Applied Force: Does Rolfing Work – and How Much Does It Hurt?
by Mike Papciak
Climbers know all about gravity. We fight it to stay attached to crimpers, and when we drag ourselves up ice flows and snowy peaks. But gravity doesn’t stop when the day’s climbing is done. Over time, it takes advantage of the body’s plasticity, changing the way we stand, sit, and move. Like water dripping on a block of granite, gravity wears us down.
Rolfing aims to undo the harm. The idea is that gravity combined with a lifetime of natural activity— flinching when daddy spanked you, slouching in chairs, working at a computer, sleeping with a crooked spine, craning your neck while belaying, cramming your feet into rock shoes three sizes too small, and just about everything else — throws your body out of whack. The result? You have poor posture; in an attempt to support your body and maintain alignment, your muscles stiffen, shorten, and harden, restricting full motion and comfort.
What is Rolfing?
The technique was invented and developed by Dr. Ida Rolf (1896-1979), a biochemist. Rolfing uses connective tissue manipulation to put your body into a better vertical alignment. Rolfing targets the body’s fasciae, the sleeves of connective tissue that envelop muscles and give the body shape. Reorganizing the web of connective tissue can help you move more easily, with less pain.
Contrary to popular belief, Rolfing isn’t just vigorous “deep tissue” massage. A massage therapist primarily relieves tension, while a Rolfer actually changes the structure of your body and can help correct the sources of tension. Over the course of a series of sessions (usually 10, each a week or more apart) the Rolfer remolds your muscles with what the literature ominously calls “applied force.”
Rushing up on age 30, with 15 years of rock climbing under my fingers, I had these complaints:
I had a bum left knee. Patellar tendinitis from high-school running had caused me to subtly favor my right leg for close to a decade. As a result, my left leg was weaker and less stable, and was constantly tormented by approach hikes, drop-knees, and jumping off boulders. The tendinitis was getting worse.
Second, my feet often ached because I didn’t spread my weight evenly across the soles. As silly as it sounds, I’m convinced that this was caused by 15 years of standing around below boulders, resting on my heels and the outside edges of my feet in an effort to keep the precious big-toe areas of my rock shoes clean.
Third, my forearms were extremely “ropey,” a term bodyworkers apply to muscles that get worked hard and often, never completely flush their metabolic waste, and grow stiff. Rigid forearm flexors transmitted high-shock loads to my elbow tendons when I’d stick dynos, like static rope holding a leader fall. Climbers’ elbow was lurking behind my next deadpoint on a cold day.
To top it all off, I hunch over a computer 9 to 5.
In a sense, my complaints were pretty minor. To the average couch potato, I probably looked like I was in damn good shape. But I felt that my foundations were developing a few cracks. Rolfing, I hoped, would patch me up. I might even scam a few letter grades out of the process.
What was it like?
I got a list of Rolfers in the area from a directory published by the Rolf Institute (800-530-8875, www.rolf.org), the discipline’s teaching and certifying body. After a few phone calls, I booked an appointment with Russell Stolzoff.
Most Rolfers will either schedule a consultation visit or spend most of the first session getting acquainted with you and discussing your interests and concerns. After I rattled off my list, I stripped down to gym shorts and Russell had a look at me, using what he calls his “Rolfer’s gaze.” Then up onto the table I went.
I was expecting what I usually get from massage therapists: immediate attention to the obviously overdeveloped regions of my body, like shoulders and calves. Instead, Russell went right to work on the thin sheet of muscle overlaying the shinbone on my left leg. Using short strokes along the grain and fibers, he dug in firmly — though not too hard — with his knuckles and thumbs. Then he backed off to eyeball my legs, and dug in some more. There was none of the rubbing motion that I associate with a traditional massage. Russell was simply prodding my muscles, as if to remind them that they hadn’t been behaving. I’d paid my money, and I wasn’t levitating yet, I was skeptical.
I didn’t think much happened until later that night. I was walking funny. My feet had been “leveled” and wanted to hit the pavement squarely with each stride, but the soles of my running shoes had been ground down on the outside because that’s where I usually placed my weight. The imbalance — my feet trying to be level, my old shoes keeping them canted to the outside —was the source of the strangeness in my stride. I went home, put on a pair of new shoes and let the amazement soak in.
My subsequent Rolfing sessions began with a brief chat about my concerns or suggestions, then Russell would inspect my posture. Then, with his upper hand, he would knead the outside of my legs and poke over my ribs. Wordlessly, he’d suggest the release of tension by plumbing deeply into my pectorals and abdominals. Occasionally, I’d lie on my side while Russell wailed away on my back, using the heels of his hands and a helluva lot of body weight to push my muscles around. We’d usually wrap up with a few minutes of squeezing and stretching on my neck and scalp.
Rolfing felt like the smartest massage I’ve ever had. Throughout my 10 sessions, the work was rarely where I thought I needed it. Russell would go right to muscles that I didn’t know were tight, but at his touch their tension would become immediately apparent. “Ida Rolf used to say, ‘Go where it ain’t!'” Russell explained. “Rolfers can discern patterns of tension across the whole body. The entire musculature can be involved in accommodating one localized spot of great tension. If the rest of the body is released, it will decrease that tension.”
The scary bits.
What about the legendary pain? I can’t say, because my Rolfing wasn’t painful. That’s right, nada. As a climber, chances are your pain threshold is pretty high. Compared to flaying my tips on sharp volcanic rock or offwidthing in slippers, Rolfing is downright pleasant. Which isn’t to say that it’s a mild experience. This is deep bodywork. The Rolfer is working on soft tissue stuffed with nerve fibers and stiffened with chronic tension. For me, though, Rolfing felt so good I never wanted to get up off the table.
“Over time, Rolfers have learned to use less force to create lasting structural change,” Russell explained. “Force can be negative. When the sensation of Rolfing gets too intense your body starts to protect itself. More energy goes toward enduring the pain than toward being receptive to change. I like to think of Rolfing as a process of nicely asking the tension if the support it thinks it is providing can be provided in a better way.”
Then there’s the cost. The going rate for Rolfing is around $100 a session (my sessions were 80 minutes long). That’s a grand over three months for the whole enchilada — certainly not affordable if you’re living out of your truck and stealing saltines from the local salad bar. In fact, even employed folks rolled their eyes when I told them about my Rolfing cost. But how much would you pay to feel great?
Do I feel great?
Ten sessions and a thousand bucks later, am I flashing 5.14? Nope. So what did I get?
Well, I stand, walk and run with my weight much more evenly distributed over my feet. Before Rolfing, I naively hoped to feel the most improvement in my climbing muscles — shoulders and forearms. Now, however, I’m in love with the all-day pleasure of my body’s new balance.
My posture has also improved — my shoulders are dropped and my torso sits more squarely over my pelvis, reducing tension in my upper body.
Add looser forearms that absorb shock better, take away the tendinitis in my left knee — it’s gone because I’m wobbling less on the leg now — and I’m a satisfied customer.
Let me emphasize that it’s all pretty subtle. Getting Rolfed wasn’t a magical rebirth. I still catch myself hunching over my computer. But after a long day at work or a hard bouldering session, and thanks in part to a heightened awareness of my alignment and frequent breaks to move around and stretch, I don’t hurt.
Currently, 948 certified Rolfers practice the technique in 26 countries worldwide. The international headquarters of the Rolf Institute was founded in 1971, and is located not far from the granite of Boulder Canyon in Boulder, Colorado. Rolfers take their practice seriously: at the Rolf Institute (or it’s satellites in Brazil and Germany), students undergo a two-year education, with post certification training and continuing education obligations as well. Only those certified by the Rolf Institute may legally use the term “Rolfing.”
Bodywork and other “alternative” healing methods have long attracted skepticism from some people, especially those weaned on “Western medicine.” Rolfing is no exception. But, like acupuncture, Rolfing is gaining credibility thanks to a growing number of officially-sanctioned research studies, a liberalization of the public’s attitude toward alternative healing, and favorable word-of–mouth testimonies. “I think we’re getting out of the hippy-trippy phase,” says Karna Handy of the Rolf Institute. “We’re now getting lots of old retired folks, for example, inquiring about Rolfing and getting Rolfed.”
Will your insurance pay for it? Possibly, but don’t count on it. Less than 10 states require licensing for Rolfing, which is one of the major criteria many insurance companies look for to determine eligibility. Still, says Handy, “it’s really from company to company. If you can get your Rolfing prescribed by a licensed individual, like an M.D. or your chiropractor, then your chances [of billing it to your insurance company] increase.”
For more information and a list of Certified Rolfers in your area contact the Rolf Institute at (800) 530-8875 (www.rolf.org).