My New Best Friend

Over the weekend, a kind soul named Jim left a comment on this post encouraging me to try rolling on a tennis ball to ease the soreness in my upper back and shoulders that seems to be a direct result of my adventures with the Ashtanga Intermediate series.  I'd like to take this opportunity to personally offer Jim (he commented as Anonymous, but signed his name at the bottom of the post) my most heartfelt thanks for the nudge.  Thank you, Jim!

I had heard of tennis ball massage before.  I'm familiar with muscle rolling, though I've never done it, and I love a deep tissue massage every now and then.  However, in spite of the fact that, thanks to my dog, we have plenty of tennis balls around the home, I've never bothered to try the tennis ball method out for myself.  Until today.  And... oh... my goodness.  Oh, my gracious! It's amazing!!!

I started with the trouble spots in my back and shoulders.  At first it was awkward figuring out how to shift my weight around and how to find the trigger points, but I got the hang of it quickly enough.  The release was painful and hard-won, but so worth it.  Deep breathing and conscious relaxation made the experience almost like a yoga practice in and of itself.  After the initial awkwardness of becoming accustomed to the intensity of sensation, the endorphins began to flow and the focus narrowed to the most subtle of internal shifts.  I rolled on that ball for nearly two hours, going deeper and deeper into the tight spots, discovering a new sensation with every subtle shift of weight.  It's no exaggeration to say that I experienced some... umm.... mild hallucinations.  Swirling colors and the like.

I rolled on both sides of my upper back and shoulders, targeting the usual rough spots.  Hard masses of muscle were gradually, begrudgingly smoothed out. Then I moved to the lats, which was incredibly painful but so very effective.  I even rolled the ball under my left upper chest, where I've experienced lots of resistance for as long as I can remember, but I've never been able to find the physical root of the tension (hmm... left upper chest, eh?  Armored heart?  Too obvious...).  The tennis ball found it.  The mass held strong against the pressure and then suddenly would give way, resulting in radiating muscle spasms, searing heat, and eventually softness.

Then I started in on the hips, mainly glutes and piriformis.  I can barely verbalize the rawness of this experience.  I saw stars.  I remembered my birth.  I felt the pulse of the universe in my own throbbing ass.  Maybe I'm exaggerating a little bit, but not much.  It is said in yogic circles that we store emotional trauma in the hips in the form of unconscious clenching of the muscles.  I've always believed that pain or sickness in the body is often simply the physical manifestation of emotional pain, but I've never had such a direct and immediate experience confirming this to be so.  After a thorough working over on both sides, pausing for several deep breaths at trigger points and then rolling the ball maybe an inch along the muscle fiber and pausing again, I'd finally had enough.  Not two minutes after removing the ball and lying down to rest, I became suddenly emotional.  Downright weepy, actually.  The nature of the pain was as if someone I loved had betrayed me or been hurtful to me in a deeply personal way.  Sad but pure.

Fortunately, my back, hips, and shoulders felt great.  So I guess the lesson is: if you wish to release your pain and increase your emotional intelligence, you might do well to explore the body.  And maybe roll around on a tennis ball once in a while.


  1. Great post, as always!
    It is so true that we store emotional pain in our body! When I had a really tough time in my life, I even cried in a yoga class once. Embarrassing!!! But fortunately my teacher was very supportive, she said that it happened with her several times when she was going through her divorce and other people experience this too.
    I'm sure yoga can cure these suppressed emotional pains that would otherwise manifest in a heart attack or high blood pressure for example.
    I's good that you cried it out.
    Have a nice practice! :)

  2. Hi Nyx - It's not uncommon for people to cry in yoga class, particularly during or after deep hip openers. Another strange reaction that deep opening elicits sometimes is uncontrollable giggles.

    Yes, much better to release these things during yoga or muscle work than allow them to fester. Thanks for the comment!

  3. This may be a silly question, but HOW did you go about this? I can visualize laying on your back on the tennis ball, but hips...? How did you go about it?



  4. Hi Amanda - I did the hips in the same way: lying on the ball, regulating the amount of pressure by using my arms and legs to support my weight to varying degrees. Eventually, I was able to rest all of my weight on the ball, but that took some warming up to. I started high up by the sacrum and worked my way down and around to the outer hip, following the tension. Also, I found by moving the leg around in the hip joint, I was able to get into some different areas.

    Does that answer your question? I'm not sure how else to explain it.

  5. sounds amazing. I'm going to try it. Thank you, Megan and Jim.

  6. I was doing this last night! I was working it under the shoulder blade to try and get all the muscles that are knotted up under there (strained the shoulder weeks ago. I think the initial injury healed but now all the muscles are knotted up from having to modify the way I move).

    Anyways, here's another fun one: try putting 2 tennis balls inside a long sock and then tie off the open end of the sock, so that the tennis balls don't move around. Lay on your back with your spine in between the two tennis balls and roll it up and down your spine...now you can get both sides of your spine at once! Here's a video in case my description wasn't very good: http://findyourbalancehealth.com/2011/01/the-secret-of-2-tennis-balls/

  7. Linh - I highly recommend it.

    Tara - Talk about coincidences. Last night I overheard another teacher telling a student about that exact same tennis balls-in-sock technique!

  8. Ha Ha cool! Thanks Megan, I am glad it helped.

  9. What an opening up. I love it!

    Funny I was just reading an article on Elephant Journal and loved this quote: "As Francisco has described to me, what I am experiencing is purification of body karma. He says we store karma in our bodies in the form of blockages, and as we release these blockages, we also release karma."

    Oh, and from experience, those looking to try, a new tennis ball is really hard and may be too intense, but a really old tennis ball (that isn't as hard) will soften the blow. Or I use my toddler's small thomas the train ball ;)

  10. I have done this before with a tennis and also a lacrosse ball and I often bring this into my Restorative Yoga classes. BTW, I actually ended up getting the FLU after one especially intense deep tissue massage... as if a whole mess of trauma got released and my immune system was overwhelmed. SO I believe in the power of the TENNIS BALL too... ahhh.

  11. Jim - Thank YOU.

    Domestic - Good call on the used ball. The one I've been using is pretty firm and it definitely takes some getting used to.

    Heidi - I'm not surprised. I rolled again today for a long time a couple hours before my practice -- big mistake. I felt strange and weak. And even though I showered right before my practice, I started to stink mid-way through my practice. Weired because it was on the left side only, where I rolled on my chest to soften the massive blockage there. I think I may have released something nasty.

    Lesson learned: don't roll on tennis balls before practice. Wait until after.

  12. This post actually inspired me to go out an buy a foam roller as I've used a tennis ball before but it was just too difficult to access the point on my back/shoulders that was all knotted up.

    Let me just say that I don't know how I existed without it.

  13. Oooh, you should try a Pinky ball. A little smaller and a bit less give with weight. It really works into the tight spots. And, check out Jill Miller's Yoga Tuneup for great ways to use them. Highly recommend!

  14. Hey, babs - Will do. Thanks for the tip!