Updated: Dec 12, 2019
Johanna Vargas is a Chicago-based body worker, teacher and artist. Martial arts led her to massage and circus arts. She's practiced massage since 2009, then graduated from Aloft's first full-time program in 2014, and has finally come back full-circle to martial arts.
My focused concentration was broken by his voice: “You’ll find it with softness.”. Surprised, I unfurrowed my brow and realized I was clenching my jaw. My therapist’s hands gently held my ribcage, with one finger softly resting in the tender spot that, for the past two weeks, felt like a stab wound every time I exited an inside meathook, or took a full inhale. I realized in that moment that I was embodying exactly what was happening in my head: Where IS that dang spot? If I could just force my inhale into it, I could make it “pop” and this will all be over. My body was most likely completely tensed as I tried to force that discomfort out, instead of being curious about it.
I just wanted that pain gone. Now.
This determined, goal-oriented perseverance seems to serve us well at times. When training, for example. Is this not what we do day in, day out, as we work to own and refine skills on our preferred apparatus? We set the goal, and then tirelessly hunt it down. We “kill” it; we “crush” it ‘cuz this is the smart, sustainable way to train, right?...
Haha, that's another piece for another time. But it’s definitely the wrong way to go about relieving discomfort, increasing flexibility or reducing muscular tension and pain. Here are a few key lessons I've picked up in 13 years of massage practice:
1. Identify whether the treatment needs to be clearing or tonifying.
Does the body need space, made by clearing an excess, or does it need tonifying and nourishment in an area that is depleted and exhausted? How can you tell? Well, does it feel turgid and like it wants to “hit back” upon being touched too deeply too quickly? Does it feel better, or less “stiff” upon movement? These sensations indicate application of techniques that soften and then gradually increase range of motion, and suppleness. Recipients of bodywork report a feeling of space or freer movement when moving the limb after we've done some work together in an area that was built-up or "blocked". These are your clues. But when an area feels rock hard to the touch with little or no sensation, or you only feel better with deep, sustained pressure, and it actually feels worse at the end of your training day, these are signs of depletion. A slow, nourishing or tonifying approach is best. How to achieve that? Well, it’s the exact opposite of “forcing” anything and is best achieved with a “listening curiosity” or “receptivity”, and then once you find a tender spot, stay put with sustained, ischemic pressure, as opposed to a wringing or kneading motion.
2. Work from “broad” or “general” to “specific”. Because all tissue- bone, connective and muscular- is surrounded by fascia, your body’s structures need to be made pliable in order to reap the advantages of fascia’s thixotropic quality. Thixotropic refers to a substance’s thinning or flowing more freely dependent upon time and movement. A good way to begin softening or employing this quality of viscosity in the general area, say with your back is with a large foam roller. As we roll back and forth, we sink through the fibers of trapezius, latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and erector spinae group, just to name a few of the layers from superficial to deep. We bring fresh blood to the area, via rolling compression. This compressive motion also gives us information: we find the spots that need more attention. This is when we can begin to get “specific” in our self-treatment. See video for what this can look like.
3. Soften BEFORE lengthening or strengthening.
Understanding whether a muscle is concentrically- or eccentrically-strained is key to applying effective treatment. A muscle can be locked “short”, even after the movement is done, because it is made to repeat that particular motion over and over. An example would be when someone keeps using their biceps to climb a rope instead of their lats. The biceps brachii then learn to stay short with the elbow mildly flexed. This is a muscle that needs to be softened and THEN lengthened. If a muscle is locked long, say, due to stretching oversplits repeatedly, those hamstring bellies don’t know how to shorten back to their normal length, creating a feeling of chronic tension and pain. Muscles that are locked long are often “twang-y” like a taut guitar string. Eccentrically-strained muscles (locked long) don’t need stretching. They need to be put in a position of ease, which will allow them to soften. Only after you have softened or reduced tension in an area is it ready to be stretched or strengthened.
Softening muscles is best done by “warming”, or inducing tissue’s thixotropic quality with rhythmic regular compressions and gentle movement. This would be the foam roller, or a massage therapist’s broad, sweeping strikes or compressions. Then passively bring the muscles’ attachments closer by flexing the joint, then sink in with the massage tool and stay until the sensation feels therapeutic, or beneficial, bringing your awareness and breath to the area. Investigate the area with softness, versus mauling it with a lacrosse ball or cane massager tool. Your body is already used to being pushed hard during training and in self-massage/softening, we’re going for the exact opposite.
4. Strengthen the antagonist muscle(s).
This one is so key to preventing repetitive strain injuries. All humans, but especially any movement artist, in my opinion, should be taught anatomy and at the very least, the kinesiology specific to their apparatus, as part of their curriculum. In practice, that line of thought might sound like: OK, I know that strong, full beats with good height on the trapeze require intense use of my lats and subscapularis. Latissimus dorsi is a very strong medial rotator. Because I know that my work has me contracting it so strongly, so often, in order to prevent my humerus bones from being medially rotated, I know I have to stretch my pectoralis major and strengthen my infraspinatus and teres minor, as those are my lateral rotators. I also have to strengthen my rhomboids, as those will keep my pecs and medial rotators from “winning” the tug-of-war between my chest and upper back that is the body’s dynamic dance of homeostasis.
If you are not sure what specific anatomy you are using to do your thing, ask your coach. If it seems like they don't know, find an experienced massage therapist or PT with a movement practice and show them video of what you do. Any practitioner worth their rosin or massage oil should be more than happy to geek out and tell you what muscles are doing what, firing in what order and what muscles you need to strengthen and lengthen in order to stave off issues down the road.
5. Know when to reach for outside help.
When the pain is too “big” for you to listen with curious receptivity, or when you cannot comfortably reach it yourself, that is, without straining or tensing elsewhere, get a qualified, experienced set of objective hands to help you understand what your body is communicating to you.
6. Prepare to get the most out of your bodywork treatment:
When you finally book a massage to find relief, arrive prepared to describe the action(s) and positions your body goes through daily on your apparatus, your lifestyle habits and please bring video of you in motion on your apparatus, or better, video of you doing the action that causes the sensation to feel worse. Be prepared with questions for your massage therapist, such as, how long have they been in practice? Who is their client demographic? Do they have a movement practice, and if so, what is it? That last one, I feel is so key because a person who spends the majority of their time actually moving, touching and observing actual bodies- their own and others- is going to have a much more profound understanding of bodies and movement than someone who spends the majority of their time touching and observing computer screens and papers.
You can prevent almost all and usually resolve 8/10 issues yourself. But yes, it’s going to take time, relaxed breath, your full attention, and utter softness.