Angela Muller-Habig, a yoga teacher based in Abu Dhabi, always travels with three small balls - each a different size - in her handbag. “If I’m waiting in line somewhere, I’m rolling out my hands, I’m rolling out my jaw, I’m rolling out my temples,” she says. “If I’m on the plane I am definitely rolling. I’m rolling out my feet all the time.”
Mina Lee, yoga teacher and co-owner of Abu Dhabi’s YogaOne studio, calls the two tennis balls she carries around in her bag “my favourite massage therapist”.
Rhys Hamer, an instrinsic biomechanics coach and trainer from Dubai, is never far from his assortment of neon foam rollers, golf and rubber balls, and massage stick.
Their target? Fascia, one of the biggest buzzwords in wellness right now. Fascia is the system that encases literally everything in the body, including muscles, organs, joints and bones. It’s been compared to a spiderweb, to the casing on a sausage, the pith of an orange, a matrix and even a wetsuit. And the people who study it believe it is essential to how well we function and how good we feel.
Mainstream medicine is still catching up to this exploding field, however: next month will see experts in the field meet in Berlin, for what is only the Fifth International Fascia Congress.
Lauren Roxburgh, author of the book Taller, Slimmer, Younger, believes foam rolling is key to better self-care, emotional and physical, and promises that following her plan for 21 days will leave the body feeling elongated, relaxed, toned, vibrant and, most importantly, aligned.
“Because the fascia is an interconnected web of tissue that covers the entire body, when one area of the body is misshapen or thrown out of alignment, it naturally affects other connected areas of the body, throwing them out of alignment, too,” she writes. “Healthy fascia is thin, smooth, hydrated and resilient, like plastic wrap; unhealthy fascia is thick and holds toxins and stress. It’s this unhealthy fascia that we think of as scar tissue, thickness and knots.”
Emilie Mikulla, a yoga teacher in Dubai, regularly holds workshops in the Roll Model Method, which uses an assortment of rubber Yoga Tune Up balls to teach self-myofascial release. Mikulla fell in love with the balls after trying them to address the “terrible” back pain she suffered after falling out of a school bus as a teenager. “As soon as I put them on my lower back, I just knew it was a cathartic moment for me; that was the missing piece for me,” she says.
Mat Dryden, owner of Abu Dhabi’s Cobra Fitness in Al Bandar and a professional fighting trainer, found himself in extreme neck pain two years ago. He couldn’t move his right latissimus dorsis, the large, flat muscle that stretches to the sides, had muscle spasms down his right arm and no feeling in his thumb. An MRI scan showed two bulging discs in his neck; his doctor recommended surgery.
“I was sleeping sitting up and taking anti-inflammatories multiple times a day,” he says. “The physio is saying put heat on it and the chiropractor is saying put cold on it. I was just in pieces. I couldn’t do anything.”
One of Dryden’s employees reached out to Hamer, a former footballer who has used self-myofascial release to help in-pain clients over the years, as well as heal his own assortment of sports-related injuries. Hamer got Dryden to cut the weight he was lifting, dramatically, so he could feel how his muscles should be moving. And he used a massage stick to roll out his trapezius muscle.
The pain cleared up and now, as long as his “traps” are rolled out regularly, Dryden says he’s fine. “I think it is amazing,” he says. “Every person I’ve sent to him in my gym, including professional fighters who are currently on the national stage, get better.”
While self-myofascial release can work wonders for athletes, it is essential for most regular people, who spend the entirety of the workday sitting - and ruining their bodies in the process, says Hamer. Not only do their muscles adapt and shorten, but the shoulders round, the head moves forward, and the fascia creates adhesions, sticking to the muscles, causing knots, limited movement and function, and referred pain.
It’s no surprise that by the time people get to their 40s they start to really hurt, he says. “If you’re sat down every day, you’ve got to do something every day,” he says, recommending “20 to 30 minutes per day of rolling, stretching and muscle activation. Because if you’ve been tight in some muscles you have other muscles that have become incredibly weak.”
In addition to causing pain, the fallout from daily sitting will diminish the impact of workouts - making hours in the gym a waste of time, he explains. “If your muscles are tight and have knots, your muscles aren’t working, it restricts calorie expenditure, and your core muscles and glutes are switched off, and that’s the powerhouse of your body,” he says. “If those aren’t working, you are wasting your time coming into the gym and trying to exercise; you will either end up with an injury or you won’t see results.”
YogaOne’s Lee learned about structural integration through AnatomyTrains, which was a method of teaching fascial anatomy created in the 1990s by field leader Tom Myers. Lee explains that healthy fascia relies on movement and hydration, so any targeted technique that manipulates the muscles, or myo, and surrounding tissues, or fascia, can be helpful. “Massage, Rolfing, foam rolling and myofascial release using balls are some of the most common ways to target this system of tissues,” she explains.
It only takes one session of rolling to discover that it is uncomfortable, if not painful, to find and release those lumps and knots, particularly in the thighs, hips and calves. However, that work is not only rewarded with improvement in the physical body, but a palpable sense of calm, release, relaxation and, often that very night, a deeper and more restorative sleep.
“It’s a physiological response,” explains Mikulla. “You’re relaxing because you’re stimulating nerve endings. We have a variety of nerve endings that are located throughout the body, that are involved in the relaxation response and they create a feedback loop to the brain.”
Muller-Habig, a yoga instructor who teaches a weekly Roll & Release class at Abu Dhabi’s BodyTree Studio, is among those who believe that we hang on to emotional trauma, pain and shock in the body as well as the brain. That is why, she explains, there is such a multi-layered sense of relief when a knot or adhesion releases.
“The fascia is a system of information all on its own,” she says. “It is so vital to our health and wellbeing. I find it fascinating. There’s such a spiritual aspect to it and it’s also so empowering because it makes movement very light very effortless. So when you are in synch with your fascia, it feels very effortless.”