Modern Science,  Neigong,  Yijinjing

Modern Science on Training our Connective Tissues (Fascia, Tendons, etc)

The “tendon” system (here broadly referring to all stringy connective tissue) and the meridian system of the body form a yin-yang pair. Developing the tendon system is a key aspect of neigong training as it enriches and unblocks qi flow throughout the body, promotes organ health, immune health, and various other aspects of health. 

Modern research continues to uncover many interesting facts about the connective tissues of the body. While I don’t feel that legitimate, tried-and-true systems of Chinese neigong necessarily need the validation of modern science; it is nonetheless useful to study the topic from different perspectives. 

Fascia (thin, fibrous connective tissue) fills our body from head-to-toe forming a continuous matrix that surrounds our organs, muscles, and bones. 

Some interesting facts about fascia:

  • Fascia can contract and transmit mechanical tension. It is elastic. 
  • It transmits electrical signals throughout the body. 
  • Fluids move throughout it. 
  • It is mainly composed of collagen, which has been shown to have semi-conductive, piezoelectric, and photo-conductive properties. 
  • Electric currents can run through fascia over long distances, respond to external stimuli, and affect neighboring structures. 
  • It allows surrounding tissues to slide and glide across each other. 
  • It is deeply intertwined with the nervous system, largely innervated by proprioceptive nerves, plays a large role in transmitting neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, etc) throughout the body, and has an intimate relationship with the autonomic nervous system.
  • Fascia is also largely involved in the endocrine system as it is found in the body’s endocrine glands and transmits hormones throughout the body (e.g. adrenaline, estrogen, insulin, thyroid hormones, etc). 

Modern exercise science research on fascial training is fairly new and quickly evolving, however it is satisfying to see how the recommendations for optimal fascial training resulting from modern research align well with the principles and movements found in many ancient dynamic “tendon training” practices, such as various versions of the well-known Yijinjing 12 postures. Some of these recommendations, coming out of modern research are:

  • Preparatory countermovements – which optimize fascial elasticity
  • Bouncy movements – again, optimizing elasticity 
  • Whole-body movements – to engage the longest myofascial chains possible
  • Proximal initiation – initiating movement close to your core and letting it flow out through the appendages
  • Complex movements as opposed to simplistic, repetitive motions

Furthermore, modern research has confirmed that fascia is far more innervated than muscle with as many as 10 times the sensory receptors. It is fascia that is primarily responsible for proprioception, i.e. our ability to perceive and orient our physical body in 3D time and space. 

In addition to being a body-wide signaling network, some have also suggested that our connective tissue can in some sense store memory. 

Others have expressed the connection between fascia and the vagal nerves of the parasympathetic nervous system which modulate digestion, heart rate, and immune function among other things and can be positively influenced by deep, regular abdominal breathing. 

Given these facts, it is evident that our connective tissues are deeply involved in mind-body connection in general. It makes sense then that an optimal system of training would not only focus on the correct style of movement, as described above, but also properly coordinate the mind and breath along with the movement. As said in Chinese, “circulation” (of qi) xing 行 results not only from our movement dongzuo 动作, but also our mind/intent yi 意 which guides our body’s energy qi 气. Therefore, the unity mind, qi, and movement/circulation (xing yi qi de jiehe 行意气的结合) is characteristic of a complete and effective neigong practice.