The goals of this article are to:
1. Illustrate the ubiquity of the connective tissue system along with some of the various manifestations of this tissue in the body. I’ll be touching in brief on its constituents; its roles in bone, organ, muscle, skin, vascular and neural health and function and the possibilities of it containing the memories, for example, of traumatic experiences earlier in one’s life that have been sealed because to be in touch with these experiences is deemed too painful by the various filtering systems of the body/mind.
2. Show the importance of healthy connective tissue to the overall health of the human (an animal) body as well as possible ways of improving and maintaining this health through exercise—specifically hatha yoga.
3. Explore certain ideas and theories regarding the connective tissue as not only a physical system integral to the proper functioning of the human body but also as the repository of information in the form of history and possible traumatic events that have been contained therein over time. As AT Still put it, “…an extension of the brain.”
It was during my first CranioSacral massage class in 1992 that I was introduced to the possibility that the fascial/connective tissue system of the body is more than a strictly physical system. During the class we were introduced to the central nervous system in brief with emphasis on the meninges, the membranous, connective tissue “bag” that surrounds the brain and the spine, and the cerebrospinal fluid that circulates within this membranous bag. Physiologically that purpose of this fluid is to bathe, nourish and cushion the brain and spinal cord as well as facilitate the removal of metabolic waste. It was at this juncture in the class that someone brought forth the quote from Andrew Taylor Still that is pertaining to connective tissue (Still is considered the “father” of osteopathic medicine):
“By its action we live and by its failure we shrink, swell and die. Each fiber of all muscles owes its pliability to that yielding septum-washer that gives all muscles help to glide over all adjacent muscles and ligaments without friction or jar. It not only lubricates the fibers but gives nourishment to all parts of the body. Its nerves are so abundant hat no atom of flesh fails to get nerve and fluid supply therefrom. The Soul of man with all the streams of pure, living water seems to dwell in the fascia. You deal and do business with the branch office of the brain and under the general corporation law, the same as the brain itself…and why not treat it with the same degree of respect?”
Needless to say my curiosity was piqued to the point of desiring to learn more about connective tissue and I began to explore further the realm of fascial/connective tissue within my chosen profession as a body worker.
This has been an ongoing journey that, as I wended my way further and further into it, I was humbled and amazed as to how much there really is to connective tissue and the diverse ways in which various health and exercise systems either pay it homage, or ignore it altogether. The more I knew the more I realized I didn’t know.
To understand the importance of connective tissue it helps to know what it’s made of. To be very brief, it is comprised of three basic “ingredients.” they are collagen cells (the “key” ingredient and the most abundant participant in the system); an elastin component; and what’s known as the ground substance which is the fluid medium that can take on qualities that run the gamut of a watery sol-state to a more viscous gel-state. That’s it! Of course that’s just the smallest of nutshells. These three ingredients are present in a variety of ratios to one another depending on the function that’s required and can change their state to suit the needs of the body at any given time. They are involved with the support and integrity of every component of the body from the tough, inelastic membrane surrounding the brain and spine, to the tendons (which bind muscles to bones) and ligaments (connecting bone to bone), to the periosteum of the bones, to the transparent delicacy of the cornea around the eye. Several volumes have been written about all the specific and specialized manifestations of these basic ingredients but for the sake of brevity we’ll leave it at that for now. (At the end of this will be a list of material to seek out if you’re curious to learn more.)
All of the various parts of the whole body are comprised of these same essential ingredients. From connective tissue comes, with the introduction of hyaline, cartilage; with the introduction of mineral salts, bone. To get a more hands-on idea of the strength and flexibility of connective tissue take time to study the web of a spider the next time you get a chance. (See if you can find a “fresh” one rather than the old worn out bits that collect in the corners of the wall and ceiling). If you’re not too squeamish about such things, touch the web lightly on one spot and watch the way the effect of your touch moves through the entire structure of the web to various degrees depending on proximity to your finger. At the same time notice the strength in this delicate structure. This will give you a more tangible idea of what exists inside of you.
Let us look a bit closer at the collagen cells. To quote from one of my favorite books about anatomy, “Job’s Body” by Dean Juhan, in reference to collagen and the fibroblasts from whence they are derived, he says, “…these fibers are not living tissue, but are made up of protein chains that are produced by the same living cells which exude the fluid ground substance, the fibroblasts.” Juhan goes on to say about the fibroblasts, “Of all the cells in the body, these fibroblasts are the only ones which retain throughout our lives the unique property of being able to migrate to any point in the body, adjust their internal chemistry in response to local conditions, and begin manufacturing specific forms of structural tissue that are appropriate to that area.” Scars formed in response to a tear or cut on the skin surface comes to mind. Granted this ability is at its most efficient in the early years of our lives and does continue to some degree until our last breath.
To emphasize the importance of collagen cells we need to know how plentiful they are within virtually all components of the human body and virtually every other life form on the planet. The protein collagen is “perhaps the most abundant protein in the animal kingdom. It constitutes as much as 40% of all the proteins in the body.” As Juhan also notes, “in animal evolution, collagen appeared at a very early stage, during the development of the coelenterates (an ancient phylum including jellyfish and sea anemones and sponges.” Just as anywhere else in the body the cylindrical structure is not hollow for the sake of hollowness but serves as a tertiary circulatory system. Circulating what we’ll see in a bit.
We need to underscore the difference between the elastin and collagen response in the body. Collagen is addressed by long, slow, gentle stretching that does not ignore the initial limitations present in the tissue. To put it simply, the elastin response is a quick-acting spring-back mechanism that returns the various body components back to their most familiar position. I refer here to either self-initiated movements or stretches facilitated by a therapist in any one of the various approaches to body therapy. There’s little ability or interest of the body/mind to hold change when one is only in the stretch for a few seconds.
I see elastin as the maintainers of the “status quo” performing the valuable job of flexibility and rapid response to constantly changing demands.
I see collagen on the other hand as the foundation, the lattice from which all body structures derive from. the axiom with accessing and influencing the viscous, collagen component is, light pressure (or stretch) for a sustained amount of time is going to have a longer lasting effect and a great likelihood of awakening us to a latent or hidden bit of information contained in our tissue, whatever the tissue may be.
It is likely that this body wisdom has something to do with the following possibility: During the last century research was conducted into the possibility of what the tubular structure of the collagen cells was all about. Could the reason be something to do with a circulatory function, and if so, circulating what? Well, apparently what’s been found in the center of these collagen microtubules is not blood, not lymph but cerebrospinal fluid! The opening paragraph in a 1959 paper by an osteopath named Ralph F Erlingheuser states: “The cerebrospinal fluid has, as one of its important functions, the control of the dynamic equilibrium of the human body. This fluid is circulated by means of its fluctuation throughout the body, utilizing the tubular collagen fibrils of the connective tissue system as the transport mechanism between the sub-arachnoid space and the intercellular spaces.” In other words, there’s’ some method of transport moving the cerebrospinal fluid from within the central nervous system to the entire connective tissue realm of the animal body.
In his book, the Philosophy and Mechanical Principles of Osteopathy, AT Still says, “…that they cerebrospinal fluid is one of the highest know elements that are contained in the body…” As if that wasn’t enough, I’d like to quote Dr. William Sutherland, DO (the man who is credited with “discovering” cranial osteopathy). He states that, “Within that cerebrospinal fluid there is an invisible element that I refer to as the ‘Breath of Life.’ I want you to visualize this breath of life as a fluid within this fluid, something that does not mix; something that has the potency as the thing that makes it move. Is it really necessary to know what makes the fluid move? Visualize a potency, an intelligent potency that is more intelligent than your own human mentality.”
As an aside, it seems that back in the day when these Osteopaths were clearly a breed apart from the Allopaths, before this age of over-specialization, there seemed to be more of an openness to allowing for the wisdom of each person’s body to be acknowledged and integrated into the treatment and the healing. Just because we haven’t figured out how to measure something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen!
It could be said that the connective tissue matrix is what we’re referring to in the semi-new-age speak term “body mind.” It could also be said that within this system is where we contact much of the emotional memories around experiences consciously remembered or unconsciously forgotten; motions that have been known to come forth without conscious initiation during a Yoga class that is focusing on heart opening asanas, for example.
While one could argue that, as in the case of Oriental Medicine, that different meridians and organs elicit and/or represent certain fairly specific emotions, what all organs share is their containment within their own connective tissue pocket. It is within these pockets and its ubiquitous presence where every part of the body is connected to every other part of the body.
 AT Still, Philosophy of Osteopathy, 1898