What if our whole understanding of the body was off? What if we put a lot of attention on all of our separate parts (in particular the bones, joints, muscles and organs) but we were missing the bigger picture?
Until recently, anatomists studying the human body saw the web of interconnected fibrous tissue that surrounds and interweaves the body literally as a throw away. When dissecting a cadaver, the scientist would slice the connective tissue and toss it away so they could get to the “good stuff.”
Our understanding of connective tissue is evolving to reveal that it is far more important, sensitive and powerful than early researchers believed. And that understanding is changing the way we train, condition and heal the body.
An orange is the classic illustration of connective tissue in the body. Peel and orange and you’ll see each segments contained in a membrane. Then within each segment are pods of juice sealed in their own membrane packets. Our bodies are like that, too. Sheets of elastic fascia surround muscles, organs, joints, nervous system…everything. It is what holds us together and what allows our movement and bodies to stay graceful, strong, and aware.
The system of connective tissue in the human body is complex and interwoven. Here are six ways to begin to bring this supportive system into awareness as we make choices both in the studio and out.
1. Full Range
Connective tissue reinforces how you do what you do. If you have an injury, your connective tissue will surround the affected area and support it. If you have parts of your body which are under- or misused, the connective tissue will contract around it. As Paul Grilley writes,
If you don’t use your full range of joint flexibility, the connective tissue will slowly shorten to the minimum length needed to accommodate your activities. If you try to flex your knees or arch your back after years of underuse, you’ll discover that your joints have been “shrink-wrapped” by shortened connective tissue. (Why Try Yin Yoga? In Yoga Journal, Aug 28, 2007)
Joints function best when they move in all ranges of motion including the full range. Every day open and close your thirteen major joints (link) fully to give your connective tissue a stretch.
2. Systemic Movement
By its very nature, connective tissue connects! It runs from the soles of your feet to your eyebrows so moving your body as a whole (and particularly in diagonal lines) promotes health in the fascia system. Evan Osar explains that,
while the muscles are the drivers, fascia appropriately directs these forces throughout the body. For example, through the myofascial chains, forces generated through the lower extremity can be transferred through the trunk and delivered into powerful movements of the upper extremity. (The Functional Role of Fascia in Posture and Movement: Part I, 20 May 2014)
When doing movements as everyday as walking or as specific as delivering an outward punch, notice the chain of connected energy that moves through the whole system.
There are ten times more sensory receptors in fascial tissue as there are in muscle which means that your connective tissue is essential to your proprioception — your ability to sense where you are in space. Sometimes called the 6th or hidden sense, proprioception is what allows to scratch an itch in the middle of your back and walk up stairs without looking at them. Proprioception keeps your body balanced and your movement fluid. Given the sensory nature of fascia, when your muscles feel sore, it’s likely that what you are actually feeling is the connective tissue around the muscles.
Play with balance and vision (think: stand on one foot with eyes closed) to strengthen the proprioceptive system is a way of tuning in to the connective tissue.
4. Elegant & Graceful
Since it is interwoven throughout the body and directs energy where it’s needed (see Systemic above), the fascia is instrumental in creating graceful, fluid movement. Again, Evan Osar explains that
When functioning optimally, the myofascial system works to virtually suspend the body in the upright position while maintaining “tension and integrity” within the system. More specifically, tensegrity enables the maintenance of erect posture and smooth, coordinated movement. Maintaining erect posture and smooth, coordinated movement under a relative minimal energy expenditure and without compensation is the hallmark of an efficient strategy. (The Functional Role of Fascia in Posture and Movement: Part I, 20 May 2014)
When moving, think about efficiency and elegance. See how you can walk across the room or deliver a side kick efficiently and elegantly. It doesn’t matter what it actually looks like, just notice how that intention changes the feeling and quality of the movement.
Imagine your connective tissue is like elastic bands. Now imagine leaving an elastic band out in the sun for a while. How soft and flexy will it be? Not so much. Hydration is one of the key components to healthy connective tissue. Be sure you’re drinking enough water (caffeine, alcohol and sugary stuff completely don’t count) throughout the day. I aim for around 50-75% of my body weight in ounces daily (so if you weigh 150, you’d be aiming for between 75 and 113 ounces)!
6. Ideal Practices
Two of the best ways to soften and open your connective tissue are Yin Yoga and Myofascial Release. Check out classes and workshops near you (I also like this online Yin class). If you’re in Charlottesville, you can take Mia Hamza’s Myofascial Release workshop on Sun, Jun 19, 1230-330pm at EDGE Studio.
Focusing on connective tissue in all its amazing complexity has the potential to transform the way we move, train, condition and heal the body. But what if we take an even larger perspective and think about the connective tissue of our lives and of the world?
Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave you hanging on this. This week’s Art in Action post (coming Tuesday!) will focus on how to keep the connective tissue in your life strong and healthy.