Digging in to our tissues responsibly requires some digging into relevant considerations.
Self-massage is gaining traction these days (pun intended). With many modalities popping up in fitness, yoga, movement, and therapeutic realms, and props on the market including various types of rollers, balls, and other tools, it can be confusing to know what to use, when, and how in order to address your unique physicality.
As a Rolf bodyworker and yoga practitioner with a dance background, I have been a self-massage-experimenter for years. In general I advocate for techniques that foster autonomy and participation in one’s own healing.
While many of these modalities intend to be safe, effective and well-informed, I believe there are risks involved when people without bodywork training start to manipulate their own muscles and fascia (especially using foreign objects): digging in to our tissues responsibly requires some digging into relevant considerations.
I am a Structural Integration/Rolf practitioner of six years, and I spend a large part of my life manipulating the tissues of a variety of bodies, alongside in-depth and holistic body and client analysis. Even with my skills and experience, I still find that effective self-massage is challenging and tricky at times.
I suggest that while an intensive afternoon or weekend workshop in self-massage techniques might be grounded in decent principals, it may require more training to do it well than training programs like to advertise.
Empowering people to have the training and tools to be active advocates for their own bodies is paramount in my work and values. My enthusiasm for helping people help themselves prompted me to create Decompression Project’s Yoga Video Library of Therapeutic Home Sequences. The videos offer nuanced instruction for cultivating body suppleness, stability and balance, and provide an accessible road towards self-intimacy and self-care.
I believe self-massage has a place in self-care—with the right training and customized instructions.
Sometimes I prescribe a specific way of using a theracane or a ma roller to a client, if it seems appropriate.
Here are a few points that express the potential benefits of self-massage (when done reasonably well):
– Autonomy in basic maintenance: Being able to give oneself relief through a simple, well-executed practice is practical, cost-effective and empowering.
– Precision due to self-knowledge: We often know best where we need touch and pressure and we can get right to the hot-spot by following internal sensations and awareness of our interconnected tensions.
– Forum for self-exploration: There’s a wealth of self-intimacy and self-knowledge we can gain from the practice of exploring our tissues.
However, enacting pressure on tissue is not guaranteed to have beneficial results and is sometimes contraindicated. How deep are you allowing the pressure to go and why? In which direction are you pushing the tissue and why? At what angle is the pressure being delivered and why? What exactly are you working towards and is your method succeeding? Unfortunately, you can do wrong.
Even tissue that’s being “released” can quite easily become disorganized, misaligned or disturbed from random pressure. In fact, this can happen from an unfortunate massage from someone else as much as from self-massage.
I’ve seen some modalities advertise proudly that the self-massage technique will cause lots of delicious pain.
As a bodyworker, I understand that sometimes intelligent, effective pressure causes necessary and productive discomfort, but that doesn’t mean simply that if it “hurts” then it’s “working.”
The need for more training and knowledge to partake with integrity is no different than in asana practice (or any practice). While yoga practice can potentially serve as a powerful tissue-transforming path, there are absolutely risks to uninformed, inappropriate yoga. Maybe we all simply need to study longer and harder before we dive too far into anything.
Though I do ultimately support responsible self-massage as a supplementary practice in many situations, I also agree with Ida Rolf’s statement that “nothing will ever replace human hands,” and in this case I mean expert hands on a willing recipient—roles distinct.
Below are some important considerations to contemplate before self-manipulation (or any tissue manipulation):
1. Depth. How deep should we go with pressure? There’s a common myth that “deeper is better and more effective.” The depth of pressure needs to be appropriate, not maximized. The depth of the work should depend on the layer of tissue you want to affect. Knowing which layer needs attention and then how to accurately find it takes skill and sensitivity.
In other words, it’s not as simple as “press as hard as you can where it feels tight or sore and then you’ll solve the problem.” In addition, even if you can locate and perceive the desired layer, actually being able to achieve that exact depth in the context of working with a roller or a ball is another skill entirely.
2. Angle. The angle of the pressure is a largely ignored aspect in rolling techniques: giving perpendicular pressure into tissue (the usual default amateur way) will often compress layers firmly into each other, causing undesirable density. Often when a bodyworker exerts pressure it is from an oblique angle, thereby “fluffing” tissue, separating, and freeing layers from each other so that they can breathe and move independently.
I often see people who have “over-rolled” their outer thighs on foam rollers in an honest effort to release and lengthen their IT bands, but they end up with flattened, dense, immovable tissue. With practice and training, one can learn how to roll or use a ball at an oblique angle.
3. Direction. Which way are we pushing tissue? Sometimes dealing with tension and tight muscles calls for simple non-specific pressure to relax and release muscles. However, once we start digging in deeper with balls or rolling on rollers, we are starting to direct tissues in certain directions—and are we being deliberate about this? Are we aware that the direction that we move tissue matters a lot? There’s not just one clear set of rules spelling out the right or wrong “directions.” The best choice for directing tissue depends on the particular person and body part in that moment.
Ideally in bodywork, we encourage tissue to move “back to where it belongs.” If a muscle is pulled tight in a certain direction, we would want to release and relax that muscle as we bring it back to its proper placement relative to surrounding structures. This requires a background in structural principles and it’s also potentially difficult to achieve on oneself.
4. Specificity. Often tools like foam rollers and balls are too broad to penetrate fascia intersection areas, tendons, muscle attachments, and fibers with precision and accuracy. I have occasionally seen quite small marble-sized balls used for the hands and feet. However, no self-massage tool can do the same work as highly sensitive and agile fingertips.
I find that a tiny move of my fingertip and shift in direction, angle and depth will make all the difference in addressing an issue a client presents within a session.
5. Agenda & Responsiveness. What guides what we choose to do? Do we follow a protocol that we learned for “releasing our back” or do we start to self-explore and respond to what we find? In bodywork the tissue will often surprise you—working in one area might reveal a connecting tension or line of strain that goes somewhere else.
Learning how to listen and respond, adjust the “plan,” and improvise intelligently is central to effective bodywork—with the self or another.
6. Receptivity. It takes quite a lot of focus to be both the sensing skilled bodyworker and the aware, cooperating recipient at the same time. In addition, if some muscles are working as the givers, it might prevent the receiving muscles to relax fully. It will never quite be the same as being able to fully relax the interconnected entire body.
7. Strategy. Where you think it is, it ain’t! If we really want to solve problems, we can’t just rub where it hurts. We need context, assessment and strategy. Tennis balls in the piriformis will not ultimately solve the outer hip tightness if the piriformis is in spasm because it’s overworking because the psoas is weak.
Let’s work toward holistic transformation instead of band-aid fixes.
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Assistant Ed: Josie Huang/Ed: Bryonie Wise
Photography (all images and image of Ruthie) by Lana Bernberg.