Christian Leeby is a certified practitioner of Rolf Integration and a long-time Yoga teacher. Visit him at www.miracleofyoga.com
If you're a fitness buff spending valuable time training for strength, agility, stamina and peak performance then you should know about soft tissue release. Any training regime, no matter what it is, will create patterns in the muscles that can eventually limit your ability to progress through that next plateau. Although fitness training develops and conditions the body, you're still doing repetitive movements which eventually creates patterns. If you're fortunate enough to train with Alex Semenik these issues will be hugely reduced because of the sophisticated and well-balanced approach he teaches, but you still can't escape the body's intelligent way of stabilizing imbalances by creating tight, over bound muscle fibers.
One of the key factors you should understand is that your body is not balanced. What I mean by that is that everyone has one hip that's higher, one shoulder that rounds forward more, one leg that's rotated in or out more than the other. These are structural patterns that begin when we are babies and continue to develop as we age. My two year old has her "mother's knees". They fall in towards each other, and always will. As she learns to stand, walk, and run there's a strong force she's up against, gravity. Few people think about it, but gravity is constantly pushing you towards the ground. You don't notice it because it's a constant, and you can't feel something that's always there, but your body is negotiating it's force 24/7.
So as my kid goes from crawling to standing, bringing along the knock-knees she got from mom's DNA, the body has to figure out how to balance those knees so she can be upright without collapsing in on herself. In it's amazing and unseen wisdom, it will make the outer legs tight to keep those knees from falling in more. She stands, walks, runs, and the whole time her structural pattern gets deeper and deeper.
Skip ahead 20, 30, or 40 years and imagine what happens when she decides to get fit and start lifting weights. She lays down on the bench press, lowers the bar, and as she pushes it back up the bar is uneven. Makes perfect sense because her body is uneven. Don't get me wrong, when I say she's uneven I see that coming from an incredibly intelligent body wisdom. To be able to stand and move in the field of gravity is phenomenal, especially because we never think about it. So the fact that we're all crooked is the mark of our bodies doing what they need to do to meet the demands we place on them. Great stuff, but still imbalanced.
Now fortunately you have Alex there to notice the uneven bar, point it out, and teach you exactly how to press that bar up so you're body is balanced. When you train with intelligence you literally help straighten out your body's imbalances. So what you're doing is good. However some of those imbalances come from muscles that have been really bound up for a lifetime, and that's where soft tissue release comes in.
There are many forms of soft tissue release out there these days. The ones I'm into don't just work on a tight muscle here or there, they address the whole body, because one tight muscles is not an island, it's connected to and effecting every other part of the body.
Rolf Integration uses hands-on pressure to release bound up tissues. To work on tight muscles you have to focus on the fascia which is like a cellophane wrapping in and around the muscles. When scar tissue forms it happens in the fascia, which constricts the muscle fibers. When you apply heat and pressure to stiff and stuck fascia, it softens, and can actually go back to it's original healthy state. Rolf Integration is a method of releasing patterns in the fascia that have made your posture what it is. Over ten one-hour sessions each layer and dimension of the body is worked, and remarkably the body responds by getting straighter. Remember, the body knows about gravity even if you don't, and when you give it some freedom it will re-align in such a way that gravity becomes it's friend rather than foe.
Yoga is all the rage these days, and unfortunately most of what you see out there is not very sophisticated. If you know what you're doing, Yoga can be an amazing approach to releasing and balancing the soft tissues of the body. Most people doing Yoga have no idea that their imbalances are determining how the body does the Yoga pose. If you understand about alignment and balance then you can use those same Yoga poses to address and re-balance those patterns. Stand up and get ready to touch your toes. Look at your feet and you'll see that one is forward of the other and both are turned in different directions. That shows your body's pattern. Touch your toes with your feet in that position and you might get more flexible but you'll also deepen the body's pattern. If you take the time to make your feet exactly parallel before bending over, then you're using Yoga to straighten out those crooked tendencies.
Incorporating intelligent methods of soft tissue release will help your body recover from your workouts and will address imbalances in your body that you probably don't even know are there, but the biggest benefit you'll see is improved performance from that valuable time you spend training.