Self Myofascial Release – Diary of a Mindful Practice
Updated: Oct 30, 2020
Do you do self myofascial release (MFR)? I remember when I first started doing MFR on the advice of my forward-thinking physiotherapist over a decade ago, it wasn't trendy yet. People would look at me weird when I showed up with a pair of tennis balls before class and rolled. When you're the only who does it in the room, you become the weirdo.
Here are some of my personal experiences which might hopefully be helpful to those of you who practice it.
Thanks to MFR, small aches, pains and tightness where stretching doesn't work could be resolved. I stopped going for massages. If I wanted someone else to work on me, it is always with therapy or a specific objective in mind and usually in an area I can't work on myself or with a ball. It remains the case today. I have a list of people I work with including a physiotherapist, chiropractor, structural integration therapist, osteopath, TCM doctor etc.
Wouldn't it be nice if yoga and MFR solved everything in the world? Alas they don't. But they do help a lot with many things. If one needs other professional help, go seek it. As teachers, we should also be willing to refer out if the student needs care that is beyond our scope of practice.
Tools are just tools
When I broke the tennis balls, I eventually transitioned to using firmer baseballs and golf balls. In the initial years, I liked harder tools as they produced more sensation so I still have a set of hard balls, spiky balls and tools of a similar nature. One would think that I would continue this route as time passes.
That's no longer the case.
I've always believed you don't need expensive tools or clothes to practice yoga or MFR. The body doesn't recognize brand. It only recognizes the force it receives.
Hence, it is more important to me to buy the tool that doesn't irritate your skin and suits your needs than to buy a famous one for brand's sake. Indeed, there are very well-designed ones that command a higher price. If that's what you need, then by all means invest in it.
For someone new to MFR, tennis balls are usually the go-to starter kit because they are relatively inexpensive and easy to buy. They are also softer and therefore more tolerable. Using a tool that is too hard may be less effective because it would be much harder to relax into it. Relaxing during MFR is crucial. It will be less painful and more effective.
As one gets used to MFR, one will develop greater tolerance and may find that a soft tool no longer has the density needed. At this point, a firmer tool may be more effective. This is when people might experiment with baseballs, golf balls, lacrosse balls etc.
As you continue, you might find hard tools too harsh. These days, I prefer what I call "al dente" tools - tools that are firm inside but a little soft around the edges. It can be tricky finding the tool of the right density - much like cooking perfect pasta!
Finding the right tools does take a bit of experimenting. That's how I ended up with a box of tools in all kinds of shapes, sizes and materials. Your needs may vary so you never know that a tool you don't like today may prove handy eventually.
But at the end of the day, tools are just tools. It is what you do with it that makes the difference. MFR can be a great way to learn about your body & practice mindfulness. In fact, my best MFR experiences are always the ones practiced with awareness & concentration - kind of like meditation.
Not just meat from the fridge
Something I observe about students starting out MFR is the tendency to roll quickly without much contact or to roll fast and hard, hoping to make the tissues yield and the "knots" go away.
This is so important that I'm going to put it in caps: IT ISN'T ABOUT BASHING A PIECE OF MEAT.
Seriously, don't treat yourself like a piece of frozen meat, hoping to bash your body into tenderness. MFR can be a really wonderful way to learn about your body that no one else can.
Try this next time:
1. When making first contact with an area of pain, go gently. I prefer to think of the ball sinking into the flesh instead of pushing into it. It is a gradual process.
2. After making initial contact, PAUSE. Breathe slowly. Feel. What does this spot feel like? Is the pressure too much or too little to start with? I'd suggest starting with less & gradually increasing as your body starts to get familiar with the tool.
3. During step (2) or when you start to move, observe any sensations near the area of pain or even far from it. This means you need to concentrate & move slowly.
This will tell you about what may be causing the pain or where pain may be referred to/from. The area of pain is often not the cause. Where you feel pain is often the referred area.
It also tells you where you need to work on. I may work on multiple places for an area of pain & not make much contact with area of pain.
If an area feels inflamed, skip working on it directly. Instead, try areas nearby or further based on your understanding of your body from past sessions.
4. Breathing is crucial. When you hold the breath, the body tenses and you'll be trying to push into a harder surface. Its's more painful and you may hurt yourself.
5. Notice if you're tensing other areas such as shoulders, face & jaw while working on an unrelated area. Breathe & soften.
6. The body needs time. You may see change after few hours, days or sessions. Don't bruise yourself hoping for immediate results.
This means MFR is a process which requires your concentration & mindful participation. The process & results will be different. Try it out!