Restoring the Fascial Matrix with Tai Chi

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Or, What I Learned from Swinging my Arms

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By Justin Casteel

There is a concept in modern fitness concerned with the architecture of the connective tissue system. This is, unsurprisingly, termed “Fascial Fitness”. Fascia is a broad term encompassing tendons (muscle attachment to bone), ligaments (bone attaching to bone), and aponeurosis (broad tendonous sheets that cover large areas of anatomy). There are many types of connective tissue; even blood is considered to be a form of connective tissue. Normally when people in the industry refer to connective tissue, it means specifically the tissue that connects various areas of the body in continuous tensional lines. For example, there is a specific tensional and functional connectivity from the arches of the feet to the hamstrings, on to the sacrotuberous ligament, the spinal erector muscle group, the suboccipitals at the base of the skull, and the epicranial fascia that runs all the way over the top of the head to the brow ridge. Anatomist and bodyworker Tom Myers calls this structure the “Superficial back line”. This “line”, analogous to a railway track, is part of a larger image of anatomy and movement that he calls the “Anatomy Trains.” When I first heard this concept, I thought, “oh, this Anatomy Trains must be how to Train the Anatomy, like exercise and stuff”. What Myers actually was referring to was an analogy of how force was transmitted through anatomical structures like a steam engine follows its tracks. This is a fascinating concept and brings new light to movement, bodywork, and even habitual body positions like sitting and standing. The Anatomy Trains are mapped like a series of grids in what are called “myofascial meridians”.

Myofascial Meridians can be conceived of in this way: developmentally we all follow a more or less typical development pattern. First, the eyes follow mom around the room, leading eventually to rolling. From rolling front to back, we learn to sit up, crawl, walk, and eventually stand unassisted. This leads to predictable patterns in our soft tissues, and indeed forms much of our permanent fundamental structural integrity (like the arches of the feet and the strength of the neck muscles to hold up the head). Once we begin to develop personality and habits, these basic balanced patterns change. The integrity of each part of this pattern can be mapped through visible shortenings and lengthenings from various anatomical markers and represented as “lines” or “meridians of tension” in the system. Recognizing these lines and patterns gives us a map of the relative balance and ease of the soft tissue system.

The fascia is more important than we have, in the past, realized. Modern research shows that most injuries in the body are soft tissue injuries, and problems like the recognizable “forward head” associated with old age can be linked directly to the tenseness, laxity, and imbalance in the connective tissue network. For instance, stiffness in the neck has been linked to a weak or under-active “core”. Meridians aside, the quality of the fascia can be directly related to stiffness, injury, and even chronic conditions like bone spurs. By ensuring that there is balance in the system, and that the connective tissue stays pliable and flexible, we can maintain good quality of movement and reduced risk for injury into our later years.

All of this modern research into connective tissue is an echo of what the movement masters of the past, the Yogis and Tai Chi Sifus, have been telling us all along! Traditional Tai Chi and Qigong training (often presented as one curriculum), bears out all of the tenants of the most modern research and development into how to keep the fascial system healthy, with the added bonus of a holistic look at the mind/body interactions and emotional balance. Robert Schleip, eminent researcher and the most quoted fascial expert I’ve encountered, has four principles of Fascial Fitness that each have a resonance with traditional Tai Chi an Qigong training. I learned most of this without ever knowing what fascia was, but that theoretical foundation has improved my understanding and practice of the Chinese movement arts. Let’s break them down and see how they are implemented in Tai Chi and Qigong.

  1. Preparatory Counter Movements

Think about a golf swing. Unlike a body builder lifting a weight, the golfer winds up, and the preparatory “winding” of the tissues is what develops the power of his swing. A tight midsection or shoulders would soak up some of that coiled strength, or over-rotated ankles could “leak” some of the efficiency of the movement. In Tai Chi, each movement has a “pre-load” or small counter-rotation in the opposite direction of the intended form to store up kinetic energy so that muscular strength can be minimized. This idea of muscular efficiency comes from Tai Chi’s origins as a martial art. If you could save energy, you could outlast your opponent. So the preparatory counter-movement is a huge part of all Tai Chi forms.

  1. The Ninja Principle

Fascia really likes to act as a shock absorber. As much as it can store, then release energy, fascia also is really good at absorbing energy. When landings are “soft” and not “jarring” the bones and joints are spared trauma. If you jump off a curb and you “clack” your teeth or “thud” into the ground on your heels, the bones and he joints are directly absorbing the force. Think about the running craze of the 80’s and 90’s. Many well-meaning people took up running, only to develop knee problems later on (or, tragically, fairly quickly!). Does this mean running is bad? No, of course not! It’s the technique or soft-tissue imbalance that contributed to inefficient force distribution, and the joints suffered. In Tai Chi, there is a common warm-up called “shake the tree”. In this exercise, the whole body is rhythmically shaken and “bounced” on the balls of the feet (“bubbling spring” acupuncture points). The exercise focuses on keeping the body “light” and fluid and soft…. Like a ninja who can land without a sound. Exercises like shake the tree can teach to keep movements efficient and controlled, and are really good at building elasticity into the tendons.

  1. Dynamic Stretching

Static stretching has long been thought to reduce tension in the tissue and promote mobility. Recent studies have found that active, more dynamic stretching might be even better. When you lift one leg and stretch the toes out to the horizon, the hamstring needs to lengthen, but is opposed by the need of the quadriceps muscle to tighten, and the hip flexor muscle group engages to lift the thigh bone. Additionally, the pelvis needs to rotate into place so the leg can be held aloft. This is essentially a “kick” move in Tai Chi! Contrast this with a typical seated hamstring stretch on a bench: body supported by the seat, gravity rather than opposing muscle action creating a stretch, and no challenge to the nervous system to stay balanced. In qigong, also, there is opposing muscular action. In the “Eight Pieces of Brocade” set of Qigong, all of the exercises require “pushing” in opposite directions. In the first movement, for example, the hands are stretched toward the ceiling as the heels are pressed into the floor. But the fascial system responds best to novel challenges. Normally in Tai Chi and qigong, the sets are fixed with no real variation. This seems to be a drawback, but variation in the art comes from the internal monitoring and constant corrections of force, range of motion, and large variety of exercises in the curriculum. No movement should be done the same way twice! We “play” Tai Chi to refine our understanding of movement, not just to copy a dead, static set of exercises.

  1. Proprioceptive Refinement

Proprioception is our ability to “feel” the body in space. This is the meat and bones of Tai Chi and Qigong. If you stretch your hand out, can you feel how the hip and feet respond? Think about weight lifting vs. putting your luggage into an overhead bin in an airplane. In a weight lifting exercise, the body is stationary, braced, and in a position of maximal efficiency to target one specific muscle or function. When you have to put your luggage in an overhead bin, you have to lean, stretch, twist, and reach to finish the task, but relatively little-to-no thought is placed on posture or efficiency of movement. In Tai Chi, each time you perform a posture, you must be aware of a set of principles with names like “sink the shoulders and elbows”, “open the hips”, “being empty on one side and full on the other”, and above all to keep continually moving “like a river rolling on unceasingly”. There are checks and balances that penetrate to the way we relate to movement. Eventually in Tai Chi practice we can become like Chen Man Ching, a famous tai chi maser, and “practice Tai Chi in every movement.”

So, in sitting, standing, laying down, or walking, we can be aware of how the scope and breadth of our movement practices can condition our fascial system as a whole. Tai Chi is preeminently designed to fill this function, and to do it safely and effectively. If you are interested in learning Tai Chi or finding out more about fascial fitness and injury prevention, make sure you talk to a trained, qualified professional! The journey to a balanced system cannot be accomplished overnight. Take your time, enjoy the journey, and remember to get a variety of types and qualities of movement. Our bodies have a vocabulary of movement and we want them to be well rounded and robust! So, play with your body, care for it, and watch the exciting unfoldment in each day!

*note*

concepts for Fascial Fitness are trademarked and property of Schleip http://www.fascial-fitness.de/en/  and not in any way created by me or InnerSource Wellness Center

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Inspiration Corner

  • When our only reality becomes emerged within an “exaggerated importance “of material wealth we feel a certain lack and so, we desire more and more to fill this void.  In truth the material riches of this illusive reality we have created cannot fulfill a spirit robbed of the unseen treasures that are life’s true gifts.  May Peace, Light and Love surround you and yours always, D

  • Sometimes it is our fear and need to know the outcome that keeps us from stepping outside of our comfort zone and grabbing hold of the opportunities that offer us the greatest potential for growth.

  • The cycle of life begins with the innocence of pure acceptance, becomes entangled within the insecurity of doubt only to rise from the mire blossoming into the radiance of knowing and wisdom.

  • Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself. Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections but instantly set about remedying them – every day begin the task anew.

    Saint Francis de Sales

  • Listen, for within the whisper of the wind and the soft rustling from the leaves of the trees lie the wisdom of long forgotten truths.

  • Listen, for within the whisper of the wind and the soft rustling from the leaves of the trees lie the wisdom of long forgotten truths.

  • Life offers us many opportunities.  However, to truly experience the potential we must first be willing to choose and embrace the possibilities.

  • The color of one’s skin and the beliefs they hold are simply the cloak one wears and the staff they carry as they travel life’s journey.  What connects us all like family is not found in the outside appearance but rather in the light from within, which is the brilliancy of our individual Beings.

  • How often have you asked, and then when the very thing you have desired is offered you hesitate to grab it?  Perhaps the time has come for you to recognize the abundance that is within your grasp.

  • It is important that you take responsibility for your life.  After all, it is you who created your experiences.

  • Be happy, be healthy and be whole, for your tomorrows are created by the choices you make today.

  • Learn from the past, hope for the future, but always live in the now.

  • The only real obstacle in your life is the one you believe you cannot overcome.

     

  • Learning to love unconditionally is the key that will unlock the door to understanding your true life’s purpose.

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