For thousands of years, scientists have focused on — human organs, muscles, bones, and connective tissue like tendons, ligaments and joints — and paid little attention to the fascia surrounding and linking it all. That view is being reconsidered as more and more studies recognize the important functions of fascia and other connective tissue.
Fascia is a type of connective tissue that surrounds the entire body, connecting, securing, and stabilizing all of our muscles, nerves and organs. It is a moveable wrapping for the interior of the body that’s often compared to the pith-like substance in an orange or plastic wrap.
As fascia is a web throughout our entire body, it has a broad array of functions. It links nearby tissues, supports organs and reduces friction between muscles. It is the body’s shock absorber, cushioning and protecting our insides. It contains important immune cells that help tissue heal. It plays a role in how flexible we are — when our fascia hardens because of inactivity, fatigue or overload, muscles get stiff and don’t move as freely.
Myofascial release is any practice that works on the muscles and fascia and it is most commonly used to increase mobility, improve posture, and relieve pain and stress. It’s also believed to increase blood and lymph circulation and improve fascia hydration. Both yoga and self-myofascial release (SMFR), which typically involves foam rollers or massage balls, are myofascial release techniques. They go together like peanut butter and jelly or cat/cow pose — perfectly — which is why an increasing number of yoga studios offer combination classes.
Here’s a combination routine to open up and release the entire body — head to toe.
This self-massage technique immediately releases neck tension. Start by looking over each shoulder and noticing where your gaze lands. Now, drop your right ear to your right shoulder. Take two fingers to the top of your neck behind your left ear and find the sternocleidomastoid muscle, the little valley that runs down your neck. Gently walk your fingers down this muscle, palpitating as you go. Repeat on the other side. Now look over your shoulders again and notice how far you can see.
Down dog targets the entire backline of the body, stretching the back, hamstrings, calves and feet. From a tabletop position, slide your palms forward so they rest forward of your shoulders, and tuck your toes under. As you exhale, press your palms into the ground and lift your knees off the ground, straightening both arms and legs. Your body forms a wide, upside-down V shape.
Push your thighs back, pressing your heels toward the floor, without locking your knees. Beginners often struggle to keep their legs straight. It’s OK! Keep a slight bend in your knees at first. And don’t worry if your heels don’t touch the floor. Broaden your shoulders by rotating your arms slightly so your elbow creases face the sky. Relax your neck, and take 5–10 breaths here picturing the web of fascia that connects your whole body rather than focusing on stretching your hamstrings, back or calves.
Grab a tennis or massage ball and turn so your back faces a wall. Place the ball at the top of your trapezius, the upper back muscle, and lean into the wall. Gently roll the ball along the outer edge of the shoulder blade by gently bending and straightening your knees and then lifting and lowering your heels. Think about tracing the line a tank top strap would make. Repeat on the other side.
Cat stretches the back and strengthens the abdominals, while cow pose opens the chest and strengthens the back. Together, they warm up the spine and relieve back and neck tension. Start in a tabletop position on your hands and knees so your palms press into the ground and your knees rest under your hips. Make sure your wrists, elbows and shoulders form one straight line and your knees and hips form another.
As you exhale, press into the ground with your hands and round your back like an angry Halloween cat. Gently bring your chin toward your chest and activate your abdominals, pulling your belly button toward your spine. On your inhale, come into cow by arching your back in the opposite direction. Broaden your chest and lift your tailbone to the sky so your belly sinks toward the floor. Hold each pose for several breaths or find a gentle flow between the two so that with each exhale you round into cat, and with each inhale you open into cow.
Camel pose stretches the entire front of the body. As you hold the pose, visualize lengthening the entire web of connective tissue that stretches across your front seam. Kneel on your mat so your hips are lifted off of your butt and hips and knees form one line. You may want to double up your mat or place a blanket under you if you have sensitive knees.
Press your palms into your low back so your fingers face the sky. Keep your elbows tucked into your sides. Use your hands to gently broaden your back.
As you inhale, roll your shoulders back, let your chest expand, and arch back. Keep your head up and hips in line with your ankles.
Grab your massage ball and stand facing a wall. Place the ball under your collarbone at the sternum. Lean against the wall and slowly roll the ball back and forth, side to side, along the valley below your clavicle several times. Repeat on the other side of your chest.
Stand with your side to the wall and raise the arm closest to the wall overhead and place your palm on the wall. Put the ball under your armpit at the top of your ribs, lean into the wall and gently rock back and forth. Lower the ball an inch and repeat. Continue down your side, massaging the intercostal muscles between your ribs, until you reach your lower ribs. Repeat on the other side.
Step away from the wall for a standing lateral bend that stretches the entire side of the body. Inhale and sweep your arms overhead, bringing your palms to touch. Exhale and bend your torso to the right, keeping your feet grounded and legs strong. Inhale to center, exhale bend to the left, inhale to center, and exhale to release your arms.
Stand with your side to the wall. Place the ball between the top of your upper arm and the wall and rock back and forth, side to side. Lower the ball an inch and repeat. Continue down your arm until you’re just above the elbow.
Step away from the wall. Inhale and lift your left arm up overhead. Bend your elbow and rest your palm on your upper back or shoulder blade, depending on your reach. Use your right hand to gently press your left elbow down. Take your right arm around your back, palm facing out away from you, and try to reach your left hand. If you can’t touch — and that’s common — take a towel or a strap in your left hand and reach your right hand for the towel. Lift your left elbow toward the ceiling. Keep your spine tall. Take 5–10 breaths and switch sides.
Come to a kneeling position, lean forward, bring your arms out in front of you, and place your palms down on the ground with your fingers facing in toward your knees. To deepen the stretch through the forearms, sit down on your shins.
Sit with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Place a massage ball under your right glute. Place your hands behind you for support and circle the ball around your glute. To deepen the massage, cross the right leg over the left thigh. Repeat on the other side.
This variation of pigeon pose, sometimes called ‘figure four,’ stretches the hips, thighs, psoas and groin and releases the lateral line of fascia. Lie on your back and make an L-shape with your legs so your knees are over your hips and your feet are even with your knees. Cross your right foot over your left thigh, just above your knee. Hold onto the back of your left thigh and gently pull both legs toward you. Flex both feet and keep your left foot at knee height or higher. Hold for 5–10 breaths and switch sides.
When you massage the bottoms of your feet, you start to loosen connective tissue that runs up your back body, including the calves and hamstrings. To see how quickly this works, sit on the floor with your legs extended and feet flexed. As you exhale, fold forward with a flat back and walk your fingers forward on the floor next to your legs. Notice where your hands land. Now, stand up and place your massage ball under the ball of your foot. Put as much weight on it as you can tolerate and roll the ball back and forth the length of your foot several times. Repeat with the other foot. When you’ve finished, repeat the seated forward fold and notice where your hands are now.
When you’ve finished stretching and rolling the entire body, consider taking down dog pose again and noticing any difference in your body.
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