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Taiji and fascia - Abstract

By Filip Gutknecht-Stöhr (May 2019)

Youtube: The Wonderful World of Fascia

For several years now, the concept of fascia has become increasingly popular.  Previously, the attention of research was mostly on isolated structures such as nerves, muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, etc.. However, the notion of fascia as merely a layer of thin tissue enveloping our muscles is increasingly giving way to the realization that the properties and functions of fascia are far more comprehensive and significant than previously thought. 

Beyond being an all-connecting tension tissue responsible for mechanical transmission of traction, support, and movement forces through the body, fascia also functions as a comprehensive tissue organ through which we gain a perception of ourselves in the first place and through which we are able to organize our movements in space. In addition, fascia tissue seems to function (at least partially independent of the nervous system) as a communication organ for all processes in our organism. Physical-mechanical, mental-spiritual, as well as emotional states are influenced by the fasciae.

The traditional training system of Taijiquan with its comprehensive training aspects has a lot to offer in terms of training the body tissues and especially the fasciae. Deep body awareness combined with a sophisticated internal movement control in a specific body alignment create the basis to address the fasciae in their complexity. The training ideas give enough room for it, on the one hand the property as a subtle and gentle, all-connecting tissue, on the other hand the aspect of the strong and large forces enduring tension and support tissue to do justice. In the following, the characteristics of the fascia will first be highlighted and then the training of traditional Taiji, especially the special features of the traditional system of Chen Zhaokui and Chen Yu will be discussed in more detail.

1. Introduction (fascial anatomy)

The traditional training system of Taijiquan with its comprehensive training aspects has a lot to offer in terms of training the body tissues and especially the fasciae. Deep body awareness combined with a sophisticated internal movement control in a specific body alignment create the basis to address the fasciae in their complexity. The training ideas give enough room for it, on the one hand the property as a subtle and gentle, all-connecting tissue, on the other hand the aspect of the strong and large forces enduring tension and support tissue to do justice. In the following, the characteristics of the fascia will first be highlighted and then the training of traditional Taiji, especially the special features of the traditional system of Chen Zhaokui and Chen Yu will be discussed in more detail.

Fascia is a tension network of connective tissue of varying strength that envelops the entire organism and extends into the deepest muscle areas (the muscle cells). Due to the interest of most anatomists in the isolated functions of muscles, tendons, ligaments and capsular structures, etc., fascia used to be simply dissected away as material not worthy of attention. The "thin", whitish layers that seem to wrap everything in the body in a disorganized way were difficult to study and mainstream research could not make much sense of them. In the meantime, this view has been revised in science and fasciae are increasingly receiving the attention they deserve.

Fascia is first recognized as a comprehensive mechanical tension network, which, as collagen-containing fibrous tissue, participates in our body-wide transmission system for tensile stress and force transmission, or makes this possible in the first place. Muscles, vision, ligaments and bones alone, are hardly able to cope with the complex movement processes in the body.

In addition, areas of fascia are being explored that go far beyond mechanical aspects. Fasciae possess a wealth of receptors that transmit information to our brain and which not only enable us to perceive and move ourselves in space, but also help determine our emotional state. Fascia acts as a body-wide information and communication system. Communication in the sense that the fascia network is always in information exchange with the entire rest of our organism and that this information exchange takes place not only via our nervous system, but via the connective tissue itself and evolutionarily much older communication systems. Research is being conducted into the relationship between the fascia and the meridian system of TCM, as well as information transfer in the fascia tissue which takes place through light particles (photons). In the meantime, areas such as quantum physics have found their way into fascia research and the future holds exciting insights into the understanding of our organism.

Basically, it is not possible to move without using the fascia. The question whether certain movement system or training system addresses the fasciae or not is therefore superfluous. A strength athlete will always use the fascial network of the body as well, just like someone who climbs trees or someone who just goes for a walk. The question is rather in which "depth" the fasciae are addressed and which training methods can exploit the potential that the fasciae hold. Which training ideas are necessary to have a lasting effect on the tissue of the fasciae, which can hardly be rationally grasped and has a comprehensive effect. According to current findings, movement methods seem to be necessary that take into account concepts of force, traction and support forces, but at the same time train a perception for the internal connections, so that the cross-body tension tractions can be built up and at the same time upright or trained in movement. If the fascial network is also a subtle and comprehensive organ of perception in addition to its function of transmitting forces between our many joints, it needs a specific mental/spiritual​ orientation that is taken and practiced during movement and during training. A perception that allows for the release of ineffective tension and at the same time allows for the control of forces through the body.

As is often the case, the ancient and traditional training systems such as yoga, taijiquan, qigong, etc., but also modern training and treatment concepts such as Feldenkreis, cranio-sacral biodynamics, etc., have much more to offer in terms of holistic functioning than the Western idea of isolated consideration of individual parts and the resulting symptomatic treatment of problems. In this sense, the potential of traditional Taijiquan to act on this inherent and fascinating fascial network will be highlighted here. What does the training of Taijiquan, and especially our Taiji training system of the CTND, handed down from Chen Fake via Chen Zhaokui and his son Chen-Yu, have to do with fascia training?

What are the specifics of training the internal martial art Taijiquan? In what way can the practice of Taijiquan meet or address the comprehensive system of the fascial network?

Professional information about the fascia comes from the scientific literature. Related to Taijiquan and especially about the connection fascia and the training of Taijiquan, I speak from my own training experience and the oral knowledge of my teachers and classical texts.

2. Fascia

What all is to be classified under the term fascia is stated somewhat differently in the literature. Some include tissue structures such as cartilage and tendons and even bones (as hardened fascia structures), some speak only of the thin, flat and elastic tissue that surrounds the muscles and runs through the body. Whether or not cartilage, tendons, ligaments, etc. can be defined as fascia is not a major consideration in this article. At the very least, fascia is connected and intertwined with bones, cartilage, tendons and ligaments and the transitions are fluid.

All structures are connected by this fasciae tissue. Also diaphragm, brain and spinal cord are enclosed by fascia or are considered fascia themselves. The quality of the fascia reminds of a spider web. One impulse will can have an effect on the rest of the net. Within the human body there can be many obstacles for these impulses to run freely. Adhesions, tensions, immobility’s are some examples. One aim of practicing Taiji is to reduce such obstacles by constant training.

To include the supporting tissue (like the bones) into the term of fascia as hardened fascial tissue, makes perfect sense. Everyone knows that bones are also elastic and adapt to stress. The image of fascia as a tissue that is compacted at the core, which becomes more refined and thinner on the outside, but acts as one structure overall, sounds quite plausible. Much like the end of a whip expresses the impulses of movement emanating from the ​ handle, in the body the periphery must be continuously connected to the core. Anyone who has seen high-level Taiji masters knows how whiplike the discharge of force from the center of the body can be.

There are superficial, deep, as well as visceral fascia. Superficial fascia lies under the skin, wrapping around the entire body and connecting the various tissues to the organs. The superficial fascia directly under the skin has a relatively high mobility compared to the fascia surrounding muscles, tendons and joints (deep fascia), which also have a supporting function with significantly higher strength. The deep fasciae penetrate the individual muscles and extend into the smallest part of the muscle, the muscle cells.   They also penetrate and envelop all bones, tendons, ligaments, nerve pathways, blood vessels and joints. Different sized compartments enclose different numbers of muscle fibers, or muscle fiber bundles.  They store water, serve as buffers, and allow organs and tissues to move. Visceral fascia serve as suspension and embedding of internal organs, wrapping them in layers of connective tissue. They are responsible for the suspension and embedding of the internal organs as well as the brain. For example, visceral fascia include the meninges, pericardium, pleura of the lungs, and peritoneum. They surround mouths and outlets of the vessels of the heart, esophagus, lungs, aorta, and trachea. Further down the kidneys, as well as the bottom of the urinary bladder. The fascial network ensures that fluids in the body can spread freely. If there are adhesions or other dysfunctional conditions in the fascia, this can have a variety of effects on our health.

Fascia is enclosing the whole muscle, bundles of muscle cells as well as each muscle cells itself  as the smallest thread of the whole muscle (the smallest compartments in the picture on the left). The fascia then merges then as the tendons into the bone. Some authors describe tendons and even bones as a firmer variation of fascia. Enclosing each muscle cell, fascia is far more than a tissue, surrounding the outer layer of a muscle but a tissue penetrating every bit of our body.

2.1 Force transmission through fasciae

Fasciae are tensioned, among other things, by the tensile forces of muscles. The connection between the individual body parts takes place via fasciae. Due to the high proportion of collagen fibers, this tissue has the necessary elasticity to withstand strong tensile loads and maintain a tension framework. The different fascia tissues have different strengths and densities. For example, the fasciae that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord (e.g. the meninges) are firmer and more immobile than the fasciae of the muscles, which have to adapt to different movements to a greater extent. Fascia around and in the muscles, on the other hand, can be stretched well up to a certain point, but will hold its length after a certain stretch. The fasciae are directly involved in the transmission of forces between the legs, pelvis and spine and make this possible in the first place. One of the main big “outer” fascia is the  thoracolumbar fascia . It lies directly behind the center of the body (Dantian/ Mingmen) and forms its outer back. It connects the center of the body to more distant areas such as the head and feet. In order to effectively bring forces up from the ground through the feet and legs, or to absorb forces acting from the outside through the hands ​ and arms, a stable and flexible dorsal fascia is necessary. Organizing the related body parts appropriately and the ability to "stretch" this fascia is of particular importance for healthy back loading and is a core aspect of practicing Taijiquan. Experience shows how effective its methods are for reducing back pain.

The   large   trunk  fasciae   involved  pull   from  the   ribs  and   vertebrae  into   the  extremities,   allowing   stable   and coordinated movement across multiple joint parts. In doing so, they include the center of the body (Dantian). Thus, the thoracolumbar fascia (the large sheet-like fascia in the lumbar spine region) plays an essential role in movements or force transfers between the spine, pelvis and legs, as it transfers forces upward toward the extremities or skulls downward toward the rump as well as in diagonal (crossover pattern) directions. The center of this fascia is one of the crucial points we have in Qigong resp. Taiji – Mingmen. From this thoracolumbar fascia, the tensile forces of the muscles attached to it are transmitted to all lumbar vertebrae. It passes directly over the sacroiliac joint (The connection between the pelvis and the sacrum), which, with its planar and relatively immobile structure, is capable of transmitting large moments of force. Since the diaphragm is also attached to the spine in this lower back area, it becomes obvious how comprehensive the connections of this area are. Mingmen, diaphragm (Breathing structure), sacrum, pelvis – all structures we put particular awareness on when practicing Taijiquan.

Strong fasciae run through vertebral bodies, spine, ribs, pelvis and abdominal muscles and connect them with legs and arms. Movements of the body center (Dantian) can thus generate large and elastic forces. As all structures are connected by the fascia these forces can then be transmitted freely through the entire body. Some conditions of course have to be fulfilled as for example the correct setting of the body structure as well as the requirement of relaxation within this structure.

The visceral cervical fascia, for example, runs from the hyoid bone in the front of the neck to the pelvis, connecting upper and lower areas of the body. This alone shows how the head and mouth muscles are connected to the rest of the body. The connections between the highest point of the head, the lumbar vertebrae and the sacrum/coccyx areas considered in the training of Taijiquan have their anatomical equivalent here. It can be assumed that these connections are far more subtle and far-reaching than described here.

2.2 Further functions

In addition to the function of force transmission and participation in movement, fasciae seem to be involved in a variety of other functions and processes.   As one of the tissues most innervated by nerves, they are of great importance beyond their mechanical effect with regard to our self-perception, our ability to express ourselves, and our ability to relax and regenerate. The fasciae are inseparably connected with the nervous system, especially with the autonomous (non-voluntarily controllable) nervous system.

The density of receptors in the fasciae, which transmit information to the brain, far exceeds that of other structures such as muscles or tendons. As a result, fascia is increasingly attracting attention when it comes to the issue of back pain. Research into the causes of pain no longer focuses exclusively on the nervous/muscular/skeletal apparatus, but increasingly on fascial tissue. Particular attention is being paid here to the thoracolumbar dorsal fascia mentioned above, which wraps the long back muscle like a stocking, and which thickens in the area of the lumbar spine, stabilizing and connecting the relatively unstable area of the transition between the spine and the pelvis. Frequently, this appears to be responsible for back pain.

Influencing the back while standing so that it connects the upper body to the lower body without unnecessary and unhealthy tension is a core aspect of Taijiquan that should be paid attention to from the beginning. Without conscious movement control in this area, it is not possible to direct forces through the body effectively and in a healthy way.

While practicing I try to become aware of this inner organization of the fascia tissue. This changes my awareness, it gets more holistic and sets single body parts in relation to the whole. Of course, the form has to be known for this kind of practice. If you cannot yet train the form without thinking about the sequences, try to use for example the standing pillar. Points ourside of the body, like head-sacrum (baihui-huiyin), shoulders-knees, hands-feet, etc..) frame the structure in which the body is “hanging” within the net of fascia.


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