Untangling Your Tensions
Simple self-massage techniques
to support your yoga practice (and life)
Few sensations bring us satisfying solace as feeling a concentrated and contracted knot of tissue swiftly give way to suppleness and ease, alongside the deep radiating sigh of that release.
In that moment, there is a gentle reassurance that you are looking after your whole self with consciousness and care. And the mind, which is so often scattered with distracted and disconnected thoughts, comes home to the felt-experience of the body. After all, if we are on any path towards embodiment, the ‘body’ part of that word sits centered for a reason and is integral to any healing process.
While so often contextualized with scented candles and beauty routines, the real work of self care is the daily tending to the deeper wellness of your mind and body. And though we intuitively know its value, we often avoid self-care because we associate it with taking up too much time or money or recognize that in truth, it requires us to uncover uncomfortable patterns to release and find well-being.
By weaving self-massage myofascial release techniques to your yoga or movement practice, you can offer yourself a deeper conversation with the vital vessel of your body that carries you through all the experiences of life.
As a self-practice, myofascial release can create a powerful paradigm shift, giving us each the ability to directly respond to and relieve our tensions. There is a beautiful autonomy in this practice, allowing you to intuitively tend to the deeper textures of your body, attuning the pressure and mindful movements to the requests of each muscle and tissue sensation. This gifts us and our students self-care practices for our daily aches, tensions, pains and stress.
Is your body whispering, “yes please” ?
Well, I’d love to offer you three of my favourite Myofascial Release practices that you can very easily do yourself in your own home or studio. With the addition of simple, inexpensive props, you can weave this warm surrender into your yoga practice or daily life to unpack tensions accumulating in your body or mind.
But first, let me give you a (very!) quick tutorial on what Myofascial Release is and what makes it such a unique and powerful practice.
Myofascial release (MFR) is a practice which helps to reduce tension and fascial adhesions, restoring range of motion and improving body awareness.
Fascia is the connective tissue that functions like a fabric, enwrapping all the layers of our bodies in a webbing that holds every organ, muscle, bone, joint, vessel and nerve together.
The fluidity of hydrated fascia is what allows healthy movement, but when the fascia is not properly cared for, it can quickly lead to adhesion. Tissue adhesions, fibrosis, dehydration, and chronic stress (sympathetic nervous system activation) have been shown to impede communication in the fascia. This has a negative effect on our body awareness and motor control.
A practice of MFR can also help us to light up these neural networks throughout the body to improve our overall propriopetion and interoception, meaning the ability to activate the body with more precision and awareness.
Yoga and general massage is wonderful for releasing tension and pain, along with improvements in range of motion and circulation. And together with those perks comes a supported relaxation and a profound experience of embodiment.
But what makes MFR unique is its method - the combined use of compression & active movement, helping the tissue transform from the inside out, rather than from an applied outside force.
Compared to yoga, which endeavours to create space in the body through stretching, myofascial release uses targeted tissue manipulation to unpack tension and reduce tissue fibrosis.
It’s also self-guided, allowing the individual to customize the precise location and amount of pressure, responding in real-time to the body’s unfolding wisdom. And it can be greatly adapted to support different mobility needs and can be done without any lotions or oils.
We can use many different myofascial tools to create stimulation and change, encouraging tissue adaptability and resilience.- our own hands, yoga blocks, rolled blanks, myofascial therapy balls, foam rollers – the list goes on!
And for the basics I’m sharing here, all you'll need is two rubber balls.
Before we begin, here are some Gentle Guidelines for your MFR Practice:
What do I need?
A yoga block (can sub in a stack of books) and two rubber balls. Tennis balls work really well for the majority of these practices (just not cheap ones, which may pop under your toes). Some also like the pressure of a lacrosse ball, but I find them too hard.
My secret tip? In the UK, I was able to find "hard sponge rubber balls" which have a very similar grip and feel to the more expensive therapy ball options, but cost so much less! You can buy four massage balls here for only £6.99. Or if you're a movement teacher, you can buy a box of 24 massage balls for only £23 here to use for group classes.
How do I modify the pressure?
This is important–remember that softer pressure can be more effective than digging and diving deep into your tissues. MFR is not about forcing the body to withstand the most intense sensation you can access. In fact, this can actually be counterproductive as it can cause the body to protectively brace against the force.
Each time you practice, tune into how much pressure your body is requesting today and listen to its feedback as you roll. Make sure that you are using these techniques for your body, not against it. This is not a competition, it’s nourishment.
If its feeling too intense, ask if you can engage your body more actively to
What aftercare is recommended after MFR?
Drink lots of water, which is always beneficial, but especially after any deep tissue work. Also ensure that you are equally prioritizing mobility work with stability. Our bodies need both so seek out strengthening practices to support your tissue health too. Some people find a bath with epsom (magnesium salts) is the best way to continue to release tension following practice.
But just be sure to also practice self-empathy during and after your experience of release. As we say in yoga, our issues live in our tissues and feelings of tenderness can extend beyond the physical. So breathe with compassion and curiosity as you explore and observe the powerful changes you’re creating.
Technique One | Simple Foot Massage
(To influence the posterior chain)
Our feet create a supportive platform and foundation for the entire body above. They deserve a little love, especially when we find ourselves standing for long periods of time or wearing shoes that don't embrace the natural shape of the feet. MFR of the feet reveals how the continuum of fascia connects all aspects of the body. A short and sweet roll of the feet can create space along the entire back line of the body. This is a great technique to teach beginners.
Before you roll - Find balance. Feel your overall posture in tadasana or check your posterior chain mobility in a forward fold or downward dog.
Rolling the feet requires balance. If you're feel off-center or want to be able to relax more fully as you roll your foot, place a hand on a chair or the wall for stability.
1. Start exploring the whole surface area of the foot with a feather-light pressure/ light skin stimulation. Slowly layer on more load for a mild to moderate sensation.
2. As you deepen the pressure, focus on the arch or middle section of the foot, sourcing out a few key holding places of tension.
3. Trace the ball forwards and backwards in between the bones of the feet (with the grain between the metatarsals)
4. Conclude by intuitively rolling into any sweet-spots that ask for more attention or pausing in a few moments of more sustained compression and breath
After: Notice your overall awareness of the foot. Does it feel like a broader, more supportive platform? Or more rooted into the earth?
Technique Two | Simple Shoulder Massage
(To improve shoulder mobility and relieve tension headaches)
Like Atlas, the mythological figure carrying the world on his shoulders, many of us carry our stress and stories in our shoulders and upper-backs.
Whereas the hips often seem to hold our emotional experiences, our mental tensions seem to become buried in the tissues around our shoulders. This can leads to neck pain, tight jaws, and tension headaches.
Doing some myofascial release on the upper back can help us to feel like we are taking off the invisible heavy backpack of stress we've been carrying through our days. It can also be a really helpful tool for relieving tension head aches (which personally initiated my own love affair with MFR)
Use two rubber balls at the floor or the wall
1. Use two balls symmetrically on each side for a more even and distributed pressure
2. Find some key anatomy landmarks to uncover a sweet spot in your trapezius muscles:
- Locate cervical and thoracic vertebrae (the little bumpy ridges of your upper spins
- Locate your scapula (the boney surface of your shoulder blade)
3. Place the ball in the bed of muscle in between these two landmarks, towards the top of the shoulder & pin against the wall. Unsure if you’re in the right spot? Normally if you let the ball travel downward toward lower into the tissue, you’ll find your holding places.
4. Move the arms & explore: protract/retract shoulders (imagine pushing a wall way from you), sweep the arms through snow angels and sidebends, give yourself a hug breathing back into the space between the scapula, and guide each arm across the midline scrubbing into the back of each shoulder
Note: Sometimes as we roll into tight tissues of the shoulders, we momentarily suffer an instant headache, which is the body communicating how tight this muscle time is. This is common if you hold a lot of tension here. Let it be an indicator that this area requires more focus or care, but know you can always back off if its too intense.
After - Explore your overall shoulder mobility through snow angels, eagle arms, shoulder rotations or interlacing your arms behind your back
Technique Three | Simple Hip Massage
(To unpack tight hips and release full body tension)
Rolling the glutes is a multitasking technique that can help to reduce lower back pain, open the hips, and relieve tension in the legs. The glutes are a family of three muscle that span from the illum (pelvis) to the femur, forming the shape of the buttocks.
the gluteus maximus
and gluteus minimus.
These techniques will also help to target the piriformis muscle (what I casually call the "angry pigeon pose muscle" that too often feels like a tight cable pulling diagonally across the glutes). Your sciatic nerve travels through your piriformis, so when this muscle gets tight or inflamed it may compresses this nerve causing sensations of electrical pain down the back of the legs.
Use two rubber balls on the floor.
1. Lay down on your back with your knees bent and feet connected to the earth, like the foundation of bridge pose.
2. Center the balls in the middle of each glute - basically in the middle of the soft tissue of your buttocks. One on the right side, and one on the left.
3. Sink your pelvis into the pull of gravity to soak down into the pressure of the balls. if its too much, keep your abdominals engaged and hip muscles more active to float more lightly over the contact.
4. Move and breathe. Wave hips side to side like a grounded "tango." The balls will naturally roll apart, so just intuitively use your hands to manually re-adjust & follow your hot-spots of holding.
5. You can also explore one hip at a time by opening each knee to a half-butterfly pose to transition more into the outer corner of pelvis. Slowly opening and closing the knee, focusing in this nook in the outer hip can release a lot of tension.
After: Explore your favourite yoga hip openers, like pigeon, butterfly, and lunges and enjoy the new space you've created.
Hip openers in particular often lead to an emotional release and it’s important you let that flow through you and thank it for the wisdom it is giving you. As always, practice exquisite care and listening when doing these movements – not just how your body feels (which should likely be amazing) but also what it brings up for you emotionally and creatively. And of course, hydrate like you mean it and add these simple movements to your existing yoga practices to experience a fuller richer knowledge of your very own self.
So how are you feeling and breathing after those sweet and simple moments of release? And yes, the instant gratification of this release work is rather addictive! Feel welcome to weave in this movement a few times a week as needed.
There are so many more targeted techniques I thought to include in this wee article, but if you're curious to learn more please feel welcome to join my online MFR classes for guided self-massage practices in my video library.
Or if you want to go deep and learn how to practice and teach these techniques for the whole landscape of the body, join us for our upcoming in-depth MFR Teacher Training for yoga teachers in Edinburgh, Scotland in January 2023, movement professionals and curious students.
I would love to share more of this wisdom with you and support you to come home to your body through this powerful practice of embodied self-massage.