My interest in fascia began in 2006, when I received myofascial release from a physical therapist after injuring my rotator cuff in a yoga class. After the hands-on treatment, which involved applying gentle pressure to connective tissue, my discomfort was ameliorated in less than 30 minutes. Although it wasn’t a complete cure, right away I could move my shoulder again without pain.
Soon after my shoulder recovery, I began practicing self-myofascial release, using a foam roller, ball, or other device in conjunction with my body weight for targeted, therapeutic pressure that helps create more tissue mobility.
My quads had been tight from daily cycling. Foam rolling along the fronts of my thighs before yoga helped eliminate the compressive knee pain that I’d often felt in poses like Bhekasana (Frog Pose)—in which you bend your knees to bring your heels toward your hips.
Get to Know Your Fascia
Your fascial network is like scaffolding throughout your entire body. It’s even part of the extracellular matrix (the goo between your cells) that helps bind your cells together. Myo refers to muscle; and fascia is the network of connective tissue that surrounds and includes your muscles. This webbing is involved in musculoskeletal well-being and proprioceptive capacity (body sense, or knowing where you are in space), and it influences how signals of sensation (like pain) travel from your body to your brain.
See also What You Need to Know About Fascia
The fibers of your body are designed to slide and glide over one another during movement. However, whether due to injury or repetitive actions like cycling, running, or repeating yoga poses, areas of tissue can become thickened and inflamed and tug on the fascial network further up the chain. (Think of it like a soft net. Pulling on one piece tugs on the whole net, affecting other areas.) The result is that the fascial sheaths that encase the muscles no longer have as much give and can become wound up like a wrung-out dishrag, contributing to restrictions, strain, and eventually pain. Fascial release improves the slide and glide of your tissues and also hydrates them through the act of compressing and releasing, like a sponge.
The Benefits of Fascial Release
Research on fascial release is still preliminary and emerging, but a 2015 review in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy supports what I experienced. The review of 14 scientific papers suggests that fascial release with a foam roller increases short-term range of motion during exercise without negatively affecting muscle performance. Gently rolling, draping, or oscillating different muscle regions over balls (think tennis, lacrosse, or grippy myofascial release balls like RAD Roller or Yoga Tune Up balls) or a foam roller pushes on fascia between your bones, muscles, organs, and nerve fibers—freeing up more mobility than is achievable with passive stretching alone. Perhaps most interestingly, research shows that myofascial release influences your nervous system, which largely governs the baseline tone (tautness) of muscles. Your fascial network is rich in sensory nerve endings, and gentle pressure on your fascia may help communicate to your nervous system that there is no longer any need for increased tension in that area.
Even less than five minutes of self-myofascial release a day will be a great complement to your yoga practice (and can be squeezed into the time between rolling out your mat and the start of class). One of the best places to begin is at your feet, which serve as your body’s front line of defense in fighting general joint wear and tear. The plantar fascia, a dense fibrous fan of connective tissue on the underside of your feet, plays a role in absorbing and distributing the impact of each and every step you take. It also plays a role in distributing weight when you’re stationary. The plantar fascia has fibrous connections to your Achilles tendons (which anchor your calves to your heels), and then to the fascial sheath of your calf muscles, hamstrings, gluteal fibers, lower back, and skull. It is no exaggeration that addressing the fascial workings of your feet and legs has the potential to relieve aches and pains as high up as your neck.
After your feet and legs, your hips are another great place to target for fascial release, because gentle pressure here—an area compressed for much of the day due to sitting—can renew blood flow to restricted areas, improving circulation and muscular health.
Promote the fitness of your fascia with the lower-body fascial-release exercises on the next pages for feet, legs, and hips. Then pair each exercise with a yoga pose. Each myofascial release has the potential to improve mobility efficiently and safely, so you can experience more ease throughout your yoga practice—and off the mat.
If you experience increased range of motion or comfort in a pose after a fascial-release move, this may be a spot that deserves more regular attention. Give it a try and see what you uncover.
Roll With It
To help you feel the effects of self-myofascial release (SMFR) and identify trouble spots, the following practice targets one side of your body at a time. For example, you will often do a pose on the right side, followed by SMFR exercises on that side, and practice the pose again. After you are done on the right, notice any differences in range of motion, comfort, and overall ease when you repeat the pose. Then move on to the other side.
You’ll need a small, firm ball (it should have just a little give to it), a medium-size ball that’s about six inches in diameter (or just sub in a tennis or lacrosse ball here), and a foam roller.
About Our Pro
Teacher and model Ariele Foster, PT, DPT, is a yoga teacher, an anatomy teacher for yoga teacher trainings, and founder of yogaanatomyacademy.com.