Fascia and Pilates
By: Kerrie Murphy | 16/02/2014
Come inside and explore the wide matrix of the fascial web and its relationship with Pilates and movement.
The New Year began for me in a dusty community hall in Marrickville, NSW, alongside other body workers from many disciplines. We were there to be inspired and to learn from a leading researcher in fascia from the University of Ulm in Germany, Dr Robert Schleip, who led us on a journey of discovery of the body’s fascial web and its’ wonderful matrix. His wife, Divo Müller, joined him and presented the practical application of these findings through movement.
With industrial fans blowing on the back of our necks in the mid-summer heat, we began madly scribbling down notes about the discoveries Robert and his colleagues had to share, hungry for all the latest findings about the largest sensory organ of the body, Fascia.
Fascia (or ‘fascial net’, ‘fascial body suit’, ‘connective tissue’) is situated beneath the skin. It consists of fibrous collagen and soft living tissue, including ligaments, tendons and joint capsules: All of which gives shape to the body and holds everything together. Healthy fascia is elastic and resilient. It helps improve movement performance and assists, to a large extent, with injury prevention.
The Pilates technique has always understood the important role well-trained fascia has when developing a well-balanced body. But up until now, in the world of sports training, there has been a great emphasis placed on muscle strength, cardiovascular fitness and neuromuscular, co-ordination training. Modern insight in the field of fascia research has dramatically developed and is now able to apply specific training to the body and to incorporate the principles presented more specifically to body work.
Not only is this information great to target and address specific areas of the body, this information is wonderful for the Pilates industry where scientific based evidence is now more attainable and supports what we do so well for the health of fascia and it relationship to the whole.
Our fascial body suit adapts to the changes of load that is placed on the body, it stretches and shifts in the direction that we move. Through movement of the fascia, it remodels the collagen network, which in turn moulds to the body and gives the body suit tone. Pilates, with its multi-directional patterns, assists in these qualities. So tone is not just about how good we look (as some may believe) but it is actually important for healthy fascia!
Pilates therefore improves the elasticity and flexibility of the spine, which helps correct imbalances in postures and “restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind and elevates the spirit”. (Joseph Pilates, Return to life Through Contrology, Presentation Dynamics Inc. 1998, page 9)
When we are young, our fascia throughout our body acts like a series of elastic springs, yet as we age, fascia appears flattened. This is caused though the limitations of movement in our everyday lives and work place. The elasticity loses its springiness and our ‘kangaroo/gazelle-like’ qualities of spring and bounce that we once had becomes reduced.
Good news! Through regular practice we can induce more youthful collagen architecture. Increasing more stretch whilst maintaining the control and rhythm in your movements, will improve the elastic qualities, thereby easing undue body fatigue and mental strain. “If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old; if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young” (Ibid, p.16).
In between Robert’s lectures on the scientific findings, Divo would have us up on our feet demonstrating the science in motions with great detail. To watch Divo move and ripple like a fish, and swing and bounce with ease was a delight. Then it was our turn to explore. It was great fun and you could really sense the fascia moving and rippling under the skin was a new experience for me and one to visualise in the Pilates classes for breath, flow and ease.
This exploration took us out on the streets jumping and skipping towards the playground where we reclaimed our youth, climbing and swinging in and around the equipment. Not quite with grace and vigour but I am sure with practice this too could spring back!!
Out with the old and in with the new!
Two-thirds of our fascia consists of water. Rolling and unrolling, bending around rollers, spiralling on the barrels and flexing and extending on the mat and apparatus: All of these actions are similar to squeezing out a sponge, releasing inflammation and waste products, only to be replaced by healthy water which is referred to as Liquid Crystal. Lovely to think this is being produced when we are moving, Mr Pilates would equate this to an “internal shower” (Ibid, p.12).
Fascia is the richest sensory organ of the body. It has a rich supply of sensory nerves which provides a sense of proprioception i.e. what we feel, how we feel and where we are in space. These are all qualities that are created though this amazing sensory organ. To attain good alignment and functional movement, Pilates provides the tools to enhance our proprioception. Other challenges to this sense can be found through the use of imagery, change of pace, changes in spacial orientation and the way the instructor assists and guides you though movement.
When there is an increase of proprioception there is a decrease in myofascial pain. This has been proven with non-specific lower back pain. The thoraco-lumbar fascia is drenched in nerve endings and often the problem. Stress and emotional tension cause changes in back pain more so through the fascia then in the muscles, so if the proprioception of the lumbar spine is improved, the pain receptors of this area are decreased. Those who suffer with lower back pain, experience a relief in discomfort after a good session of Pilates and this latest research supports this decrease in myofascial pain.
Patience and persistence is necessary. Unlike muscles, fascia changes more slowly. Robert compared it to filling an aquarium, one small droplet of water at a time. Slowly the fascia grows, but the results are much longer lasting. Often however, muscles increase faster and the fascia is overloaded causing strain and tension, losing its ability to stretch, bounce and move within the body.
Pilates is a journey, mentally and physically, but the rewards are great when we are patient and work towards our ultimate goal for a fit, healthy and happy life. The co-ordination of the mind and body is important “not only to accomplish the maximum result with minimum expenditure of the mental and physical energy, but also to live as long as possible in normal health and enjoy the benefits of a useful and happy life” (Joseph Pilates, Your Health, Presentation Dynamics Inc. 1998, p.41).
After 4 full days of work with Robert and Divo, I walked away with a greater appreciation of the function and purpose of the living sensory organ. This insight also shone light on how well Pilates trains the body harmoniously. With this gained knowledge I can only draw more greatness out of the body of work that we call ‘Pilates’ and share it with my clients and my fellow teachers.