As some of you know, I recently completed a training on myofascial release (‘MFR’) with the wonderful Tiffany Cruikshank of Yoga Medicine. It was a week of tremendous learning and (I don’t use this word lightly) inspiration, and has left me incredibly excited to incorporate more MFR (e.g. lying on blocks, balls, massage) into TPRYoga classes.
“Tam, why should I care about lying on a tennis ball?” I hear you ask. Fair question. You are a busy person with stretches to do and people to see – why should you care? Below you will find a not short summary of my favourite things (so far) about MFR. I warn you (a) it’s geeky (b) once you’re hooked there’s really no going back.
At its superficial level, the fascia is the connective tissue that forms a continuous system across your whole body, like a cat suit. Its structure alone reinforces the yogic principle of interconnectedness. When working with one section of the fascia, you will inevitably affect another, teaching you to think holistically about your body. (This is a big one. So often we encounter body narratives that focus on one element of our body, and our wish to ‘improve’ it. Once you accept your body as an interconnected system deserving of care at all levels, it tips this entire dialogue upside-down.. e.g. “I’m sorry, Im not interested in talking about thigh gaps, I’m busy taking care of the scaffolding of my entire body over here”.)
A regular yoga practise will give you this already, as it teaches you to observe and work with your body. But MFR takes this to a whole new level because experience truly trumps theory in this arena. As a teacher I can ask you to lie on a tennis ball, but this may make little to no difference to you unless its in the appropriate area for you and you are able to relax into it. In this way, MFR is an empowering investigation by you, of your internal landscape, that only you are qualified to carry out. Why does this matter? Because your body is constantly talking to you, but over time our nervous system tends to tune out ‘complaining’ stimulus from tissues. Tiffany Cruikshank likens it to a small, nagging child repeatedly tugging at your hand “mum mum mum.. muumuu” – eventually, we tune out. Practises like MFR teach you to tune back in, to notice what your body is communicating. Treating your body’s feedback as an important conversation you listen to will make you notice e.g. illness, injury and burnout quicker, enabling you to address these flags before they develop further and changing how you live inside your body.
The jazz hands effect. When correctly located, laying a trigger point on a tennis ball will create instant sensation and, if you relax into it, a rapid sense of relief. In this way, the efficacy of this practise doesn’t need to be explained: try it yourself. Here’s a tennis ball, here’s your gluteus medium trigger point. And.. welcome to the club.
While the sensation of relief is rapid, it takes time for connective tissues to adapt and heal through MFR. This process is long term and progressive. What helps this healing process by training the tissue quicker? You guessed it. Yoga. Step 1: Stimulate healing in your connective tissues through MFR. Step 2: Apply some of the stretch and strengthening effects of yoga in the continued re-education process of your practise. Step 3: The tissues, now communicating better thanks to Step 1, are re-formed by yoga, adapting quicker thanks to the combined stresses of both practises.
The body’s fascia has two key elements: flexible and strong. Its actual composition backs up yogis approaches of yin and yang, of both creating elasticity and stability in the body, in pursuit of balance.
This is crazy, spooky, wonderful magic. Every body is different, so to be specific; in my body, when I lie on a tennis ball and release serratus posterior superior (aka a bit of my shoulder) I experience a sudden release of tension in my ribcage I was previously unaware I was carrying. I also tend to carry stress and tension in my shoulders (like most of us), and some days, releasing tension in this area gives me a tension headache or actual nausea. Nausea! I realise that doesn’t sound appealing, but here’s my perspective: when that happens I know I’ve just let go of something my body has clung to, tightly, and that the release is both instant relief and a shock to the system. In response I stay gentle with my system, hydrate and rest, and watch as, quite quickly, the headache leaves..
With a lot of MFR work, you are stimulating collagen production to re-start the healing process. This process occurs naturally when the body experiences trauma (e.g. surgery), but because it’s reacting to a crisis (“omg your knee has been cut open”) it rushes in and lays collagen down in a disorderly fashion (imagine just trying to bandage someone’s wound very quickly; you’d make a mess too). With MFR, you are stimulating this process again, but gently, in order to encourage the orderly laying down of collagen. It is subtle work where ‘ouch this is really painful’ work may not be in your body’s best interest, teaching us to work gentler and with more focussed awareness on healing.
Your connective tissue remodels to demand, and a substantial proportion of it is made of water (60-70% of ground substance). This ground substance becomes more liquid and fluid in response to playful, fluid movement (which in turn is key for the fascia’s shock absorption, communication, immune response etc etc ETC). Plus, our biomechanics are different when we actually enjoy that movement. So go on- dance around your room, spiral through a juicy yoga ‘flow’ or whatever free movement makes you content: science is on your side.
The week of this training we studied for 6 hours a day, and a lot of it was actual MFR work. The effect? I was so blissed out I kept missing trains, getting off at the wrong stops and floating around London. (In our classes I will aim to couple this with grounding work so you all get home safe). The other effect? I kept catching myself quietly singing to myself. ME. An uptight Londoner who is trained to treat public space like a surveillance exam. Quietly singing to myself in locker rooms, pavements, the shower, my kitchen. To me, this was the clearest signal of being in a state of bliss beyond my usual days.
We now know a large proportion of nerve endings don’t reach the skin but actually end in the fascia, highlighting its importance for internal communication via the nervous system & brain. However, research has also found the fascia has a separate system of communication outside the nervous system.. Pause to take that in a moment. A fully fledged communication system within the body, outside the brain?! Again: Out.Side.The.Brain. At any moment in your body there is more information being transmitted via the connective tissue than through the nervous system. This speed of communication is also often faster than the nervous system. (!) This is such a clear demonstration of inbuilt, bodily intelligence outside of the usual ‘rational’ sphere it truly makes me shivery with excitement.
I tread carefully here because this begins to tiptoe towards narratives I find a little too floaty (no disrespect intended. We all just respond to personalities and information in different ways, and I am tentative in this arena). A yin teacher of a friend of mine often says: “you know when someone walks into a room, and they’re smiling, and their body language is open, but somehow you know something is wrong? That’s your fascia system, reading them and picking up on their vibrations”. Now.. while I wholly believe in bodily intelligence, this has been shaky ground for me, purely because.. “how are you backing this up?? Where, what, how.. vibrations?!” However..it turns out.. research has observed that fascial communication occurs both internally and externally to the body: the connective tissue receives more information from outside the body than the brain does through the 5 senses. This research is young, and we will have to watch its development, but there is data to suggest its real: the fascia is another of your sensory organs. It is reading the world around you and conveying information back to you, from outside of the nervous system.
[Drops mic and walks away jubilantly.]