4 Ways A Varied Yoga Practice Supports Healthy Fascia

4 Ways A Varied Yoga Practice Supports Healthy Fascia

Many of us, myself included, practice yoga asana with the aim of improving or maintaining  well-rounded good health. One of the key physical impacts of yoga practice is on our  connective tissue, or fascia.

Fascia plays several vital roles in supporting our health. It connects and coordinates our  various body structures into a coordinated whole, and allows for movement between them.  It transmits force from one part of the body to others, and creates both strength and  adaptability. It cushions and protects internal structures like blood vessels and nerves, and  contains key immune cells. It contains more nerves than any other bodily structure other  than the skin, providing our central nervous system with a rich tapestry of information  about our bodies and the environment around us.

Yoga is principally experiential, rather than theoretical, and regardless of what style we  practice or what level of experience we have, we almost always feel better after class.  However it’s nice to know that science backs up this experience: research suggests that a  varied asana practice offers several key benefits to our fascia, and thereby to our overall  wellbeing.

Whole-body movement: Improved mobility, increased proprioception, and decreased perceived pain.

There’s no doubt our bodies are made to move; simply getting out of the car after a long  road trip is enough to remind us of that. That’s why we hear sayings like “move it or lose it ”  and “motion is lotion “. And they’re not wrong: varied movement not only feels good, but is  also good for us.

The first reason is the thixotropic effect. Our fascia varies in viscosity depending how much  movement it is exposed to. When we are static for long periods, such as overnight or  during that long road trip, it becomes more solid; when we move, it becomes more gel-like.  This quality is called thixotropy. The implication for asana practice is that simply taking our  bodies into -changing the state of our fascia from  sol to gel -allows for freer and easier movement.

The second reason is the information it feeds our proprioceptive sensors. As we move, we  send a constant stream of information to nerves in the fascia of our tendons and joint  capsules. These nerves relay detailed information to our nervous system on where we are  positioned in space, a sense called proprioception. By providing those nerves with more  varied information we hone our proprioceptive sense, training ourselves to move with more  sureness and grace.

Interestingly, research (1) suggests that proprioceptive inputs and nociceptive (threat or pain)  inputs compete for the same nervous system pathways, implying that improved  proprioception could also reduce perceived pain.

The implications for yoga practice are clear: moving our bodies through different planes of  motion and in orientations to gravity can have wide-reaching benefits. So experiment with  different poses and variations, teachers and practice styles. Play with your pace and  intensity. Build your proprioceptive sense by practicing on different surfaces, moving your  gaze point or drishti or even closing your eyes.


Gentle long-held stretches:  Long-lasting hydration and an anti-inflammatory effect

Hydration is key to fascial health. Firstly, fluid allows for glide between tissue layers,  facilitating free movement between neighboring structures. Secondly, fluid makes our  fascia stronger by creating pressure from the inside out; to understand how that occurs,  visualize a plant drooping before watering and springing up after it.

Long-lasting but low intensity poses, like those we practice in Yin Yoga, offer a helpful  boost to fascial hydration. These poses act on our fascia that same way that squeezing a  sponge creates space for it to refill with fresh fluid. Subjecting our fascia to sustained
tension -whether by lengthening, compressing or twisting -briefly drives fluid out, and this  process prompts a hydration rebound that continues for hours after the tension has been  released and results in higher than pre-stretch fluid levels (2) .

As a bonus, recent research also suggests an intriguing link between long duration, low-  intensity stretching (10 minutes twice a day) and decreased inflammation (3).  So incorporate some long, gentle stretches in your asana practice. Rather than looking for
strong sensation, enjoy feeling the more subtle influence of tension -lengthening,  compressing and twisting your fascia in varied directions to generate a nourishing rebound  in hydration.

Eccentric loading:  Enhanced collagen synthesis

Fluid is the largest component of our fascia, and a key source of its strength; collagen is  another. Collagen fibers are the scaffolding of our soft tissues and are laid down, or  synthesized, to repair tissue after damage, or in response to load. Areas of our body that  are exposed to higher load (such as body weight, gravity or impact) experience higher  collagen synthesis, and moreover the collagen fibres are laid down in the direction of the  load.

Yoga isn’t all about moving and stretching; there can be a significant strength aspect as  well. The specific kind of strength work that seems to best stimulate collagen production is  eccentric strength work – where we activate a muscle in its lengthened position (4). This kind  of muscle engagement stimulates orderly collagen production, making the fascia in that  area stronger or faster to repair.

In yoga practice, these opportunities abound. You’ve felt eccentric muscle engagement in  the triceps on the backs of your arms as you lower from plank to chaturanga, in the quads  on the fronts of your thighs as you bend your knees from tadasana into chair or fierce  pose, in the hamstrings on the backs of your thighs as you hinge from tadasana into  uttanasana, or in the top side of your body in extended side angle or triangle pose.

Seek out these poses and variations in your practice. Look for opportunities to engage  your tissues as they lengthen, then maximize the benefits by lingering there for an extra  breath or two. That challenge will encourage the fascia to adapt, boosting collagen  production in the direction of load and making your fascia stronger and more resilient.

Self Myofascial Release:  Overall fascia health, including rehydration and glide between tissue layers

Our muscles are connected, surrounded, and interpenetrated with a network of  fascia -hence the term myofascia. Myofascial release is any technique that stretches,  squeezes, or sheers our myofascia; self-myofascial release often involves using body
weight on a foam roller, tennis ball, yoga block or other tool to create that therapeutic  compression.

Now that you know that fascia benefits from twisting and compression as much as it does  from stretching, it’s easy to understand how self-myofascial release can be a helpful  adjunct to more traditional asana practices. Chief benefits are improved hydration and  collagen synthesis, and maintenance of healthy movement between muscle layers. It can  also offer novel stimulus to the nervous system, helping us recognize and release patterns  of tension as well as improving proprioception.

So, while traditional yoga poses offer far-reaching benefits to our fascia, we can also  benefit from branching out. Incorporating targeted pressure from a foam roller, massage  balls or a soft yoga block could be exactly the boost our fascia needs to keep us healthy  and feeling good.

Our physical health is not the only reason to commit to regular yoga practice, but for many  of us it is a significant factor. Humans have felt the benefits of a physical practice for  generations, and science is now helping us understand why. The key takeaway from
current research is that we reap the most benefits from a varied and well-rounded yoga  practices.

Other References:

1 Effects on c-Fos expression in the PAG and thalamus by selective input via tetrodotoxin-resistant afferent  fibers from muscle and skin. Soghra Gholami,  Daniela Lambertz,  Ulrich Hoheisel,  Siegfried Mense. Journal  of Neuroscience Research (2006). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16962193/

2 Strain Hardening of Fascia: Static stretching of dense fibrous connective tissues can induce a temporary  stiffness increase accompanied by enhanced matrix hydration. Robert Schleip PhD MA, Lutz Duerselen  PhD, Andry Vleeming PhD, Ian L. Naylor PhD, Frank Lehmann-Horn MD PhD, Adjo Zorn PhD, Heike Jaeger  PhD, Werner Klingler MD. Journal of Bodywork Therapy Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies (2012).  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22196433/

3 Stretching of the back improves gait, mechanical sensitivity and connective tissue inflammation in a rodent  model. Sarah M Corey,  Margaret A Vizzard,  Nicole A Bouffard,  Gary J Badger,  Helene M Langevin. Plos  ONE (2012). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22238664/

4 Effect of eccentric training on the plantar flexor muscle-tendon tissue properties. Nele Nathalie  Mahieu,  Peter McNair,  Ann Cools,  Caroline D’Haen,  Katrien Vandermeulen,  Erik Witvrouw. Medicine &  Science in Sports & Exercise (2008). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18091014/.

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