As an Integrated Yoga Tune Up® teacher trainer, whether I’m teaching a class, workshop, immersion or training, I always check to see if students are new to Yoga Tune Up®. While I’ve learned over the years to distill my description of YTU into a succinct few phrases, I know I have one tool that’s going to impress itself into the students’ bodies and psyches better than any words I can come up with: the Therapy Balls. (One question I hear a lot: “Is this the class with the balls? I need this class!”)
When we roll, pin, spin, compress and shear on the Therapy Balls, we’re effectively working on two levels at the same time: a local (point of contact) level, and a global (whole body) level. Let’s look at these two aspects individually, keeping in mind, of course, that they’re actually taking place at the same time in your body.
Locally, the Therapy Balls create all sorts of positive change in your tissues: they help pry apart adhesions, increase hydration, and relieve pain from poor movement, to name but a few. Whether you lie down with the Therapy Balls under your body, or pin the balls to a wall, you’re also talking to some specialized sensory nerves called proprioceptors that are studded throughout your fascia (and can be broken down further into categories based on the type of touch they sense: light, hard, steady, vibrating). These proprioceptors relay information to your brain that helps you embody yourself and better sense where you are in space (in Yoga Tune Up®, we call this the EmbodyMap).
Here’s what’s extra cool about developing your proprioception: researchers are finding that the better you are at proprioception, the quieter your pain signals, generated by nociceptors, become. Imagine a tug-of-war going on with the body-mapping proprioceptors on one team, and the pain-sensitive nociceptors on the other. Whichever is ‘stronger’ at signaling will win. So the more your nociceptors are signaling your brain that something hurts, the less the proprioceptors are able to function, which means an area of your body that is in chronic pain (say, I don’t know, between your shoulder blades from so much computer use?) is not going to have a good sense of where it is in space, and as a result, will be easier to injure.
Now here’s where it gets even more interesting: rolling on one area of your body has a ripple effect through your tissues, via their fascial wrappings. In other words, a local action has a global effect. If you roll the Therapy Balls on the bottom of your foot, you’ll improve the pliability of the tissues up the back of your leg and possibly even into your hip, due to the tensional fascial network that covers you. Your fascia, which for a long time was the “last one picked for the team” part of the body, is finally getting attention and for lots more fascinating (or fascia-nating) information about fascia, pre-order Jill’s new book, The Roll Model.
There’s a second global effect I want to mention, and that has to do with your nervous system. While self-myofascial release on the Therapy Balls makes a sometimes visible difference in your tissues, it makes a psychological one too. It’s extremely down regulating for the nervous system to receive so much positive sensory feedback, and as a result, you’ll shift out of stress and anxiety, and experience quietude, relaxation, softness and relief. When I teach Therapy Ball work, I always cue my students in a moment of quiet to recognize these effects as well as the more obvious physical ones. Stay tuned for Friday’s blog so you can try out some simple rolling techniques and think global, roll local for yourself!
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I’m currently obsessed with pain science and how powerful our brain is over learning and unlearning the signals of pain. I have practice firsthand, the effects that therapy balls has on the nervous system and the impact it makes over the whole body including remapping the brain’s sensory perception. Keep on rollin!
I didn’t know that the rolling was down regulating for the nervous system. So cool!
So cool! I didn’t know that about the relationship between the proprioceptors and the nociceptors.. I’m inspired to research this more.
This is a great way of looking at the overall benefit of incorporating a regular therapy ball practice into daily life. You don’t always have to be digging away at the problem spots. A little bit of daily maintenance is going a long way (probably longer than we’re even conscious of) to helping us live better in our bodies!
Wow, I understand why Alex Ellis talks about you Sarah. Super simply broken down. Seeing it written out that pinning the balls against you versus spinning them is really helpful. I also didn’t realize that not all proprioceptors are categorized the same or help you feel each sense. Also incredible to know that the better your proprioceptors are at the ready, the less pain you will find yourself in. Great info, thanks Sarah!
Fascia-nating! Reading this blog post was like watching an episode of “Cosmos.” It’s mind blowing how so many systems of the body are effected by a little self massage. Thank you for illuminating my understanding of this intricate constellation that is human anatomy and physiology.
Fabulous articulation on how to explain to our students. Still in awe that stimulating and activating proprioceptors you can decrease pain and prevent injury. I plan to integrate this in my classes. Sarah your explanation also helps me to better explain the purpose and foundation of YTU.
I realy like the tug-to-war example. It’s help me to have a better understanding how important the proprioception is. For the mouvement and to release the pain.
I tend to like to do things “the right way” and sometimes, especially when I’m short on time, I can get a bit stuck trying to decide which part of my body to roll. In the end, it often doesn’t matter, and this helps explain why. It can be helpful and necessary to target specific tissues for certain issues or as preparation for/recovery from particular movement scenarios. But, in terms of self-care, I can see how just getting on the balls and letting the process lead me has enormous benefits both physically and psychologically. Thanks!
I agree with this concept of “down regulating”- I am working hard to have a daily meditation practice, and I find if I roll first it calms me down enough to be able to sit quietly, if only for a few minutes. It makes the whole process easier.
Thank you for this level of scientific detail explained in a relatable way. I’m familiar with tensegrity models and how imbalance in a one area can throw off the whole structure. But, I’ve not considered the relationship between proprioception and tissue noinceptors and it modulates pain. The research article was fascinating as well. I didn’t need any more incentive to roll, but now I have it anyway.
Thank you for this article . In the past , the body has been looked at and treated as an assembly of segments rather than a entire, continuous flow of interconnected tissues .
Now we know, that we can alleviate a chronic achilles tendonitis by releasing the piriformis muscle that has been impinging the sciatic nerve . The YTU Therapy balls are a great tool for treating piriformis syndrome .
Love feeling and seeing the change in my body when rolling even one area of my body, sometimes even feeling other areas I am not even rolling let go completely too!
Bravo Sarah, I love this article, you have explained it so well makes me smile. I’m always talking to my clients of the interconnected nature of the body and a body- work therapist of how working locally can have an effect globally through the various layers of fascia, and through influencing our nervous systems response by down regulating the fight and flight part to more of a rest and digest part. Jill’s book The Roll Model is such a brilliant book. I hope you come to the UK to run some training courses?? !
Like many commenters before me, I love the visual you created when describing the tug of war between the proprioceptors and the nociceptors. What fantastic cueing to share in a class setting especially when those first few passes with the YTU balls can be especially intense! I’m so excited to share YTU with my senior students this fall semester at the community college where I teach. Thanks for sharing some of the science behind the rolling.
Excellent article. Thank you! I love the visual of the teams proprioceptors vs. nociceptors. And I am now fascinated by the ‘tensional fascial network’ that covers our bodies. Wow. They sure didn’t teach us that in Anatomy when I took it years ago.
Down regulation of the nervous system and a ripple affect in the muscle tissue are brilliant quick facts to bring to a client wondering why they should roll!
Thanks for the article! I’m always amazed at by how the “local action has a global effect”. After completing a foot sequence on the bottom of one foot, the ripple effect can be so dramatic not only up the tensional fascial network but also completely different from side to side. And great comparison of the the proprioceptors and pain signalers (nociceptors) playing tug-of-war!
Great article and I enjoyed learning about the relationship between pain and proprioception. It makes complete sense and I know I’ve experienced it but hadn’t made that connection. Thank.you!
Yes! Absolutely love the roll local action has a global affect. I have found, in my short experience with rolling, that this is true–the area I am working on feels better, my nervous system feels calmer and my entire body feels less achy.
It is so interesting how fascia works. Most people or clients believe its just about rolling out the area of chronic tension but theres so much more to it as you mentioned. Great explanation and example of the rolling the foot and decreasing tension in the entire leg/thigh.
Love this article! Great explanation as to why self massage with the Yoga Tune Up Balls is so integral to self care!
I remember complaining to my husband — when I was doing a lot of pilates — that it hurt my greater trochanter to lie on my side for leg exercises. It felt tender. He said that pain is meant to tell you something is wrong, but if I knew nothing was actually harming me, I should be able to continue lying on my side until my body eventually got the message and released the pain. This was before I had any formal training, but it made a lot of sense in that specific context, and it worked. Now it sounds very similar to this concept of propreoceptors vs. nociceptors, and I’m wondering if it is in fact the same concept or just similar. Or related. Thoughts?
We are one muscle tacked down in hundreds of specific points, “beautifully complex”. The local affect on the global system is something I have to keep at the forefront of my mind when working on the YTU balls. Thank this blog post has given me some descriptions to share with clients about the why we work adjacent to the area needing help and not directly on top of it.
It’s so ‘fascia’nating to read that places we’re holding tension are less capable of propriocepting (proprieoceiving?) their position in space. Though I’m still a mess through the upper back and shoulders, I know it must have been a lot worse before I found self-care therapies, and wonder how I wasn’t more aware of the poor posture that was creating my pain. It all makes so much more sense now. Thanks, Sarah!
“A local action has a global effect” I see that phrase having a home in my repertoire. I am taking the level 1 certification course now and we are always trying to relate what we are doing to the body to real life. I see such a correlation with being a Roll Model to being a role model. I don’t think that an effective role model is the person that is trying to save the world, I see an effective role model as someone who makes changes within themselves and their own lives and that translate to the world around them. In essence, they are acting locally to effect globally. I see a shift in my mental and emotional environment from changing my tissues and that directly improves the environment that surrounds me, my local action having a global effect.
The reciprocal relationship of fascia is something for all of us to keep near and dear when working with clients with localized pain. We can steer clear of the area and work upstream or downstream there by giving slack to burdened the tissues. So fascia-nating!
Thanks Sarah! Another great reason to roll. I never occurred to me that pain reduced proprioception, but it makes sense and the ripple effect is moving with even more awareness and less chances of re-injury. I know this is true for my infraspinatus, so I am going to roll it out even more now!
Trigger Point work is amazing and an expression the I heard this weekend at a YTU workshop that I love is ” self care is health care” America gets some balls and some knowledge about how your body functions and wow imagine what could happen!
Thanks for your article
The science of pain and how the brain interprets pain is so fascinating. Typically, I see people that are lacking proprioception in their bodies who are in chronic pain. Just rolling the bottoms of their feet seems to awaken their body map. Amazing!
When I first started bringing the myofascial release techniques to my students, the “magic” for them was to roll the soles of their feet and be more flexible bending forward, as quite many of them have tight hamstrings. The “magic” for me was that by rolling a ball underneath my feet could alleviate headaches. And the more I learn about it, the more I’m surprised and stunned at where and how I am able to release tension in my body. This is quite addictive!
I love how rolling on the balls shows the interconnectedness of the fascia in the body. In exploring different areas of the body whether you actually “feel” pain in those areas or not, helps us discover that the pain in one area may actually be due to a restriction in another. It’s all one big interconnected web.
Aside from helping relieve the upper back pain I’ve had for years in two-three days, these massage balls really do have a more global effect. The sense of ease and calm that sweeps my body as pain turns into awareness of a muscle group and a gentle rolling sensation is systemic. Perhaps it is through relief of trigger points, perhaps it is simply the self-massage exerting the same relaxing effect as a professional massage. Regardless, it works at a both a local level and on the body as a whole.
Thanks for all the pertinent descriptions, especially the second global effect on the nervous system. I will have to remember to allow students to observe the psychological impact as well as the physiological impact of the practice at the end of the sessions more often.
Something else I like to consider, in the roll local think global discussion, is to avoid over rolling certain agonists while neglecting antagonists. For example. it feels amazing to roll out the rhomboids. These muscles, however, tend to be locked long, and thus it is important to work on the opposite muscle group which tends to be locked short (Pec major / minor, anterior delts, etc), so that we are also working towards a solution to the problem, not just relieving the symptoms!
I’ve experienced that Global Effect ,in the pliability of the fascial tissues in the back of my legs. I started with a forward fold, and could feel where the tension was in my hamstrings,and hips, and then did the therapy ball rolling techniques on the bottom of my feet. Folded over agian, and I couldn’t believe how much more relaxed the hamstrings and hips were! It all starts with the feet !
Categorically thinking about the effects of ball rolling as global and local change further illuminates how there is no wrong way to roll out. While one’s practice with using the balls can be ehanced by having an anatomy lexicon and an awareness for integrating the ball rolling within the context of movement, the rolling can be idiot proof. I say this not to dumb down the activity but in order to remove the intimidation factor new students might feel when anticipating guiding their own experience of soft tissue work. Its an experience like anything else in which you being there and giving yourself the permission to explore mistake free is how growth will cultivate. #rolltogrow
I really like the way Sarah described the benefits of using the therapy balls here in this article. A lot of people have asked me what YTU is or what it does for the body… Now, I have another way to explain why it’s beneficial and one should use the therapy balls, something that I have had difficulty describing in the past
The body is truly am intricate organism and it is important to realize that because everything is connected everything will have an effect on everything else. I appreciate how YTU acknowledges the amazing role of the CNS in increasing our ability, mobility and reducing pain. It is so easy to get caught up on the larger and more visible parts of the body. And yay for fascia! the connective web that holds it all together and does so, so, so much more!
At the studio where I teach we have a YTU class taught every week and after attending it over the last 6 months or so I am amzed at how effective it is at relieving chronic pain and injuries that I thought I was going to have to live with for the rest of my life.
I found that reading this article reinforced my understanding of how YTU work effects the system of connective tissue in my body, and deepened my understanding of how working within one area of the body can positively effect the whole.
Thank you for this post and the importance of using the Therapy Balls for rehab. I have super tight hip flexors and hamstrings and find these balls really work to open up, stretch and alleviate pain. I will use it as a warm up before my training sessions or even before biking, hiking or gymnastics.
Being a big boy of yoga its been revolutionary to have the alpha ball at my disposal to assist with the softening of tissues, relaxation of the mind and increase nervous system stimulation.
Always looking for ways to relieve neck pain after a long week of computer usage. The balls in the bag and the blocks make a lot of sense, I’m thinking this technique should help even things out in the neck area while helping massage out any stress. I’ll give this a try this Friday night.
Thank you for the in-depth description of “a local action has a global effect.” I came into today’s training with the onset of a migraine yet after the 20 minute therapy ball session my migraine dissipated. I wasn’t sure if there was a correlation between my migraine leaving and the brief work with the therapy balls, though, because we didn’t do any neck work. However, after reading this I understand that it still had an effect.
Truly fascinating that by stimulating and activating proprioceptors you can decrease pain and prevent injury. I have been dealing with an injury for about a year a a half caused by a lack of awareness of how I was holding my trapezius, neck and rhomboids on a daily basis. Now the therapy balls help remind me of those areas when I have amnesia about their proper alignment.
So many great reminders from my YTU trainings in this post, thank you. In looking back at my first experience with the YTU Therapy Balls I remember toggling between tears and laughter and not being sure what to make of it. I love that you create space for observing the psychological impact of rolling in your classes and I look forward to bringing this element into my teaching. Also, the article you share here from the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies is very helpful.
I’m really loving using the coregeous ball for global shear. Doing a little pin & spin with it on the belly feels soooooo delicious/amazing/life changing. 🙂