Understanding how we can move from a sense of our whole bodies, not just separate muscles, bones and joints can help us reclaim as sense of whole when we might feel fragmented, segmented or disconnected.
Woven throughout the whole of our bodies, connecting every part is a network called fascia. Broadly, this can be divided into loose or dense connective tissue; loose forming part of the skin layer, fat storage (adipose tissue) and around organs and dense found more around ligaments, tendons, joints, bones and muscles. Of this, myofascia (from ‘myo-‘ meaning muscle) is that which connects all muscle in long networks that run from the bottom of the feet to the top of the body in many lines; deep and closer to the skin. It is often described that the fascial web of connective tissue wraps around all parts of our internal structure, but many anatomists are now discussing it more in terms of muscles being embedded within fascia.
Recently this is being understood as a system that provides supportive tension, glide for movement in not just muscle, but also under skin, between organs and between joints. This is important as shows that our body is not simply a moving machine housing a mind, but rather a fully integrated systemic organism with constant communication and response between all part of the whole body-mind. There are 10 times more sensory nerve endings in your fascia than your muscle.
A sense of elasticity through the fascial system does more than help us feel flexible, it also increases the signals of communication from the body up to the brain (‘bottom-up’). Awareness of and through movement of our internal world can support our intra-personal relationship, that we have with our self. This is a key part of our inter-personal relationships; how we relate to others. You may have noticed that you feel less open, more guarded and have difficulty communicating when you are feeling less in touch with your body.
Within body movement, muscles and myofascial are always working together, but exercises can have a focus on one or the other. When exercise programmes are dedicating to improving muscle tone and strength, fluidity in movement can be lost. Movement quality – grace, poise and smoothness – come from elastic recoil through the fascia, where energy is gathered and then discharged through fluid movement. Muscles create force, but fascia distributes it and when this ripple effect happens well, we have proprioceptive clarity and interoceptive attentiveness – precise movement with full awareness.
A focus on movement that originates from the fascia is about more than simple tone and strength. A 2013 review of the literature on sports injuries and fascia (J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2013;17(1):103-15) reported that when training focusses simply on muscle, cardiovascular conditioning and/or neuromuscular coordination, fascia can be overloaded and likelihood of injury increases. With fascial training included twice a week, to include “elastic recoil, slow and dynamic stretching…” more resilience can be seen throughout the fascial network, so a more flexible and adaptable body.
Core slide and glide
We start by creating ‘slide and glide’ into fascia around the organs and into the core, from where movement can most easily originate from the belly to reach out with ease. In this way, there is natural integration from the centre to the periphery that allows graceful motion, rather than a limbs flailing, disjointed and uncoordinated affair.
Start on all fours and spend a few moments breathing here and feeling the slight, natural movement of your spine as lungs empty and fill, allowing your breath to settle and your out-breath to fully express any tension release as you feel supported by the ground. Coming back to this connection in your body throughout allows calming through the nervous system that promotes more fluid movements; the stress response tends to make fluids more viscous and sticky to help us stay tense and contracted for protection.
Then on an out-breath, take your hips to one side and down to bottom-to-heels. Inhale up the other side back up to all-fours, so that you are creating full pelvic circles. As you inhale, lift-up from the belly with straight arms so that it is a lift back to the start, rather than a drop-down into bent arms. In this way, the motion is all circling from the belly and a natural core workout with continual elastic motion. Change the circling to the other side. This motion also helps to release the lower back, particularly good if you sit on chair a lot and can tend to compress there.
Upright spine undulation
Here we move a little deeper into the core by lifting up vertically from the ground – a major part of its action for us upright creatures. Start coming up onto your knees, placed directly under your hips for stability (NB: If you have knee issues, you can do this sitting on a chair). Then drop your bottom back and round your back as fully as comes easily taking your arms forward as if you are holding a large ball, drawing your chin into chest to involve the neck in opening the whole of the back of the spine. Tailbone is tucked under here to allow full drawing in of the belly and lower back support.
Scoop the tailbone up and lift up through the belly to come back to upright, opening the chest and arms to now open the front of the spine and body. Avoid tipping back the head, but rather lengthen back and sides of the neck to support the weight of the head.
You can move to the rhythm that feels right for you or if your breath can stay long and spacious, even drop back on the exhale, lift up on the inhale. Continue to about 7 out of 10 of your maximum effort and then rest to sit back on your heels or all fours if that doesn’t suit your knees.
Shoulder movement from the belly
Here use a ‘reach’ motion that mimics the natural movement we might do to reach for something in any direction. In this way movement follows the direction of the gaze and desire; a motivation that means the body simply organises itself literally through the path of least resistance, with most ease and grace.
Starting from a ‘z-shape’ seated position, with right leg bent inwards and left bent outwards, lean towards the right and use the right arm to support yourself. Lift the spine up through the shoulders, so you’re not just dropping into and hanging off the right shoulder. Then take the left arm out to the side and focus your gaze on it, spending a few moments here to gather everything in there. Then sweep the arm down and past your body to create full circles, reaching up and over, back through the starting point.
As you circle the arm, keep the focus on the hand for movement out from the navel, allowing the motion to reach from the belly, through to the chest, shoulders, neck and head with most fluidity, even feeling it through the hips. Change to the other side.
Elasticity through the feet and hips
Creating fluid movement through the feet, knees and hips can transform how we stand up and move from the ground upwards. Either from all fours or (if you know it) from downward-facing dog (inverted v-shape), step the right foot forward to between the hands. Lift the foot forward if you need so there is enough space to move and place a blanket under the back knee if you need padding there.
With fingertips on the ground, drop the hips back and lift the toes to come onto the heel of the front foot. Keep it flexed like this and then move it from side-to-side to feel the movement of the leg up into the hip joint. You don’t need to straighten the front leg during any of these exercises; they are about elasticity in tissues, not a hamstring stretch.
Then bringing the leg back to centre and point the foot to plant the ball and toes down to open the top of the foot. Keep this contact through the whole foot as you then start to move forward into a low lunge, allowing the knee to travel forward of the ankle to compress the front of the foot and open the back of the heel and achilles tendon area. Move backwards and forwards as you feel tissues allow the bounce, loading energy as you move forward to send you back in a recoil into the hips. Find the rhythm that works for your body today and then move to the twist below.
Moving through the spiral lines
Much of how we reach, turn and look around comes from twisting motions across diagonal fascia in the torso, that if impaired can limit range of motion. They may also create or exacerbate neck and shoulder issues as rather from moving from the centre (where they cross over from shoulder to the opposite hip), we end up moving the arms and head separately from the torso.
Lift up through the belly to come upright and grounding through the front foot and back leg, take th left hand across the right knee, palm turned outward, pressing leg into hand, hand into leg as a pivot point that doesn’t push the knee out of line of the foot.
Start by lifting the right arm with bent elbow to create space in the shoulder and on an in-breath, turn into a twist over the right leg, moving from the belly. With the exhale, let the movement recoil back to its natural point and then continue, inhaling into depth in the twist, exhaling to release. If you are feeling open across the collarbones, you may move to continue the motion with right arm lengthened out. You might feel this motion creating elasticity from the left hip to the right shoulder and out to the arm.
Fluidity around the hip and thigh bones
From the low lunge, turn the back foot in 90 degrees to face in the opposite direction to the twist (still with the right leg forward, opposite to the pictures above) – if you have knees issues, you can approximate this movement sitting on a chair. This motion creates pliability and hydration in the tissues around the hips and top of the thigh bone, where we can get pretty static through sitting.
Take the left arm across the body, following its movement with your eyes as you then swing the arm downward in a semi-circle to bring it up to the other side. Let this motion pendulum with the weight of the arm, so there is release in the shoulder too, but feeling a rocking in and around the hip. Eventually you may feel the space and fluidity to swing the arm round further and allow the hip to move outward, further than the knee, so there is also a side flank opening and stretch. Swing back all the way to the first position and continue the swing as long as the breath feels easy.
Come back through to all fours or downwards-facing dog and repeat the whole sequence with the left foot forward.
Whole body elasticity
Bringing it all together, we can explore our relationship up from elasticity in the feet to standing and walking motion. Doing this in three stages progressively helps us feel the “essential events” of walking, according to James Earls in his book “Born to Walk”. These are the necessary joint actions that engage the lines of fascia in the body most efficiently for walking and they originate in the feet.
This exercise sequence strengthens these actions and involve vertical loading, deriving energy up from recoil from the ground. When you find the rhythm that suits your tissues (and within your comfortable range of motion), this should feel light-footed and springy.
From standing, lift the right arm and left knee, bringing up and down to feel the base of support. Then as you get a feel for your movement through space (proprioception), when you bring the left foot down you can place it a little further back than the right (not shown) and keeping that heel up, flick the foot from pressing into the balls of the foot and toes to lift the knee up, now with a bounce-like effect. There will be a slight bend in the right leg as you load the foot in this way for lift.
Taking this a bit further, you can step the left foot back into a lunge with both knees bent and tailbone drawn under, left arm up, right down. Then you can have the same effect here as above, but this time, bounce a few times down into the lunge to load energy into the fascia before lifting up into the first position shown, swinging the arms as you go to support the uplift. Play with finding the most ease created in the lunge to lift up, so it is the most efficient movement through the fascia, rather than a more muscular and contracted motion, where you could even find yourself grunting!
If you feel confident, you can then add in a twist towards the left knee (holding that with the right hand or not) and then back through to the lunge. This creates upper body counter spirals that can be held as long as you can balance, to feel how the elasticity you have gathered in your feet helps to stabilise you. Wakened nerve endings in the feet mean more grounding and body awareness.
Decompressing the spine
Finally roll up and roll down from standing to a forward bend with knees bent to start and maybe lengthening if that feels comfortable in the lower back. Hang there for a minute or two, drawing your belly into your spine to allow space between vertebrae as you let gravity decompress the spine after strong movement. Let your head hang fully to release the back of the neck and let any last tensions sigh out on the exhalation.
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