A Fresh Look at the Role of Fascia

A Conversation with Bruce Schonfeld and Gil Hedley
Pages: 62-66
Year: 2018
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structure, Function, Integration Journal – Vol. 46 – Nº 3

Volume: 46
ABSTRACT We start with a phone interview Karin Wagner conducted with Bruce Schonfeld about his upcoming film, The Secret Life of Fascia. Surprise guest Gil Hedley joins the call later, and Karin and Bruce then interview Gil together about his recent project, a forty-six-city tour of his multimedia presentation called What’s the Fuzz?!


Gil Hedley (left) and Bruce Schonfeld (right)


Karin Wagner:

Hi Bruce. Thanks for taking the time to  do this interview. Let’s start with why you decided to make this film, The Secret Life of Fascia.

Bruce Schonfeld:

I went to film school and I’d been angling to make a film for a long time, but I wanted to make the right film. I wanted   to present the science of fascia in all of its glory and ambiguity versus making some sort of fitness video. Robert Schleip is a great storyteller with a great story.

KW: What does this film teach us about fascia?

BS: Fascia, historically: why it’s been marginalized in medical and anatomical texts, and what’s changed in the field to make it so it can actually be measured. It’s relevant, particularly in the field of sports, and the film  comprehensively goes through a lot of rich, dense, science- informed material about how the body works through the lens of fascia, and  then the journey ends up looking at how to train fascia.

KW: So the film is interesting enough for the general public, but detailed enough for professionals to learn from?

BS: It’s a rich body of information, so you can learn a lot from it academically. It’s something to muse on, perhaps, to see   it presented in a visual way that you can relate to. That’s fertile ground for self- reflection and just being like, “Hey, I don’t agree with that” or “Hey, I agree with that. I do that in my practice every day.”

KW: Tell us a bit about what to expect. What’s the format?

BS: Well, it’s a movie. You’re going to watch a movie. Act One is “What is fascia?” Act Two is sports medicine and underlying mechanisms – how the body works through the lens of fascia. Act Three is training fascia; it’s based on a presentation by Robert Schleip.  Each  act is broken down further into a bunch  of different chapters. Many of those chapters have citations to document what research is being cited, and then there will be a bibliography in the credit roll.

KW: I’d like to hear more about the scientific research that the film refers to. You’ve peppered it with citations that are visible on screen and will also be available on the website, right?

BS: The truth is the citations are their own entity. They drive me crazy and they have to be perfect. It’s a thesis paper in film, and, like you say, it’s loaded with research. The research and citations are pretty much rooted in two books, Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body and Fascia: In Sport and Movement. Robert [Schleip] interprets the science in a global sense, and I’m trying to interpret Robert, and it’s obviously not just about Robert. We’ve got Don Ingber, Helene Langevin, Carla Stecco, Antonio Stecco, and Jean-Claude Guimberteau. And I’m shooting some new video of Robert  at the dissection for the Plastination Project with Body Worlds in Germany.

KW: Tell us about that research. What might be surprising to our audience – anything that’s really changed in our understanding of fascia?

BS: The Franklyn-Miller research deconstructs the central premise of how force transfers from point A to point B in the classic kinesiological model, where the hamstring transmits force from attachment to attachment with the straight leg raise test. That research shows that it actually doesn’t work like that. There’s a lateral transfer of force to the IT band. The true nature of motion transfer is a more global event. Helene Langevin and Robert Schleip talk about it in the movie.

KW: With all of this new information about fascia from the research and especially with what your film is conveying, how can structural integration (SI) practitioners make their work more effective?

BS: I think it’s helpful in terms of clinical reasoning skills, and trying to square off with the research may be relevant to practitioners. The key is to follow the science, and also try to follow what you know as a practitioner at the same time. Science can explain how some of the change may be occurring in your office, or [suggest] incorporating some different techniques based on the science. Oscillation, for example, targets different mechanoreceptors, and so I started using  it in my practice. I didn’t do that in the beginning; it seemed a little too massagey for me. But then I realized that it speaks directly to the body in a different way that is relevant.

KW: That makes sense. You’ve added oscillation to affect those specific mechanoreceptors, as example of a way that you have changed your bodywork approach based on the fascia research. Has it impacted your exercise approach?

BS: I’ve always been a three-dimensional mover. I have a background in Continuum Movement®  (a  movement  practice)  and contact improv dance and playing baseball in a very dynamic way. But that plyometrics piece was something I didn’t really do. So I have incorporated more plyometric movement.

KW: That’s a fancy word for jumping?

BS: Yeah. Thank you. That’s a fancy word for jumping, and I’m the jerk that uses big words [laughs]. To make it relevant  for middle America, the idea is to move more three-dimensionally and to do more jumping. Really, the movie has a position of moderation because it’s not telling you to jump like a crazy person, too much too fast. If anything, it’s weaving a cautionary tale: saying you have to work your way into the exercise gradually, incrementally, to be sustainable and less risky versus just overdoing it.

KW: I took from the film that you should be thoroughly warmed up to avoid injury, and then it doesn’t take a huge amount of jumping to start to trigger the connective tissue remodeling. After warming up, we increase the intensity to perform maybe a dozen jumps at 60% of our total capacity and repeat that perhaps once a week in order to see long-term improvements in the connective tissue.

BS: Correct. One of the chapters is called “Finding the Right Challenging Zone” –  it’s exactly what you are talking about.

KW: I’ve been working with clients on how to go from not being a runner to starting to run, especially doing barefoot running or minimalist-shoe running. You can’t just tell people to warm up, you have to tell them what to do. You have to teach people.

BS: That sounds awesome. Do you have a short list of warm-ups?

KW: I’ve been telling clients to warm up with ankle circles. Twenty ankle circles in each direction is enough to thoroughly warm up the Achilles, plantar fascia, ankle, and calf. Then ‘heel raises’ off the back of a step, lifting and lowering the heel. Then bouncing, just light hopping, and then hopping on one leg. Then they can move into a few bigger jumps.

BS: If you were actually inspired by the movie to create this list, that’s fantastic, and it dovetails in a really lovely way.

KW: The information from the film helps inspire clients to take action. I tell them that if they’re only doing yoga and bicycling, or other low-impact sports, the connective tissue in the Achilles and their plantar fascia can easily become de-conditioned. The film makes it clear that dynamic plyometric  strain  helps to ready the Achilles for stepping off a curb suddenly or other unpredictable incidental motions. Maybe plantar fascia problems stem from this same weakness.

BS: Yeah, that makes sense. Also, they seem to be particularly vulnerable first thing in the morning. Our bodies can be so robust in movement, but we have to start gently, and then make sure to move outside the box.

KW: Say more about moving outside of the box.

BS: Are we the most domesticated species on the planet? The  answer  is no, but we’re in probably the top ten. Dogs, and then maybe horses, but we’re definitely on the list. When we behave in a domesticated manner, we move our bodies primarily in really predictable, limited ranges. The movie is making the case that this could be the root of many of our problems.

KW: From the title, The Secret Life of Fascia, it’s clear that fascia is the star of the show. Is there a surprising costar?

BS: The trailer poster says starring Robert Schleip. It’s Schleip and  fascia, it’s fascia and Schleip.

KW: I would have said that movement is the surprising costar.

BS: One of my co-producers quipped, “Essentially, your protagonist is a small sheet of white tissue, and your audience is not going to emotionally bond or feel engaged with that.”

KW:  But  this  movie  is  nonfiction.  It’s  a documentary, so the audience isn’t comparing it to fictional movies. In my experience, the public is very motivated toward health lately.  They’re  interested in preventing health problems instead of waiting for those problems to sneak up  on them.

BS: Yeah, people are interested in health and sports training and fitness and anything that helps them feel better and perform better.

KW: Speaking of surprising co-stars, Gil Hedley’s joining us now! Hey Gil, nice to have you on the call.


Gil Hedley:

Hi, nice to talk with you both.

KW: Gil, I’m going to ask you the same question that I asked Bruce. From the title of your multimedia presentation, What’s the Fuzz?!, it’s clear that fascia is the star of the show. Is there a surprising costar?

BS: Good luck with that, Gil.

GH: I’m already stumped. I’m never stumped.

KW:  I  already  told  Bruce,  for  his  film I thought the surprising costar was movement. For Gil’s presentation, I think that the surprising costar is adipose tissue.

GH: Well, adipose is fascia.

KW: And that’s a surprise for many people. We don’t think that much about adipose tissue, and yet you explain and demonstrate how very important it is.

BS: I like your idea about movement being the costar in my movie. That’s lovely. I would have never thought of that.

GH: I would  say  that  movement  also  is the main star in my presentation; the whole idea is to show how the different types of fascia contribute differently to movement as a whole.

BS: That’s what Gil talks about in my movie, and he’s brilliant.

KW: A lot of new information is coming out of research into the role of the nervous system  –  regarding  pain  and  injury, and also in explaining how structural integration works. As our field adapts to the current science, do you think fascia is becoming less important?

GH: Since you will not find a nerve apart from fascia, nor fascia apart from a nerve, I don’t believe the importance of fascia should or will recede any time soon. Neither should nerve or fascia deserve to ascend higher alone. The eye cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you!” The body in its awesome unity does not support any attempt to prioritize the importance of a particular tissue. The actual continuity of our body pays no respect to the ‘word- knives’ that would cut it into separate parts that literally exist in the mind alone. The notion that one could be ‘working on’ fascia, or ‘working on’ a nerve, overlooks the fact that you can only touch the whole person, the whole body. Let the parts become less important, and let the whole have its day!

KW: Gil, is there some surprising factoid about fascia that our readers might not know?

GH: Well, which fascia do you mean? That would be a surprising factoid, that fascia is a category and a taxonomy that might include more than is generally discussed. If we were to expand the elements within the taxonomy of fascia, we might find ourselves arguing less, because we’d say, “Which fascia are you talking about?,” rather than “fascia this,” or “fascia that.” Hot-headed  arguments go on between people who are insisting this and that, and whether we’re all talking about the same tissue or not is important. Right? So, I find that we can’t just speak generically about fascia and be sure that we are having the same conversation. We need to be more specific about exactly which tissues we’re talking about because they have different properties.

KW: For instance, whether fascia can stretch?

GH: That’s a good one. Some folks will say, “Fascia can’t stretch.” And other people say, “Well, yes it can.” Well, which fascia are you talking about? If we’re talking about  superficial  fascia  –  which I also realize there’s controversy about, what is superficial fascia? – but if you grab yourself by the skin and lift  it  up and let go, chances are it’s going to snap back down. And that’s because it’s a stretchable elastic tissue, not just the skin, but superficial fascia underneath it. The dermal connections to all those tissues are extremely stretchy. But when it comes to deep fascia, that’s not a great stretcher, and we can be grateful for that because it’s holding us together. It does, however, distort, it does have elastic properties, it does have contractual properties, but in different timeframes than muscle tissue or superficial fascia.

And we have what I call the filmy fascia, the perifascial membranes, formerly known as ‘the fuzz’, that also is distortable, distensible, and quickly responsive  fabric, which I believe, for most structural integrators, is the main subject of their attention, by accident. The deep fascia, dig into it as you may, does not respond in the same way that these other tissues readily do.

BS: Where does the interstitium fit in? Is that the perifascial membranes?

GH: Yes, as best as I can grasp from my exposure to the recent research, they  are talking pretty much exactly  about  the same tissue I’ve been talking about my whole career, but without the benefit of  a  scanning  electron   microscope,   or  whatever   they   used.   Wherever you find differential movement in the musculoskeletal system, there you will find perifascia, or perifascial membranes, or filmy fascia, all the same, fuzz. Fuzz  is simply the desiccated, embalmed version of filmy fascia, aka perifascial membranes, which I will call a fascia because it meets the terms perfectly: I can cut it into a fascia, and therefore it   is a fascia.

Perifascial membranes are a super- hydrated, fibrous, and mucoidal layer.  And  I dare call it a layer, again, because I can cut it into one, not because the body is made out of layers, but because I can cut it into layers, and that’s what anatomists do. So, the filmy fascia or perifascial membranes that I’m talking about hold the same place in my mind as this interstitium. And  the  fact is that, although I can’t cut the layers from around individual motor units because my tools are insufficient to do so, the structures are repeating in multiple fractal ingresses of cylindric envelopment, which can be demonstrated in cross section. And wherever we  find  differential  movement  in the body, we’re going to find this, call it interstitium, call it fuzz, call it filmy fascia, call it perifascial membranes, call it perifascia, whatever word you want to lay on it – and I’m sure other people have made up lots more words.

BS: That’s a lot of words, baby. A lot of words.

GH: We play with the words, and that’s okay, because, depending on who you are, you’ll choose the word that suits your purposes. I find that in our community ‘perifascia’ is an extremely suitable way of distinguishing one tissue texture from another and one set of functions from another. So, they have different textures, they have different functions, and once you know the textures and the functions, you can relate to them, treat them, find them, touch them, and be consistent in your understanding of their response to different types of touch because they don’t respond to the same kind of touch.

KW: What different types of touch can be useful for affecting different types of fascia?

GH: Well, superficial fascia doesn’t really love being mauled. It tends to get bruised. Filmy fascia will respond to very, very gentle touch. The perifascial membranes, being very wet on a good day, and slippery, can be contacted lightly, and the touch will easily conduct through the whole. If it’s gotten gummy, dehydrated, agglomerated, or inflamed, you may need to get more creative in how you approach it and reincorporate it into the greater flow. The deep fascia, for all the pounding folks see fit to deliver to it in the short run, is really slower to respond, reforming over months, not minutes, to the transformation of movements in the other tissues. Facilitate everything else, and the deep fascia will come on board. This is just a story. There are other good stories to be told as well!

KW: So, when I’m thinking about cutaneous nerves and using very gentle touch to affect those, I’m trying to affect the nerves within the fascia, but are you saying that even the fascia itself would respond well to that touch?

GH: In my mind, I’m flashing on multiple levels of tissue, even in an instance of    a nerve. So, every single nerve has a perifascial membrane, as well as a more fibrous wrapping, which gives a guitar- string feel when you’re touching it. At least, when you put it on tension. And so its capacity to move differentially to the tissue in which it’s living is important. Say a nerve going to muscle tissue is passing along the way and it doesn’t  move exactly the way the muscle does; it has its own movement and that’s important, whether it’s hooked up in the tissues. But the thing is, there are multiple types of fascia right there: in other words, there’s the membranous fascia and there’s the fibrous fascia and they’re both responsive, maybe, but differently, and I feel you can absolutely speak to a nerve. We’re not even talking about the neuron here, that’s another tissue altogether. Right? You can’t treat just a nerve. There’s no such thing as a nerve in the body. There’s only the body, which is wrapped in layers of connective tissue.

BS: Exactly. That’s why you want to think along parallel lines. You don’t have to think just in one way. You can hold the balance of analyzing how to work with the client, both regionally around their knee problem, and then I’m also mapping it out through a fresh slate in terms of their whole body, whether you end up working with the whole body, or locally, but you can think it out on both levels at the same time.

KW: Yes, spot work or fix-it  work  can still have a holistic intent, when it’s contextualized in the big picture.

BS: And there you go: Gil is not a practitioner. Gil is a man in the fascia.  Gil, let’s talk a little bit about the fascial specifics of visceral fascia. Give it to us, set it up real nice. Tell it to Karin and me like we’re just happy, joyous little seven- year-olds at science summer camp.

GH: Well, bags, and bags, and bags. Here’s the thing, in the visceral world, in those beautiful body realms, our textures change significantly. What we might consider to be, say,  a  fibrous  fascia  may be differently fibrous than  it  would be represented in the musculoskeletal system. So, something like transversalis fascia: picture a guitar fret board where you have six strings widely spaced, forming a layer. In the posterior rectus sheath, the transversalis fascia is extremely thin. It is a layer, but it’s kind of a mix.

BS: It’s the visceral interconnector. It’s the continuity between the thorax and the pelvis.

GH: By all means, it’s in there, but it’s not the tensor band, it’s texturally different. It’s very thin and it is a real layer, but I sometimes find that if people take their mental images of fascia from the musculoskeletal system into the viscera and then work on it  that way, they’re not working on what’s there. Because what’s there is operating at a totally different speed, and the textures are fitting to the environment and deserve to be also listened to and worked with in a way that’s appropriate to that texture and environment.

KW: So, that is to say?

GH: Don’t put your elbow on somebody’s liver like it’s an IT band. And by the way, stop doing that to the IT band.

BS: Well, there’s what you do, and there’s how you do it. Do you administer the force slowly and broadly, or do you do it rapidly and with a sharp angle?

KW: Back to Gil’s presentation, I   thought one  of  the  big  messages  was a resonant call-to-action around body acceptance, both self-acceptance and cultural acceptance, appreciating the beauty of the wave-like motion of adipose tissue and the way that it protects us, its roundness and softness.

GH: The sensuality and the connection that it provides. All of that is good. I have taken up the banner of the goodness  and the gift of the body. I like to wave  that flag high in the face of the cultural problematization of the body and the attempt to commercialize and commodify solutions to false problems that boil down to making a problem out of who and what we are, and telling you it’s wrong, and then selling you solutions that you don’t really need. I’m just saying, don’t buy it!

KW: Yes. I think one of the important take-home messages for practitioners from your presentation is that we have an incredible opportunity to help our clients cultivate greater self-acceptance. But it has to begin with ourselves.

GH: Yes, that’s right. For the practitioner, there has to be leadership and then modeling for the client,  the  participant  in the session; that they be led by the practitioner out of that forest of problems into an appreciation of health and beauty in the many forms that it takes, and the incredible advantages that each of us is enjoying from life in a body despite the various problems that arise. If there’s one thing going wrong, there are probably a trillion things going  right  in  the  course of a minute in your body. Incalculable goodness is happening  there  in  order  to let you whine and complain about whatever it is that  ails  you.  There  has to be a whole lot going right for you to   be able to show up at a session and complain about [pause]

KW: To be able to complain about the fact that my big toe is a little stiff?

GH: Yeah, or that someone’s left boob is a little differently shaped than their right boob. We’re not symmetrical creatures. We’re  not  meant  to  be,  and  it’s  only  in the imitation of art that we live as a disappointment to ourselves.

BS: We’re worshiping false altars and prophets, one of them being perfect symmetry.

GH: We should be looking for balance, not symmetry, in a body, and that’s a completely different phenomenon.

BS: It’s about quality of life and function. It’s not about aesthetics. That’s the way our tribe has primarily evolved.

KW: Gil, I was really surprised at where you took your message over the trajectory of your presentation. You delved really deeply into a lot of science, but it blew my mind that you ended with a big-picture call to the best of humanity: let’s get  over  focusing on  our  differences  and  find  harmony and connection, and repair some of the fractures that have happened in our society.

GH: Yeah, that’s something I have learned from the body, from my inquiry: it’s not ‘get over differences’. Differences are fun and interesting, but don’t mistake differences  as cause for separation. There are differences in the unity. That’s the creative process. That’s what makes life interesting. If it were all sameness and equality, it would  be  over. I’m all for differences and celebrating differences, but not separating over them, and that’s the difference between a mental approach and a heart approach. That distinction is, of course, ridiculous  in itself. In other words, there’s no movement  in  the body without differences, and yet it’s one and the same thing with us. The whole creation with all its differences rolls forward and spins through space.

BS: Ironically, it’s much easier to describe reductionism than it is to describe holism. We’re all trying to find tight, coherent ways to describe holism, the forest that doesn’t get missed by way of the trees.

GH: The forest defies reductionism.

BS: It precedes and prevails over humankind’s interpretation. It’s not about some species-specific interpretation  about the way that things are according  to humankind. The Earth doesn’t quite play by those rules. It gets potentially slaughtered, but yeah.

GH: I’m pretty sure the Earth will fold us under before we do.

BS: It’s about scale. We don’t appreciate scale or our place amongst other things in the natural kingdom.

GH: I do love the body scale for witnessing the function of the whole and as a tool for comprehending in the microcosm how there can be total connection as well as differential movement. One body, many textures, differential movement, without separation.

KW: Gil, you aren’t a practitioner yourself, but you teach anatomy to many. Do you have any advice for the practitioners out there?

GH: I hope folks will hold their good practices dearly, and their stories about them very lightly.

KW: That seems like sage advice. If people want to learn more, what’s the next step?

GH: I created an online class from the Vancouver version of my presentation (https://bit.ly/2rRx5CB). It’s a five-hour version including the videos, several readings, and a quiz. It’s a fun course jam-packed with images and insights for practitioners, and I’m quite proud of it!

KW: Who’s the intended audience for your online classes?

GH: I think they would be extremely suitable for anyone who moves or touches people’s bodies.

KW: Bruce, how can people watch your movie?

BS: It’s coming out in 2019. For updates, please follow The Secret Life of Fascia on Facebook. The website is www.secretlifeoffascia.com.

KW:  Great.  I  highly  recommend  both of these. Thanks to both of you for everything you contribute, both to the field of structural integration and to the public.

Bruce Schonfeld was certified in Rolfing® SI in 1994. Bruce has extensive training in visceral osteopathy including 300+ hours directly with Jean-Pierre Barral  and 600 combined hours of dissection and anatomy in clay. Bruce and Jan Sultan have been collaborating and bridging the gap between SI and the visceral system. Find him online at www. advancedrolfing.com..

Gil Hedley, Ph.D., has been teaching ‘integral anatomy’ in the human dissection laboratory for twenty-five years. He is the producer of The Integral Anatomy Series and the author of a gaggle of books. He  is currently writing his magnum opus,  The Atlas of Integral Anatomy, when not leading groups in the lab. His educational courses and resources are available at www.gilhedley.com.

Karin Wagner is a Certified Advanced Rolfer practicing in Portland, Oregon for fifteen years. She has a black belt in Ki Aikido and BA in Women’s Health. She enjoys teaching classes for  the  public  on topics related to posture, movement, and the nervous system. Her website www.portlandrolfer.com is packed with resources for clients.

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