Awareness of Connective Tissue: Sensing Integration

For this month's continuing education focus, Awareness of Connective Tissue, we're excited to feature the following masterful voices from the worldwide Nia community. Read on to hear what they have to say about sensing stimulation by exploring The Body's Way.

Debbie Rosas, Nia Co-Creator, says:

Ask anyone what my passion is and they will tell you it’s the body. I believe this is why I created Nia. I love the body – all parts of it. I especially love researching how the parts integrate, communicate and connect, which is why I believe there's nothing quite like connective tissue.

For those of us who dance and move, connective tissue is fascinating to explore. Also known as fascia, connective tissue is an amazing honeycomb substance – comprised on three main components including cells, fibers and extracellular matrix, all embedded in the body fluids – that seems to dissolve everything into oneness. It's found throughout the entire body and functions as a body-wide mechano-sensitive signaling system, making it possible for all body parts to stay in constant communication through “cellular glue-like” fibrous, epithelial, muscle and nerve materials. Connective tissue functions to store energy, protect organs, serve as a structural framework, and connect all body tissues. Examples of connective tissue include: tendons, the connective framework of fibers in muscles, capsules and ligaments around joints, cartilage, bone, adipose (fat) tissue, blood and lymphatic tissue.

During my favorite anatomy dissection course with Gil Hedley, I had the opportunity to feel, see and comprehend just how important this tissue is. What I saw as predominantly liquid provided a medium for our organs to float within, for our bones to attach to. Does this change the way we move? Most definitely.

I now give equal attention and focus to vertical, horizontal, rotational, structured and unstructured energy flow. When I begin movements, I slow down a bit more to make sure I am relaxed as I initiate a move. I breathe more, drink more water and pay attention to the fact that connective tissues love heat. I make sure I feel warm to prepare my body to move. I pay attention to how my connective tissues feel before, during and after I dance, and especially the next day. 

If I feel tight in the joints or swollen, I know I need more water, rest and/or stretching. I  also know I need to make sure my diet is less acidic and more alkaline. Basically, everything I learn from listening to body helps me to live and dance in better ways.

Carla Warneke, Nia NGT and Teacher, says:

Quick! Think “connective tissue.” What pops into your mind? Tendons? Ligaments? Collagen (the stuff advertisers claim we need to keep wrinkles and sagging skin at bay)?

Whatever you thought, you were probably right. But did you know that our bones, blood and even fat are all considered connective tissue?

Briefly, the four tissue types include nerves, epithelial, muscles and connective tissues. Different tissues come together to form organs. And organs group to create systems – such as the cardiovascular system. Without going into too much detail, we can say that what these seemingly very different connective tissues have in common is that they are made of fibers suspended in a ground substance. The fibers vary, but include some form of collagen. The ground substance ranges in form from liquid (blood), semi-solid (fat), elastic (ligaments), to solid (cartilage, bone). Even the “stuff” between cells that delivers nutrients to individual cells is connective tissue.

It’s everywhere and it’s busy! Connective tissue shapes your body and creates structure. It holds you snuggly together so you can move around. It provides a smooth surface so that your joints can move with ease. It covers all organs and allows muscles to glide over each other providing your body with fluid movement. It insulates and cushions organs (yay for fat!). And it contains cells important in immune function and tissue repair.

Let’s focus on a specific type of connective tissue – fascia. The strong, thin fascia weaves throughout your body from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes. It surrounds and infuses every muscle, bone, nerve and organ. It interweaves to connect cells, so fascial stretching or tightening in one area of the body can be felt in other body areas. This explains why an injured back might affect the bottom of the feet, for example. Fascia creates one uninterrupted structure, a honeycomb around which your body shapes. Dissolve all other tissues away, and a recognizable human form would remain.

As a child, were you warned to stop frowning or your face might freeze like that? Well, there may be truth in that warning. Your fascia can pattern or “get stuck” in response to your habitual postures and thoughts – yes, I said thoughts. Fascia becomes a sort of shrink-wrap around your chosen shape.

The resulting container, your body, reveals your physical and emotional life. Every trauma and repetitive movement leaves fingerprints evidenced by shortened, thickened fascia that may “glue” to other layers of connective tissue in an attempt to keep you from falling apart. Body misalignment, not enough stretching, lack of exercise, injuries, overuse, infection, inadequate hydration, malnutrition, stress, and contracted thoughts have all been suspected causes for fascia and muscle tissue sticking together and contracting. The result is restricted muscle movement, restricted blood flow, restricted energy flow, and possibly pain and rigidity.

Researchers want to know whether fascial changes contribute to diseases (e.g., fibromyalgia). The list of possibilities is growing. There is evidence that fascia contraction creates muscle stiffness. Some research indicates that back pain could result from minor injuries in the lumber fascia rather than caused by disc bulging. Much of the research is this area is in the infant stages.

Even though the “how” of it is not yet fully understood, some researchers suspect and many practitioners believe that fascia responds to emotional as well as physical trauma. In theory, fascia stores trauma as rigidity -- tightening and trapping emotions related to the trauma. The inability to release trapped emotions keeps the fascia tight. If the fascia can lengthen and release from a contracted state, then emotional blocks can be removed resulting in a body more at ease. This is the theory. Currently, only vague scientific evidence supports this theory. For now (and always), use your own body experience as your guide.

How do you keep your fascia “unstuck” and your body fully functional?

  • Move, move, move. The body is made for movement variety. Work gently with your body which struggles to keep you put together. Become its ally and see how it unfolds. Nia fits perfectly here.
  • Stretch. When you stretch your muscles, you stretch your fascia as well.
  • Experiment using a foam roller to smooth, tight areas.
  • Notice your thoughts, beliefs and sensations. What thoughts create an expanded versus contracted body sensation? What limitations do you accept as just “an aging thing”? Are you truly doing all you can with what you have?
  • Investigate body-based therapies. Massage, myofascial release, and Rolfing are a few of many options.

Holly Curtis, Nia Trainer and Teacher, says:

Traditionally, body structure has been described through the lenses of muscles, bones and organs. Each is a discernable part connected with straps and bands of tissue. An alternate view is seen by taking a step closer to see the body’s structure formed by the connective tissue, a variable collection of fibers and intercellular matrix that infuses itself into every organ, muscle, bone, and liquid in our bodies. The connective tissue cells include a variety of active substances including collagen, elastin, and reticulin fibers, as well as the gluey proteins known as ground substance that holds everything together. Well known as the material of ligaments and tendons, connective tissue also forms the bedrock of bone and viscosity of blood (plasma). Connective tissue forms the surroundings of all the other cells in the body. “It is the packing material of the body; it makes up our contours and holds us in place,” says Dr. Louise Shultz in her book, The Endless Web

This web of connective tissue in our body is responsive to pressure and movement. In fact, it is the pressure of the fetus expanding in space, as it grows in utero, that begins to form the directional quality of myofascia, the connective tissue surrounding and penetrating the muscle. As bones grow into their shape, the myofascia begins to drape and fold around the bones. The muscle fibers infiltrate the myofascia, creating what we know as a muscle. The myofascia is continuous from the skin to the muscle, from the muscle to the tendon, from the tendon to the bone, from the bone to the ligaments, expanding like a spider’s web into every part of the body. It is all one system. 

Beyond fetal development, the connective tissue continues to respond to pressures and activity, creating mechanical relationships in our bodies that allow movement or begin to restrict it. The role of posture and the delicate balance we maintain with gravity influence the way connective tissue begins to shape us. Where we have movement, the fibers are thicker. Where we have pressure points, the fibers are more dense. If we have a tendency to lean to the right when we sit, the tissues on the left will get thicker to support the weight of the body leaning off center. Another example is how the back of our neck and upper back can get tight and rope-like when our head is held forward most of the time instead of over the body. This posture will eventually develop the Dowager’s hump, which is caused by the thickening of the connective fibers in the upper back to support the weight of the head. You will recognize these spots when you feel inhibition in your movement. Stiffness and diminished range of motion are signs of connective tissue growing stagnant. There are, however, natural and necessary thickenings of fiber that support us in our relationship with movement and gravity. Without this support our movement would lack stability and form. 

Connective tissue functions not only as a mechanical support but also as a network for communication and transport. Connective tissue is infused with blood vessels, which leak nutrients and white blood cells into the matrix of connective tissue around them when needed. In the watery matrix of the ground substance there are specialized cells that trigger inflammation as a defense against invading microbes. Inflammation thins the capillary walls embedded in the matrix, allowing white blood cells to enter. This increased flow into the capillary beds of the connective tissue also brings nutrients and migrating immunological cells to the area to fight the invading bacteria. The repair process causes collagen to rush to the damaged areas, creating scar tissue where the collagen collects to seal the wound.

Another aspect of connective tissue is its use as a warehouse to store fuel. Large connective tissue cells contain the fat that is stored in our bodies. Collectively they help moderate body temperature and provide cushioning in certain areas where it is needed, especially around the organs.

Nia is an excellent practice to help release the tightness and thickness of the connective tissue that creates discomfort and pain. Nia loosens the connective tissue, evening out the pressures through your body, and nourishing the ground substance your cells live in. You will know your connective tissue system is resetting itself when you feel more comfortable in class, or as you sit and stand. Connective tissue is vital to our function and health. Nia is a great way to keep it healthy.

Holly's tips on cultivating healthy connective tissue:

  • Move in a fluid way to even out the pressures in your body.
  • Take time to stretch and explore range of motion in a comfortable way.
  • Encourage your muscle fibers to let go, easing the strain on the connective tissue.
  • Drink plenty of water to keep the ground substance hydrated.
  • Move in a comfortable way to get to know your connective tissue system. 

Allison Wright, Nia Trainer and Teacher, says:

If you Google search for images of connective tissue, you’ll likely find high-tech, microscopic pictures of a web-like matrix of cellular glue. Of all the structures of the body, none is so fascinating or elusive to me as connective tissue.

According to MedicineNet, "Connective tissues are the structural portions of our body that essentially hold the cells of the body together. These tissues form a framework, or matrix, for the body. The connective tissues are composed of two major structural protein molecules, collagen and elastin. There are many different types of collagen protein that vary in amount in each of the body's tissues...."

There are two primary ways I sense my connective tissue. One: At the cellular level. Two: At the muscular level. This first level is a bit enigmatic. I mean, really, saying that I can sense the fibers that connect my cells is a lofty statement! At this level, it is not so much that I "sense" individual cells, but that my body sends me overall signals from my cells so I can get a "summary sensation" of what is taking place in my cellular environment. I sensed this acutely last week when I was healing from a mutant virus. I was definitely sensing my cellular glue as my cells attempted to, in an Aikido-like way, spiral this virus out of my system. This sensation came via a feeling under my skin of my cells collectively heating to a high temperature. (Perhaps that's more Tae Kwon Do?!) At one point it actually felt like every cell in my body was nervously vibrating. I could not help but think, "It is incredible what the body will do, without my conscious input, in an attempt to heal itself."

At the second level, my sensory awareness of connective tissue becomes much more localized. While I was healing last week, I felt the connective tissue in my back and shoulder blades weaken significantly. Oh how posture is such an indicator of energy level! As my cell's energy went towards healing, verticality became a major challenge. If connective tissue is supposed to feel like a strong yet malleable string, my connective tissue felt like a little lump of yarn laying in a pile on the floor. Yet with this awareness, I was able to listen to my body and give it the horizontal healing it required. My connective tissue told me that in order for it to remain pliable, fluid and strong, I also needed to be doing Nia 5 Stage's embryonic, circular movements several times per day as I healed. This awareness ultimately re-shaped my body, bringing me back to verticality more quickly.

Via connective tissue, my body communicates its messages, small and large. Connective tissue is the integrative muscle, the psoas of my cellular environment. Awareness of this cellular glue inspires me to pay even greater attention to my body sensations, making more somatically-informed choices that add greater dynamic ease to my body and life.

Try some of the following tips to get in touch with your connective tissue:

  • Purchase tennis balls and lay them alongside your spine. Roll back and forth across them to sense the connective tissue in your back.
  • Have a bodywork session with certified rolfing therapist!
  • Check out the MELT Method, an phenomenal new self-care technique that uses carefully designed massage balls and foam rollers  to release the connective tissue.
  • Sense the relationship between your bones, muscles, and skin. Connective tissue has a subtle sensation that can be perceived when we bring our awareness to the "space in between."