In 1997 I presented a program at the Roll Institute’s Annual Meeting demonstrating how I use therapy balls in my work. Al that time I learned that many Rolfers have at least one large therapy ball in their office. However, many people said they didn’t know how to incorporate balls into their sessions.
Introducing therapy balls into my Rolfing practice has provided solutions to a wide range of structural challenges and actively engages the client. I use a variety of balls from small balls (7-8 inch diameter) to large 65-cm. balls, egg-shaped balls and orbs, fully inflated and soft, under-inflated balls. Clients can engage in the work using balls; they cushion my body and enhance my creativity. This article will give you some of my ideas, and I hope will encourage your own creativity.
TECHNIQUES AND TOOLS
Incorporating therapy balls into my sessions has enhanced my sense of possibilities and stretches my creativity by taking me away from the confined space of the Rolfing table. My sessions have become more specific and individually adaptive to each client. For example, when a client sits on the bench for standard back work she has few movement options. However, if the client sits on a ball while receiving back work she can pay attention to the sensations and movement options while observing the connection through her legs into her back. I feel this engagement promotes more integration while also changing the structure.
Using balls give me more “hands” in a Rolfing session. I find using small (7 – 8 inch diameter), under- inflated balls (these are a soft vinyl material, not the dense and hard vinyl) tucked into the axillary space of each arm very effective for releasing shoulder girdles. The client sits on the edge of the bodywork table or on the adjustable bench with feet making good contact with the floor. Inviting the client to “send their breath laterally, through their ribs into the balls” helps the client have a sensational echo through the balls. With my hands I can ease the restrictions I’ve found around their scapulas, ribs, clavicles, etc. I often work the upper arm while the small balls are tucked between ribs and arm. When doing this I am sitting astride a large ball lateral to the client and facing the arm I am working on. I like sitting on the ball while doing this work as it allows me to make discrete adjustments in my own body as I follow the client’s tissue. The balls under the arms in this manner allow me to access more information in the client’s system.
With fascial restrictions released, the arms hang with more ease out of the shoulder girdle, the scapula has ease of movement over the ribs, and breathing is eased. The client has significantly greater awareness of breath and movement. The work heightens their awareness to their own movement of breathing.
Back work with the client standing is one of my favorite ways to integrate the back, legs and feet and ease the fascial restrictions associated with hamstring discomfort. The client stands at the end of the Rolfing table and bends forward over a ball. Two necessary elements for this to be successful are that the ball and the height of the table must fit the client. Having an electric table greatly enhances the Rolfers ability to “get it right” for the client. A few different size balls also come in handy for this. For a tall person with a long torso I bring out my 65-cm. green egg ball, for a petite person I will use a 45-cm. egg or a 53-cm. round ball. The height of the table/ball combination must allow the client to bend forward over the ball comfortably. Their feet must have full, supportive contact on the floor. If they are standing on tiptoe, it’s too high and if their knees are bent its too low. The client’s ease of flexibility along their back is important to consider. For example, if the petite person has had a serious back injury, surgery or is not flexible I would choose an egg rather than an orb to provide longer support for the front of her body. With this technique the client will be in the position and actively engaged for a few minutes, therefore they must be comfortable and supported.
The back of the body is the focus of attention, but the point of entry is different for each client. I must decide if the most effective intervention is to ease restrictions at the foot, achilles tendon or calf. Perhaps the best intervention is pelvis and hip-rotators. Maybe the low back is the best point of entry. Obviously this is determined by the patterns of the client.
Inviting the client to extend a foot a couple of inches back and stepping through their heel is very effective for activating the sense of elongation while the Rolfer is working the hamstrings or lower leg. (Illustrations 1 and 2) While working on the back to integrate the sense of feet supporting the back or heel to sits-bones connection the Rolfer has opportunities to give cues to the client which raise awareness and improve function.
I also work along a client’s back in this manner with the client reaching into the smaller balls placed under their hands. The client has tactile feedback when they reach into the ball or slowly roll the ball, which engages the connective tissue very differently than reaching in space without proprioceptive engagement.
Structural integration is the point of our work. Using methods incorporating therapy balls that engage the client in a process that is complex, varied and informative to their system helps us reach our goals. A quote from a book by Carla Hannaford, Ph.D. articulates my goals for Rolfing sessions: “…movement is essential to learning. … Movement integrates and anchors new information and experience into our neural networks. And movement is vital to all the actions by which we embody and express our learning, our understanding and our selves.” (From her book SmartMoves … Why Learning is Not All In Your Head).
Utilizing a variety of therapy balls in my practice has given me a “new canvas.” I find that over the many years that I have been incorporating balls into my sessions I am much more creative and specific in how I approach each client. One of the delights of being a Rolfer is the importance of client/practitioner engagement. As Rolfers we are most skillful and effective when we approach each client with inquisitiveness matched with a desire to be of service to the person that comes to us for help. Throughout a session we ask ourselves, “How can I be most effective?” The question requires that we pay attention and stay engaged. The balls are tools for engagement for client and Rolfer.
The support of balls encourages movement and is responsive to movement. I’ve discovered this support provides more information to my hands and with some guidance can help clients gain greater awareness of their bodies. The reverberation through the ball helps me track both restrictions and the easy flow of movement through elastic tissue. The ball’s resilient support is a reminder of our natural fluidity and watery beginnings.
INTRODUCING YOUR CLIENTS TO ROLFING WITH THERAPY BALLS
I am careful about how I introduce the use of the balls with clients. It is important to remember that people can only find release and openness within a context of support and safety. During the first session I mention to a new client that I use all the balls in my office as part of the way I work. I want them to let me know if I introduce something that feels uncomfortable to them. To establish the client’s sense of safety and trust, I use balls under knees while the client is supine. (Illustration 3) In this situation the client is passive and supported by the ball, which allows them to relax. Other times the intention is more demanding of the client.
The principle of support guides my decisions of when and how to increase the role of a ball in the session. For example, I do not require a client to sit on a ball or to stand and be supported by a ball (as described earlier) until I am confident the client can manage the ball while being engaged in the sensory stimulation of my hands-on work.
There are occasional clients who are “spherically challenged” and feel vulnerable when asked to use a ball. Respect this uneasiness and provide some stability for the ball. I use a circular stabilizer for the ball, buckwheat pillows wedged under a ball or rolled towels to keep the ball secure. Acknowledging these concerns by providing appropriate security while encouraging the client to use the ball can be a therapeutic experience.
A client can’t trust a ball that is too small or under-inflated for the intended purpose, as it won’t provide support. There are situations where an under-inflated ball is useful. An under-inflated ball can provide gentle stability and adapt to the client’s weight. When a client is lying on his side, an under inflated small egg-shaped ball is helpful under the medial side of the femur. (Illustration 4) This allows for movement of the femur while the leg is still supported. It is more useful than a pillow.
It is important to match the size of the ball to the client. Be aware that the placement of the ball doesn’t interfere with the client’s ability to breathe. For most of our new clients everything they are experiencing with us is new territory. Don’t assume your client knows what you want them to do or that they will ask for clarification. Stay engaged and observant. Ask the client if they are comfortable and if can they “do” what you’re asking for a few minutes.
Cold vinyl next to bare skin isn’t comfortable. I cover balls with a pillowcase, a sheet or a towel for creature comfort.
Do not use the balls on slick floors. Keep balls on carpets or rugs or yoga sticky mats for stability.
There are a wide variety of therapy balls on the market today. My favorite is the Pezzi Gymnastic Balls. Some balls are made of a stiff vinyl that is burst resistant. I really dislike the hard quality of those balls. I prefer balls that have a responsive and resonant quality. I want the ball to “echo” the client’s breath pattern.
If the practitioner is comfortable with the therapy balls, that comfort is communicated to clients. If using therapy balls is new territory for you I encourage you to roll, stretch, sit, bounce and play with these balls as it will provide you with the experience to create your own techniques to solve the issues you see in our clients. It is my theory that incorporating these supportive balls into our structural integration sessions introduces an element of being cradled and accepted without judgment. The Rolfer is not cradling the client; the Rolfer is educating and eliciting new movement options. The client moves and is supported in their movement. This opens the door for new discoveries for both practitioner and client.
Recently I discovered another “tool” thanks to Kevin Frank and Caryn McHose. My recent acquisition of a Swopper stool provides the benefits of sitting on a ball but with greater stability. Years of sitting on a ball while working has contributed to reoccurring lower back discomfort. The Swopper stool was been another great asset in my office. Check out their website if you are not familiar with this well designed German stool at www.swopperusa.comTherapy Balls and Rolfing – Reprint