A balanced yoga practice is designed to loosen, lengthen, and strengthen, at the same time it invokes a state of calm and peace within both your muscle and mental tissue. But what if certain areas of the physical body just can’t seem to let go of their tension?
Let’s take the area of the upper back and neck. The trapezius muscle lies here and deep to it, the levator scapula muscle. Both can elevate the shoulders towards the ears or in reverse, pull the neck into the shoulders like a turtle’s head retracts into its shell. Despite the many poses that twist, bend and fold the head in yoga and regardless of how many times or ways you may mentally remind yourself to “let go” in these muscles, there always seems to be a nagging, tugging bound-up sensation. You may have even given the specific location of pain sensation an endearing name like “my spot.”
In massage therapy, we refer to these spots as trigger points. A trigger point is a nodule or knot of contracted muscle fibers embedded within a band of a muscle like the trapezius. These points can be exquisitely tender when palpated or compressed and can even refer pain to other areas of the body. For example, pressing a trigger point in the shoulder can refer pain into the neck or head.
Stretching is not effective at de-activating these hyperirritable points for two reasons. First, it would be impossible to isolate any stretch into the exact precise location of a trigger point. Stretch happens in a broad way across the entirety of a muscle belly from its attachment on one bone to its attachment site on another bone. Secondly, trigger points require a perpendicular angle of approach. Pressure needs to be applied directly into the body so that it gently pins and pierces the knotty and adhered fibers and laterally spreads them apart. Stretching tends to occur more longitudinally from attachment to attachment or end to end, not side to side. For these reasons, some external pressure that can probe directly into the body and somewhat deeply into the specific location of a trigger point, like a massage therapist’s thumb or elbow, serves the purpose well. If you cannot get to a body worker regularly (as trigger points need to be continually treated and de-activated until they dissipate completely) then a healthy self-care routine of massage on Yoga Tune Up® therapy balls can provide the same skillful approach a therapists hands can bring.
Like yoga, self-massage employs the process of micro-moving intuitively to your body’s own needs in order to adjust the dial of pressure and positioning (ie. to precisely ﬁnd “the spot”) so the body can receive the most optimal release with the least amount of your effort.
If you locate a trigger point there are few ways to de-activate it:
Step 1. Attempt to sandwich the knot between the ball and your body. (Remember pinning the affected area from above and below encourages the parallel fibers to spread laterally so be sure to balance your body enough to stay on top of the trigger point)
Step 2: Deeply breathe and relax every muscle you can while the trigger point is contacted and compressed for about 7-10 seconds.
After treating 3 or 4 trigger points, follow up with appropriate asana or stretching exercises as in this trapezius stretch video.
If you find it simply too painful to be directly on the trigger point, fear not! Move away from what feels like the epicenter of the trigger point to slightly adjacent to it in any direction and repeat Step 2.
When there is a trigger point in a muscle, that muscle is restricted from fully functioning and therefore neither can the joint to which that muscle attaches. This can lead to further trigger point formation and disfunction in other muscles and joints that are attempting to compensate for their infirm neighbor!
Self-massage techniques like the one described above isolate, squeeze, compress, melt down and pry loose muscle ﬁbers that have become adhered to each other. All of this commotion within the tissue increases localized blood circulation and ultimately bathes and re-hydrates the area once you roll off the ball. Notice any rosy pink spots on your skin after a good session of ballwork?! Yoga Tune Up® balls tease apart the “sticky” or adhered parts of the tissues, literally separating the individual muscle ﬁbers within the actual muscle so that each ﬁber can literally “pull its own weight” instead of their neighbor’s. Your muscles are then better able to fully contract and fully release in all of its ﬁbers as any movement dictates.
Ballwork is an energy and cost eﬁcient way to reach all your aches. You can then move with less effort, with less pain or be happily pain-free!
General pregnancy contraindications: center of the top of the trapezius muscle, center of buttocks (center of “back pocket”), and the lower leg.