Book reviews

Book Review: The Roll Model

Title: The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility and Live Better in Your Body
Author: Jill Miller
Format: Paperback
Pages: 432
Availability: widely available, amazon
Reviewed by: Rebekah Le Magny

The Roll Model is a self-care book that teaches rolling sequences on rubber balls to use the body’s own self-healing mechanisms to relieve pain, increase circulation, reduce stress and improve breathing, posture and performance. The author, Jill Miller, is the creator of the Yoga Tune-Up and Roll Model Methods. While the Yoga TuneUp program combines self-massage with corrective exercises and stretches, the Roll Model method is not an exercise program per se, but more of a self-massage and breathing method. Ms. Miller has released several dvds, including the popular Yoga Tuneup RX series and, more recently, Treat While You Train. The latter, which the author created with Kelly Starett, the inventor of Crossfit, was released at approximately the same time as the Roll Model. While not marketed as a companion to Roll Model, it includes many of the same or similar rolling sequences. Still other sequences are available as short You-Tube videos. Ms. Miller has presented her techniques in many magazines and on television shows, such as Good Morning America and Oprah WInfrey’s show. She has developed a teacher training program and leads workshops and retreats throughout the world. An increasing number of gyms and yoga studios in the United States offer Yoga TuneUp classes.

The book begins with Ms. Miller’s personal story. She developed the Yoga TuneUp and the Roll Model methods while searching for a means to manage her own chronic pain and body/mind issues that began during her preteen years and haunted her through early adulthood. These issues manifested themselves through bulimia and later, the abuse of yoga and exercise. While in college, although she studied mind/body disciplines such as yoga, pilates, feldenkrais and shiatsu massage, she continued to struggle with bulimia. Ms. Miller finally won her battle with bulimia through the help of her mentor, Glenn Black, a movement, body-toning and yoga specialist, whom she met while working at the famed Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. Unfortunately, after she moved away from New York, her issues resurfaced and she began to abuse her body through excessive exercise. She sought out other body therapists, but was unable to find one who had helped her as Black. She began to experiment on her own. These experiments evolved into the Yoga TuneUp Method, which enabled her to end the cycle of self-abuse against which she had struggled for many years. She integrated the method in her yoga classes and soon gained a reputation as someone who could help others reclaim control of their bodies and their lives as she had. Ms. Miller describes her teaching as « embodied anatomy », which she defines as « heightening one’s self-awareness of the body as an integrated and interrelated tool for mapping the experiences of the body’s parts, physiology and sense”.

The Roll Model is interspersed with a number of powerful and moving testimonies of real people (names and photos included) whose lives have dramatically benefitted from the method. One woman, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, was declared legally disabled and could no longer live on her own. She was even in danger of choking because of her throat rigidity. The balls enabled her to break up tissue adhesions that were causing the rigidity and to recover a large part of her mobility and autonomy. A pilates teacher struggling with immeasurable pain from lupus described how the balls gave her immediate and ongoing relief and helped her manage her disease. Another young woman tells of how the balls helped her recover from the effects of her battle with breast cancer and resulting hysterectomy and oophorectomy. A young man, suffering from Charcot Marie Tooth, a motor and neuropathology disease, which causes numbness of the limbs, could barely move, suffered from incontinence and was forced to take large amounts of medication to control his pain. With the method, he was able to partially reverse the numbness, remove his ankle and leg braces and wean himself off his medications. He eventually decided to participate in the Roll Model teacher training program. Some of the other testimonies include: a young woman who was able to overcome incontinence by using the ball on her pelvic muscles; a body builder who suffered from crippling pain resulting from multiple car accidents; a veteran whose back pain left him immobilized; a woman who donated part of her liver and was suffering from scar tissue buildup; a woman suffering from scleroderma that was changing the shape of her face; a rape victim; and a woman suffering from severe depression. One woman reversed thirty years of numbness in her knee within two weeks of using the balls. Kelley Starett describes his lifelong battle with asthma and how he learned to breathe properly by using the Coregeous ball.

The Roll Model balls come in four different sizes. They include the original Yoga TuneUp, the Plus and the Alpha balls, which are the same, but slightly larger. The fourth ball, the Coregeous Ball, is similar to the « Pilates Balls » that are on the market, inflatable through a straw, about the size of a child’s ball and very soft. The Coregous ball can be used on the stomach during breathing exercises. The author says that you can use other balls in a pinch, but then goes on to cite their disadvantages, ie. too hard or not sturdy enough. The Yoga TuneUp balls are softer and grippier (meaning they grip the skin, facilitating the massage of the superficial fascia just under the skin) than others and they become softer with use. They should be replaced every six months or so, depending on the frequency of use. The older ones can be used on more delicate body parts. I have used the Yoga TuneUp balls for a few years, before the book was released, and I tend to agree with the author about their superiority over tennis or lacrosse balls. I have, however, heard that the pink Spaulding and pinkie balls work well too.

In Chapter 4, the “Science section”, the author briefly describes fascia and what role it plays in the body. However, she is quick to point out that there is no real need to understand what she labels the « science stuff » to enjoy the benefits of the method. Your body will understand what is happening regardless of whether or not your brain understands. She does, however, give a brief overview of fascia, primarily citing Robert Schleip. She also includes an ultrasound diagnostic image of the fascia of a person after ninety seconds of rolling on the ball, stating that the fascial tissues appear “fluffed” “which may indicate an increase and slide and guide potential and mobility.” She doesn’t offer any wild, impossible to prove claims about what exactly the rolling is doing to the fascia, instead pointing out the results of the method and underlining the effect of massage on the thousands of sensory nerve endings in the fascia. Massaging enables the sensory nerves to relay more accurate messages to the brain, increasing the body’s proprioreception. Increased fascial proprioreception purportedly diminishes the perception of pain, while the converse also holds true – increased pain causes decreased proprioreception. The balls relieve tension and increase proprioreception, which diminishes pain and increases coordination, leading to better alignment and therefore posture, which in turn further reduces pain. Finally the author gives an even briefer overview, that she refers to as “the big picture take-away from this topic” (in bold) in order to make the science even easier to comprehend.

Chapter 5 brings us to the Anatomy Section. The book is a self-care book for « regular people » and not just movement professionals. Accordingly, the anatomy section is extremely simple and easy to understand. Ms. Miller uses a model skeleton and the book contains pictures where she points to the bones in question, which is much easier for a layperson to understand than an illustration. She uses colored illustrations to show some of the major muscles. The rolling sequences themselves include pictures of the bony landmarks and muscles relevant to each sequence.

After the anatomy lesson, the author presents the nine key Roll Model techniques, which she explains through photographs, a written description and an explanation that is entitled “what is happening physiologically”. Each technique is assigned an “icon”. The icons are used during the sequences. The techniques include sustained compression, skin-rolling/shear, stripping, crossFiber, pin and stretch, contract/relax, pin/spin and mobilize, ball plow and ball stack.

Chapter9 brings us to the actual rolling sequences. The seventeen sequences include a global shear warm-up, sequences for the lower body (feet, ankles, knees, hips and buttocks), the spine (lower back, upper back and ribcage), the shoulders to fingers, the head and neck and lastly, three sequences that she calls back, front and side seam sequences. The author also encourages the user to play around with the sequences and the techniques and to find what works best for him, and perhaps to invent some of his own. Each sequence begins with an “embody map”, with illustrations of the major muscles that will be addressed, and photos of Ms. Miller pointing to the relevant bony landmarks on the skeleton model. She next presents a check-in section, followed by the sequence itself, and then a recheck section. The sequences are exceedingly easy to understand, almost as easy as a dvd. Each sequence contains several exercises and each exercise has written and photo instructions. With two to fifteen color photographs presenting each exercises like a video reel, thereby eliminating the need for any guess work, the sequences are pretty much idiot proof.

While not inexpensive, you definitely get bang for your buck. From the anatomy to the science overview to the breathing and posture sections and the hundreds (perhaps thousands?) of photos and illustrations, I am at a bit of a loss to come up with anything the author left out. For those that complain that there is too much information, the user does not have to read every word in the book, although I would recommend going through it at least once. After a few sessions, there is no need to even read the instructions that accompany the sequences, because there is an icon that shows what technique to use and the photographs are very clear and detailed. Everything about this book is meticulously designed to make it user friendly, the many color photographs, the large print, the different typefaces and color titles, as well as the glossary of terms. There are also appendices with recommended reading and viewing, including the websites as blogs of Thomas Meyers, Sue Hitzmann and Katy Bowman).

Does it work? I bought the balls long before the book came out and found them very useful for managing my battle with piriformis syndrome. I use them almost daily. I also use them to lessen some shoulder tension and pain. My tendency is to just use them here and there where I feel pain (these days, pretty much everywhere – the joys of aging..) and not to use any of the suggested sequences. After reading the testimonies in the book, some of which were nothing short of miraculous, I was motivated to try some of the techniques that I might not have ever attempted, for the fingers and for the neck and jaw and for the diaphragm. I did the neck release when I woke up one morning barely able to turn my head and was surprised to regain most of my mobility almost immediately. I did not try the coregeous ball at first. When I finally got around to doing it for purposes of this review, I found lying on the ball to be fairly unpleasant at first, but it did bring awareness to the breath and lessen tension in the chest and ribcage. When I tried the other sequences in full, I was mildly surprised to realize how much tension and sensitivity I had in other areas. I say mildly surprised because, as a pilates teacher , I am well aware how a problem in the foot or the jaw can have repercussions elsewhere in the body. I think that this book definitely has a place in the library of anyone suffering from chronic pain, as well as anyone who regularly practices a sport. It is an excellent complement to a pilates practice and a good gift for friends or family. I brought a ball with me on vacation and let my mother in law try it on her arthritic hands. I will send her a set of balls because I don’t want to part with mine!