Fascia: The Secret Organ—and How to Make Your Legs Longer and Leaner
A visit to structural integrative specialist Lauren Roxburgh begins with a photo session in front of a gridded wall at her Santa Monica studio. She instructs you to stand in your natural posture—in a sports bra and tights—feet aligned against two marks on the floor. 90 or so minutes later, she sets you up in front of the same grid, and then shows you the infomercial-esque results. If she didn’t have you hop off the bed mid-session to hobble around for a few minutes—feeling how strange it is when one of your legs is longer than the other—you wouldn’t believe what you’re seeing. Which is that Lauren has in fact made you taller—and as a result of the heightened alignment, leaner. Your head hits the grid inches higher.
Lauren is an alignment and body mechanics specialist who focuses on the fascia—i.e., the connective tissue in our bodies that doctors are now considering to be the organ of structure or posture. At its best, the fascia is a thin membrane that covers all of our muscles. At its worst, it bonds together to create knots, pain, tension, and thickness, impeding our body’s ability to exercise its full range of motion, and then enforcing the body’s tendencies to restrict itself and shorten. Through a combination of her hands and a foam roller, Lauren can re-align the body, eliminating thicknesses, bloating, toxins, and imbalances. Her work is profound, in large part because fascia is malleable, and it’s inclined to do what it’s told, which is why she counts many pro athletes—and orthopedic surgeons—amongst her clientele. While a session on her table is inarguably invaluable, Lauren believes that you can get about 80% of the results by doing it yourself with one simple tool. Here, she demonstrates exactly what you need to do to bring your hips into alignment, and eliminate thickness, pain, and tension through the upper thighs, butt, and hips. Her book (Ballantine) is due out in January, 2016.
So what is it exactly that you do?
At the most basic level, I do body work—but it’s much deeper than that, as the way we move our bodies says a lot about our lives. On the surface, I address physical issues, and all the stresses that injuries, stress, tension, and daily life place upon us. But at a deeper level, I’m helping people make the connection between their emotions, their movement, and the way that they feel.
What do I mean by that? I help people see that when they hold stress from overwork, physical and emotional behavior patterns, repetitive strain, and even trauma, it is transmitted to the body. You can see it, whether it’s a compressed diaphragm, hunched and sloping shoulders, or thickness through the upper thighs. When I help clients release those stresses, I can empower them to heal the deeper issues that manifest themselves as physical symptoms.
I’ve studied many modalities, from nutrition to yoga to structural integration and meditation, but perhaps the one thing that makes me different is my focus on fascia. Our bodies store the trauma of our lives in our fascia, which can lead to muscular and structural rigidity. When we release the tension in our fascia and align ourselves with gravity we take a new stance, and not just in our bodies.
So what exactly is fascia?
Fascia is a thin layer of connective tissue that encases your body under your skin like a wetsuit and actually wraps itself around every muscle, joint, and organ. If you’ve ever cut into a piece of raw chicken or steak and seen that thin, white, filmy layer, then you’ve seen fascia.
While fascia is incredibly malleable and thin, it’s also largely responsible for the shape of our bodies. How is this? Well, fascia can store toxins (my orthopedic surgeon friends tell me that when they cut through thickened fascia during surgery, it actually spurts pus—nasty, right?). Most importantly, it can thicken and harden when it is not used correctly: When you have a stiff shoulder, for example, often it is not damage to the muscle that it causing it, but a hardening or thickening of the fascia around the shoulder muscles and joint.
The amazing thing is that fascia is only now being medically recognized for its importance in maintaining a healthy, fit, toned, calm, and aligned body. In fact, it wasn’t until 2007 that the first international Fascia Research Congress was held at Harvard Medical School, bringing a new awareness to the importance of the fascial webbing system.
These days, “myofascial release” has become a bit of a buzzword in the fitness and wellness communities: Medical science is finally catching on that fascia is a major player in every movement you make and every trauma you’ve experienced, making it largely responsible for ‘shaping’ the body.
Shaping in what way? How do our bodies get out of alignment?
In its healthy state our muscles and joints are lubricated, smooth, supple, thin, and resilient with healthy circulation. They allow you to move and reach your full length in any direction with ease and grace.
Then life, gravity, and sh*t happens! We’re all dealing with a lot: The demands on our time are incessant; we’re juggling family and work; we’re trying to balance fitness, networking, and time to unwind. Modern life, particularly for women who are not always inclined to put themselves first, is a constant juggling act. And through this juggling act it is all too easy to accumulate bad patterns: To store stress and emotions, and to become rigid, tight, stiff, short of breath, and compressed. We actually shrink.
On top of this, if you’re carrying injuries from the past—both physical and mental—they can also cause our bodies to get out of alignment, accelerating all sorts of things we don’t want to happen. But despite the conventional wisdom, being in pain, gaining weight, losing muscle tone, shrinking, and having physical issues does not have to be a natural part of the aging process!
Poor posture, poor flexibility, and repetitive movements pull the fascia into ingrained patterns. Adhesions form within the stuck and blocked fascial tissue like snags in a sweater, and make our bodies feel heavy, thick, uncomfortable, and run down. The good news is that your fascia is incredibly malleable and has almost ridiculous self-healing abilities.
Why is it so hard to stand up straight?
Because poor posture begets poor posture: Your fascia bonds and thickens to support the way you tend to hold your body. Overcoming this tendency involves forcing the fascia to release.
Perhaps the biggest thing we all struggle with is to understand what is really going on in our bodies as we live our lives. I find that when I can help my clients achieve a true body awareness—that is to really understand what is going on—then it is not so hard to achieve a real and lasting alignment in the body.
So many of us don’t make the mental leap between the stress we might feel at work and the way our body looks and feels. But when we begin to understand this stress, and how we are dealing or not dealing with it and the way it manifests in our physical bodies, significant results happen: I find that clients are able to isolate and eliminate the stress, lose weight (excess baggage), walk upright with grace, and feel aligned in both their bodies and their spirits. More importantly they are able to release the pain, heaviness, tension, and physical limitations they’ve been living under.
The Longer Leg Sequence
#1: Foot Massage
- Stand up tall with the foam roller placed a few inches in front of your feet. (For extra support, stand in front of a wall.)
- Place one foot on the roller, so that the curve of the arch of your foot is supported.
- Breathing deeply, press the arch of your foot down to slowly move the roller back and forth. Apply as much pressure as you can, until you feel that hurt-so-good sensation.
Repeat eight times each along the inside, outside, and center of the arch.
#2: Calf Massage
- Lay down on your mat and place the roller under both of your calves, right under the knee (take care to stay off the back of the knee). Place your hands on the ground a few inches out on either side of your hips, fingers pointing outward.
- Press your hands down to lift your bottom off the mat, keeping your calves balanced on the roller. Make sure to draw your shoulders down and back to avoid hunching.
- Continue pressing your hands down behind you and engage your core to drive your body weight forward and back, moving the roller slowly up and down the calves, from right below the knee to that area right above the ankle. As you move, breathe deeply and evenly to send oxygenated blood to the body and smooth out the fascia. Repeat this motion, moving back and forth.
- After you’ve finished rolling down the center of your calves, rotate your feet inward, and repeat.
- Next, rotate your feet out, and repeat.
- Return to parallel and release your body back down to the ground.
Repeat eight times each along the center, inner, and outer edges of the calves.
#3: Back of Thigh Roll
- Sit on the mat and place the roller beneath your hamstrings.
- Place your hands behind you with fingertips pointing in toward your body.
- Press your hands into the mat to lift your bottom off the floor.
- Continue pressing your hands into the mat and engage your core to rock yourself forward and back, pushing the roller up and down the hamstrings, from just under the Sitz Bones to just above the knee. Breath deeply, exhaling as you move forward and inhaling as you move back.
Repeat eight to ten times.
#4: Front of Thigh Roll
- With your belly facing the mat, place your elbows directly under your shoulders, palms face-down.
- Keeping your legs straight, place the roller just above the front of your knees.
- Engage your core to prop yourself up and protect your lower back.
- Grounding down through your forearms, bend your knees to lengthen the thigh muscles—this will break down the thickness and density around the thighs and increase circulation.
- Using your arms and core, push the roller up and down the front of the thighs, from just above the knee to the top of the thigh. Exhale deeply as you roll up and inhale as you roll down.
Repeat eight to ten times.
#5: Hip Roll
- Sit down, placing one hip on the mat while grounding your lower hand on the mat with the wrist crease directly under the shoulder.
- Place the roller under your seated hip, edging it toward your outer hip.
- Bend your top leg and ground your foot down in front of the extended leg for support and leverage.
- Use your grounded hand and upper leg to move the roller up and down the outer thigh (stopping at the knee) and hips. Exhale deeply as you draw in and inhale as you extend.
Repeat eight to ten times.
#6: Thigh De-Bunch
- Lay on the mat and place the roller under your sacrum (the triangular bone at the base of your spine).
- Bend one knee and draw it into your chest. Keep the other leg extended down on the mat in front of you, flexing and reaching through the heel.
- As you inhale, lift the extended leg two inches off of the mat. Hold here for three slow, full breaths, allowing your hips to fully extend, elongate. (This will free up toxins for the lymphatic system to flush.)
- After your third round of breath, exhale as you release your extended leg down to the mat, reaching through the flexed heel.
Repeat eight to ten times on each leg.
#1: Thigh Stretch
- Sit up on your knees, placing them on the mat hip-width apart, big toes together behind you.
- Bring the roller over your head, holding it by its edges with both hands, arms shoulder wide apart. Keep your shoulders and chest stable, and establish a neutral spine (maintain that neutrality throughout the exercise to protect your discs and tone your abs).
- Equalize the weight in the front and back of your body, then inhale and start hinging back from your knee joints. Engage your inner thighs to keep the weight off of the knee joints and pull your belly in. Visualize your 3-D core as you hold for three seconds.
- Exhale as you press your shins down and slowly float back up. Your thighs will be burning as they tone themselves into the essentric (or enlongated) look we all love so much in our skinny jeans. Be sure to think of your muscles pulling in and up to defy gravity and to decompress your joints; this will result in sculpting longer and leaner thigh muscles.
Repeat eight to ten times.
#2: Bottom Lift
- Lay down with your spine long and neutral, arms pressing down on either side of you.
- Place the roller under the arches of your feet.
- Shift your feet into a V-position to work the outer thighs and butt.
- Keeping the roller stable, inhale and slowly lift your hips, engaging your hamstrings, butt, and thighs while lengthening the front of your body.
- Exhale and lower down, one vertebra at a time, slowly and with control.
Repeat five to eight times.
#3: Double Lower Leg Lift
- Lay down on the mat and place the roller perpendicular under your hips and sacrum, just above the tailbone.
- Move your spine to a neutral position to protect the back and engage the abs.
- Stabilize the roller by holding it at each edge, keeping the shoulders and chest open.
- Extend you legs straight up to the ceiling as you feel your core activate.
- As you inhale, slowly lower your legs—you want to feel your core, without arching your back.
- Exhale as you raise your legs back up toward the ceiling at a 90-degree angle.
Repeat eight to ten times.
#4: Outer Thigh/Waist Slimmer
- Prop yourself up onto one hip and forearm, placing the roller under your lower legs, just above your ankles, with your top foot forward.
- Extend your top arm up.
- Inhale as you lift your hips, keeping your side waistline strong and stable.
- Exhale to lower and “hoover” the mat, keeping the roller stable as you move.
Repeat eight to ten times per side.
#5: Rolling Grass Hopper
- With your torso facing the mat, rest the fleshy part of your leg right above the knee onto the roller and place your hands directly under your shoulders, fingers pointing forward.
- Inhale to bring your spine into extension (like you would in Cobra or Swan pose).
- Holding the roller in place, keep yourself suspended by engaging your core and the intrinsic muscles of your abs and triceps. Reach your legs long behind you to create oppositional energy.
- Exhale and begin rolling up your thighs (this will smooth out the fascia and flush toxins), while bending your elbows and lengthening your triceps until you are hovering over the mat (do not lower all the way to the mat).
- Inhale to come up again, while reaching your heart forward and your legs long behind you. Be sure to engage your hamstrings to keep the pressure out of your low back. (Think of your body like a teeter-totter: You want to keep your weight equal as you go up and down.)
Repeat eight to ten times.