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The Rolfing Method: The Evolution of Structural Integration
by Russell Stolzoff

Although the Rolfing method is one of the 20th century’s most influential forms of soft tissue manipulation and movement education, it remains a mysterious and misunderstood practice in the minds of many. Some people mistakenly believe that Rolfing bodywork is a collection of painful deep tissue techniques; others have heard that the goal of the technique is to separate muscles from bones. Few people know that the Rolfing method is an art, philosophy and science, a form of manual soft tissue therapy and movement education devoted to balancing and integrating the human body in the field of gravity, with the goal of enhancing overall well being.
Although Rolfing practitioners are trained in a variety of sophisticated neuromyofacial, energetic and movement techniques, Rolfing practitioners also develop their awareness and perceptive skills so that they may sense, see, hear and feel reflections of their clients’ somatic realities. As one Rolfing practitioner put it, “If you can imagine how it feels to live in a fluid, light, balanced body, free of pain, stiffness and chronic stress, at ease with itself in the gravitational field, then you will understand the purpose of Rolfing.”
Because Ida Rolf, Ph.D., was constantly evolving her understanding of the complex relationships between human form and function, she never saw her work as a finished product. Many curious and inquisitive people who became Rolfing practitioners and instructors have sought to clarify her theories, add new ideas and techniques, and create an environment of inquiry that would expand the breadth of possibilities for Rolfing work in the future. Today, because of an exciting cross-pollination of technical skills and refinements in the conceptual framework of Rolfing bodywork, there is now an unprecedented theoretical and practical clarity about the technique, its evolution and its influence on other somatic practices.
Examining the 10-session recipe
Ida Rolf originally taught her work in a 10-session framework that she called “the recipe”. The recipe itself has undergone evolution so that now it has become a number of recipes that are customized for various body types. .Although many Rolfing practitioners still work within a 10-session framework, both the curriculum and practice of the Rolfing method are currently being freed from this kind of formulaic protocol. Many Rolfing practitioners are now designing series of sessions to meet the specific needs of each client and the number of sessions it takes to complete a series of work varies from client to client. Rolf’s recipe was a powerful teaching tool that implicitly conveyed the goals, principles and strategies of structural integration in a format which, when practiced over time, could reveal a progression of deeper understanding of human structural integration. Rolf did not always follow the recipe when she worked, and clearly did not intend for it to become entrenched as a set of steps always to be followed in the same way.
In 1991 articles devoted to understanding the principles of intervention and the nature of holism in the Rolfing method were published in Rolf Lines, the journal for Rolfing practitioners, by two members of the Rolf Institute faculty: Jeffrey Maitland, Ph.D., and Jan Sultan. They argued that the fundamental questions that face every therapist are, “What do I do first, what do I do next, and when am I finished?” When a practitioner follows formulaic protocols the three questions of therapy are automatically answered. But since the ultimate goal of the Rolf Institute’s training is to bring Rolfing practitioners to the point where they can answer these questions without the benefit of any recipe whatsoever, Sultan and Maitland were interested in creating a clinical decision-making process based on the specific needs of each client. Working non-formulaically requires a highly developed ability to evaluate the unique structural, functional and energetic needs of each client and a wide and sensitive range of technique. But Maitland and Sultan argued that it also requires something else: a thorough understanding of the principles of intervention. Since most forms of manual therapy and movement education teach their methods by means of formulaic protocols, one of the Rolfing method’s important contributions to somatic theory and practice in the West is the statement and understanding of the principles of intervention. A principle-centered clinical decision-making process is essential to any holistic system that attempts to work with clients without the aid of recipes and formulaic protocols.
The principles allow the Rolfing practitioner to create treatment strategies that are designed for the unique needs of clients without losing sight of the larger project of integrating and organizing their bodies. The support principle states that order is a function of available support. One could also call this principle Ida Rolf’s gravity principle. It recognizes that changes introduced anywhere in the body require that every structure below must be capable of supporting the change. If there is no support under the area manipulated, then the body will revert to its previous condition, or strain will be driven elsewhere —- or both. Understanding these critical support issues allows for long-lasting change. When used in conjunction with additional principles and a comprehensive evaluation of the structural, functional and energetic needs of each client, they provide Rolfing practitioners with a coherent, clinical decision-making process free of formulas. As a result, Rolfing bodywork is no longer a process of imposing a set of structural ideals on clients by means of the 10-session recipe, but is much more a process of discovery that evolves between Rolfing practitioner and client.
Innovations and the evolution of Rolfing
Since realizing that the Rolfing method could be more than a set of techniques and a 10-session recipe, Rolfing practitioners began exploring and integrating knowledge of joint mechanics, the creation of new techniques designed to release the spine and other joints of the body, somatic psychology, movement theories and techniques, energetic approaches, and a host of other innovations. Ida Rolf spent much of her professional life in the company of chiropractors and osteopaths, and appreciated the importance of joint manipulation. But she insisted that long-lasting change in the body required a holistic approach that went beyond simply manipulating individual joints.
Unfortunately, even though Rolf’s methods were capable of making profound and long-lasting structural changes, many Rolfing techniques were not able to release many common facet restrictions in the spine and other joints of the body. As a result, Rolfing practitioners have developed a new range of soft tissue techniques that are capable of releasing joint fixations in the spine and other places in the body with precision and effectiveness.
Pain, body awareness and the evolution of touch
Any article that seeks to describe the Rolfing method would be incomplete without a discussion of the reputation of pain for which Rolfing bodywork seems so infamous. Today the Rolfing method is practiced more effectively with a broad range of gentle touch qualities and pressures that span a spectrum from feather-light to very deep. When performed with the right sensitivity, even deep and heavy pressure need not be painful. Many clients report that their experience of massage is often more uncomfortable than the new Rolfing method. Rolfing practitioners have come to understand that if the fascial manipulation are too intense, clients cannot absorb the work as well.
However, this point of view was not always popular. In the earlier days of the Rolfing method there was much less sophistication about how to interact with the neuro-physiological and psychological processes that are so much a part of our body structure and function. Rolfing practitioners were taught to envision an ideally balanced body against which they were to evaluate structural balance and imbalance in peoples’ bodies. Once this version of the “ideal body’ was coupled with the formulaic recipe, Rolfing practitioners tended to work as if they were applying the same template to every body. Like somatic practitioners in so many other systems of manual therapy, Rolfing practitioners mistakenly assumed they could produce changes in humans much like carpenters can shore up a building that is falling due to a slanted foundation. This somewhat mechanical approach to the body sometimes translated into an overly zealous and painful pursuit of structural balance. But Rolfing bodywork is no longer constrained by the mistaken notion of an ideal body or attempts to impose a kind of template on each client.
Justification for a forceful approach also came partly from belief that connective tissue could only be changed through the use of strong pressure. It was thought that pressure produced a chemical transformation in the ground substance of fascia, changing it from a gel to a colloidal despertion. This belief has been called into question because there is some evidence that the amount of pressure required to create such a chemical transformation could be in the range of thousands of pounds.
Later attempts to explain the active physiological processes involved in the Rolfing method have supported the trend toward gentler techniques. John T. Cottingham, researcher, physical therapist and Rolfing practitioner, in a review of the physiological evidence of the effectiveness of “somato-procedures,” concludes that there are two broad categories that account for change. The first he calls direct local responses, which include altering the shape and thickness of connective tissue with techniques of stroking and pressure to produce mechanical effects that are well-known in bodywork circles. The second category of effects, indirect global responses, “[are] systemic physiological responses mediated and regulated through the nervous system.”
This second category has been expanded by a Rolfing instructor, Robert Schleip, who posited a model of tissue change through what he terms the “neuro-myofacial web.” Schleip proposes that structural change from Rolfing work happens when Rolfing practitioners use various forms of touch combined with verbal instructions to stimulate and communicate to the web of myofacia that is connected to the client’s nervous system. In a type of touch-dialogue that develops between Rolfing practitioner and client, when the Rolfing practitioner perceives the tensional pattern in the client’s body, he appropriately selects forms of touch and words that encourage the client’s mind-body to consider change. The response detected will determine what the Rolfing practitioner does next toward the goals of integration.
One benefit of this kind of touch is that it engages clients’ self-awareness and encourages their ability to notice and allow their body-mind to respond to the Rolfing practitioner’s suggestions. When touch does not produce overly intense sensations, people can become aware of the ways they maintain patterns of tensional imbalance and can choose to allow changes suggested by the Rolfing practitioner’s touch and other forms of communication.
The perspective that body awareness is a factor in the changes attributable to Rolfing bodywork is directly incorporated in the curriculum by teaching Rolfing Movement Integration, a system for consciously embodying the Rolfing principles. All Rolfing practitioners trained by the Rolf Institute now learn that form of movement education. Many of them continue to develop these skills by undertaking post-graduate certification in Rolfing Movement Integration to further help their clients understand and deepen the relationship between awareness, movement, structure and function.
The role of awareness also figures prominently in another system, Somatic Experiencing, developed by Rolfing practitioner, therapist and psychophysiologist Peter Levine, Ph.D. Levine has researched and articulated the effects of traumatic stress on the interrelationships between the autonomic nervous system, the musculoskeletal system and the integration of a person’s structure and function. He noticed trauma can cause a “freezing response” that leaves a person unable to summon a full range of responses to stress. Many Rolfing practitioners incorporate Levine’s ideas about accessing the client’s awareness of body sensations, impulses and images to guide people to an awareness of how their frozen actions contain impulses that can awaken and heal arrested responses. Sometimes touch is used to support frozen areas that are still or lack tension. At other times touch can be used to stimulate neuromuscular holding patterns that cause tension and inhibit structural integration. Completion of neuromuscular responses that become arrested during periods of overwhelming circumstances often produce results that are similar to a hands-on Rolfing session. Rolfing instructor William Smythe has been customizing Levine’s approach so that it can be seamlessly integrated into the training and practice of Rolfing bodywork.
There are numerous other innovative contributions that have already been made to the body of Rolfing-related knowledge, incorporating elements from the fields of physics, somatic psychology, meditation and exercise. Undoubtedly, as more Rolfing practitioners find their individual expressions of Rolfing bodywork, there will be many more creative solutions that achieve the Rolfing method’s goals of structural integration in the field of gravity. In the broadest view, the explication of the constituent elements of the Rolfing method developed by Ida Rolf have created a foundation that allows each Rolfing practitioner to make his or her work with each client an individualized expression of the path toward integration and wholeness.
1. Feitis, Rosemary, Ida Rolf Talks About Rolfing and Physical Reality, Rolf Institute, Boulder, Colorado, 1978.
2. Maitland, Jeffrey. Spacious Body Explorations in Somatic Ontology, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 1995.
3. Maitland, Jeffrey and Sultan, Jan. “Definition and Principles of Rolfing.” Rolf Line, Rolf Institute, Boulder, Colorado, Spring 1992.
4. Rolf, Ida P. Rolfing: Re-establishing the Natural Alignment and Structural Integration of the Human Body for Vitality and Well-Being, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont, 1989.
5. Schleip, Robert. “Adventures in the Jungle of the Neurofacial Net,” Rolf Lines, Rolf Institute, Boulder Colorado, May 1996.