Fascia, or connective tissue, refers to any of the many different kinds of collagenous fibres that are to be found everywhere in the body: within and around the muscles, connecting bones and protecting joints and suspending and holding the organs. The Achilles tendon is a kind of connective tissue, but so is the more fluffy, cotton-candy-like web of tissues that we find beneath the skin, and so too is the smooth, slightly shiny ‘wrapping’ fascia that we see around muscles (you might recognise this from looking at a breast of chicken, for instance).
Fascia is a fasci(a)nating substance, with remarkable qualities. It is ‘plastic’, meaning that it can be moulded (and remoulded) under the right conditions, and it can also hold its shape. Rolfers have taken on board the new research that suggests that much of the tissue change effected by touch work comes more from stimulating and nudging the tissue to send new information to the nervous system, rather than from directly ‘stretching’ or ‘softening’ tissue. (We do sometimes still use these kinds of words, because they do, metaphorically, describe an experience that the client recognises: I am simply saying that the neurochemical reality is more complex.)
In other words, the former idea that maximum ‘pummeling’ creates maximum effect is now seen as a bit old-fashioned, and contemporary Rolfers do not rely on using intense and painful pressure in order to create change. That’s not to say that Rolfers never use firm touch – sometimes it is necessary. But it should never be more than you can cope with.
Ida Rolf was a research biochemist by training, and it is perhaps because of her awareness of the physical properties of different substances that she became interested in exploring the role played by fascia in chronic pain conditions.
Fascia, for the most part, was seen by the medical community as ‘packing material’ rather than an anatomical structure of interest in its own right, and it was what anatomists scraped away to get a look at the more distinctive structures of muscle and bone underneath. Even where particular connective tissues (eg. ligaments and tendons) were considered, they were seen mostly in isolation from other connective tissues in the body. Ida’s genius was to look at the role of the connective tissues as a whole, and later on she would draw on the idea of tensegrity to describe fascia as a whole-body system of tensioning and support. In doing so, she also built on the work of Andrew Taylor Still (the founder of osteopathy), who had written about the possible role of connective tissue at the turn of the 20th century.
There is now a growing body of research into the properties of different kinds of connective tissue. Once seen as largely inert, we now know that fascia is a complex and rich communication system that is rightly described as an organ in its own right, responsible for providing structure throughout the body and in distributing tension. Connective tissues are also the site of a number of different sensory receptors, such as mechanoreceptors and pain receptors, which communicate continuously with the nervous system.
Next section: gravity.