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Minding the Muscle

by Sarah McKechnie, MA on Feb 01, 2004

A new class helps participants find and release chronic tension.

Mind-body classes have become linchpins in many fitness facilities. Yoga, Pilates, NIA—what once was esoteric is now familiar. Students tend to adapt to new offerings quickly and may be looking for novel ways to enhance their newfound body awareness. Body Rolling, a stretching technique that blends self-massage and core conditioning, might be the answer to the age-old question, “How can we add to our group fitness schedule?”

Roll and Release

Bodywork practitioner and educator Yamuna Zake started developing Body Rolling in 1979 to help her recover from a hip injury. She later began teaching the technique to her clients to help them improve their body awareness and identify sources of chronic tension. In the process, she discovered that Body Rolling also helped clients develop better balance and strength.

The basic theory is that connective tissue tension can be relaxed by applying direct pressure where the tendons begin and then slowly “rolling” this pressure the entire length of a muscle group using 6- to 10-inch hollow balls. As in traditional hands-on massage, the resulting tension release promotes relaxation and flexibility.

Routines are organized to stretch tense areas of the body beginning at the base of the spine. For example, the erector spinae muscles run parallel to the spine, originate at the top of the pelvis and attach to the lower cervical vertebrae. You can stretch these muscles by positioning the ball at the sacrum and rolling up toward the ribs and finally the neck. The torso muscles are activated to keep the ball in position, which helps to maintain balance and strengthen the core.

Anatomy Lesson

Mind-body techniques help students understand that a slow approach to fitness can yield significant health benefits. The additional tactile aspect of feeling muscles release makes Body Rolling a useful tool for instructors. Each time students place body weight on the ball, they get direct feedback and gain greater awareness of their own anatomy. During a class, students may discover “holding patterns” and “tight spots” they didn’t know existed. Over time they learn about the connections between different muscle groups and how the muscles relate to basic function. This new understanding of the body is an important step in improving overall fitness. As students use the ball to release tight spots, they begin to focus on making positive changes in their posture, flexibility and strength.

Licensed massage therapist and veteran mind-body fitness instructor Elizabeth Demmel offers two 90-minute Body Rolling classes per week at the Capalupa Studios in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and has recently added the technique to her yoga, Pilates, NIA and stability ball classes. She enjoys teaching people how different parts of their bodies are connected.

Demmel recommends explaining the fundamentals before guiding new students through a routine. Good choices to start with are basic back and hamstrings routines, as these will help students to understand the technique and feel they’ve accomplished something.

“When I am teaching a new group, I usually explain the differences between bone, tendon and muscle and have the students use the ball to feel the differences in their own bodies. Then I ask them to stand up and observe any changes. Most people can see improvements in their very first class,” she says.

As her students progress, Demmel teaches the more advanced routines for the legs, sides and front of the body. However, she varies the focus based on input from her students. She jokes that when she knows everyone is being lazy, she works on rolling out the quadriceps, which is one of the hardest routines.

Exercise physiologist and personal health consultant Janine Galati has been teaching Body Rolling at her studio, Alternative Health & Fitness Concepts® in Philadelphia, for several years. She teaches it in combination with yoga or Pilates.

“It’s a good tool to use because it helps reinforce the focus of a particular class,” Galati says. “I typically use it as a warm-up or cool-down. It helps people slow down and concentrate on a different dimension of fitness.”

Firsthand Experience

Zake says a key aspect of Body Rolling is that it is experiential. She recommends that potential instructors practice the work regularly to know how it feels and what it can do in their own bodies. It is also helpful to have a good knowledge of anatomy, alignment and imagery techniques, which can help students visualize the relaxation process in their own bodies. For example, students might envision their muscles as a series of knots that can be untangled using the ball, or they might imagine each muscle group flowing to the next like water in a calm, unrestricted manner. Instructors can use their creativity to convey anatomy concepts that enhance learning.

In her 18 years of teaching group fitness classes, Lisa Priebe, owner of Health Options in Leesport, Pennsylvania, has worked with numerous people who complain about tense, sore muscles. “People who are tight or have recently recovered from an injury tend to be the most enthusiastic about the work,” she says. “I have found it to be very helpful for students in relieving tension in the shoulders and upper back as well as the hamstrings and lower back.”

“For people who can’t afford to go to a massage therapist on a regular basis, it’s a great self-help tool,” says Stephanie Bérard, a massage therapist and Pilates instructor at the Back in Touch Pilates Studio in Santa Cruz, California. “It gets people in tune with their own alignment. It’s a method of self-exploration, a ‘joint opener’ and a tool for postural awareness. In the group setting it gives people a way to share the exploration—to come together to learn good spine and postural habits in a safe setting.”

As mind-body classes grow in popularity, students look to the fitness industry for new ways to feel healthier and more relaxed. Instructors too can benefit from self-care methods that enhance teaching skills. Techniques like Body Rolling invite participants to learn more about the way they move, opening the door not only to a new method of body awareness but also to the group fitness studio.

IDEA Health Fitness Source, Volume 2005, Issue 2

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About the Author

Sarah McKechnie, MA

Sarah McKechnie, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Sarah McKechnie, MA, AHFS, is the manager of community fitness at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland.