibers contract but the actual muscle doesn’t shorten or lengthen because there’s no movement involved.

An example of this is when you take five breaths in down dog: your arms are pushing the floor away, your thighs move back, your core is engaged, yet you are not moving; you are activating your muscles isometrically.

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The opposite of an isometric contraction is an isotonic contraction: in this type of muscle activation the muscle (or muscle group) alternatively shortens then lengthens as you move. It does this by switching from concentric to eccentric contractions.

An example of this is a classic sit-up. When you lift your shoulders off the floor you contract your abs concentrically and when you lower your shoulders back down you contract you abs eccentrically. The key to this contraction is movement. There’s no such thing as an isotonic stretch because stretching involves being still and isotonic contractions occur during movement.

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Isotonic Contractions build and strengthen muscles but they also shorten them. In yoga you’ll find that isotonic contractions are offset with deep stretches so as to retain maximum flexibility.

Here’s two yogic stretches you’ll  love

Isometric stretching involves contracting a muscle that is held in a lengthened position using a prop (like your own hand or the floor). An example of this is – one of my favorites – quad streches! (see photo below). This pose stretches the quads and feels delicious!

To isometrically activate the quads you have to press your foot into your hand; hold here and take five deep breaths. Isometric stretching simultaneously lengthens and strengthens themuscle/s you are working. I love them!

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Another type of stretch commonly practiced in yoga is called passive stretching. This is when you don’t actively do anything but instead let gravity, time and breath stretch and relax your muscles.

This may sound familiar if you’ve practiced Yin-Yoga or if you’ve been to a restorative yoga class. In both cases you hold the poses for longer and concentrate on consciously releasing tension in your body. Passive stretching is gentle and soothing; it also favors the healing of tight and/or overstrained muscles.

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This concludes this month’s “Anatomy Highlights” series which will resume in October alongside the anatomy study group. If you’ve enjoyed reading I’d love to hear from you.

Also, please share on your favorite social media and with those who will enjoy it.

Psoas, Breath and Grounding

Most people starting off with anatomy get a little overwhelmed because they think they’re supposed to memorize the names, actions and attachments of every muscle. In my opinion this is what reference books are for. Sure, it’s important to know the names of the muscles we’re working with when doing yoga or when touching a client. However, it’s important to not lose perspective of the big picture.

Anatomy becomes applicable and even more fascinating when you begin to look into the relationships between the different parts of the body; relationships put things into perspective bestowing a deeper appreciation for the how the body works. Most of all, relationships give meaning and context to your somatic explorations which in return helps you to better remember the names of the structures you’re studying.

So don’t get frustrated if you cannot remember by heart all those names! Keep going back to your reference books and explore them again and again. Diversify your sources, so as to get a more comprehensive understanding, and don’t try to cram too much into your head all at once. Take your time! Let the information settle and integrate. The study of the human body is endless and you have all the time in the world.

The Psoas

This week in the anatomy study group we looked at a coveted muscle: the psoas. this muscle is fascinatingly complex because it has a lot of interesting relationships to it’s surrounding muscles, organs and bones. But first let’s give a general description.

The Psoas is a deep muscle of the trunk that connects the anterior portion of the spine to the upper leg. It is located behind the abdominal caviy and is divided into left and right psoas muscles which run vertically along the anterior-lateral edges of the spine from T12 all the way down to the lesser trochanter of the femur.

The psoas stabilizes the lumbar spine, flexes the hip and externally rotates the femur. Because it connects the legs to the spine it also responsible for our sense of grounding our connection into our feet and determines how we feel in our hips and lower back when we stand and walk.

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Psoas, Breath and Grounding

Another interesting detail about the psoas is that it is intimately related to the diaphragm. Its superior fibers interdigitate with the inferior portion of the posterior diaphragm called the crura. Their proximity implies a link between breath and grounding.

You may have felt this in your own body: when you are under stress your breath becomes shallow and irregular, you may even stop breathing from time to time. This is because the diaphragm becomes constricted and ceases to expand relaxedly in all directions as you breathe. The tension in the diaphragm extends to the neighboring  psoas muscle which contracts flexing the hip and disconnecting you from your feet, the earth and your sense of security.

Because of their proximity and inter-relatedness, exercises aimed at one muscle will also have beneficial effects on the other. For example: relaxing the breath will not only have a positive impact on the diaphragm, but will also release tension stored in the psoas. This, in turn, will enhance a sense of grounding and ease throughout the whole body. By the same rule, when you release the psoas, relax the groin and integrate the legs into the trunk, the diaphragm returns to a natural relaxed breathing pattern.

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Interesting Reads 

If you want to know more about the psoas I highly recommend The Psoas Book by Liz Koch. It’s a gem! it is short and sweet with great information and easy to follow exercises.

Another interesting read about the psoas is this interview by fellow Rolfer, Brooke Thomas, with Jonathan Fitzgordon. Enjoy!

Share the love!

If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favorite social media platform.

Next week’s post will conclude the anatomy highlights mini-series which will resume again in October.

If you have questions, comments, ideas or suggestions for future posts comment on Facebook or send me an email, I’d love to hear from you!

Awesome Anatomy Resources and Links

026 FOTOS CLASSES JULY 2014Back in the day..

When I first trained as a Structural Integration practitioner at the Guild for Structural Integration I was very lucky to have an engaging anatomy teacher who brought a lot of real human bones to class! This may sounds strange, but when you’re studying human anatomy it’s a real treat.

We were encouraged touch and take in the details of each bone; we were even allowed to borrow them overnight to assist us with our homework assignments, but most of all to keep us fascinated with the human body. It worked!

During the anatomy course we even went to visit a cadaver lab where the different bodies were specifically dissected for massage therapists. For example, they showed us how the fascia on the bottom of the foot is connected to the fascia on the top of the head in one long strip!  I also remember my surprise when they showed us the piriformis muscle, it’s so small compared to the images in my books! How can this little muscle be such a big pain in the butt?

I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have this experience untill later. Back at home I had to rely strictly on books to study anatomy. I used a number of them and compared the images of one to another and then to another to try and grasp what the different muscles looked like, where they were located and how they were layered over one another.

Books

It was quite a feat! The Trail Guide to the Body has really good and copious illustrations and nowadays even includes a DVD (which is awesome!!) that teaches you to palpate soft tissues and bony landmarks, I can’t recommend it enough. Blandine’s book explains really well how the body moves, but the images are a bit too confusing for a newbee so to get a clearer picture I would read it along side Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy which is beautifully detailed. It illustrates the body in a way that inspires awe both for the for body’s complexity as well as for Netter’s artistic abilities.  In my quest to understand anatomy better, I also used art catalogues such as this one from the reinassance wax sculpture collection of La Specola’s Museun of Natual History in Florence (photographed above).

Apps

Today you can navigate the body in 3 dimensions from your laptop with 3D humna anatomy apps!!

These apps are great for home-study as well as for creating keynote presentations. You can explore the body from all angles, isolate muscles, bones and internal organs, layer them and save screenshots of the angles you like most.  What  a  great addition to your collection of resources.

In the applied anatomy study group we’re currently exploring these  two programs: Visible Body’s Muscle Premium and 3D4Medical’s Essential Anatomy 3. The cool thing is that they both offer a free trial version! Links to those are here and here.

Muscle Premium vs. Essential Anatomy 3

When it comes to the payed versions of the muscular system,  I favor Essential Anatomy 3

Here’s why:

  • it looks good: the design is appealing, simple and nice on the eyes.
  • it’s easy to use, you don’t have to look at tutorials to figure it out!
  • it also includes other body systems: nervous, respiratory, digestive, cardiovascular, lymphatic and connective tissue 🙂 which is a definite plus, as don’t have to buy them separately.
  • my favorite feature is “isolate” where you click on a body part and then view it from all angles. Super cool!
  • It also lets you “dress” the skeleton, so to speak, by adding layers of muscles onto the skeleton.
  • It has a bookmarks menu to which you can add your own slides (though I still haven’t figured out how to delete the slides you’ve created without deleting all of them!)
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Essential Anatomy 3 screenshot of the “isolate” feature.

Cons: the main “con” (that makes me crazy!!) is that when you click on something you want to view it will automatically zoom in. I find this rather annoying, still, the pros outweigh the cons.

Muscle Premium is more detailed when it comes to the images but it’s not as easy to navigate or as user-friendly. It also doesn’t include the vascular, digestive, linfatic or respiratory systems which you have to purchase separately. It’s most interesting features include 3D movement animations which are cool and help you understand movements like inversion / eversion of the foot, if you get those confused.  It also has a detailed catalogue with views of the different regions of the body which I find useful, though it doesn’t offer a whole body view in any of these sections.

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Muscle Premium: Nice detail on the muscles and nervous sytem.

I hope you find this article  useful.  Please repost it and share your thoughts and comments on Facebook!!

Want more?

Applied Anatomy Study Group Update

014 FOTOS CLASSES JULY 2014

Every Thursday a cheerful gathering takes place in my apartment: it’s the lively group currently enrolled in the Applied Anatomy Study Group. I love the excitement, the smiles and chatter as we greet one another and get settled in. The atmosphere is friendly and fun; it is gathering of awesome women who share a passion for learning.

WHY ANATOMY?

A good understanding of basic anatomy and kinesiology comes in handy if you are a massage therapist or a yoga teacher. In fact, it is a necessary job-requirement. Anatomy, however, can be a dry and complicated subject depending on how it is presented. Often it is hard to draw a connection between the muscles depicted in the medical atlases and the actual people in your yoga classroom or on your massage table.

That’s why my mission is to provide information that is interesting, exiting and useful.

So far the course participants are pleased, and so am I. The size of the group (5 participants) makes it easy for everyone to have a voice, ask questions and share pertinent information without feeling shy or embarrassed.

Furthermore, spending time with likeminded people is always nourishing and inspiring. We quickly discovered we’ve got lots in common as far as interests and sensibilities goes. Go figure!

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Learning involves understanding not only by means of the rational mind but also through the felt-senses. That’s why we love the 8 week format. It allows the opportunity to layer information and assimilate it.

Wether you are leaning this material for the first time, or are coming to review and refresh your knowledge, having this time to yourself is both a luxury and a necessity.

COURSE HIGHLIGHTS

I’m so jazzed with all the cool stuff that is happening in our study group that I’ve decided to post weekly Course Highlights for the rest of the month. The “Highlights” will feature:

  • News about topics that we really enjoyed
  • Useful links to online resources
  • Exercises and asana suggestions

WANT MORE?

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