The secret of fascia in the martial arts.

Sol Petersen
Mar 10, 2018
martial artist sidekick with sun behind them
                                                      Figure 16.1
                               Shaolin KungFu training develops fascial strength
                                                SiFu Pierre Yves Roqueferre

We live in two worlds, one on either side of our skin. The very survival ofthe Ninja or the hunting wild cat is dependent on their alertness and presence in both worlds. Body-Mindfulness is what I call this embodied awareness and aliveness. Its full expression is found in martial arts mastery. Body-Mindfulness is a calm, open state of present-time awareness ofinner and outer body experiences, including sensory stimulations such as pressure, touch, stretch, temperature, pain, tingling, physical movement and position in space, visual, auditory and olfactory impressions. An integral aspect of Body-Mindfulness is fascial awareness: the capacity to sense our body-wide network of myofascial tissue in stillness and in movement. We can develop this skill and build the elastic potential of the connective tissue system (Chapter l) in fine, coordinated, controlled martial training such as tai ji, karate and kung fu forms, then actualise this controlled power in explosive high speed movements. The quest for ultimate power and awareness in self-defence and attack is an ancient one. Two thousand years ago the masters, who trained tendon power, knew something intuitively that science has only recently validated. Shaolin training and tai ji masters both recognised the vital importance of conditioning and strengthening the fascia and connective tissues to build and protect the body's Qi energy (life force). Since research has shown that it is the organ of stability and the seat of our proprioception, the fascia has finally received the attention it deserves. In fact, most musculo-skeletal injuries involve inappropriate loading of the connective tissues and fascia, not the muscles. Therefore, the fascia must be considered an important factor in peak performance and training. The pioneers in the new fascial research define fascia more broadly than traditionally. They recognise fascia as the soft tissue component of the connective tissue system permeating the entire human body as one interconnected tensional network. It includes tendons, ligaments, joint and organ capsules, membranes, dense sheets and softer collagenous layers (Chapter 1).

person stretching/strengthening in pose

Figure 16.2
The Qi follows the intention of the heart and mind
Harumi Tribble, dancer and choreographer

In the new Fascial Fitness approach there is an emphasis on developing elasticity, of acknowledging the stress-responsive nature and tensional integrity of fascial tissue, of specifically conditioning and hydrating the fascia for appropriate stress-loading, as well as appreciating its recently discovered proprioceptive qualities (Chapter 11). This chapter explores some of the implications of the current research and how Fascial Fitness, attained through physical training and Body-Mindfulness, is one of the secrets for success in martial arts mastery. The Mindful heart and spirit Our capacity for training in martial arts pivots around our heart, spirit, motivation, and understanding our place in the universe. If this were not the case, why would we train with the passion required to achieve the highest excellence? The Qi expressed in martial arts practice follows the deepest intention of our heart and mind, and according to Chia, our fascial planes. 'The fascia are extremely important in Iron Shirt Chi Kung; as the most pervasive tissue they are believed to be the means whereby Qi is distributed along acupuncture meridians.' (Chia, 1988). There are unusual instances in life where, for example, a woman who would not usually be seen as very strong, has accessed the strength to lift a car and save her child. Her shock, fear and desire enable her to transcend her usual capacity. Her muscles clearly were not strong enough to lift the car. How did she do it? Perhaps like the kangaroo, which also does not have strong enough muscles to jump very far but can spring great distances with tendon and fascia power (Chapter 10), her fearless mind and tendon power took her beyond her usual physical limits. Lee Parore, naturopath and author of Power Posture, trains top New Zealand athletes. Former trainer for world heavyweight boxer, David Tua, he sees awareness as primary. 'Technology is the key to high performance training but we are often looking at the wrong technology. The key isn't machine training or muscle bulk. It is awareness and then self-awareness. It is a fire inside us.' (Parore, 2013).

Fascial awareness, an integral aspect of Body-Mindfulness
Robert Schleip considers the connective tissues as the global connecting network, a listening system for the whole body: 'Science now recognises this richly innervated body-wide fascial web as the seat of our interoception and proprioception, our very embodiment.' (Schleip, 2013). In fact, the fascia is more richly innervated than our muscles. So when we say our muscles are sore it may be that we are feeling our fascia or our fascia is feeling our muscles (Chapter 1). Cirque du Soleil acrobat, Marie Laure, combines a high degree of Body-Mindfulness as well as enormous core strength and endurance in her performances with her partner. One might assume this would translate into rigidity in her fascial or muscle tissue. On the contrary, as a therapist with the physiotherapy team during their New Zealand tour, I experienced her myofascial tissue to be surprisingly supple and her physique hardly bulked. This is in line with a comment by Stuart McGill, author of Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, 'The hallmark of a great athlete is the ability to contract and relax a muscle quickly and to train the rate of relaxation' (McGill, 2004). This skill is essential to achieve speed in kicking and punching. Fascial awareness enables the martial arts practitioner to relax the muscles and fascia and be fully present in their internal and external worlds. This enables martial artists to use their bodies to sense nuances in the balance of the other's body and manipulate or deflect the other's expended energy to their own advantage. Huang Sheng Shyan was famous for his powerful issuing of the Tai Ji-jin or elastic force. His training method involves precise attention to the internal changes of muscles, tendons and fascia. Patrick Kelly, Tai Ji teacher and author, speaks about this awareness where internal relaxation means every muscle in the body elongates and actively stretches under the pressure, rather than contracts and shortens (or holds unchanged) in a tense resistance. 'We can say that the basis of the secret is just this: Tai Ji-jin is motivated by the yi (mind intention) energised by the Qi, issued from the root and transmitted through the body in a wave of stretching muscles' (Kelly, 2007). Intense physical training, without self-awareness, will not produce the highest results. If we do not develop our inner and outer sensing, we will not achieve awareness of the space around us (our opponent) or in the sword we hold. Quite simply, our fascia is a vital sensory organ and fascial awareness is an important key in martial training. Building fascial resilience and fascial armourmg Iron Shirt is an ancient Kung Fu method that profoundly understands the stress-responsive nature of the bones and fascia. Wolff's law states that bone, in a healthy person or animal, will adapt to the loads under which it is placed. If loading increases, the bone will remodel itself over time to become stronger. Iron Shirt strengthens muscles, tendons, fascia! sheaths and bones, by subjecting them directly and gradually to increasing stress. The important detail here is 'gradually'. Internal energy visualisation combined with breath and body conditioning are used to cultivate the Qi power. 'The Qi that is generated is then stored in the fascial layers where it works like a cushion to protect the organs' (Chia, 1986). This concept of Qi between tissue layers helps to explain an experience I had with a Singaporean Tai Ji master. It is 1981. I am waiting at a table to ask if I can study with him. He walks out, smiles, reaches across, pinching the skin of my forearm between his thumb and forefinger, rolling it back and forth in different places for about ten seconds. 'Yes', he says, 'I can see you have been practising Tai Ji for a while. Good practice creates elasticity between the tissue layers.' Lau Chin-Wah was a senior student of Master Huang. I studied with him in Kuching, East Malaysia. Our practice centred on refining the form, Pushing Hands and White Crane Quick Fist. Sometimes Chin-Wah would just throw his arm, as if it was an enormous wet rag or rope, against a stone wall, apparently not hurting himself at all. He said the secret was to totally relax the muscles and fascia of the arm and also to condition and harden the bones to become like steel, by training with a partner, hitting bony forearms and shins against each other. This is extremely painful initially but becomes easier and may transform the marrow and substance of the bones and soft tissues (Chia, 1988). Chin-Wah spoke of the Qi inside gathering to meet the force of an attack. He said that when he was centered, aligned in his structure and his body and energy field were one, his fascia, bones and soft tissues became like impenetrable armour enabling him to have a heavy roof tile broken over his head as if it were nothing. Our fascial system is clearly capable of adapting and strengthening itself in response to progressive loading. Fascial fitness keys for martial arts training The capacity to relax: The source of speed In boxing drills, fighters need to become experts at letting go of all muscle tension. A system that is genuinely relaxed does not need to overcome tension to ignite itself for immediate response. 'You don't want muscle bulk for true speed and strength in boxing but resilient fascia like Spiderman' (Parore, 2013). In Tai Ji Pushing Hands, the players must be willing to be pushed over, to learn to use elastic fascia force instead of relying on muscular strength to combat force. Master Huang was simultaneously totally relaxed yet totally stable. To push him was to feel drawn into empty space and then be sent flying. Bruce Lee, the famous Kung Fu master, was not a big man. At only 1.7 m (5' 8') and 68 kg (150 lbs),

man in yoga pose with arms outstretched to the sky
Figure 16.3
Demonstrates energising the Qi in long anterior
myofascial chains
Master Li Jun Feng

he often defeated opponents who were both larger and much heavier. One day, he demonstrated his one-inch punch to a sceptical, burly man who was astonished as he flew back 5 meters into the swimming pool. When asked how he had done it Lee said, 'To generate great power you must first totally relax and gather your strength, and then concentrate your mind and all your strength on hitting your target' (Hyams, 1982). Your fascial resilience affects your field of physical potential Neuroscientists call the space around the body peripersonal space (Rizzolatti et al., 1997). Recently, brain mapping techniques have confirmed what Tai Ji Master Mak Ying Po once said to me, 'You must extend your feeling sense out around your body. When you move the sword through space, feel the length of it, the tip, as if it was part of your body' (Mak Ying Po, 1976). Similarly, in The Body Has a Mind of Its Own the Blakeslees say, 'Your self does not end where your flesh ends, but suffuses and blends with the world, including other beings. Thus when you ride a horse with confidence and skill, your body maps and the horse's body maps are blended in shared space' (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2007). The acrobatic kick-boxer and the Kung Fu master both rely on the combination of intense movement training and their refined body awareness. This enables them to respond without hesitation to the slightest change in their field of physical potential. As Master Huang said, 'If you are thinking, it's too late' (Huang, 1980). Tensegrity strength: Stabilising the myofascial system Those studying the fascia matrix have compared the body to a tensegrity structure, a structure of tensional integrity. Unlike a pile of bricks, our bones do not touch each other but are spaced by cartilage or soft tissues and the skeletal relationships are maintained by the tension and span of the global myofascial system: in some ways like a tent. It is interesting that barefoot runners may endure less shin splints than runners in protective shoes (Warburton, 2001). Barefoot runners strike the ground more gently with more of the forefoot than runners in conventional shoes. Viewed in a tensegrity way, this reduces the stress transmitted to the shin bones and joints and spreads it throughout the entire fascial and skeletal framework where it is stored as elastic energy (Chapter 10). Balance exercises, such as slack line, wobble board, Swiss ball, rock climbing, etc., challenge and train our fascia and internal strength to develop spontaneous tensegral adaptability. I observed Cirque du Soleil acrobats maintaining their core stabilisation through 'animal-like' stretches and play, consistent practice of their art and specific exercises to strengthen the flexors, extensors, lateral torso and hip muscles for movement in all three functional planes. This core stabilisation and core stiffening is essential for hyper-mobile acrobats to avoid injury. The capacity for a resilient, tensegral whole body stabilisation is paramount for martial artists. The no inch punch: The preparatory counter movement at its most subtle In boxing and Wing Chun punching training, we see the value in spring loading, pre-tensioning as a preparation to unleash the explosive punch. In actual fighting, however, it is vital that this underlying preparatory counter movement is not telegraphed to our opponent. It may be that, in fighting situations, martial artists use a second style, a briefly sustained pre-stretching and pre-loading of their fascial tensegrity web, while the muscles prevent the release of recoil-power until the precise moment for the perfect delivery (Chapter 11). Alan Roberts, Aikido teacher said, 'In Aikido, Cheng Hsin and Jiu Jitsu, there is definitely an avoidance of communicating preparatory counter movements as they forewarn an opponent's intention. Much of the purpose of the internal training is to develop the ability to strike with immediacy and power. This is even more of a concern in the sword arts, where efficiency, speed, accuracy and the unexpected are highly prized' (Roberts, 2013). Huang was known throughout the Chinese martial arts world for his capacity to effortlessly throw opponents many metres. Not only was he not extending his hands and arms but, paradoxically, they almost appeared to be withdrawing as the person flew back, as if from an electric shock. In Tai Ji, the deep stance, focused breath and cultivation of Qi in the lower Dan Tien, as the weight is shifted, is a systematic spring-loading and preparatory counter movement stored for the issuing force to be delivered. Peter Ralston, author of The Principles of Effortless Power, when asked about Bruce Lee's oneinch punch placed his hand on the person's chest saying, 'You don't need an inch,' and knocked him 6 meters across the room, with little visible movement. Actively stretching the fascia for true elasticity Our body is designed for active loading. 'We are hard-wired to move, for survival, pleasure, creative self-expression and optimal function. The body has an inherent vocabulary of coordinated movements that develop naturally and concurrently with brain development. I refer to these as primary movements and postures. In cultures where people squat, sit cross-legged on the floor as a matter of course and walk barefoot at least sometimes, they cultivate their internal strength and fascial flexibility, which last into old age. On the other hand, many Westerners, even in their teens and certainly as they get older, struggle to squat flat-footed and sit upright on the floor. This loss of primary postures, movements and healthy fascial functioning is more and more evident in our chair-based society' (Petersen, 2009). Our movement repertoire is locked into our breathing pattern. Each breath is a physical and energetic impulse into the myofascial system (Chapter ll). In martial arts, abdominal and reverse abdominal breathing is an integral part of the training. The quest for full and powerful range of motion of the arm, spinal and leg myofascial chains in kicks, punches, blocks and evasive movements amplifies the fascial stretch and flexibility in both the core of the body, the powerhouse of our internal strength, and the engine of our entire breathing mechanism. Many find stretching an invaluable part of martial arts training. The classic holding of long passive stretches is not something we see much in the animal kingdom. Animals naturally and spontaneously roll, actively stretch and rub their soft tissues and joints against the ground or trees, which neutralises built up stress, nourishes and rehydrates their myofascial system (Bertolucci, 2011). If we are well embodied, our stretching will be more of a natural occurrence, with less need for a special regime (Chapter 9). Many trainers now suggest not stretching immediately before exercise but to warm up and mobilise the joints and tissues instead. Experience suggests fast, dynamic stretching, which occurs in many kicks and punches, is beneficial for the fascia when performed correctly: soft tissues should be warm and abrupt movements avoided. Rhythmic controlled bouncing at the end range may also be effective (Chapter 10). 'Fascial research is highlighting the fusion of passive and active tissue. Thus, when combining the fascial systems of the body, the objective in my view is to tune the passive and active tissues and their interaction. This enables optimal strength, speed, and power through a system that reduces injurious stress concentrations. This is a higher concept than simply stretching. Tuning tissue enhances performance, for example, when jumping. If the hamstrings are overstretched, only the active component of the muscle can create force. But great jumpers often have tighter hamstrings where they can time the muscle recoil with the elastic recoil of fascial and connective tissue, creating a higher resultant force. Thus more stretching is not the answer. Enough mobility is needed for the task but no more. The muscle creates force and so does tuned fascia. Consequently we have a better result' (McGill, 2013). Train the fascia through forms and Kata for total warrior fighting strength 'To prepare for mixed martial arts or real fight situations, it is important to realise, that functional strength can only be developed through exercises that not only work major muscle groups but also improve the condition and flexibility of the fascial planes,' says 8th degree black belt Grand Master, Lance Strong. 'Kata or Forms training has a huge effect on developing fascial strength and your ability to apply that strength in many different directions, while still maintaining your body's centre and balance. Virtually no form of exercise, other than kata, tai ji or yoga, and some cross-training exercises, develop this ability' (Strong, 2013).

Conditioning the fascial body
It takes time to build fascial resilience: 'It takes two to three years to build an aikido body that is elastic and strong enough for the training practice. Most injuries occur in the tendons and ligaments and are caused by over-training too early or trying to practice techniques more roughly than is appropriate' (Roberts, 2013). The Shaolin monks knew that, for positive results and to avoid injury, they could only do the intense bone conditioning every second or third day. We now know that collagen has a slow renewal cycle with a half-life of approximately one year, so after two months fascial training we may have little to show but much more after six or twelve months (Chapter 1). In martial arts fascial training, a long-term progress orientation is encouraged alongside loading, and particularly eccentric loading, rather than repetition. With free weights or kettlebells (Chapter 23), medium weights are used to train the fascia and heavier weights for the muscles. To achieve the best results, fascial training is limited to two or three times a week. On the other hand, daily exercise can have great value for our brain, muscles and cardiovascular system. Short intense boot camp trainings should be avoided as this often propagates compartment syndromes and fascial inflammation. 'If tolerated by the joints, training should include a component that demands 100% neural drive to the muscles. This is usually accomplished by training at speed. The actual static load need not be that great. Good form in all exercise promotes sparing of the joints but ensures optimal tensioning all along the musculoskeletal linkage' (McGill, 2013). McGill gives the example of a slow grinding bench press versus standing and falling into a push-up position, where the hands are on a low box, then immediately exploding back up to the standing position. The box height is adjusted so that this is barely possible. The neural drive is exceptional as is the tuning of the fascia, passive tissue and active muscle system. To maximise the tensegral power of the myofascial system, we should cultivate structural awareness and learn how physical alignment can be a foundation for both the ultimate relaxation and the ultimate expression of power. Effortless power is a consequence of setting up the right conditions through conscious training and this includes training the fascial body. Healthy fascia for a healthy body The fascial web, rather than the muscles alone, provides a framework for storage and release of kinetic energy (Chapter 10). It governs the springloaded joint mechanisms for the leg, arm, spinal chains and the entire system. Without good nutrition and hydration the fascia will let you down. 'The foundation for top performance has to be health, so before serious training with an athlete I test the liver, heart, blood and get the nutrition right so the Qi can move through the body' (Parore, 2013). The body's acid/alkaline balance, hormonal influences, lymph and blood flow all have a strong affect on the fascia and this affects our fitness. We rehydrate fascia with an inclusion of appropriate resting times for tissue and viscoelastic recovery. An active life and light nutrition support the fascia and muscles better than a sedentary life style. On a heavy red meat diet with saturated fats and refined sugar products we may cultivate stress hormones and chronic inflammation. Fascial restrictions and scarring can affect and inhibit a martial arts practice (Chapter 2). For selfcare maintenance and injury healing, foam rollers, massage balls and self-massage can be helpful. Some therapists use stone massage tools or powerful herbal liniments to reduce fascial scarring. New interventions such as injecting medical ozone and vitamin cocktails may assist in fascial recovery. Adhesions can also be released with integrative myofascial approaches such as osteopathy, acupuncture, integral aquatic therapy and structural integration. Fascial awareness and embodiment: Training for Life The path of the ultimate warrior, in traditional martial arts teachings, is not just the path of the fighter. It is a path of service, love and protection for our community. It demands us to access the deeper qualities of the warrior: focus, energy, perseverance and dedication to a cause bigger than ourselves. This heart, this spirit, is the essence of the internal power of the martial arts. It is foundational for reaching peak performance, recovering from an injury or building resilience to deal with the inherent challenges of life. Buddha said, 'Mindfulness is the sole path to freedom' (Goldstein, 1976). So perhaps, we shouldn't be surprised that Mindfulness is a source for unlimited potential in the movement arts and that it has been at the cutting edge of psychotherapeutic methods for the last decade. Contemporary Western culture and the media tend to draw us away from our deeper body awareness. A committed martial arts practice is a daily returning to ourselves. True masters in the martial arts are rare beings who have achieved the ultimate physical expression and the deepest Body-Mindfulness, with the consequent fascial awareness and peace of mind. This is built step-by-step during a lifetime of training as they integrate their art into every dimension of their life and well-being. As Master Huang said, 'Eat, sleep and practice Tai Ji.' (Huang, 1980). Be assured Body-Mindfulness need not be a serious task. To expand your fascial repertoire is to become elastically playful. It involves bringing a new creative attitude, not only to your martial arts practice but also to simple everyday activities like standing on one leg to brush your teeth, always sitting on the floor to watch television, studying stretching with a local cat and regular practice of the flat-footed squat. It is never too late to begin your fascial training. Stella is an 88-yearold student in my Tai Ji class. When she began at the age of 80, she struggled to climb the stairs to the practice room and to accomplish even basic movements. At 88, her practice has lightness and flow. Her balance has improved impressively. She carries her success in every step. In conclusion, giving attention to your fascial body is practically important and, combined with Mindfulness, these will be the best tools to manage your training. The fruits of bringing Body-Mindfulness into a martial arts practice and your life are a new 'aliveness', an enthusiastic resilient energy and a generous self-care attitude. Tools we all need for a long and healthy life.


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