Tai Chi, Fascia & Biotensegrity

It’s about ten years ago since my article ‘Tai Chi, Fascia and Biotensegrity’ was first published in the TCUGB magazine and on this and other sites across the net. Here is a revised version of that original piece – enjoy.

I was first introduced to fascia in the early 2000s by my friend Dr. Ned who was training to be an Osteopath. We had a great thing going at the time: he would come and do some training with me in the park, then we would head back to mine whereupon he would give me a superb osteopathic treatment. Afterwards we’d venture out for food, merriment and discussion of all manner of things, including fascia. What I appreciated about this framework of understanding was that it resonated with much of my own experiential ‘body knowledge’ and how it could serve as a communicative tool to help my students better orchestrate their training.

Direct experience is the most valuable source of all learning substratum

In my experience breaking the body down into discrete fascial lines isn’t at all useful but having the ‘general gist’ of fascia certainly can be. I use a basic model of fascia in my classes and it is simply that, a model; a sign-post on the pathway to direct experience, the most valuable source of all learning substratum. To have a proper functional understanding of how a living body operates in real time, the profound interconnectedness of ones own body has to be experienced clearly and deeply via specific training over an extended period of time.

To do this effectively we must move away from fixed ideas, theory and concepts and far away from dogma and doctrine. Having a head full of ideas, whether about fascial anatomy, acupuncture meridians or indeed anything else, is not useful for correct training. In fact, it’s a major impediment. This is no mean feat, especially so in a culture dominated by ‘mind-stuff’ and in an age where near permanent mental distraction via small portable screens is the norm for many.

What we think we know we fail to observe.

When students ask me what books they should read or what videos they should watch to speed their progress, I tell them, with all sincerity, not to bother. Instead, I advise that they go home, do proper training and turn their attention deep inside to the raw materials of their own body and mind; to observe and study whole-heartedly.

In theory there is no difference between theory and practise. But in practise there is.

During the course of my life I have spent a great many hours outside immersed in nature. Much of that time has been spent simply observing the beautiful ebb and flow of natural phenomena. As such I have a deep passion for the living world and I am fascinated at how all of Earth’s inhabitants, from the tiniest of bacteria to the biggest of mammals, are inextricably linked through one vast ecological web. Spend much more time outside, openly observe and you are likely to see this too – and become a happier person in the process.

The world is full of obvious things which nobody, by any chance, ever observes – Sherlock Holmes

When running nature workshops for children one of my conservationist friends illustrates this fact by building a working model of an ecological web using many bits of twine. All of the children assist with the construction; each tentatively holds their own a piece of string which represents some aspect of, or creature from, the natural world. All the threads are then tied together to form a responsive three dimensional web; the many facets of our ecology are visibly connected and the tensional balance of the integrated structure is felt by each individual. Pull on a thread in one particular place and the rest of the web will move to compensate, the change in pressure felt by all. Sever a thread and the integrity of the entire structure is compromised; the web collapses. Each separate part affects the whole. Indeed, the model illustrates that there are not any separate parts. It is just our limited perception, experience and poor intellectual understanding that creates such divisions. A microcosm of the whole, it is the same with the human body:

When one part moves, all parts move; the whole body responds – Tai Chi Classics

Fascia forms a continuous tensional network throughout the human body, covering and connecting every single organ, every muscle, and even every nerve fibre Robert Schleip

Research into the role of fascia as a useful means of understanding the physical reality of the body is no new thing; it has gained much credence in the realms of musculoskeletal and movement therapies and sports science over the last twenty years or so. For anyone interested in training body and mind effectively it is worth looking at and acquiring an idea of the basics, which I will briefly outline here.

Fascia is primarily made up of densely packed collagen fibres that comprise an integrated system of sheets, chords and bags that permeate the human body in its entirety. This three dimensional fascial web is jam packed with mechanoreceptors and essentially forms a ‘global’ sensory organ which richly and rapidly communicates where we are in space, what our bodies are doing and most importantly, how they are doing it. Fascia is elastic in nature and exhibits this quality when in good condition to facilitate connected and fluid movement through the whole body. It responds to the continuous force of gravity around which it organises bodily structure and function; if you can imagine wearing an elasticated wet-suit that permeates your body entirely, adapted and yet ever adaptive to how you most commonly use your body, then this may give you some idea of what’s what. Although most of us are not aware of it, to extend out a limb results in a corresponding stretch across the whole fascial ‘body-suit’ priming the body to recoil in one elastic and fluid motion. Whether we run, jump or walk a large part of the energy and dynamic ‘shape’ of that movement comes from the elastic recoil and spring-like properties of fascia. Incredibly, it has been discovered that the fascia of humans has a similar kinetic storage capacity to that of Kangaroos.

Fascia has long been ignored until recent years, being seen only as a kind of unimportant bulking agent of the body. However, anyone deeply engaged with any kind of intelligent movement/training practise, who has developed the above-average level of body-awareness necessary to do so, is likely to agree that the usually favoured isolated muscle presentation as the be all and end all of movement anatomy leaves much to be desired. Many people find it intellectually pleasing to categorise and separate the living human body, its actions and functions into disparate bits, the reality is however that it operates and is organised as a unit of function; an integrated whole. The human being grows organically from a single egg and so from conception to expiration this single unit operates inextricably. Separating movement into discrete functions fails to provide an accurate or useful picture of the seamless integration and responsiveness seen in and experienced by a living body. An understanding of fascia can help fill the gap and point in the direction of building ones ability to clearly experience and discern the fundamental nature and interconnected mechanisms of the body directly.

Traditionally the general consensus has been to think of only one or two muscles participating in any given movement, but no matter how common this misconception may any movement is essentially a whole-body movement. For movement is not simply the mere coordinated bending of separate hinges but instead the expansion, repositioning and contraction of the tensegrity of the body as a whole via the fascial web. So the classical IMA texts were certainly on to something when they told us that if one part moves, the whole body responds ‘like a string of pearls connected by interwoven threads of silk’.

At school we learn to intellectually divide the body into the skeletal, muscular, nervous and circulatory systems, etc but the only tissue that can facilitate the integrated responsiveness humans possess is fascia. This ‘living matrix’ is the most abundant component of human matter forming the bulk of the human body; as such is probably worth paying some attention to. The overall form of the body, as well as the architecture, mechanical and functional properties of all its parts, are largely determined by the configuration and properties of fascia. For example, people usually assume that the skeletal system holds the body up and that our muscles hang off the skeleton; that specific muscles move the bones in isolation. This is absurd: in reality bones float in a three dimensional mass of soft-tissues, their positions determined by the tensional balance or tensegrity of the entire fascial web. Zhanzhuang, or standing training, when practised correctly, should allow a very clear and tangible sense of this to come to light – one of the many reasons why it’s such an excellent physio-cognitive training tool.

It is mainly due to a chronic lack of body awareness and an incorrect, intellectual understanding of human movement that we do not experience the body in this way and capitalise on, and work with, its natural attributes. The ability to pay attention accurately, to clearly feel and perceive within, allows us to discover and deeply influence the inherent structures of our own human form – something that is with us whatever we are doing. This is the first (and ongoing) goal in our training and forms the foundation for all subsequent practices. For usually when people exercise or engage with training of some kind they immediately try to force the body to ‘do something’ in some superficial way rather than learning how pay attention to what it does naturally without interference, intervention or grossly biased-control. Without the accruement of such fundamental ‘body knowledge’ ones training endeavours, whatever the modality, are likely to be a false economy.

A body that exhibited tensegrity in an optimal way would be tensionally balanced in all directions under the reliable and constant pressure of gravity. This concept of Tensegrity, also known as Biotensegrity, is a phrase coined by the designer R. Buckminster Fuller. Tensegrity structures, just like a well balanced human body, distribute forces and movement throughout the whole system rather than being dealt with locally as they are in lever systems:

The word ‘tensegrity’ is an invention: a contraction of ‘tensional integrity’. Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviours of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviours. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder –  R. Buckminster Fuller

Tensegrity reverses the centuries-old concept that the skeleton is a frame upon which soft-tissue is draped and replaces it with an integrated fascial fabric with floating compression elements enmeshed within the interstices of tensional elements. One feature of this fascial body structure is that it never stops adapting to how we use it most; the body has a great capacity for structural change at any age so we always can keep learning and improving.

Through training we can discover and develop ‘global’ awareness, whole-body connection and movement that is balanced, organised and integrated throughout. The classical Taijiquan (tai chi) texts suggest that through proper training our bodies can become so well tuned in this way that even a fly alighting from one part of the body should set our entire structure in dynamic balanced motion. Learning about fascia can help us achieve this, but of course an intellectual understanding will not suffice. First, to actually discover a direct sense of this whole-body connection and movement, and then to capitalise and augment what occurs naturally.

The way that we can discover and develop these principles is via a systematic process: first we want to open and stretch the body via specific internal trainings to find, feel and liberate our 3 dimensional fascial net. Then we want to get into our standing practise i.e. Zhanzhuang: the absence of deliberate movement enables the mind to fully saturate the body allowing us to discover and release the unfelt and restricted areas whilst building our essential body structure.

Throughout all aspects of our training, we can seek to observe the simplicity of whole-body integration. For once you build a sense of the golden feeling of relaxed and balanced whole-body movement, all training becomes a real pleasure that is sweet like honey – even (especially!) when it is gruelling. We must learn how to acutely rest the mind into the physical job in hand, to firmly cement the inextricable link between mind and body:

The skin is no more separated from the brain than a surface of a lake is separate from its depths; the two are different locations in a continuous medium…The brain is a single functional unit, from cortex to fingertips to toes. To touch the surface is to stir the depths – Deane Juhan

With regular simple practice we can steadily quieten our minds and build our perception – much more than most people think is possible – and start to clearly experience the body as a balancing unit of connection. Having these elements in place enables us to perceive and achieve the same level of integration in more complex modes of training; do we feel the elasticity that fascia imparts to complex movements? Can we feel the spherical nature of our tensionally balanced form? With complex movements it is more difficult to allow the same principles to come to fruition and the deviations that we discover can be resolved by taking a step back to the preceding basics and ironing out what seem to be current discrepancies:

Learning Taijiquan means to educate oneself. It is like slowly advancing from primary school to university. As time passes, more and more knowledge is gained. Without the foundations of primary school and secondary school one will not able to follow the seminars at university – Chen Xiao Wang

The properties of fascia mirror many aspects of Internal Martial Arts training and allows us a contemporary way of understanding the training process. Not only do we normally fail to understand that the body functions as an integrated unit on an intellectual level but also, and most saliently, on an experiential level. Surprisingly low levels of body awareness are the norm in modern society, even in the very active; people who train a lot tend to destroy their bodies – they rarely take the time to simply stop and examine the quality and properties of their own raw materials. Remembering that the body moves and functions as one unit, supported by our understanding of fascia, can help us keep on the right track with our training rather than being distracted by superficial whims and what we consider to be a mish-mash separate parts.

My research into fascia has been fascinating, it relates much more to my own training experience than what I have encountered in the field of conventional anatomy or Traditional Chinese Medicine. I have found that the parallels with the principles in IMA have been very useful in my teaching as I feel this more contemporary approach to anatomy and movement offers a great way to communicate what we do without having to rely on the traditional obscurities that seem to distract most people from proper training so readily. By making our work understandable and accessible to modern society more people are likely to train and enjoy the vast benefits that come from immersing oneself deep within the golden sensation of freedom of movement and natural power.

©The Internal Athlete 2023

Resources: Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.
Siegal, D. The Mindful Therapist. Norton. 2010
Chen Xiaowang Yanshi. Chen Family Taijiquan. 2008.
Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000
Sills, F. Craniosacral Biodynamics. Volume One. North Atlantic Books. 2001
Myer, T. Anatomy Trains – Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists. 2001. Elsevier.
Schultz, R. and Feitis, R. The Endless Web: Fascial Anatomy and Physical Reality. 1996, North Atlantic
Oschman, J. Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance. 2003, Elsevier.
Juhan, D. Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodywork. 1987, Station Hill Press, NY.
Xiaowang, Chen. The Five Levels of Taijiquan. 2012, Singing Dragon.

36 responses to “Tai Chi, Fascia & Biotensegrity”

  1. Thanks so much for this post! I’ve been telling my students about fascia and taiji and this gives a lovely explanation!

  2. Great article. I’m more of a xingyi and Bagua guy, though I did Chen taijiquan for 6 years, but this gives me some ideas to put in to play in my own zhan zhuang, circle walking, and forms training. I like the Chen Xiaowang quote. My Sifu is a student of his. I once pushed hands with Master Chen at a seminar, and that man is like a mountain.

  3. Thank you for this excellent article on fascia: the “web of life”. Your analogy with the ecosystem is inspired. It brings to mind a Hindu metaphor – the “jeweled net of Indra”. It would seem that the deeper we look, the more divisions disappear…

  4. Hi Sam,thanks for the article,he facia is something I’ve been thinking about for some time.I’ve been a student of Ali Walmsley,who I think you know.I also trained Ba Duan Jin with Shifu Yan Lei and I wonder if you have any experience of this form?

    • Hi Daniel – thanks for your comment. I know Ali, he’s a really nice guy!

      I did learn a version of Ba Duan Jin years ago but I don’t train it these days. I mainly just focus on Zhanzhuang, Chansigong and Laojia/Xinjia which satisfies all my requirements nicely!

  5. Well written, I particularly like your reference to Tai Chi. Which simply demonstrates how cross cultural ideas work from similar knowledge/experiences but are explained differently.

  6. Thanks for the great article! We’re Chen Family peeps over here across the great water in Seattle, WA and talk about fascia all the time. Shared with my students & across my networks.

  7. Fascinating article. I have shared it with my Tai Chi friends. I came to Tai Chi as a way of helping me deal with my Parkinson’s. It has been the primary means by which I manage to control my symptoms. I have also found Bowen therapy to be beneficial. Bowen works on the fascia, aiming to keep it free and flowing. Your article very clearly articulates what I have been experiencing: a healthy body needs a healthy fascia. And a healthy body is a connected body. My experience of Parkinson’s is one of disconnection – the mind says one thing, the body does another. When I do tai chi, I have an opportunity to feel connected and, as you point out, it is like tasting honey. Modern medicine says that Parkinson’s is incurable. I know that, through tai chi, it is treatable. My gut feeling is that it is, ultimately curable – or the symptoms are controllable, at least. The concept of fascia is, I feel, an important tool in understanding how this may be possible. Thank you.

  8. If you were to take all other components of the human body away, leaving only the fascia/connective tissue system (CTS), a readily recognizable, but moderately dimmer version of that person would remain, such is the largest organ in the body. It transmits information across the whole body, like a plucked guitar string, up to 20 times faster than the Central nervous system, and absorbs information across the whole electromagnetic spectrum. The CTS changes states soft/firm/rigid faster than liquid crystals, and it transmits light. Fascia/CTS are truly the ghost in the machine, often referred to as the ‘Body/Mind’.

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