Earlier this year I took up a 50 hours Yin Yoga course with one of the Singapore’s best Yin yoga teachers, Jo Phee. This particular module I took up has focus on myofascial release and spine anatomy.
First, what’s fascia?
A layman description for fascia is “connective tissues” but really, it’s more than that. People tend to associate “connective tissues” as tendons and ligaments – and yes, those are fascia, but fascia is also so much more. It’s basically all over your whole body, wrapping around your organs, between layers of your muscles and all around your bones even. It is the fascia that holds everything in our body together. You can even go to the extent of saying that we are made of fascia.
Fascia study is rather new and research is still in development but fascia is increasingly becoming recognised. There are official names for specific fascias in the body even.International Fascia Conference takes place every 4 years and my teacher Jo Phee attends these every time. I trust that her knowledge of fascia is a lot more than most teachers out there. She even experienced cutting up cadaver just to learn more about fascia and the human anatomy! I don’t think any other Yin yoga teacher in Singapore does that.
So the next question will be, why is fascia and fascia release important?
To simplify things, people usually tell you to loosen up your muscles, or that your muscles gets tight.
The real thing that’s happening is that the fascia between and around your muscles are getting glued together, hence your muscles feels tight. There are many lat
Myofascia refers to the fascia of the muscles. Myofascial release aims are loosing up the fascia within your muscles to keep it healthy. Healthy fascia refers to fascia that is fluid and able to glide.
From inactivity or repeated contraction of a muscle (like when you try to strengthen in from your other workouts or yang style yoga), the myofascia gets less stretch and overtime it loses its fluidity and adhesion happens – fascia layers sticks together, unable to glide. The fascia layers becomes stiff, then muscles becomes stiff, and then the body becomes stiff. This stiffness is what makes a person inflexible and subsequently prone to tearing the muscles when trying to stretch or from sudden jerks. On the other hand, a person with very healthy fascia will have much more mobility and will be at a much lower risk of tearing anything or having random aches and stiffness causing discomfort.
With a healthy fascia system, it is also said that your lymphatic systems, nerves, blood capillaries can also flow better. That’s up to you to believe but basically the benefit of flexibility is important enough for me to want healthy fascia.
Fascia is like a spider web system – when one area of fascia in the body is disrupted through some trauma, it could affect somewhere else in the body. This is why sometimes pain in one area could actually originate from injury of another body part.
Last question – how to release fascia?
The body doesn’t get stiff overnight and it happens from years of certain movements which contracts the same muscle over and over again (i.e. running, cycling, gymming, strong yoga poses etc) or simply due to inactivity. People who engage in such workouts tends have a more inflexible body. Their fascia is usually very much glued together and cannot glide. Such people will also find yoga much more challenging due to their inflexibility.
Yoga, especially Yin yoga, will help to loosen up the fascia by staying in certain poses for 3 – 5 minutes, allowing the target area to slowly loosen up. The initial feeling of getting into the pose and holding there can be super painful. When I had my first Yin yoga class, I found it so much more difficult and painful than anything else. It will take a few classes of long holding poses for the body to slowly open up and that’s how release happens. It takes time. A lot of time. Each hold of 5 minutes may feel like the longest 5 minutes of your life. You can only surrender and let your body do the work. Most of the time, beginners will not be able to fully open up for a Yin pose because their fascia is too tight. Here we learn that there’s nothing you can do but passively wait for it to come.
I’ve been doing Yin yoga for almost 4 years now, at least once a week usually (nowadays twice) and my body has attained a lot of flexibility. For those people who engage in high impact, yang energy sports, Yin yoga is the most beneficial kind of yoga as it is the perfect compliment.
Besides yoga, there are also other methods for myofascial release (MFR). MFR is not something exclusive to yoga and MFR can be offered by therapy centers.
Methods includes the following:
- Skin rolling
- Pinching, sliding, sawing
- Fascia snap
- Traction and tension
- Foam roller
- Ball therapy
- Foam block therapy
In my 50 hours course, I learnt mainly the techniques involving balls (trigger point release) and also some manual massage like techniques like skin rolling. If you want the massage like methods for MFR, you probably need to look for a MFR therapist and it’ll cost a lot each time.
Self MFR techniques like using the balls however, are free and you can do it at home! Of course, it’s best to be under the guidance of a certified person who knows how to effectively do it. There are a few yoga studios in Singapore offering MFR together with Yin Yoga, but it is still very uncommon. If you would like to arrange private or group lessons for Yin yoga and MFR, do contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I will be sharing below some of the techniques I learnt. A full body MFR session will actually take 3 -4 hours because you need to hold for 2 – 5 minutes at each area! And the whole body has a lot of areas which needs attention.
There are a lot of balls you could use for MFR and actually it doesn’t matter. A ball is a ball. A common tennis ball will work as fine as a $60 ball. Other balls can also be used like golf balls or lacrosse balls, depending on the size and hardness you prefer. Besides the balls, it is also good to have foam yoga blocks. It is useful to help you feel comfortable in certain positions when you are applying the ball therapy, and it is also useful for releasing certain areas of myofascia in the body.
Basically for the ball therapy, we either do “Compression” or “Rolling” to release the target area. For compression, a ball is placed in position and your body weight compresses it down onto the mat. That pressure will release the target area. For rolling, you very slowly shear. It’s not a fast movement like normal massage, you need to go deep and slow to break up the glued up fascia layers.
Before I start, I will honestly tell you that for ball therapy especially – it will be painful. Some of it VERY painful. But it’ll be good in the end, I promise.
Target area: Neck
Rolling with 2 foam blocks
Lay the back of your neck against the edge of one foam block. The angle of which the block sits is up to you, it can also be vertical. Slowly roll your neck (still in one target area, NOT whole neck) and feel the edge of the block giving release to tight spots. Repeat it on another area and you should work on the left, center and right side of the neck.
Target area: Upper thoracic, chest, shoulders
Compression with 1 foam block
You won’t literally feel a compression but the block will allow a good release to the upper back area and front of chest, giving you a moderate back bend. With arms placed behind your head, it also gives a nice shoulder opening.
The height can be adjusted according to your degree of openness in your upper back. To have less strain on the neck, you can also place another block under your head. The block should be place somewhere near your scapula (shoulder blades).
Target area: Scapula
Compression with 1 ball
There are a few areas around the scapula (shoulder blade) that we could work on.
Lie on back and place 1 ball under your body, lower part of scapula to release the infraspinatus muscle. Hold for 2 minutes. Find another spot and repeat. Repeat both spots on the other side.
To release the supraspinatus muscle, place ball above the scapula and hold for 2 minutes. Find another spot and repeat. Repeat both spots on the other side.
Target area: Glutes
Circular rolling with 1 ball
Sit on one tennis ball, other leg can be in number “4” position (feet on top of opposite thigh) or on the floor to support you. Roll very slowly in circular motion and find tight area on the gluteus muscles. Continue for 3 minutes. Repeat on the other side.
The gluteal muscles are made up of 3 different muscles – gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. Combined, it becomes a large area, so you can repeat the same rolling technique on a different spot if there are several tight spots to release.
Target area: Iliotibial (IT) band
Compression with 2 balls
Lie on your side, bend in both legs around 90 degs. Place one ball under your bottom thigh and one ball between both legs. Feel the pressure on the IT band of the lower leg. Hold for 2 minutes on one spot, or if you are comfortable, cycle your legs slowly, straightening one leg at a time. Repeat with another spot on the same leg before changing to the other side.
IT band and related muscles
For those who are unfamiliar, IT band runs at the outer side of your thighs. It is both a ligament (bone to bone connective fascia) as it connects your knee to the hip bone and a tendon (bone to muscle connective fascia) because it connects your tensor fascia latae muscle—which starts on the outer side of the hip—to the outer side of the tibia (aka shin bone), the major bone in the lower leg. This one one huge tendon.
IT band is not a muscle! It is a long stretch of fascia, and for runners especially, this fascia is prone to getting tight. Many runners actually tear their IT band. It is very important if you’re regularly running, to perform MFR on this area in order to prevent future injuries.
Target area: Hamstrings
Rolling with 2 conjoined balls or 1 ball
My teacher told us to use just 1 ball but I find that using 2 conjoined balls work as well.
Sit down on the mat, both legs out straight. Bend one knee with foor on the mat to support and place ball under the straight leg. Choose one area and slowly roll. Continue for 2 minutes, before choosing another spot. Repeat for total of 3 spots on each thigh. For those with tight hamstrings, you may place a block under for support.
Hamstrings, from yoganatomy.com
There are many components to make up what we call ‘hamstrings’- three muscles and three tendons (circled.) The red circle is near where the sit bone is while the two blue ones are near the knee, connecting to our shin bones. The hamstrings are situated at the back of our thighs (posterior).
Tight hamstrings happens to basically everybody who doesn’t constantly stretch out. You know you have tight hamstrings if touching your toes with legs straight can feel painful at the back of your thighs, and there’s a restriction from keeping your back straight. The ability to fold down with back straight is all about hamstring flexibility. The good news is, tight hamstrings can loosen up and it’s simply to do so! Bad news is, it’ll be quite a painful process and it takes time. You cannot rush it.
Through yoga, many poses work to stretch the hamstrings – forward fold (uttasana), seated forward fold (paschimottanasana), wide legged forward fold (prasarita padottanasana), standing hand to big toe pose (uttita hasta padungustasana), front split (hanumasana), and basically there are so many more. Any pose with one leg out at time like one leg head to knee forward bend (janu sirsasana) can be even more intense, especially if you maintain a straight back. And on the other hand, hamstrings are also prone to injury. In fact, it can also be injured through yoga if one isn’t paying attention to their body and attempts deep stretches when the body isn’t warmed up enough or open.
Like I mentioned, the hamstrings are made up of various components, so hamstring injury isn’t always going to be the same since it could be different parts that was injured. A common area is the tendon, and that will occur near the glutes. Hamstrings injuries can take a long time to heal, so it is very important to keep the fascia if your hamstrings fluid from either gentle yoga stretches or regular MFR.
Target area: Plantar fascia (sole of foot)
Rolling with 1 golf ball
Sit down with both knees bent, foot on the floor. Place one golf ball under one foot and slowly roll. Continue for 3 minutes and repeat on the other foot.
There are a lot of fascia at the soles of your feet and this whole piece is called the plantar fascia.This is very important because any trauma to this area can actually affect other areas of the body.
Target area: Retinacullum fascia of foot (sides and top of foot)
Rolling with 1 golf ball
Sit down and have one leg bent in, like butterfly legs. With foot sideways, place one ball under and slowly roll. Repeat for various spots around the same foot, on both inner and outer side, for 2 minutes each. Repeat the same for the other foot.
Retinacullum fascia of foot
Retinacullum fascia of the foot is divided into peroneal, inferior extensor, superior extensor and flexor. It may be too confusing to know but basically just move the ball around to find tight areas to release. The fascia here is also thick and the release, at least to me, feels very enjoyable.