The idea of using pressure and friction on the human body for health and relaxation is not new. Massage was prevalant in the time of the Roman empire: if you went to the baths it would be common to have a body rub in addition to the hot and cold tubs. The Greeks as well had it, and before them the Egyptians and the Chinese, and the Indians. There are even some European cave paintings that suggest massage may date back thousands of years earlier. So the practices and the understanding of their benefits predate a lot of our modern medical science. But as that science developed it gave both new insight and new techniques to various forms of body work, as well as to exercise science and sports science. The study of anatomy and detailed anatomical drawings grouing out of the practice of disection helped us understand what is going on with the musculature underneath the skin, and investigation of processes like blood flow and lymphatic flow and drainage, and immune function have helped paint a picture of the integrated nature of the various systems of the body. The invention of the microscope and the study of biochemestry helped us see the underlying cellular and chemical processes of our bodies.
The first society of trained masseuses in Great Britain was founded in 1894. It is interesting that the time that massage moved toward being seen as a skilled profession in the mid 1800s to the early 100s coincided with other discoveries... like the importance of hand washing to avoid spreading germs. Advances in hygene were as important as anatomical knowledge, and the microscopic study of the chemical processes of the body.
Massage is a representative of a style of therapy sometimes called hands on bodywork. There are many styles of massage: Swedish, Thai, and Shiatsu are some that are popular. Reflexology is a bodywork that attempts to influence systems of the body through movements and pressure to the hands and feet. Physical therapy and Occupational therapy also use hands on techniques. Rolfing is another form, and one that was one of the first bodywork therapies to work toward structural integration of the fascia. Ida Rolf, who was born at the end of the 19th centure, and lived until 1979 was trained in biological chemistry (as well as physics and math) which clearly relates to her interest in underlying structure and its interconnections.
The first time I had a massage therapist mention special techniques to open the fascia was more than 10 years ago. This was a very experienced practitioner who spent most of her time training other massage therapists. The technique she used on my back was very different than what I was used to, and the effects surprising for something that didn't have that strong deep feel of most of the massage I had done. Since that time I have paid attention to everything I have seen on fascial research and have continued to think about it in my yoga practice.
The role of connective tissue, and in particular fascia hasn't been studied as much as the shape, structure, and function of other systems. The story you hear in lecture after lecture is how when one used to do anatomical disection the fascia was stripped off and slopped into buckets. In fitness in particular even when I was studying almost 20 years ago the musculoskeletal and cardiorespiratory systems got most of the attention. But lately fascia has been getting quite a lot of interest. Recent research into the major role connective tissue, and fascia in particular has yielded a new theoretical understanding of the important role it plays in human function, as well as a number of practical techniques for health and relaxation. What is being learned has important links to how one understands physical function, physical exercise, and techniques of rehabilitation and relaxation.
Connective Tissue 101
Please feel free to skip the next 3 paragraphs if they make your eyes cross, or if you already know it. Connective tissue is the part of our body that functions to support and bind together various structures of the body into a whole. There are a number of kinds of connective tissues (just as there are different kinds of muscles: bicep, quadricep, heart....) for example: your outer ear, intervertebral discs, ligaments, tendons, and the fascia. If you were to peel away the top layer and the deep layer of the skin you would find a superficial and deep layer of fascia. If you were to remove everything from within the fascia you would find something that looks a little like a spider web that forms a body shaped glove from your head to your feet. After a lifetime it would be worn out, torn, or stiff in certain places, but it would still be a whole body shape.
Connective tussue includes fibers of various sorts (collagen, elastic and reticular fibers), and cells (some secrete fibers, some have an immune function, cleaning up and breaking down stuff, and of course fat cells). Cappilaries run through the tissue, some are more vascularized than others. And there are fibers: collagen, and elastic and reicular fibers. It is the amount and arrangement of those fibers that a lot of people peaked a lot of interst. Some types of fibers are naturally loosely woven, or densely woven which can have a regular or irregular shape. There are also a ton of sensory nerve endings: 10 times as many as in the muscles. And, oh yes, a lot of water.
What gets really interesting is not just how it is made, but how it works, why it works that way, and how it affects everything else. The fascial web transmits force. It holds together and balances the contractions of the muscle fibers in relationship to gravity. The sensory nerve endings allows it to transmit complex messages from the autonomic nervous system to parts of the body. The fibers realign in response to stress and movement. So when you engage mulha bandha from that center it is not just the intraabdominal pressure of the transversus abdominus muscle that is helping to stabalize the body.... you are causing a cascade outward of fibers turning and realigning, life bits of grass in a bowl of water when you drop in a stone. Actually even before you engage the movement the fibers in the fascia start to orient toward the direction of movement. The movement of the fascia which interdigitates the muscle fiber bundles allows those muscle fibers to slide over one another. There even seems to be a connection between emotional tension and the state of the fascial web. Release one and there can be release in the other.
So strong, healthy, and stretchy fascia is important to movement, to balance, and to avoiding pain.
Keeping it healthy is partly a question of movement. This is what yoga teachers and physical therapists, and personal trainers, and all those types of people have been saying ad nauseum for decades. Range of motion is important. Being sedentary is not good for long periods of time. Fascia is adaptable. It can heal and it can hypertrophy.
The other really important thing has to do with hydration. As we become inactive, and as we age the fascia dehydrates. Just as a sugar syrup you are boiling becomes thicker and harder to stir as water boils off the fibers in the fascia get more flattened and harder to move as they get dehydrated. This does not simply mean that you should drink a lot of water (though that is good as well). Think about what happens if you have a drought and then a rainstorm... a lot of water just rolls off the surface. It means that you need to move that water around so that it has the fibroblasts can take in water. They produce proteins that bring in water, and if they are dehydrated they do it less well.
Yoga, even before having the science, tended to employ processes that create healthy connective tissues and a healthy fascial web. A yoga class will move the whole body (not typically one joint in isolation) within a variety of three dimensional directions. Spinal twists in particular are wonderful for moving fluid through the body: hydrating the intervertebral discs, as well as squeezing and rinsing out internal organs. In a typical yoga posture we are less interested in isolating a specific muscle to do an isolated action, than to stretch or open into a particular direction. In my teaching I talk about line of stretch and line of energy. We balance our directions of stretch. One fascial technique that I read about recently is the use of stretching in the opposite direction of the tension and then into the tension: something I've been doing in class for a long time. (My students will think of tail on the dog into pigeon). It is wonderful to see the science that explains the benefits that I've seen in a lifetime of practice.
Yoga is not a hands on body work modality. The pressing, stretching and squeezing comes from within. There is, however, a strong hands on tradition in yoga. These days yoga teachers have to make some accomadations to how such touch is used. It can be enormously helpful in more ways than I can list here, and I am always honored if my students trust me to help them find a slight shift in movement … to feel their way kinesthetically into it, rather than to understand it cognitively. On the other hand, I always understand that there may be reasons why someone may not be ready for, or may not best respond to learning and connecting in that way. But there is a reason why there are a fair number of massage therapists who do or teach yoga, and a fair number of yoga teachers who are massage therapists, or at least take a lot of massage. If I could budget the time and money I have often thought I would love to study massage therapy. They seem like disciplines that each enhance the other.
Just as we know that when a trained masseuse presses their fingers into a particular part of the body and rolls in a particular direction we feel release, we know that a non human object pushed in that way can have a similar result. People have been using tennis balls, and other already existant devices to manipulate the myofascial web, but these days there are a range of tools that have been developed to do what is sometimes called hands off body work.
The biggest name in hands off body work is Susan Hitzmann, the founder of the MELT method. I have had 2 workshops with her and would say she is a gifted teacher. Her techniques involve several types of pressure and movement using a fairly soft foam roller, and fairly small balls. She uses light compression, gliding, and shearing as a way to rebalance and rehydrate the fascia. Rather than describing her method at length if you are interested you can take a workshop with her, or get her DVD. But there are a lot of people doing these techniques, and a lot of tools available. Susan's recommendations for rollers were to use heavy compression after a major workout or for injury rehab, and light compression for chronic tension or pain, and to keep the sessions rather short. I have a set of gel balls I use for the feet which come from Gaiam. You can source a range of equipment from companies like OPTP. I purchased my current foam roller from them, and you can get a nice book of color photos showing various techniqes for breaking up tension in the muscle. I know a trainer who swears by a myofascial device shaped rather like a padded dumbell or oversized peanut. The only thing I would suggest is to discuss this with both your trainer and your medical advisor. There may be reasons why they would not wish you to add this activity, and there may be particular guidance they would wish to give you related to your own health and fitness level.
If you wish to know about my current class schedule or beginner mindfulness workshop, or would like to schedule a private session, you may check my facebook page, or messge me.