The first thing to know is that you need a good quality ball, which has shallower 'spikes' and a more forgiving surface than some. These are often referred to as 'Pilates trigger point release spiky balls' or 'prickle stimulating balls.' The texture and responsive surface of this type of ball enables us to move around, modulate and play with pressure and movement as simply feels right.
These balls work on the myofascial system, the complex continuum of muscle and connective tissue (fascia) that forms a whole web throughout our bodies, like cellophane over our muscles. Affecting the fascia through the surface of the skin can help to reduce muscle tension, improve blood flow, increase body awareness, and aid in injury prevention and rehabilitation. The loose fascia is a particular part of the superficial fascia, a connective tissue web that moves into and between organs from just under the skin. One of its key functions is to provide the quality of slide, also known as slide-and-glide. According to a research paper on how connective tissue sliding works, "Fascia can be divided into tissues that restrain motion, act as anchors for the skin, or provide lubrication and gliding."1
Within the superficial fascia, there is a vascular network thought to be independent of the lymphatic and blood pathways called the Bonghan duct system.2 It is made of the same substance as fascia and believed to ease communication among all body areas.3 This system is currently being researched as a potential means to describe ancient meridian systems within the physical body,4 and it's where we can directly access and affect our body fluidity, through massage as well as a variety of methods of self-massage, such as with a spiky ball where the soft 'spikes' can move into this layer.
All the fascial layers rely on a substance called hyaluronic acid to slide over each other, locally or out into the whole system.5 Some researchers have argued that any change in the fascial system's ability for fluid movement can activate pain receptors.6
When tissues are dehydrated through lack or misdistribution of hyaluronic acid, the increased viscosity can create adhesion, altering the lines of force within fascial layers. Freeing these tissues not only allows for tension release, but also determines how easily we can move.
Among more forward-thinking massage and physiotherapists, this condition is often considered a cause of stiffness and pain in the morning, more so than joint issues, which are often blamed. Tissue dehydration can occur at any time, but particularly overnight when we lie horizontally and move around much less. It can prevent the proper removal of what are often termed 'toxins,' but are actually the byproducts of energy production within the cells. When these so-called toxins build up, they can create a more acidic environment within the cells. A vicious cycle can ensue, where dysfunctional distribution of the hyaluronic acid complicates the sliding of the different fascial layers, stimulating pain receptors and creating an inflammatory environment, which in turn further dehydrates the tissue.7
When tissues cannot easily slide, they appear as fascial thickening on ultrasound, but not MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), one reason they are often overlooked as a possible root cause for chronic pain.8 This densification can eventually become fibrosis, the thickening and scarring of connective tissue, which is known to be caused by a chronically inflamed environment (such as in irritable bowel syndrome or arthritis), stress, trauma, operations, injury and immobility.
Some simple self-massaging and exercise techniques with a spiky ball can not only help to free tissues and ease pain but also maintain the fluidity of the fascia to improve flexibility and help safeguard against future injury.
You can self-massage any part of your body, just by playing around with movement and pressure. Massaging areas where there may be fascial tightness or a build-up of waste products may feel sore, but it will benefit them, so focus on the sensation with full breath, coming in and out as feels right, and build up over time. Massaging the outsides of the thighs (or IT bands) can be a particular area of tightness for those who run or cycle. You can reach this simply sitting or roll your weight over the ball (see first illustration, page 49) .
As with all movements, avoid areas where there is broken skin, inflammation or bruising, but massage areas around them to bring circulation there and promote healing.
Outer thigh and IT band massage
Essentially you can self-massage any part of your body; you just start and play with movement and pressure. It will not always feel fully comfortable—areas where there may be fascial tightness or a buildup of waste products can feel sore, but they will benefit from the stimulation, so focus on the sensation with full breath, coming in and out as feels right.
You can build up the intensity of the pressure over time. The outsides of the thighs (or IT bands) can be a particular area of tightness for those who run or cycle.
You can reach this area by simply sitting, or roll your weight over the ball, as shown above.
Rubbing between shoulders on a wall
Another common area of tension with modern postural habits is the upper back, as we often hunch over sitting on chairs or looking at screens. You can easily reach this area with the ball placed anywhere from between the shoulders upward and move about freely on a wall (see right and below).
Under sacrum and buttocks
You can also use the floor for resistance to press your weight into, or when lying to let gravity give you a helping hand. Lying in Constructive Rest Position (see first image, below) to start, with knees bent so the lower back is free to move and the psoas muscle (inside the hip bones) is relaxed, place the ball underneath your sacrum, the large triangular bone that forms the back of your pelvis, between your waist and tailbone.
Spend some time just feeling how your breath moves you on the ball and accepting its presence, and then explore movement in any way that your body guides. You can move out to the sides, over to the buttocks and down to the tailbone too, all areas that can store tension and contribute to lower back pain. You can also interlink your fingers behind the base of your skull and include the rib cage, shoulders and neck, making a fish-like motion of the spine, moving your head and tailbone in the same direction to open out the opposite side of the body and slowly transitioning from side to side (see second image, below).
If it feels safe to do so, you can also draw the knees into the chest and add the weight of the legs and a curving of the lower back for a deeper effect (see last image, below).
Into the upper back
You can also move into the upper back with the weight of your body on the ground. From CRP, roll to one side to place the ball between the shoulder blades (see first image, top left). Then, supporting the weight of the head with the hands, soften the shoulders, eyes and jaw as you exploring the nooks and crannies where 'knots' may have developed. When you are tight here, the lower back can tend to take the strain instead.
Roll the head back down as you lift the hips to come into a soft bridge pose, with the ball opening the chest up from the back. You can simply breathe and hold here, feeling the ball's support creating space to breathe up the front of the body and exhale down the back, or move and explore (see second image, left).
If you feel open enough in the chest and it does not create any pinching in the lower back, you can slowly lower the hips down to the ground, or place a yoga block beneath you if you need some height to be able to relax (see third image, left). To create more space across the lower back here, you can walk the feet out wider, turn the toes inward and drop the knees together.
If your lower back is happy, use the ball to come into a variation of the yoga pose Supta Baddha Konasana (or butterfly pose, see last image, left), with the knees dropping out to the sides and soles of the feet together. You can place your feet as far away from your head as your lower back and hips need. It is always wise in this pose to find more length in the lower back with a prop, or the weight of the legs may simply jam the lumbar spine. In this modification, lifting the chest allows the lower spine to lengthen, allowing you to soften into the groin as you breathe freely.
Freeing the chest
Turning onto your tummy, with legs as wide as your lower back needs to feel comfortable, come up onto your elbows, wider than your shoulders, placing the spiky ball under your breast bone at about nipple height or where it feels most comfortable to able to lift the chest without jamming the lower back (see first image, right). Then you can let the ball take some of the work of the uplift through the chest as you open across the collarbones, feeling the myofascial release into the tissues of the chest, which can hold much tension.
Let yourself breathe here to feel the natural motion of rising on the inhalation and dropping on the exhalation. As you become accustomed to the feeling of the ball here, you may even be able to drop the head down and increase weight onto this area, then raise the head to sit comfortably on the shoulders as you inhale (without jutting the chin forward) and drop it down as you exhale.
To hold the position in a deeper backbend, reach the arms out about 45 degrees away from your hips, palms facing down. Then lift the arms on an inhalation, keeping length in the sides and back of the neck (see second image, right), feeling natural buoyancy as you breathe in and the lungs fill, and a drop as they empty out on the exhale, giving a pulsing effect on the tissues.
Afterward, simply lay down on the ground to let tissues release and let the effects ripple through and settle in. Alternately, come to a downward-facing dog position to lengthen the spine.
Releasing upright from the feet
Standing on one leg, using a chair or wall for balance if you need to, roll one foot at a time over the spiky ball to explore every part of your foot for a good few minutes (see left). Include the heel and outside edge, particularly spending time on the instep, where the fascial lines begin from where we lift up through the inner legs and middle of the body.
Explore the different sensations and pressures, even pushing down strongly into any region to create a deeper intensity. Do each foot separately, standing and then walking between sides to feel the difference through each leg up from the ground. Your legs may feel longer as the fascial lines have more freedom. You can do this to help standing yoga practices and upright exercises such as lunges and running flow.