Fascia and The Living Body
How can we understand our own body when we have learned since childhood that it is not alive?
A living body and a dead body are not the same thing… but we pretend they are when we study anatomy.
Our entire understanding of the body is based on studies of dead bodies, dissected bodies, and bodies treated as objects.
But is your body really something you have – isn’t your body something you are? Isn’t the body the very place where you exist?
“Fascia and the Living Body” is a document about the scientific understanding of the body as a living whole.
What does it mean to view the body from a perspective of wholeness rather than from a perspective of parts?
What happens when we no longer draw a boundary between the inner and the outer, between the subjective and the objective, or between thoughts, emotions, and physical influence?
What happens when anatomical and physiological studies, conducted according to the scientific method, challenge our entire understanding of what knowledge is and what we can truly say about fundamental questions like what is life and how does life work?
1. Basic Assumptions
Parts and Whole
Modern Western understanding of the body is based on knowledge of the body’s different parts: clearly defined organs (heart, brain, lungs, muscles, etc), clearly defined cells (muscle cells, nerve cells, stem cells, etc), clearly defined molecules (proteins, DNA, lipids, etc) and clearly defined biochemical processes (RNA synthesis, the citric acid cycle, etc).
This means that one strives to understand the body as a whole from detailed knowledge about its identifiable parts. In other words, one divides everything in order to then put what has been divided together again, in terms of the different functions of the parts (organs, cells), and in terms of the molecular processes one thinks fulfill those functions. The basic assumption, then, is that the body is made up of all those parts at different scales, and of the interactions between them.
The therapeutic results of this research are primarily different chemical substances, drugs, which, in one way or another, intervene in the molecular processes that have been identified. The paradigm for the treatment of many different medical conditions, which are assigned to different departments depending on which organ one focuses upon, becomes to a great extent pharmacological.
New research on fascia shows that this sole focus on the understanding of parts is insufficient for understanding the role of the fascia in the body regarded as a living whole. Even if fascia research is also often based on research at a cellular and molecular level, one has realized more and more that knowledge about this level, as such, is not enough in order to explain what the fascia does. Not least important here is that the fascia is integrated in and between the different organs of the body, without the customary divisions between body parts that is taken for granted in the paradigm that focuses on parts.
This means that the understanding of the role of the fascia in the body demands a focus on the whole as such. For that reason fascia research, and new methods of treatment in harmony with this, necessitates a paradigm shift when it comes to understanding the body.
This in turn means that other scientific disciplines become relevant and necessary for understanding the whole. For example, studies on electromagnetism, on flows and pressure, in other words, basic physics rather than biochemistry. Research based in an understanding of ecological processes (the relationship between organism and environment) also becomes more relevant medically than it is if research is based on the understanding of parts.
Inner and outer
Another basic assumption behind modern medical research is that one separates body and mind, outer and inner world. One studies the body’s different parts as if they belong only to the outer world. This leads to an object oriented view which forms the basis also of how one understands the mind: different molecules (for example, serotonin and oxytocin), biochemical reactions and nerve impulses are thought to explain different psychological, inner, conditions. Therapeutically this means that psychological suffering also becomes a matter of understanding parts in an outer world. Even our inner lives become, paradoxcally, parts of the outer world, as far as this kind of research is concerned.
These two basic assumptions (that everything consists of parts, and that body and mind are separate) don’t just make a physical understanding of the body as a whole difficult or impossible. They also make an understanding of the interconnection between the physical body (as something “outer”) and mind (as something “inner”) difficult or impossible.
In this respect as well, the growing new understanding of the role of the fascia in the body becomes important. It’s clearly the case that the varying states of the fascia, insufficient flow, for example, have a connection not only with physical injuries or tensions, but also with different emotional reactions and states. Strong emotions affect pressure and flow in the fascia just as much as blows and bumps. Because of this it becomes impossible to uphold a distinct boundary between “inner” and “outer”, if one wants to understand the role of the fascia in the living body.
Because the fascia is endlessly spread throughout the whole body, and because, consequently, its functions aren’t restricted to one part more than another, and because living fascia doesn’t make any difference between “inner” and “outer”, the facia is in practice the “wholeness organ” of the body. Hence it’s no coincidence that fascia research and fascia treatment contribte to fundamentally changing the Western perspective on the body and the human being.
2. Different Bases for Knowledge and Understanding
Established scientific research is based on empirical studies, experiments, clinical studies, often so called double blind tests and statistical analysis, in relation to some theory. It is also based on a strictly regulated procedure of publication with so called peer review. The purpose of the latter is that it shall be possible to evaluate the studies in a precise way, and if needed to replicate them in the same form. Each stage in this process must be carefully documented in writing and in the end it’s the final, published documentation (scientific papers) that becomes the criterion for what is scientific. The as a rule great significance of statistical methods means there’s a focus on empirically accessible matters which easily precludes a focus on individuals as such. Science is first and foremost interested in what is universally the case, not in what is specific and unique.
This science has led to an advanced understanding of parts, occurrences in the outer world, functions and correlations, an understanding which deliberately doesn’t take ethical or cultural values into account, how things feel, or their philosophical meaning.
As a consequence scientific publications lack subjective content, which strengthens the separation of inner and outer, and hence makes an understanding of the living body as a whole impossible.
The anatomical and physiological fascia studies are based on the same procedures. And the result is an increased understanding of parts, outer occurrences, functions, and correlations. Many important answers to certain questions are arrived at in this way.
What makes understanding the fascia special, is that the fascia so clearly “doesn’t care” about the customary division of the body into different parts. This has forced fascia research to become aware of the whole more than of the parts as such, which can be difficult if not impossible within the reigning research paradigm. The consequences of the separation into inner and outer are even worse. The fascia system can be influenced in many different ways, and some important influences (for example emotional traumas or strong habits) are clearly “inner”, while simultaneously having immediate “outer” effects (on the physical structure and function of the fascia). This fact is not sufficiently accessible and of use to objective scientific methods, not least because individual variations and constant change is so relevant to how living fascia behaves.
The sum of all kinds of influences on the fascia, together with the sum of all individual variations, in themselves changing, demands an understanding of the whole based on principles and explanations grounded in a wholistic perspective. This kind of understanding and explanation cannot be arrived at by means of “putting together” one’s understanding of the parts; it demands a change of perspective. This does not contradict the importance of the specialized understanding; it means that the specialized understanding is insufficient.
Knowledge of the interaction between inner and outer, of the wholeness which orders the parts and of how the whole can be influenced in an orderly and knowledgeable manner, largely arises in actual therapy situations, regardless of whether it’s a visit to a doctor, conversational therapy, or manual treatment. An essential part of knowledge thus “lives” primarily in the therapist in the form of experientially based abilities of discernment and judgment, simultaneously related to the individual, centered on the whole, in different situations.
In this living knowledge there are also methodical aspects, but it isn’t as easy to reproduce and test via peer reviewed publications. It isn’t less valid as knowledge, especially not therapeutically, but it cannot be captured as clearly in text. This form of experience based knowledge is conveyed and gets its reproducible validity by means of direct personal contacts and exchanges between practitioners. It can be likened to an advanced and qualitative craftsmanship.
What is special about the kind of knowledge development and understanding that the fascia system demands, is that it needs to find ways for these two modes of knowledge to harmonize in different ways, without blurring their unique characteristics. The understanding of the whole which becomes necessary in relation to fascia, can never be reduced to only that which is accessible to conventional scientific methodology. The living human being must be a deliberately and explicitly present in one’s actual understanding. Consequently this desirable understanding becomes more personally demanding (both in theory and in practice, interactively) than a solely scientific or a solely experience based understanding.
Understanding, also scientifically, the principles governing the living body requires theoretical and pragmatic answers to the following central questions (among others):
- What is life?
- What is fascia?
- How does the body communicate?
- What regulates the flow and structure of the body?
3. The living body
What is Life?
All that lives has a flow. Each living cell or organism has a flow of water, energies, particles, molecules, light, sound, vibrations, etc.
All life requires water since water is the vehicle of life’s flow.
Each living cell has a metabolism which requires a flow into the cell, a flow within the cell and a flow out of the cell. This applies to unicellular as well as multicellular organisms, animals, plants, fungi, protists or bacteria. All of them have a flow of nutrients into and waste out of their cells, but they also require a flow outside the cell.
Even a unicellular organism requires a flow of water around it, otherwise the transport into and out of the cell won’t work.
If the organism consists of many cells the cells must be organized, be in contact and able to communicate, and then utilize the flow which exists in the structure outside the cells, the extracellular matrix.
Each cell must know what the other cells do and also what happens in the environment outside. They have a mutual interest in cooperating and keeping the whole organism alive with the least possible expenditure of energy. This requires a flow of signals between cells and also within cells. The signals can be mechanical (movement), chemical (molecules) or electromagnetic (weak electricity, light).
What is Fascia?
Fascia is the fabric of life, the structure and flow between all cells (the extracellular matrix) and that which sustains the processes upholding connection, communication and interaction between all parts of the body. It constitutes the basic structural architecture of the human body.
Fascia consists of a solid part, a structure of fiber proteins, and a fluid part, a fluid flow of water, hyaluronic acid and other macromolecules.
There are also cells which produce the components that create and maintain the fascia, for example fibroblasts that produce fiber proteins, and fasciacytes that produce hyaluronic acid. But all cells in the body including immune cells, nerve cells, adipocytes, etc are in the fascia.
The fiber proteins constitute the structure in all tissues. The whole network is connected to the cell’s membrane and in contact with all cellular nuclei via the cytoskeleton, and the flow of the fascia streams around and within all cells.
Fascia only exists in the animal kingdom and is the tissue which keeps order and communicates with all other cells. It is the only tissue that is in contact with every cell in the body.
How Does the Body Communicate?
Our body can be described as a collection of cells with different tasks. They are specialized to perform different kinds of work. In order for the cells to be able to do their jobs, transport of substances to and from the cells is required, for example nutrients and oxygen in and waste out.
The cells must also be able to communicate with one another, so that each cell knows what the others are doing. They do this in several ways, often in combination, via chemical signals (neurotransmitters), mechanically (movement and pressure), biophotons (light) and via weak electric signals.
In order for all of this to work something is also needed in the space between all cells, something which also supplíes a way of communication into the cells, via the cytoskeleton, to the nucleus which regulates the cell – in other words, the fascia. The fascia sees to it that the cells don’t tumble around like balls in a ball pit.
Flow Creates Structure and Structure Affects Flow
”The internal milieu of our extracellular matrix is a wholeness, a oneness.”
“No longer can we perceive fascia as “plastic wrap” surrounding all our muscles and organs. Every one of our 35-75 trillion cells is embedded within this living, vibrating, multidimensional, biotensegral, fascial web. No longer can we see fascia as the container of all our separate parts – our organs, nerves, blood vessels, cells.”
”No empty spaces, no layers, just a continuous dynamic web of soft matter matrix and cells from the top of our heads to the bottom of our feet.”
”Then catastrophe strikes: a wound appears. The oneness of the dynamic web is forever altered, and the miraculous body-mind automatically shifts into self-healing mode, plugging the hole and covering the gap with what we learned of as children to be a scab.
The marvelous, pulsing, dynamic symmetry of the biotensegrity whole is interrupted by a patch. A living patch, but a permanent break in the symmetry.”
– Dr. Carol M. Davis, Professor Emerita of Physical Therapy, University of Miami
The Life We Lead Directly Affects Our Flow and Our Structure
We Become What We Do:
- How we move and use our bodies tells the body what needs to be strengthened or rebuilt, in order to adapt us to our recurring patterns of movement.
- For example, you get a stronger back if you lift things a lot or stronger arms if you do push ups, and in the same way your whole posture is affected if you sit often at a desk.
We Become What We Eat:
- Cells are created and die all the time and their life cycle is everything from days to years, but in seven years the whole body has been rebuilt.
- What you eat becomes the building blocks out of which the body is constructed, so your body consists of what you have eaten.
We Become What We Think and Feel:
- Thoughts and feelings like worry, relaxation and stress initiate different processes in the body which directly affects the body’s flow and structure.
- Stress, for example, leads to tensions and because of this, flow is inhibited. High cortisol levels for a long time breaks down fiber proteins, the structure and also creates high blood sugar values that damage the fascia in the long term.
We Become the Environment We Live In
- Air quality, atmosphere (vibes), weather, pollutants, and artificial physical structures like cities directly affect the body’s structure and flow.
- For example, there’s a big difference between a noisy city environment with exhausts, where unwanted particles can become stored in the fascia, and a forest with clean fresh air.
Pressure Is Everything that Affects the Body.
The simplest way to explain the function of the body is load and unload of pressure.
Pressure is created by everything we subject our body to. The body is continually subjected to pressure, and this is necessary for it to function optimally. But the pressure should be well balanced, the body must keep its equilibrium, which means that it manages to keep a stable inner balance, in spite of external influences from the environment. This applies, for example, to body temperature, salt balance, pH, water balance, blood sugar, etc.
Physical strain creates a mechanical pressure – a workout, a walk, etc. Overexertion creates an increased pressure which leads to impaired flow, often temporarily.
Mental strain, like negative stress, negative thoughts, depression, also leads to tensions with increased pressure leading to stiffening in the fascia.
Illness increases pressure to the body and the flow stagnates. Imbalances in posture creates an increased pressure in certain parts of the body while others receive too little pressure.
Diet, drinks, medicines, drugs, among other substances, create changes in the constitution of the fascia in order for the body to be able to achieve balance in the best way possible.
If pressure affecting the balance becomes too long-lasting the function of the body is weakened, with far reaching consequences for cellular function and communication.
Overexertion with lots of lactic acid, for example, can lead to acidic pH, which thickens the hyaluronic acid and hence the ground substance in the fascia, and the flow is hampered. The pressure in the tissue increases, it becomes more strained. The transport of substances into and out of the cells now functions badly, neurotransmitters don’t arrive quickly enough, blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, nerve fibers and neurons are all compressed and their function suffers. The tissue comes to lack oxygen, waste accumulates, the communication and function of cells deteriorate. The flow thickens and slows down. The structure is affected by the stagnated flow since the network of fiber proteins finds it difficult to move because of the increased pressure. The fiber proteins come closer together and get “sticky”. They strain the cell membranes and the nucleus, and communicate that more fiber proteins must be produced in order to strengthen the highly strained area. The increased fiber density makes it even more difficult for the flow which stagnates even more.
In other words, a long-lasting pressure has consequences for the whole body and all illness and dysfunction can be also understood in terms of pressure and stagnated flow.
What Does This Mean?
Through an understanding of the principles governing the living body, scientific research on fascia, and experience based knowledge of individual variations, we have, in other words, the opportunity to understand health and illness in a new and tangible way.