Senior Yoga Medicine teacher Rachel Land shares a feel-good self-massage sequence that you can use to relieve lower body soreness.
Most of us have experienced the feeling of working hard enough in either yoga asana or a sport to be sore the next day or beyond. We may have even been sore enough to postpone our next practice or workout. This soreness is known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and if you’ve experienced it you’ve probably also wondered what you could do to alleviate it.
Recent research suggests that self myofascial release (SMFR) can help.1 To understand how, it helps to know something about fascia and its role in the body.
Fascia is the web of connective tissue that surrounds, supports, separates, and interconnects every part of the body from head to toe. It exists in layers. Attached to the underside of the skin is strong but highly sensitive superficial fascia that contains many nerves and blood vessels cocooned in plump adipose (fat) tissue. Beneath the superficial fascia is the denser, deep fascia—connecting, surrounding, encapsulating, and interpenetrating muscle tissue (hence the term myofascia, with the prefix “myo” referring to muscle), and gathering at the end of the muscles to form the tendons that attach it to the fascial layer, called the periosteum, that covers each bone. Even our organs are suspended in sturdy fascial nets known as visceral fascia.
Because it connects all areas of the body, fascia plays a vital role in posture and movement. This is why it has been receiving some long overdue attention in the yoga world. We are beginning to realize that well-hydrated fascia supports good posture and free movement, whereas inflamed, dehydrated, or adhered fascia can restrict it.
Many of the habits we cultivate in yoga—such as mindfulness, varied movement, good breathing mechanics, and regular rest and recovery—encourage healthy fascia. Gentle massage and body work also help, as do a nutritious diet and good hydration. We can also add a new tool to the mix: self myofascial release.
Self Myofascial Release
Fascia is densely innervated, making it highly receptive to pressure and sensation. In SMFR we use massage balls, blocks, foam rollers, and even our hands to apply pressure to areas of tenderness or tension (also known as trigger points) in our muscles and fascia. Using this targeted pressure to pin the superficial fascia in place, we can then add movement, creating glide in the zone between the superficial and deep layers (sometimes called the perifascial layer or interstitium).
Myofascial release can boost hydration and circulation, encourage glide, reduce light adhesions between fascial layers, and stimulate tissue repair and remodeling. Through one or more of these mechanisms SMFR seems to speed recovery times and decrease the incidence of DOMS.1 In my experience, it can be hugely helpful after any strenuous physical activity, including an intense asana practice.
This article outlines a myofascial release practice you can try at home to refresh some of the hardest working areas of an active body: the feet, legs, and hips. All you’ll need is two massage balls or tennis balls. You will also need a yoga block, and you might want a firm cushion for support, as well as a towel or blanket to pad the massage balls or cradle your head, and maybe a blanket for savasana.
Each of us has unique posture and movement patterns, and the state of our fascia varies day to day because of activity, hydration, stress, hormones, and other factors. This makes myofascial release a highly individual process. However, a few key principles always apply:
• Find the sweet spot. Look for an area of tension or tenderness—that is, a trigger point—but make sure it’s not so intense that you can’t relax and breathe freely into the pressure. This might mean moving your massage ball to a slightly different location, padding it with a blanket or layer of clothing, or using a larger ball (or two balls instead of one) to spread the pressure over a greater area.
• Less is more. SMFR should never hurt and you shouldn’t be sore or bruised afterward, so pain and sharp or shooting sensations are an indication that you should back off. Start by using gentle pressure for 15 to 30 seconds before moving on to another area. If that feels helpful, you can build to 60 seconds in future sessions.
• Always avoid putting pressure on nerves, bones, and swollen, broken, or bruised skin, and seek medical advice regarding any serious physical conditions. 2
Standing-Pose Recovery Sequence
Try this SMFR sequence to nourish your legs after a yoga practice that focused on strong standing poses or from any leg-heavy activity, like a long hike or run.
Remember to work on each trigger point for only 15 to 30 seconds. Be gentle and keep moving, adjusting the massage ball placement if necessary to avoid painful areas.
Just as in yoga poses, starting with our foundation has a ripple effect throughout the body. This makes the plantar fascia, on the sole of the foot, the perfect place to initiate the recovery process after strong standing work.
Stand on your left foot and place a massage ball under your right foot. Roll the massage ball from your outer heel to the base of your pinky toe using medium and consistent pressure, then tap it back to its starting position to repeat once more. Move on to roll the middle of your arch, from the center of your heel to the base of your second or third toe, and finally your inner arch, from your inner heel to the base of your big toe. Spend up to 30 seconds rolling along the arch of your foot, noting any tender areas as you go.
Then rest your heel on the floor and roll the massage ball from side to side a few times just beneath the roots of your toes. Feel the small bones of your foot spread away from each other slightly to mirror the shape of the ball.
Next, place the ball of your foot on the floor and roll the massage ball from side to side just in front of your heel a few times.
Finally, set the massage ball under one or two of the tender spots you have discovered and lean in for only 15 to 30 seconds, using as little or as much weight as feels helpful. Finish by quickly, randomly, and lightly moving the sole of your foot over the massage ball to stimulate lymphatic flow.
Set the massage ball aside, close your eyes for a few breaths, and feel the difference between your two feet. When you’re ready, switch feet, then pause for a couple of deeper breaths to rest. Notice the sensations in your feet, as well as any flow-on effects elsewhere in your body.
The lower legs work hard in yoga practice, transmitting forces between the feet and the hips. So while many of us might bypass the calves in favor of the more obvious thigh muscles, giving them some attention can help to speed overall leg recovery.
Take a seat on the floor, placing one ball on top of a block on its lowest setting. Place your right calf on top of the ball, bend your left knee, and place your left foot on the floor. With your hands behind you, press into them to hover your hips enough to facilitate moving the lower third of the muscle belly over the ball (staying above the more ropy fibers of the Achilles tendon), looking for tender spots to focus on. If the sensation is too intense, place a second ball next to the first one to diffuse the pressure. Once you find a trigger point, release your hips to the floor and relax your leg completely.
Leaving your leg heavy and your skin unmoving on the massage ball, rotate it internally and externally, simultaneously circling your foot in and out to create movement between the superficial fascia and the deeper layers beneath. Remember, you need to work on the trigger point for only a few breaths before relaxing your leg, taking a final deep breath, and moving an inch or two higher to find your next trigger point. Repeat the process in the bulkiest part of the calf and again higher up (staying below the knee crease).
Now bend your right knee, set your right foot on the floor, and extend your left leg and open it out wide. Pressing in with one or two fingertips just below the right outer kneecap, feel for a bony knob and then trace a line from it down to the outer ankle bone. Let your bent right knee fall toward the floor. Place the massage ball on the floor an inch or two below the bony knob along the line you traced from outer knee to outer ankle, once again looking for a tender spot in that general area. Lean onto your right hip and use your hand or forearm to add as little or as much weight as feels helpful.
You can now either remain still or try some movement: See how it feels to move your right foot away from you and then back toward you, then hold the calf still and try inverting and everting the right foot a few times. Take one more breath here, and then remove the massage ball and lie back in savasana for a moment to compare the sensation between your legs.
After a breath or two, make your way back up to a seated position, and then switch sides. When you’ve worked on both calves, find a comfortable position in which to rest. Take a couple of slower breaths as you direct your awareness to your legs, taking stock of any sensations there.
In yoga, as well as in many leg-oriented sports, we frequently strengthen but rarely stretch the quadriceps. In my experience, the quads are often the most noticeably fatigued muscle group after exercise, and speeding their recovery could be key to our feeling ready to return to the mat or our sport of choice.
Start in tabletop with a massage ball just in front of your right knee. Slide your left knee forward and rotate your left lower leg out to the side so that you can lean your right thigh onto the massage ball. Again, if the pressure is too much, place a second ball beside the first one to share the load. Lean forward onto your forearms, propping your rib cage on a block or cushion if that’s more comfortable.
Then move the bottom third of the right thigh up and down over the ball until you find a trigger point. Once you do, either remain there and roll slightly side to side across the muscle fibers, or bend and straighten your right knee to feel the deeper layers slide past the superficial fascia.
After 15 to 30 seconds on that trigger point, inch your body down or move the massage ball up so that it’s roughly halfway between your right kneecap and hip crease. Once again, you can hold still, rock side to side, or bend and straighten your knee for 15 to 30 seconds, whichever option feels the most useful. Then reposition yourself or the massage ball a final time, about two-thirds of the way between right knee and hip crease, to find one more trigger point to work on in the same way.
Then, staying with the right leg, start the process again, this time setting the massage ball just above the outer right knee—halfway between the front and side of your right thigh. Lean toward your right until your torso is at a 45-degree angle to the floor, resting more weight on the massage ball. Then, either remain still, rock slightly from side to side, or bend and straighten your right knee.
After a few breaths, inch the ball halfway up the outer corner of the right thigh to repeat, and then again two-thirds of the way up. When you’re done, remove the massage ball, rest on your belly or back, and compare sensations between legs. When you’re ready to move on, switch sides.
When you’ve worked on both thighs, roll onto your back for a few breaths. Feel free to hug your knees into your chest if it feels good to do so.
4. Lateral Hips
Any time we level the pelvis in crescent lunge or when standing on one leg, we use the gluteus medius on the lateral hip to hug the thighbone (femur) into the hip socket, making this muscle key to stability during standing poses and a potential source of fatigue afterward.
Lie on your back with a massage ball in each hand. Feel free to cushion your head with a blanket or towel. Then bend your knees and plant your feet as if lifting into bridge pose (setu bandhasana), and place the balls under your pelvis an inch or two to either side of the sacroiliac joint and an inch or so lower than the top rim of the pelvis. Either rest still, or press into your feet to “wag your tail” slightly from side to side, feeling the massage balls roll across the muscle fibers.
Then straighten your right leg along the floor, feeling how that movement shifts more weight onto the right massage ball. Stay there for a moment, then begin rolling onto your right side, coming off the left ball but keeping the right one between the right hip and the floor as it inches away from your sacrum toward the lateral hip.
Eventually you will be on your right side with the massage ball beneath you—below the top rim of the lateral pelvis but above the flat bony prominence at the widest part of the right hip (the greater trochanter). Prop yourself up on your right forearm and trace a line straight down from the right frontal hip bone to the floor; you should meet the massage ball there.
If you want less sensation, set the second massage ball next to the first to distribute your weight. Otherwise, bend your left knee and place your left foot on the floor behind you for support.
Then either bend and straighten your right leg, sliding the pinky-toe edge of the foot along the floor or lift and lower your straightened right leg for up to 30 seconds.
Rest for a breath, then remove the massage ball and roll onto your back to compare how the left and right hips feel.
When you’re ready, switch sides. After you’ve done both sides, lie back and windshield wiper your knees from side to side, noticing any new sensations in your outer hips.
5. Hip External Rotators
The powerful hip external rotators (including the gluteus maximus and piriformis) are frequently targeted in yoga practice. These muscles wrap the front hip under the pelvis in side-facing standing poses like warrior II (virabhadrasana II) and turn out the lifted leg in tree pose (vrksasana). Because we use these muscles so frequently in standing poses, SMFR here can be particularly helpful.
From your supine position, bend your knees and place your feet on the floor. Lift your hips to place the massage balls under your pelvis, this time aiming to pin each ball beneath an imaginary bull’s-eye in the center of the bulk of each buttock. Stay here or prop yourself up on your forearms to swivel your hips slightly from side to side. After a breath or two, lie back down and relax your upper body.
Then cross your right ankle over your left knee, trying to relax your right buttock so that the massage ball sinks deeper into the layers of soft tissue there.
If you need more pressure, lean your hips to the right, allowing your right knee to drop closer to the floor for a breath or two. Then return to center, place your right foot back on the floor, and switch sides.
After massaging both sides, remove the balls and take a moment to relax. Notice how your hips, buttocks, and even your low back feel before moving on.
6. Lateral Lumbar Spine
One of the primary lateral stabilizers of the lumbar spine is the quadratus lumborum (QL), which connects the bottom ribs to the top rim of the pelvis on either side of the back of the waist. Along with the gluteus medius, the QL helps position the pelvis in relation to the rib cage, and can be an unexpected source of fatigue after a strong standing practice.
Still lying on your back with a massage ball in each hand, bend your knees and place your feet on the floor. Position a massage ball a couple of inches to either side of your spine, just above the back rim of your pelvis. Look for somewhere slightly tender and either rest still or windshield wiper your knees slightly from side to side. If you need more pressure, either drop your knees to each side for a breath or two or prop your torso up on your forearms. After a couple of deep breaths, shift the balls higher until they rest just below your bottom ribs. Again, either rest still or rock a little from side to side.
If you need more pressure, bring your knees back to center, lift your feet off the floor and hold your knees, keeping your arms straight with space between your thighs and your abdomen.
After a couple of breaths, remove the balls and relax. Notice any change in sensation in your back and hips.
Finish your recovery practice in the most restorative pose of all—savasana. Ensure that you are completely comfortable, perhaps propping the backs of your knees on a rolled-up blanket or towel or placing a folded blanket over your pelvis to ground you. Close your eyes or soften the edges of your gaze. Observe your breath flowing in and out effortlessly. Send your awareness to the relaxed weight of your feet and legs, noticing where they connect to the prop or the floor. Continue to feel your way up to your hips and low back, letting go of any lingering effort there. Allow your bones to feel heavy and muscles soft, completely at rest. Stay for as long as you like, imagining fresh fluid flooding your fascia, dissolving any fatigue in your lower body.
When you feel complete, take a few deep breaths and reach your arms overhead to take a luxurious stretch from fingers to toes. Then bend your knees, roll to one side, and press up to a seated position, refreshed and ready to move on with your day.
1. Effects of self-myofascial release: A systematic review. Chris Beardsley, BA, MA and Jakob Skarabot, BSc. 15 August 2015. Accessed at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26592233.
2. These general guidelines do not replace medical advice. Consult your healthcare provider for advice on myofascial release during pregnancy or medical conditions related to circulation (including anticoagulant therapy, varicose veins, aneurysm, unmanaged hypertension, and heart disease), bones (including osteoporosis and osteomyelitis), inflammation, and altered sensation (including rheumatoid arthritis and advanced diabetes).
Photography: Andrea Killam