Sunday, January 11, 2015

From Pain to Equilibrium: Self-Bodywork

I'm always on the fence about these chronic pain posts because I sense that they freak people out. Look, chronic pain is not a sexy topic, but I really do feel that this information is important to put out there, if only because it may resonate with a few people (now or somewhere down the road).

On the positive side, today's post is one of optimism and practicality. The focus is Self-Bodywork because, honestly, in the last couple of months I've discovered two, closely-aligned (if differently articulated) methods that have been incredibly effective. Furthermore, if you live in an urban centre, chances are you will have access to those who teach these methods.

Each of these methods comes with books and props (and videos if you like that sort of thing). You might think that one technique would obviate the other (or that they'd clash), but not so! I combine both methods with yoga and call it a hybrid.

Remember, I'm operating under the premise that much chronic pain - and certainly mine - falls into the myofascial category (involving the fascia that surrounds, infuses and interconnects muscles of the body). When one experiences myofascial chronic pain, brain/body equilibrium erodes (for any number of reasons) and one's nervous system starts to autonomically control the action of the muscles via excitation or sensitivity. The outcome is that the brain sends neurochemical messages, via connective tissue (or the muscles which that connective tissue surrounds and lives within) which are interpreted by various parts of the body as pain.

OK, with definitions out of the way, meet the methods I highly recommend:

MELT Method

I don't want to mislead you into thinking that this book is well-written. It's in desperate need of a decent editor, IMO, but the information is so valid that I urge you to pretend this woman can string together a bunch of paragraphs into a full book.

The Premise: You can find more about it here, but here's the gist: "The MELT Method is a breakthrough self-treatment system that restores the supportiveness of the body's connective tissue to eliminate chronic pain, improve performance, and decrease the accumulated stress caused by repetitive postures and movements of everyday living." FYI, MELT stands for Myofascial Energetic Length Technique. Stuck stress inhibits the balanced functioning of one's nervous system, so the method purports, and moving into these areas with a specific prop (a specific roller or small balls for hand and feet), in addition to applying mind-body awareness (via breathing), can reverse the process. This can only happen as adhesions (scarred or dehydrated connective tissue) are worked with the props and then rehydrated (so you drink a lot of water before and after - well, all the time really).

The Gear: 
  • A pool-noodle-like roller that you can only get on the website (or at a studio that teaches the method - though none of the studios that teach it in TO sell the rollers). It does not feel anything like a pool noodle and you cannot substitute anything else. I was skeptical about it's special-snowflakeness, before I shelled out the money, but having worked with it, I do believe it's induplicable. This prop is sublime. Look, there are MANY things in this world about which I am not fit to comment, but when it comes to props, I know my shit. This one is applicable to so many activities besides the MELT method (yoga, for example), that it's worth buying even if you don't want to practice the method. 
  • There's also a hand and foot kit (comprised of balls and elastics) that I wish I'd bought at the same time. I was being cautious, having not yet seen the roller (which costs 80 USD, before 20 USD shipping). I could have saved 40 bucks because, having used the roller, I promptly purchased the hand and foot props, which haven't yet been delivered. I'm confident, on the basis of what I've learned so far - from practice in addition to research - that the balls would be a terrific salve for those who suffer from systemic foot issues (um, me) or injuries like repetitive strain (a myofascial condition according to certain experts). FWIW, as a body-worker with a reasonable amount of experience, I absolutely believe that the majority of RSI pain is myofascial. 
Kristin's Take: What can I say? I love this technique. It has helped me to diminish so much pain - pain I didn't even consciously know was there - and to relax in a profound way. I feel awesome after doing this - not a bit tired, not like I'm going to be sore the next day. I am energized but relaxed, increasingly mobile, agile and it's great for my mood. Really, I feel a neurochemical shift when I do this very moderate activity.

Bizarrely (and totally unexpectedly), it's rather effective for reviving abdominal muscle tone, more so than tons of rather advanced yoga asana, and I have a theory about this: it's about the breathing while relaxing and while doing a minimal amount of (very conscious) movement. When correcting chronic pain, less is most definitely more. You've got to get around the pain response without triggering it. For those of us who stop at nothing, this is a really tricky skill to learn.

Admittedly, I use ujjayi (a yogic version of deep diaphragmatic) breath as I perform these exercises, which contributes just by virtue of bringing about a precipitous drop in cortisol, I'm sure. But the ujjayi breath also requires deep muscle contraction at the end of the exhalation. Tight connective tissue limits one's body's ability perform that contraction and MELT movements loosen connective tissue.

On the subject of less being more, I injured my knee cap recently (patellofemoral injury) while overdoing low-lunges in the yin style. First knee injury ever. As I've been working to correct it, this technique has been invaluable. It's helping me, not only to calm the trigger point muscles that have pulled my knee cap out of alignment - and hurt the cartilage, but to determine from where the injury originates.

FYI, this book (which has nothing to do with the MELT method) is very useful in assisting one to understand knee and foot imbalances / injury from a myofascial perspective - and it gives useful info about the difference between the origin of pain (the "original" trigger point) and satellite trigger points - which you can resolve all day long, but that won't fix the problem. I highly recommend it for those who run or walk long distances.

Cost: It's gonna cost you about 150 bucks to get going with MELT, but it will pay for itself many times over (as long as you do the work). Mind you, the "work" is so phenomenally PLEASANT - and effective - that you'll be MELTing all the freakin' time, rather than for 10 minutes 3 times a week (minimal recommendation for effect). I don't know how anyone can practice for a mere 10 minutes! I get started and I need to work every muscle. But that's me...

I use the roller in addition to the Roll Model balls (see below) and create a sort of Pilates Reformer multi-prop gizmo. But keep in mind, I have many other props to support this and I really know how to use props / what I'm trying to accomplish in my body. I'm not suggesting that someone who's new to movement therapy is going to have as notable a response, as quickly, as I have. Still, if your initial response is half that of mine, it will still have been more than worth it.

Roll Model Method

This book is only nominally better written than the MELT one. But it is better organized and I feel it presents a more coherent case on the nature of myofascial pain. Oh, and while I'm at it, isn't it bizarre that both of these women look exactly the same? Um, is it law that California fitness-instructors must all be blond, long-haired, buff and as white as can be? I could handle some diversity.

The Premise: Well, it's pretty much exactly the same as the one that underpins the MELT method. This one takes a more "active" stance and focuses on athletes and "peak performance". Is this one being marketed to the the young people? Absolutely. Is the MELT method marketed to those with more of an holistic bent and those that are older? Yup.  

Thing is, whether you're 20 or 80, whether you're experiencing chronic pain or not, these methods can assist you in avoiding injury and pain throughout your life. They have little appeal to pain-free, athletic young people, I'm sure, no matter what their preferred form of activity. But that's gotta change. If I'd started doing this 20 yrs ago, I'm confident I wouldn't have experienced the majority of pain I'm dealing with now. And I've been rather fit for most of my life! The truth is that the immobility and pain we associate with age is not about age as much as it's about loss of equilibrium and tone specifically in connective tissue. When you're old, you've simply been around longer and have had more opportunity to experience the impacts of that disequilibrium.

The Gear: Not to be confused with the Hand and Foot balls (devised as part of the MELT method, see above), this method uses balls under the Yoga Tune Up brand. To buy the Roll Model balls, you need to go to a vendor who sells them (a yoga studio, generally) or to the Yoga Tune Up website. I bought some at a local studio and others (out of stock at the studio) online. Numerous sizes of balls are used for specific muscle groups. Other props are recommended to support the balls (i.e. wooden yoga blocks) but you can generally prop the body using things you've got at home.

Cost: This method costs about 75 bucks (for book and props) and the balls - unlike that MELT roller - are entirely travel friendly.

Kristin's Take: I will never leave home without these things again. I love them and they work better on small or slender, less-tight muscle groups for me (i.e. calf and ankle area) given that I'm a small person and that the MELT roller can be too soft to get into pain that's very deep. Note: Don't assume you know what body parts have the most tender trigger points. It's not as you'd imagine, in many instances. I do feel that these balls, of all the many sizes, can get into the long outer leg muscles better than anything. And they're great in the gluteal area.

I do have to say that I'd never buy this woman's videos, just on the basis of having heard her voice, in a free video, on the website. It's SO annoying that even my mother couldn't take it. I don't know how she's made such a name for herself teaching, with such an irritating mien.

To Summarize this book of a review:

It's difficult for me to quantify how effective each method is on its own, because I use all the props and methods in an integrated, hybrid method that includes yoga asana. My chiropractor did tell me, this week, that I have improved exponentially and I can feel it. I do have waves of chronic pain (associated with hormones), but it's tolerable because I have confidence that it will resolve while I continue to perform myofascial movement therapies and use complementary techniques.

My parents used the Roll Model balls for the first time recently: I walked them through some Kristin-devised sessions over our hols in Mtl (disclaimer - I hadn't yet read the book, so I was using a lot of intuition) - and they were SO floored by the effectiveness that they promptly went out and bought the entire Roll Model series of balls for themselves and my sister. And none of them considers him or herself to be an experiencer of chronic pain. So that's quite a recommendation. If only they'd been able to try the MELT roller, I'm pretty sure they'd have been at least as sold.

What I will say is that, if I were going to choose one over the other, I'd choose MELT - because it's more focused on breath (a key element of chronic pain reduction) and the prop is better suited to a wider range of large-muscle action. Furthermore, MELT has a ball component (for hands and feet). You do equal amounts of movement in both methods, but MELT is somewhat more holistic, if the book is less well written and less-explanatory of the issues. MELT is also more suitable for those with serious pain (IMO), because the prop is subtler.

Keep in mind, though, MELT is more expensive and I thoroughly love Roll Model too. So if you can't take a pricey plunge, get the Roll Model balls.

Again, my experience of body work is long-standing and I know how to use these props - even just intuitively - in a comprehensive way. I'm not imagining that everyone will gain as much from this as I have, as quickly, so I do recommend that you take classes, if at all possible. In the interests of taking my own advice, I'm signed up for 5 weeks of MELT classes starting in late January. And I'm going to do a Yoga Tune Up workshop in February at a local yoga studio.

So, today's questions: Have you tried either of these methods and, if yes, please do share your experience of them! Do they seem appealing to you? Are you drawn to one more than the other? Let's talk!


  1. Trying to see if I can make my schedule accommodate a 2-hour workshop my yoga studio's holding this week on Yin Yoga and MyoFascial Release -- sounds pretty blissful, will involve balls, foam rollers, long holds, and some thoughtful instruction and meditation. If I can swing it, I expect to sleep SO well Thursday night. I already have a foam roller and a set of balls, but I could use more push to get using them regularly. . . .

    1. Oh, I hope you make it to the workshop! And really, for a runner, I think these techniques are SO pivotal.

  2. That workshop sounds wonderful, Frances!

    I read this post with great interest. I've become more and more interested in these methods in the last few years. The first one I found was Yamuna Body Rolling, which uses much larger and softer balls than the methods you describe here. I do the basic rolling technique from the sitz-bones down the back of my thighs, and from the lower back to the upper back, and it's wonderful. She also has some half-balls for footwork. I use the prickly ones.

    I found Jill Miller, too, before she started Yoga Tune-up. She had some DVDs with great exercises - for example, there is one I benefit from which starts from the hands-and-knees position, but with one knee raised on a yoga block. The other knee is lifted and lowered next to the block, and this is great for the hips. I do have her yoga tune-up balls and a DVD, and I find them very useful for the back and shoulders. I haven't tried the newer Roll Model yet.

    I have tried the MELT method, but I didn't get very far. There is a woman here, an Alexander Technique teacher, who teaches MELT locally. I signed up for a 6-week course last year, but had to drop out after a couple of classes. I've wanted to take it again but haven't been able to find the time.

    The other technique that helps me is viniyoga. I have two DVDs by Gary Kraftsow, one for the lower back and hips, and one for the upper back, neck and shoulders. I consider him a genius. The programs are not really yoga-like, they're just gentle exercises, but somehow the sequences are very effective. I've given his DVDs to quite a few people with back problems.

    I wish I knew as much as you do about bodywork!

    1. Marie: You seem pretty darned plugged in from where I'm sitting! :-) I know of Gary but haven't looked into his technique in any detail - I'll have to give it some additional attention. I have the acuballs, in addition to all the others (the prickly ones). I like them a lot but find them too firm for many actions.

      Curious to know if you've done Rolfing? I'd love to try this but it's quite a commitment (financial and otherwise) and I haven't found the right person - in a convenient location - as yet. Nothing worse than getting on the subway after intensive myofascial work, right?

    2. I haven't done Rolfing, although I've thought about it and looked up practitioners. I haven't seriously pursued it because of the time and expense. I think you'd want to walk home after a session!

      Whenever I visit my mother in MI I go to her massage therapist, who is a magician. One year I'd had a hip problem that I was sure was in my bone or joint. Think about sitting cross-legged - my right knee was way up in the air. I mentioned this to the massage therapist but didn't think she could address it. She said, Hmmm... During the massage she pressed in a couple of places, and when she was finished she told me to sit cross-legged on the table. My hip was back to normal! That same year, she suggested that I also see another therapist in the practice. This woman did a really different kind of massage. It's hard to describe, it wasn't particularly pleasant but I sensed that it was doing a lot of good. When I left I felt as though 10 years had dropped from my body. The next year, she wasn't there any more. I never have time for massages at home.

      I hadn't heard of the acuballs before. I looked them up on Amazon. The heating possibility is appealing.

      Gary has a video on youtube where he explains how to do the exercises he uses. Most of them are common exercises, but in some cases his instructions make them work differently. My favorite of his exercises is one that I haven't seen anywhere else. It's at the end of the video:

      There are also a couple of short clips from his DVDs on youtube, but I don't think you can get the benefits without doing a full practice. I think the sequence is as important as the exercises themselves. Each of his DVDs has 3 practices ranging from 20-30 minutes. They only cost $14 each, so it's a very inexpensive therapy. I almost never use the upper back DVD, but I do the lower back/hips DVD frequently.

    3. Thing about the acuballs is that they are VERY hard. So they work really well for some things, but I'm much more in favour of the Roll Model (Yoga Tune Up) balls if one has to choose.

      And sad about the massage therapist that got away. Youthening by 10 years is quite good for the advertising!

  3. Oh, and after years of neglect, connective tissue is now being recognized as a functional part of the body, and studied scientifically:

  4. I have no chronic pain problems but I still think your posts on the subject are really interesting. Also, I was going to comment on the identical looks of the women on the cover of these two books too--kind of hilarious, kind of sad.

  5. I have been reading all these posts and I wish I understood them more. I have a lot of chronic pain but I feel left behind by most of what you write. I have no background in yoga or any kind of movement therapy and don't know nearly as much about health and anatomy as I think you do. Any chance of a "summary for dummies"?

    1. Hi Anon: I appreciate that this topic is complicated, but I've tried my best to begin at the beginning and to be as clear as possible in each post. Perhaps you just want to reread posts about chronic pain (I've been writing about this in earnest for about 5 months but, before then, I wrote about it sporadically.) I suggest that you pick up one of these books, or some of the other resources I've mentioned, and perhaps that format will give additional clarity. These books (MELT and Roll Model) make it particularly clear.

  6. Please don't stop posting about this (unless you just don't want to anymore!). I came for the sewing but I'm staying for the pain talk. I have some serious pelvic issues going on that cause what can be very severe lower back sometimes. I've been inconsistently doing some exercises and tissue work, but it seems like even when I'm consistent for a few days, I'll just wake up in horrible pain one morning. I'm wondering if I should ditch my regular foam roller and get one of these Melt ones. I take it it's softer? Mine can be quite painful to roll on sometimes, and a switch to a new physical therapist is convincing me that, as you say, less is more when it comes to this sort of pain management. I have a tendency to get on the foam roller and roll with grim determination, no matter how excruciating it may be, and I'm beginning to think this is not a good strategy. I really appreciate all the great information you share in these posts - it's helping me think about how I can best address this pain that's threatening to take over my life.

    1. Glad to hear it resonates, Gina! I really do recommend that you invest in the MELT roller. It's so much softer than a pool noodle or one of the sorts you find at physio. But it produces traction in an excellent way. I don't see how, given what you're describing, you wouldn't be happier with the result than with the roller your using now. "Grim determination" is such an excellent description for a state that will most definitely prolong and worsen pain. You have to find a sweet spot. Ask me how I know :-)

    2. Gina, you might want to try the Viniyoga lower back/hips DVD I describe above. It's really effective. (I promise I don't have any financial arrangement with them!) And the MELT roller is really different from a regular roller, as pointed out above.

  7. i'm bookmarking this for research! i've always been interested in this method-- i have a roller, too, but unfortunately i went for the (taxi cab yellow) one recommended by marines. it feels like a cement log.

    1. I think that the MELT founder teaches some classes at the JCC in NYC. Don't ask me which one (there must be more than 1 in NYC). Really, don't use the regular rollers! They're so hard that all they do is entrench the tightness and pain (by causing reflexive muscle spasm). I know it sounds like I'm advocating brand-products, but in some instances, it's the best path. xo

  8. I have never defined my issues as chronic pain. That said, they are chronic and they are painful:). So I, who can't read about the sewing because I can't sew to save my life, will hang on your every word with this stuff.

    1. I know exactly what you mean. It took me a long time to come to this conclusion. And I had to weed out many other options first. Sigh.