“The Roll Model”: Path-Breaking “Self-Care Healthcare” (book review)

Countless books promise to provide some extraordinary new set of tools to help us live healthier, happier, and more empowered lives. Disappointingly few, however, deliver more than a slightly new twist on some stock self-help method spiced up with a recycled insight or two. Jill Miller’s newly released The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body (Victory Belt, 2014), however, proves a dazzling exception to the rule. This 432-page, carefully written and beautifully illustrated book lays out a comprehensive new system of “self-care healthcare” that’s grounded in science, honed by experience, and proven by an exceptional track record of success. 

True to its title, the “roll model” technique essentially consists of targeted self-massage performed by “rolling” on a set of four different, specially designed therapy balls. These balls, which range from 2.5 – 9 inches in diameter, are made of grippy rubber that connects well with the skin, and provide sufficient “give” to allow the body to relax around them under pressure. The basic theory and method behind the “roll model” method is relatively simple: that is, if we learn how to do our own deep tissue massage, we can open up areas of our bodies that have become stuck in dysfunctional movement patterns, restore their proper function, and invigorate the body’s natural capacity for self-healing.

Given the complexity of the human body-mind complex, however, translating this basic insight into a workable program and getting it all down on paper is neither a simple nor easy task. The Roll Model, however, not only does it beautifully, but goes beyond the “how to” details of the method to communicate a larger vision. The first sentence of Jill’s Introduction, for example, emphasizes that the “U.S. has 4.6% of the world’s population and consumes 80% of the globe’s painkilling opiate supply.” While some such meds are certainly warranted, most are used to manage pain caused by dysfunctional body dynamics that could be healed naturally through proper self-care. The driving passion of The Roll Model is to give us the knowledge, tools, and inspiration needed to heal ourselves – and, in the process, to help cure the epidemic of lifestyle-induced health problems that negatively impacts so many lives today.

Detailed and Comprehensive

The heart of The Roll Model consists of 18 self-massage sequences that target specific areas of the body (lower back, elbow, jaw, etc.), literally ranging from head to toe. Each sequence is designed to take around 10-20 minutes, and consists of a series of “rolling” moves explained via step-by-step instructions and photos. In introducing each sequence, the book neatly lists the 1) required props, 2) key muscles and bony landmarks involved, and 3) basic therapy ball positioning. An initial “check in” posture, such as a forward fold, is also presented, which is then repeated as a “recheck” after the sequence to assess shifts in the body. Beyond the therapy balls themselves, the only props needed are a floor, wall, chair, and yoga mat and blocks. 

Remarkably, however, this core set of sequences, which includes almost 200-pages of material, isn’t presented until the 8th (out of a total of 11) chapter of the book. Rather than rushing straight into the nitty gritty details of the method, The Roll Model first systematically builds the foundation necessary to understand and work with it in a deeply knowledgeable way. In so doing, the book utilizes a multi-modal format that includes scientific information, personal stories, user-friendly advice, anatomical drawings, explanations of body mechanics, and lovely photos of real-life “roll/role models” representing a wide range of body types.

This diversity of approaches is quite helpful in that it provides multiple means through which readers with different interests and needs can connect with the text. Whether you’re fascinated or bored by anatomy, for example, you can find a way into the multidimensional discussion of body dynamics and self-care The Roll Model provides. Then, you can study as much or little of that particular part of it as you wish. Either way, having been exposed to the material, you can easily go back and refer to it later. In this sense, the wide range of information in The Roll Model makes it not only a practical self-care guide, but also an enduring reference on functional movement and the body.

Specific topics discussed in detail include:

  • Improving posture: Common postural problems, how they negatively impact the body, and how to build healthy alignment.

  • Differentiating pain: Distinguishing between intense sensation that’s part of the healing process and pain that signals over-exertion and potential harm.

  • Functional anatomy: The importance of fascia and proprioception, and how to navigate 36 “bony landmarks” and 44 key muscles in the body.

  • Therapy ball techniques: Basic moves and why they work (sustained compression, cross-fibering, contract/relax, etc.)

  • Importance of breath: Why breath is vital to physical and mental health, and how to strengthen abdominal and thoracic breathing.

  • Emotions and bodywork: How and why working with the body and breath can be emotionally and psychologically therapeutic.

  • Conscious relaxation: How to down-regulate the nervous system and spark the parasympathetic response, and why this is critically important.

  • Complementary training: Combining the “roll model” method with other modalities to banish “unhealthy movement modes and body stagnation” and improve overall health.  

Personal Stories

A total of 22 “personal success storiesare also peppered throughout the book. Ranging from 1-4 pages, these detailed first person accounts describe processes of curing or dramatically improving a wide range of physical and/or psychological issues using the “roll model” method. Individuals profiled include a bodybuilder, solider, and rape survivor; issues addressed include lupus, diabetes, scleroderma, MS, obesity, depression, and chronic pain. Although some stories appear nothing short of miraculous, they nonetheless seem quite believable. Together, they create an inspiring testimonial to what can be accomplished through determination, hard work, and the knowledge and tools needed to activate the body’s natural healing response.

The Roll Model also features personal reflections from Jill Miller herself that should be of particular interest to yoga practitioners. Jill reveals that when she was younger, her yoga practice functioned as an inadvertent source of self-harm by supporting habits of disordered eating and “compulsive over-stretching.” Driven by a debilitating sense of personal inadequacy, she recounts, yoga became “an addiction that was destabilizing nearly every joint in my body.” Today, having broken this pattern and developed her own methods of therapeutic yoga, movement, and self-care, Jill cautions that ”just because you can do a pose does not mean that you should.” She also warns that it’s all-too-common to teach yoga in ways that will harm students by asking them to perform repetitive sequences without sufficient biomechanical accuracy. Predictably, this causes injury: “When you repeat movements with bad form over and over again, your body eventually breaks.”

A Must-Have Resource

The Roll Model is an unusual and impressive work. Most centrally, it presents an original system of holistic self-care that has been successfully utilized by people ranging from elite athletes to chronic disease sufferers. In addition, it presents a wealth of vital information on body structure and dynamics that can be used both as an everyday guide and lasting reference work. Finally, The Roll Model shares inspiring stories of self-care, recovery, and healing, while advocating for the improvement of public health and the systems that support it today. 

As such, The Roll Model is truly a must-have book for health and fitness professionals such as yoga teachers, body workers, personal trainers, physical therapists, and others. It will also, of course, benefit anyone who is sufficiently confident and motivated to work the “roll model” sequences independently. That said, there are undoubtedly a lot of people who desperately need the techniques taught in The Roll Model, but are likely to feel overwhelmed by the level of detail provided. For this reason, I hope Jill Miller will create an abridged “Roll Model, Junior” version of the book. In the meantime, however, The Roll Model offers an invaluable resource for anyone who is ready to expand their self-care repertoire, or works to support others in sustaining optimal health.

Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga PhD: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body (Kleio Books, 2012); and Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005). She is also the co-editor (with Roseanne Harvey) of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Kleio Books, 2012). Carol holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. To learn more, visit her website at carolhortonphd.com.

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