Fascia and Structural Integration
What is Fascia?
Before we can understand how Structural Integration manipulates the fascia to change and reorganize the body, we need to understand fascia better. To understand fascia, we need to look a little more at the body’s structure...
Most people are familiar with bones, muscles, and organs, but few know about fascia which is the name for our connective tissue of structure. (There are other connective tissue types, such as blood, but we are interested in structure here and will stick to the fascia.) Fascia is the "glue that binds everything together." It is also the support network that provides the structure and relationships of most body parts, by providing organization as well as a foundation for other tissues to connect to. This is sometimes difficult to understand, so let’s make this easier by a few analogies...
The Jello Analogy
Have you ever made Jello? Possibly as a child? Jello is made of gelatin, sugar, and flavoring. When I was a kid, I liked to have fruit put in my Jello. When we made Jello this way, I discovered that the Jello had permeated the fruit pieces. It actually went inside the fabric/structure of the fruit. What a treat as a child!
Well, just like the Jello connects in and becomes one structure with the fruit, our fascia does the very same thing. It penetrates through everything: just like the Jello.
The Suitcase Analogy
Think of a super-luxury suitcase that has pockets built into its lining with a spot to hold everything you’ll take with you on your next vacation. It has individual pockets for each pair of your socks, your underwear, your shirts, your toothbrush, your razors, etc. Each larger pocket is also divided down further to provide smaller pockets for each individual item. So the large pocket for your socks actually contains within it a smaller pocket for each individual sock. No two socks need share a pocket together! Everything is in its own pocket. Just imagine it!
No matter what orientation the suitcase is in (sitting upright, on its side, or even spinning through the air because it has been thrown by the airport luggage guys) everything stays neat and tidy in its place. Just as you can think of these lining pockets as separating each item from its neighbor, you could also think of it connecting each item to its neighbor… separating and connecting, giving shape to the inside of the suitcase.
Our body is analogous to this luxury suitcase with the connective tissue (i.e. fascia) acting as the suitcase lining, providing “pockets” for muscle fibers, bones, organs, blood vessels, nerves, etc. It separates and connects all these tissues together. It relates the position of one thing to another, literally creating the shape of the body. By connecting the tissue together, fascia provides a foundation for each part, and an organization for the whole system. Similar to the suitcase liner keeping everything organized no matter what orientation the suitcase is in, our fascia does the same for us… helping us to function and stay organized whether we are standing, sitting, lying down, or hanging upside-down. Fascia is truly amazing!
The Honeycomb analogy
One more visual or mental image to impress upon you how important the fascia is in providing organized structure to the body. I want you to imagine the shape of a honeycomb with the walls of the honeycomb and the open spaces formed by the walls. I want you imagine taking an individual muscle fiber and put one into each opening of the honeycomb. Then shrink the honeycomb around the muscle fibers. Now imagine taking a larger honeycomb and inserting the kind of bundle that you just made into each opening, and shrink the honeycomb around them again. Continue this process so that you expand to larger and larger honeycombs, with more complex smaller honeycombs within them. When you have finished that and have a reasonably complex structure, I want you to make one more modification... that the honeycomb structures surrounding smaller honeycombs or muscle fibers are really one continuous structure. What your have been building mentally is a structure that mimics the structure of your muscle tissue. Each individual muscle fiber cell is wrapped in fascia. So not only does fascia keep muscles in their own pocket, but this continues down to separate muscle fibers, and continues down to individual cells. You can keep following the fascia down to where collagen fibers stray off the fascial net and permeate through the cell membrane, helping organize the structure within each cell.
Fascia is a three-dimensional web of fibers and fluid/goo. The fibers create a mesh vertically, horizontally, front-to-back, and at all sorts of angles. A kitchen sponge is a regular household item that can give us an idea of what this is like. No matter how we might choose to cut the kitchen sponge, we would find that the 3D mesh network continues inside just as it does on the surface. Likewise, the fascia web (or matrix) has fibers going this way and that, throughout our body organizing our three-dimensional volume.
Taking a very simplistic view, fascia is made up of three major components; elastin, collagen, and ground substance. Elastin are rubber-like fibers that have stretch and recoil, and you can think of them as rubber bands. Elastin provides much of the stretch of fascia. Collagen fibers act like tough threads, providing strength and support. The more collagen fibers tightly connected (or woven) together, the stronger that portion of the fascia is. Think of how bundling sticks together makes the bundle stronger than each individual stick alone. The third component is called ground substance, and we can think of it as a thick lubricating goo. The goo of ground substance provides shock absorption, just like the gel pads in running shoes, as well as lubrication. This is an amazing composite that provides strength, flexibility, pliability, and can absorb impact... perfect for structuring an active living organism.
One more thing I should mention about the collagen fibers before we move on: fascia is bound with water. Fascia would do far less of the amazing things it does if it did not have it's partner. As tissue gets more dehydrated, the potential for more cross-linking or cross-binding can occurs between neighboring collagen fibers. The more cross-linking or cross-binding, the stronger and tougher the tissue becomes. The more water-binding to the collagen, the more flexible the tissue becomes. Though this is a simplification of what actually occurs, it does help one imagine why dehydrated tissue is tough and hard, and hydrated tissue is soft and pliable.
Fascia touches everything, and helps organize the whole system. That is why understanding fascia on a basic level is important to understanding the body as a moving structural system. This also helps us understand that manipulating the fascia can bring about more order in the system and ease movement.
To recap; bones act as spacers within the fascia, provide levers for movement, and provide something for the fascia to attach to. The fascia acts as the tissue of organization keeping each item in spacial relationship to its neighbors, acts as a communication system of tension and ease, provides protection from external trauma, and so much more!
Structural Integration - Introduction
Structural Integration (SI) is a process of aligning the body within the field of gravity via soft tissue/fascia manipulation. Proper alignment gives us natural (easy) lift, better posture, and better movement with less effort and more ease. In reality SI also works toward the goal of better (body) system optimization. In this case, optimization means that the full system (and not one particular part) works and functions better.
Since this work is done in relationship with gravity, the body can move better and easier within gravity. This can be seen by how little effort it takes a well organized body to do basic activities such as standing, walking, and running.
Before we get into more specifics of Structural Integration (SI), we need to address some underlying concepts of SI work.
Balancing the body is one key concept, which perpetuates from micro (small) to macro (large). So we concern ourselves with balancing the tissues around specific joints, larger body segments, and also the full body as a whole single unit. Most of us can comprehend balancing around a single uncomplicated joint. Thinking of balancing the body as a single unit is more difficult.
We can use a very simple analogy to understand this... think of the body being represented by a tall flexible tree, and the tissue on the front and back of the body as two ropes connected from the very top of the tree to the ground: one rope on front, one rope on back. If we pull down on the front rope, the tree bends forward and the back rope gets pulled/stretched into a lengthened position. Likewise if we pull down on the back rope and let go of the front rope, the opposite happens. Not unlike this simple example, the larger spans of tissue in our body have similar behavior. If our body is bent forward, the connective tissue (herein referred to as fascia or myofascia) becomes short on the front, and longer on the back. If this is a held pattern in the body, then we would need to lengthen the fascia on the front of the body, and also free the tissue on the back of the body so it can find balance too. This is a very simplistic explanation of correcting front/anterior and back/posterior tissue imbalance. In addition to correcting anterior/posterior relationships of the fascia, we also address side/side issues, rotational issues, and inside (core) to outside (sleeve) issues.
Another key SI concept is that of creating space in the fascia of the body. This occurs in places where the fascia is holding, restricted, adhered, or otherwise not moving appropriately. This is done through tissue differentiation, where we separate different tissue groups and layers from each other by a combination of manual hands-on techniques, and also client movement of associated structures/body parts.
One more key concept is the restoration of the brain’s kinesthetic map of the body. The kinesthetic map can be thought of as the brain's list of all the body tissue it can control in movement. Items on the map, the brain can control and get useful feedback from. Items off the map it cannot readily control or pay attention too.
Nervous system engagement happens as the process of releasing restricted tissue occurs, especially when the client is "paying attention" to the sensations created during the work. The nervous system becomes more "aware" of the fascia that is expanding as it is being worked, and thus allows the nervous system to add this part of the body back into its map of the kinesthetic/moving body. In many ways we can think of this as remembering something we once knew, but have since forgotten. The better the missing parts of the kinesthetic map get filled in, the more complete a picture the brain will have of the whole body, and the better the brain can control the body and organize it as it moves and exists in space.
By keeping these concepts in mind, Structural Integration works to correct the vertical alignment of the body, create balance from imbalance, create space from restriction, ease held tension, and allow for movement that organizes through the body’s core/center outward. Though not specifically the goal of Structural Integration, it is quite common for our aches and pains to diminish or disappear while working through your body. Our physical shape also dictates much of our emotional bearing in life, and this too can change as part of our transformation through Structural Integration work.
Structural Integration Series Work (i.e. the Recipe)
Now to get back to the question of how we make changes to our shape... Since we know that fascia is what determines shape by determining how one part relates to another part, we also know that we can change the relationships of the parts by changing the fascia that connects them. Utilizing manual hands-on techniques referred to earlier, as well as your movement, we differentiate, spread, soften, guide, and lengthen tissue to move the body parts into a more balanced relationship to each other. Remember our tree-analogy? When the tree is bent forward with a short front rope and a "pulled long" back rope, we would lengthen the front rope by spreading the tissue vertically toward both the top and bottom and make sure that the back rope was free to shorten as it needed to. By doing this we create a balance front to back where both ropes are of equal length and the tree is standing upright. We do this in the body by creating space and balancing the fascia around joints, segments, and the whole body. During this process the brain is filling in its kinesthetic map of the body for better control, coordination, and organization.
Structural Integration works to change the body in a series of therapy sessions. Each session focuses on a particular set of territories in the body. There are approximately eighteen schools of SI worldwide currently, and each may use a slightly different organization for their series work. Despite this, all of them are working toward the stated concepts and goal of better organizing the body within the field of gravity.
In the Anatomy Trains school of Structural Integration, the series includes 12 sessions, each with its own territory as described below:
Session 1: The Superficial Front Line – This includes most of the tissues in the front of the body but focuses on the main vertical structures directly up the front. By opening the front of the body, we start the overall process and free up the breath.
Session 2: The Superficial Back Line – This includes most of the tissues in the back of the body but focuses on the main vertical structures directly up the back. Opening the back of the body, we balance the back with the front.
Session 3: The Lateral Lines – This includes all the tissue from the front vertical mid-line of the body to the back vertical mid-line of the body, encompassing all the tissue running up the side. As with session 1 and 2, session 3 focuses more on the main vertical structures directly up each side. Here we are balancing side-to-side issues of the body.
Session 4: The Spiral Lines – This is probably the hardest set of structures to visualize in the whole series. There are two spiral lines, as there were two lateral lines, left and right. These wind and loop around the body. Starting from the skull it winds in the tissue around the back of the neck continuing around the opposite side of the torso to the same side hip (at the front). It then runs down the front-outside of the leg, looping under the foot, and up the side and back of the leg where it meets up with the spine and continues back up to the skull. Here we are correcting for rotational components in the outside layers of the body.
Session 5-8: The Deep Front Line – In Structural Integration this is referred to as the core (or inside) of the body. It includes all of the tissue inside the "muscular tube" which was created by the tissues worked in sessions 1-4 (referred to as the sleeve).
Session 5 addresses the core that is pelvis and lower.
Session 6 addresses the core from pelvis to the top of the ribcage.
Session 7 addresses deep tissue along the posterior of the spine and pelvis, and readdresses posterior tissues of the legs including some territory covered by session 2. This is lovingly referred to as the "Deep Back Line" in the school of Kinesis/Anatomy Trains.
Session 8 addresses the core from the top of the ribcage up, including neck, jaw, nasal, and cranial areas.
Sessions 1 through 8 have been working primarily to differentiate tissues by spreading, softening, separating, and balancing. Starting with the end of session 8 and more earnestly in session 9 (working through session 12), we start the "Integration" phase. The integration sessions (9-12) are more focused on creating harmony and alignment between the various "lines," connecting all the body through the core. This is where we are making a distinct shift from micro to macro. In sessions 1-8 we split the body into territories and focused on differentiating and releasing the tissue within the territory for that session, as well as balancing it with complimentary territories (e.g. front vs. back). In sessions 9-12 we are not thinking of splitting the body into territories, rather connecting those territories together into one single moving body picture… we are thinking more of full structure.
So to continue our look at the individual sessions of the series, it continues as follows:
Session 9: The Lower Body – This includes all of the lower body, working to bring the structure into a coordinated, balanced whole.
Session 10: The Upper Body – This includes all of the upper body, working to bring the structure into a coordinated, balanced whole.
Session 11: The Arm Lines – Each arm contains four arm lines; Superficial Front Arm Line, Superficial Back Arm Line, Deep Front Arm Line, Deep Back Arm Line. This session is a bit of a hybrid... We are both cleaning up and doing any differentiation of arm tissue which did not get addressed in sessions 1-8, and we are coordinating the arms as balanced structures connected into the rest of the body and the core.
Session 12: The Whole Body – This session includes all of the body, working to make it a whole connected, coordinated, and balanced structure. At the end of this session, we want every movement coordinating through the core of the body, centered at the diaphragm.
This concludes our basic overview of the Anatomy Trains structural integration series... though this is far from being a complete or exhaustive explanation of Structural Integration. That would take more time to go into specific details, and other concepts involved.
Benefits of Structural Integration
Now that you have a better idea as to what fascia is, and how Structural Integration is used to change it, what benefits can one expect from going through a series? If you have read this far, you can answer this for yourself. The benefits include:
Better alignment and posture
Easier movement that is better coordinated
Increased range of motion
Increased vitality and capacity for change
Many people would not consider better alignment and posture to be top priority in their lives... but their lives would greatly improve by having them! The benefits of alignment and posture span over much of your life, and shine into forgotten corners. They allow you to do the things you love with more ease using less energy and effort… whether that is rock climbing, playing baseball, or taking a walk with your grandchild. Taking the effort and "work" out of your existence, simply by having a more organized and coordinated body, is something everyone can benefit from... including you!
If you want a deeper understanding of Structural Integration, or have further questions not answered by this overview, please call me at 206-234-9929. I have a passion for what this work can do, and love to share information.
Thanks for taking the time to read this!