I have kept this self-help idea in my pocket for a couple years since a TI Coach friend referred me to a masseur, who in turn recommended this home remedy to relieve some muscle knots that were developing under my shoulder blades from extensive sprint work I was doing at the time. But only recently did I start to use it to much effect after modifying how I use it.

This is it: A simple racquetball can be transformed into an amazing self-massage device.

ball-massage 01

A racquetball – about 5 cm in diameter.

My wife would die for a deep massage. But not me. The few times I’ve let friends offer amateur help on my spots I recoiled from the discomfort when those knots are touched – and I am a touch-affection kind of guy!. The one professional massage treatment I got was a mixed experience too.

I think it is because the muscle tension in certain parts of my body have been present for so many years that a casual or one-time massage could not make much progress on them. They end up aggravating my nervous system rather than relieving it. There is a dismantle process that needs to occur and that can take several sessions and it may need to be released in layers.

But for several weeks this summer I have been sleeping on a different bed (on the ground floor – to find some cooler spot in the house during the heat of July and August) and something about my various sleeping positions on this mattress made me wake up with neck stiffness and upper back tension. I could feel some specific spots or lines of tightness and soreness, but I couldn’t reach them with my own hands to any affect.

So, a couple weeks ago I began a ritual of waking up in the morning, laying down upon a yoga mat, placing this racquetball underneath my back and using just body-weight (adjustable with my bent legs pushing up, and tilting to the side) to start working on these particular spots.

ball-massage 02

I may lay there and count anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds before I feel a release.

But that quickly led to the discovery of many, many other spots that were extraordinarily tight or sore, which I just didn’t notice until I actually pressed on them. I then expanded my morning task into a systematic process of un-knotting my back, section by section, piece by piece. I start on the right side, next to the spine, at about mid-back, and then work my way up a few centimeters and then out to the scapula, and then back to the spine, and up a few more centimeters again. I scan for these tight spots and carefully slide my body until I have the ball pushing directly on that spot. I adjust the pressure and count seconds, waiting for the muscle to release, letting the ball sink into the muscle and all pain to disappear.

ball-massage 03

It is a balance between holding just enough pressure with my body weight while relaxing the muscles and letting the shoulder drop completely onto the ball.

I have been learning about the pathways and relationships of my muscles in the back. I have found how a tight spot lower down can translate to a pain on the top of my shoulder. I have found that relief of these combinations of knots has released more range of motion in my left shoulder, which has always been less than the right side. And I believe it is releasing me from some of the nerve pain in my left arm I have been vulnerable to for decades. All this, just because I first started to address some neck stiffness in my right side. Illustrations of back muscles in my copy of the classic Netter Atlas Of The Human Anatomy (the one used by medical students to memorize all that stuff) keep going through my mind.

I have also been refining my interpretation of pain. There are all different kinds and degrees of pain signals and they are important to read accurately. As I slide my body over the ball, centimeter by centimeter, the pressure pushing into the muscles triggers different kinds of sensations – when all is fine in a certain section, there is a painless pressure of the ball pressing into soft muscle tissue. But as the ball approaches a tight spot the sensations change by kind and degree depending on what is happening inside that muscle. When I find the center of tension it can be a nearly excruciating spike in pain (which I can fine control by adjusting the pressure by pushing up with my legs) – but I have also come to associate this pain with pleasure, if you can even imagine that.

ball-massage 04

When knotted the muscle rides on top of the ball painfully, when it releases, the ball sinks into the tissue painlessly.

Yes, this little morning ritual has become an eagerly anticipated experience of pleasurable pain! There is such a strong positive association with this kind of pain-triggering action because the persistent pressure on a tight spot yields far greater pleasure of relaxation in a minute or two. My nervous system is refreshed, rather than depleted. My mind is awakened rather than dulled. And somehow, even in the act of pushing a tight muscle against this ball and feeling the pain along the muscle lines and even down my arm or up along side my face, it is a positive feeling of ‘improvement’ not a negative one of ‘injury’.

This is how I have been waking myself up in the mornings for a couple weeks now. I might lay down on the mat feeling groggy or tired, but within a couple minutes I am wide awake, yet with a calm heart rate, a calm mind, and no need for artificial stimulants (though I still really like my black tea and milk).

Some mornings I lay there and think, some times I meditate (nothing like a little pain to bring one into the present moment!) or sometimes I will listen to a podcast or audiobook. I do whatever my brain is inclined to do in conjunction with the body.

Note that I have been working through decades of chronic muscle tension – the unique variety of repetitive activities and occupational tasks I’ve done over the years have built up my own blend of tension. It is definitely not as severe as some swim students I have had, but I suppose it was bad enough. It has taken me over two weeks at more than an hour per morning session (several but not all days of the week) to kneed and plow the field of my back muscles and turn the tissue soft again. My hours of computer work and my side-sleeping at night keep re-activating certain knots though I employ techniques for improving posture and alignment both at my standing desk and while I sleep. I will work on better solutions for those causes.

And initially, this self-massage threw my back into greater spasms during some of the days. One can’t dismantle part of an interdependent arrangement of muscle support in the back without the rest of those muscles freaking out about it! Everything needs time to readjust, hopefully into a much healthier arrangement. My body had grown accustomed to the knotty arrangement, and then I took it apart. Now it needs time to rebuild a new one – so each day I need to do some maintenance. As is my nature, I might haven been a bit more aggressive about this than an actual trained masseur would be. But, it is much easier for me to self-inflict pain upon my body than let someone else do it (this is why, at 18 years old I was attracted to triathlons and not American football or karate).

Keep in mind that I have a long-standing practice of stretching where I emphasize the spine, hips and shoulders flexibility. And I do some minor core work in conjunction with my deep practice of TI which does wonders for posture and toning already. So, you could look at it both ways – I have some advantage in musculature because of my many years of investment into fitness, yet even with my fitness and highly refined technique in swimming I can still struggle with muscle tension (though this is caused by far more factors outside the water than in).

But I think this stands out – a simple, pleasurable routine of self-massage and stretching can yield some very pleasing results.

I have even found myself eager to do extra. For example, I’ve set up my mini-projector to watch movies on the ceiling with my kids and now I can lay there and work on my entire back for over 1.5 hours while having family time! The productivity side of me is in heaven. And the racquetball goes with me where ever I travel – ready for the hotel floor or quiet (clean?) corner of an airport terminal.

It’s become so attractive to keep up with this habit, to stay on top of the muscle tension. First of all, it is immediately rewarding in its masochistic way, and it is rewarding afterward in the relaxation I feel. And it is cheap and convenient.

So, maybe you too want to go find your own racquetball and loosen up?


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