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Rolling and Flexing to Massage Away Pain and StressJanuary 15, 2015
THE MELT method — a kind of body work that has been the subject of gym classes and a best-selling book — claims to address a host of middle-age complaints: chronic pain, aching joints, weight gain, stress, wrinkles, digestive problems, low energy and insomnia.
Eager to cross at least some of those off my list, I showed up at the JCC in Manhattan one morning for a class led by Sue Hitzmann, who also happens to have developed MELT. With my soft MELT roller and a small rubber ball in hand, I waited while the room filled.
Ms. Hitzmann’s story is one of disillusionment with mainstream medicine. About 10 years ago she was a star fitness instructor in her late 20s with a thriving neuromuscular therapy practice. She suddenly developed severe pain in her right heel that doctors and physical therapists could neither explain nor cure. They told her it was “all in her head,” she said, and suggested she find a psychiatrist.
Undeterred, she went into research mode and discovered the emerging science of connective tissue, or fascia. Researchers describe connective tissue as a three-dimensional, fluid-filled support network that surrounds the muscles, bones, nerves and organs. As we age, our bodies endure wear and tear that is thought to result in dehydration of this system. Even in young people, repetitive motions like running can compress and dry out the fascia, creating areas of what Ms. Hitzmann calls “stuck stress.” Sedentary behaviors can have the same effect.
Ms. Hitzmann developed a self-treatment system to manipulate and rehydrate the connective tissue. (MELT stands for Myofascial Energetic Length Technique.) Once you learn the method, she said, just 10 minutes three times a week is all you need. MELT now has 1,300 instructors nationwide and a following that includes the Olympic snowboarder Jamie Anderson, who used the method on her feet before winning gold in Sochi, Russia. Ms. Hitzmann’s book on the system, “The MELT Method,” was published in 2013 by HarperOne.
In class, Ms. Hitzmann first led us through foot exercises. We began by standing with our feet hip-width apart and our eyes closed. We raised all 10 toes, took three breaths and then lowered them to the floor. If we felt our bodies drifting forward as our toes touched the ground, she said, it was a sign that our connective tissue system was out of whack.
Next we placed a ball under one foot, pressing down with each toe knuckle. Then we moved the ball back and forth over different points on the arch and heel. Finally, we assessed our progress by standing on both feet and determining if that leg felt different. Amazingly, I felt a change. After doing the other foot, we repeated the toe lifting and lowering — this time, no forward drift.
Three more sequences followed, all performed while lying on our backs on a mat. First we assessed: Were there parts of our backs and legs not touching the mat? If the bra line was not touching (mine wasn’t) and the neck felt restricted when moving the head back and forth, that meant trouble in the shoulder girdle. If a large part of the lower back was off the mat, that meant a problem with the diaphragm. If the backs of the thighs weren’t touching (mine weren’t), the pelvis was the culprit.
We placed the soft roller under our spines, rocked back and forth on the mat, then did a pelvis tilt and tuck. We focused on the diaphragm, breathing in deeply as we rested our spines on the roller, then exhaling forcefully. Again, we rested flat on our backs without the roller and assessed. This time my bra line and the backs of my thighs were touching the mat, and my neck felt looser as I moved my head from side to side.
Finally, we used the roller to focus on the calves, the thighs and the sacroiliac joint in the pelvis. The goal was to gently massage any tender areas and to get the fluid moving again in the fascia.
As class ended, I felt oddly lighter and more energized. A fellow student, Constance Boykan, 73, said MELT had helped her low back and pelvic pain. “But it doesn’t last,” she said. “That’s frustrating.”
By the time I’d walked a few blocks to my subway entrance, I knew what she meant. The feeling was gone. But I was already planning my next MELT session.