Senior Yoga Medicine teacher and therapeutic specialist Allie Geer explains three common mistakes people make when performing self myofascial release—and what you can do to avoid them.
Self myofascial release targets fascia by using specialized tools, including balls in different shapes and sizes, foam rollers, rods, sticks, and even yoga blocks. These practices are showing up more and more in yoga classes—and for good reason! Until recently, fascia was disregarded, considered an unimportant system. What we now know is that this network plays a huge role in our health.
Fascia can be defined as one continuous system of connective tissue, woven through us from head to toe, front to back, and side to side. It communicates, fills space, protects, supports, and interrelates with all structures in the body (bone, muscle, and more). Because of the interrelated nature of fascia, releasing one area of the body can potentially affect the whole body. This is referred to as “regional interdependence.” We can see this well-defined in the fascial trains (such as the superficial back line, deep front line, and spiral line) described by Anatomy Trains author Tom Myers.
Fascial trains are believed to be continuous interconnected tissues within the body that respond collectively to resistance and pressure. For example, “the superficial back line,” according to Myers, includes anatomical landmarks such as the plantar fascia of the foot, the gastrocnemius (a calf muscle), the hamstrings, the sacrotuberous ligament of the pelvis, the erector spinae muscles, and the epicranial fascia at the top of the head. It is believed that when releasing one part of the body within this chain we can relieve tension throughout the whole chain. Similarly, when experiencing tension in one part of the body (for example, the calf), it is important to work with areas above and below it on the chain (such as the hamstrings and/or plantar fascia).
Self myofascial release techniques are designed to enable and encourage inhibited tissue, or restrictions within our body, to let go. This, in turn, will have a positive impact on our mobility (i.e., the ability to passively take a joint through its optimal range of motion without restriction). But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of SMR is the effect it can have on the nervous system. Fascia is loaded with sensory nerves that communicate directly with our central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord.
And that brings us to the first of three common mistakes people make when working with SMR. We’ll explore these errors below, along with some simple ways to correct them and avoid them altogether.
Mistake #1: Holding Your Breath, and Not Connecting to the Nervous System
A common mistake in performing myofascial release is the failure to connect to the nervous system—specifically the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS, also known as the “rest and digest” nervous system)—by holding our breath and/or applying pressure that’s too intense. Myofascial release practices should never feel painful, sharp, or shooting. We should NEVER brace or hold our breath.
The PSNS controls our ability to rest, recover, release, and relax. Breath is key. When we are breathing fully, smoothly, and evenly, we stay connected to the PSNS more easily, sending signals to our brain and back to our muscles and our fascia to release.
In my classes, workshops, and trainings, holding the breath and bracing the body in the hope of protecting it is one of the most common mistakes I see. This can have adverse effects; in fact, it will activate the sympathetic nervous system—fight, flight, or freeze. It can ultimately cause more restriction in the body, potentially leading to pain or even injury.
1. Less is more: If you are feeling intense sensation, change your approach or modify it by using a softer tool. You could also place a blanket over the tool for more support. If you are using myofascial balls, to help dissipate the sensation I suggest using two balls side by side instead of one. You might also use a chair or a wall to take the weight off your body.
2. Work indirectly before working directly. If you experience pain in an area of your body when a tool is applied to it, back off. Work around the area rather than directly on the “hot spot.” This means you could work above, below, or side to side.
3. Breathe. When applying a tool to the body, instead of counting seconds, I suggest counting breaths—5 to 10 slow, deep, unrestricted, releasing breaths. This will in turn activate the PSNS. This is how the magic happens. This is how release can occur. The body will soften and let go via the breath. The breath is also how you can self-regulate your response to self myofascial release. If the breath becomes restricted or choppy, that’s an indication that you have applied too much pressure.
Mistake #2: Not Moving Afterward
After performing SMR we have a unique window of opportunity to encourage a change within our tissues. This concept is called “neuroplasticity”—the ability to actually shift the neural pathways that were once restricting or inhibiting our tissues. Post-SMR movement will encourage new neural pathways of optimal mobility, blood flow, and range of motion. This window can last up to 10 minutes. So it’s important to take a few moments, by moving, to re-educate the nervous system about what we want it to release or enable. This movement can be as static as a basic stretch or as dynamic as a simple yoga flow.
For example, after releasing the piriformis muscle (deep in the glutes near the top of the hip), you could do pigeon pose followed by a vinyasa, or even a simple supine figure four. Give your body and mind a chance to assess and notice any difference. Encourage the change you want to experience by inspiring and re-educating new pathways in your nervous system.
Mistake #3: Using Myofascial Release to Treat Symptoms
Although it may help to relieve muscle soreness and pain, we shouldn’t get into the habit of using myofascial release only when symptoms arise. I encourage students to use this practice as a preventative, which will ultimately be more beneficial for the tissues. I like to tell people to make it a daily habit, just like brushing your teeth. Although there are many immediate benefits from self myofascial release, actual reconstruction of the fascia occurs over time, taking anywhere from six to 24 months (unlike muscle repair, which can take six to eight weeks). The key is to do a little myofascial release every day. That will have the biggest impact on your body.
Here are some tips for effective daily practice:
• Don’t beat up the same spot over and over. Remember that fascia is one interconnected system in the body. Therefore, applying myofascial release to one area of the body could also promote release elsewhere.
• Try working along the myofascial chains. Working different areas along the same line is a good approach. You don’t have to spend a ton of time every day—five minutes a day over a consistent period of time can produce good results.
• If, for example, you decide to roll your feet every day (which is a great idea), you might pick a different point of focus each day—such as the inner arch of the foot, the lateral arch, the ball of the foot, or the heel—and spend a little extra time there.
Above all, keep the practice accessible, tolerable, and simple. Don’t forget to breathe, and don’t forget to move afterward. Soon enough you’ll have rolled your way to a freer body and mind.
For more information, check out my article on three daily myofascial release habits to start today and a practice to unwind the back line.