I always knew that ‘use it or lose it’ wasn’t just a sticker on the bumper of the car in front. I’d heard the phrase, ‘motion is lotion’, and taken this too at face value. So I wasn’t surprised to learn about the importance of connective tissue, and fascia, as I sat on the floor of my yoga studio with 21 other students for a 50-hour Yin Yoga training that ended last week.
But until last week, I hadn’t understood the importance of the role of fascia in the body. I certainly had no idea what it looked like, magnified 25 times. I didn’t know that each of us is held together by ‘trains’ of connective tissue and fascia, a lattice-like tubular web covering every organ, bone and muscle. And that this web is so essential to the flexibility and integrity, the uprightness, of the body, that fascia has the status of an organ.
Until just over a week ago, I thought it was muscles and bones that held the body together, and that needed regular exercise. I knew that it was good to get the heart, the body’s biggest muscle, pumping. But I overlooked lymph, which travels round the body more slowly than blood, and via connective tissue and fascia, not muscle. No-one explained to me, in a way that sank in, that ‘motion is lotion’ describes what happens when fascia is stretched, squashed and hydrated so as to allow muscles, bones and organs to move freely, without any sticky or knotty bits. And that it’s our connective tissues and fascia – as opposed to muscles – that maintain flexibility and posture with age.
Nor did I know that if fascia is to retain its lattice-like pattern – and not fall into the tangles that follow injury or lengthy sitting – the spine and joints need to be loaded, held still for a period, and then rested. And that part of the value of Yin Yoga – as with resistance and weight-bearing exercise – comes from pulling the joints apart to stimulate the synovial fluid that oils them. Before last week, I thought that body tone was the reward for regular visits to the gym, rather than stretching, compressing and resting fascia on a daily basis. Until a week ago, I just thought it was important to exercise regularly.
Today I know something that could increase the quality of everyone’s life. Every adult on the planet, who doesn’t want their fascia to knot up and result in stiffness, needs to hold a forward bend, a backward bend and a side bend for 2 to 5 minutes each day. And this is the essence of what I learnt in Yin Yoga training.
However, maintaining flexibility is a bit more complicated, and interesting, than this. Under the knife of US medical researcher, Gil Hadley, fascia, drained of the water and electricity that keeps it alive, lies inert on the table (watch his Fuzz Speech for yourself, it’s not gory). In a dead body, fascia loses its silvery, transparent, tubular, lattice pattern. Under fluorescent light, and against Hadley’s bright blue plastic gloves, fascia lies in knots of yellowy lard beneath the surface of the skin and around each bone and organ. Hadley calls this yellowy stuff fuzz and, as he points out, you don’t have to be dead to grow it. Fuzz starts building up the moment you fall asleep, or sit for hours at a computer – hence the need to stretch like a cat on getting up in the morning, or on leaving your desk, to melt all that fuzz away.
I thought Yin training would be a softer version of the Vinyasa Yoga training I did last year. I expected it to be touchy-feely and alternative. A bit woo woo. Within the first half hour, I realised how wrong I was. Mel McLaughlin, from The Yin Space, was queenly and astute in her presentation. Each of her ten lectures was steeped in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The Yin practices that we did, two hours in the morning and one late afternoon, were carefully thought out and composed. Mel seemed keen to share everything with us – her knowledge, her experience, her life hacks and her playlists. It was as if she wanted to pass on, in just 5 days, what took her 20 years to learn. From 8am until 5.30pm, for five days straight, she was there for us.
I am someone who, until starting this training, didn’t know where her liver was. I drank Dandelion coffee, knowing that it was good for my liver. I knew from biology at school that the liver breaks down fats in the body, helped by bile from the gall bladder. But that was about it. And I wasn’t much wiser on the other organs – kidneys, heart, intestine, spleen, gall bladder and urinary tract.
Until a week ago, I’d absorbed two big conceptual frameworks in my life – the Freudian therapeutic model and Indian Yoga philosophy. Freud’s id, ego and superego are still part of my thinking, but they no longer shape it. (It’s the inner critic that stalks my mind, these days, not the superego.) When it comes to Indian Yoga philosophy, I’m unlikely ever to read The Bhagavad Gita with the absorption that I once read Freud’s Standard Edition. I know something of the yamas and niyamas and, on a good day, their Sanskrit names. I know where the chakras and bandhas are in the body, and roughly the role they play. However, I was doing yoga long before I did yoga teacher training, last year, and still haven’t absorbed everything I learned. When I stand in front of a class, I don’t talk about chakras and nadis. I tell students to pull their naval in and up, not to turn on their Uddyana bandha.
Included in the Yin training, was a bolster and a handbook, both of which I value. But it was the passing comments Mel made, which didn’t make it into the handbook, that stayed with me. In no order, here they are:
- when new recruits join Cirque du Soleil, they’re taught how to fall before they’re taught how to balance; and in this way they avoid injury
- a lot of people come to Yin Yoga for pain management, to manage the physical discomfort that goes with being human
- all our organs are connected and they work in pairs
- retaining flexibility and tone – as opposed to fitness – requires 10 minutes of daily stretches and holds: forwards, backwards and sideways
- fascia takes on the shape of the muscles, bone, cartilage or organ that it surrounds, and according to the loading that’s put on it
- what you do in the last 5 minutes, before going off to sleep, is what your nervous system steeps in for the next x hours (Wayne Dwyer)
- in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the seat of consciousness is held in the heart, not the brain
- if you feel pain on the outside or inside of your knee, be careful; if you feel pain in the bottom middle of your knee, stop whatever you’re doing
- there’s no such thing as a normal skeleton; our bones fit together differently, especially the femur bone in the hip socket; also, no two pelvises are exactly the same
- maintenance – keeping what you’ve got – is a worthy aim
- there is no aesthetics in Yin Yoga; it’s about making shapes with your body rather than poses; the only real question is, ‘Is it safe and effective?’
- when you go into a Yin shape, your tightest spot (your personal primary) will show up first
- all pain in Traditional Chinese Medicine is stagnant chi (stuck life force)
- mouth breathing is a thief of chi; it lowers immunity and increases inflammation (you can always tape your mouth shut when you sleep -)
- it’s easier to access the fascia trains in the back of your body than in the front
- there are only 30 Yin shapes
- the body needs tension placed on it, especially on the joints, to form and retain a healthy lattice pattern in the fascia; when no load is placed on the body, fascia does whatever it wants, ie it goes haywire
- bouncing and jumping is good for fascia because it deforms collagen, stimulates the production of hyaluronic acid (the buzz ingredient in anti-aging products) which in turn produces more collagen and ‘organises’ fascia networks
- in Yin Yoga, you are your own best teacher; no-one else can tell you what your medicine is or how long you should take it (ie which shapes you should do and for how long); Yin is something that you have to feel for yourself
Mel McLaughlin, The Yin Space
fascia magnified 25x
The Fuzz Speech, Gil Hadley