Rolfing — Without the Ouch

June 19, 2017

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IN THE 1970s, Rolfing® had a heyday—after gaining traction at California’s Esalen Institute during the previous decade—for treating body and mind.

Needing help with both at the time, I signed up for the standard “10-series,” which involved 10 hour-long sessions.  My Rolfer’s™  every move caused intense and unremitting pain, only interrupted when he took annoying day-trading phone calls.  Not a positive experience for body or mind.

Fast forward more than 30 years.  After decades of regular injuries and subsequent orthopedic surgeries—traced mostly to hypermobility in my joints—I began going several times a year to local bodyworker Rebecca Carli, based on friends’ recommendations.  Each time, Carli got my body feeling better balanced and ended every session with blissful cranial-sacral (head and spine) massage.

Immediately following the injuries and surgeries—and recently noticing a slight but worrisome new scoliosis—I went more frequently.  But until friends began asking me about Rolfing®, I was only vaguely aware of Carli’s training as a Certified Advanced Rolfer™ and Rolf Movement® Instructor.

Turns out that 21st-century Rolfing® “is experiencing a resurgence,” according to Austin Considine’s 2010 story in the New York Times —among people “for whom the novelty of yoga has worn off, and who are now seeking more intense ways to relieve the stresses of modern life.” Rolfing® is now recommended for athletes, particularly runners, swimmers and golfers.

Rolfing® has also become less painful, said Carli, starting in the 1980s and less with every passing decade.  Considine’s contention that Rolfers “gouge with knuckles and knead with fists, contort limbs and lean into elbows”—exactly my experience with the day trader’s 10-series—is thus outdated.  (Despite the passage of time, randomized controlled studies to compare Rolfing® with other physical therapies are difficult to do because patients feel whatever body work they are getting—and Rolfing® feels different from everything else.)

Rolfing® was developed by Ida Rolf, a biochemical researcher at New York’s Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, during the middle of the last century.  Observing bodies that seemed “at war with gravity,” Rolf came to believe that “human bodies are shaped by gravity, physical structure, past injury or illness and our daily habits.”

Exploring ways to get bodies back into alignment, Rolf focused on fascia, the connective tissue composed of collagen and elastin that forms a “body stocking”—continuous layers of webbing connecting muscles to muscles and muscles to bones that extends throughout the entire body from toes to head.

When fascia is treated carelessly—as it was originally by surgeons who considered it mere packing material—the tissue can become bunched or tangled, or even wrapped the wrong way around organs like the colon.  Rolf observed that, among our “organs of structure”—tendons, muscles, bones—fascia is the most elastic of the tissues and, in contrast to the others, can be changed immediately and extensively, for better or worse.

Over time, with repetitive, unbalanced movements, the body rearranges itself to support those movements: using a computer mouse with one hand, day after day, for example, can cause that side of the body to contract.  Then the slightest movement, such as simply reaching for a book or bar of soap, can send the back into excruciating spasm.   The spine should be able to turn and reach for something, Carli explains, “but if you’re overusing one side for so long, the spine gets stuck.”

“For mobility to happen, you must have stability first,” explains Carli.  “You need to coach the body so it’s more at ease in gravity.”  During each session, Carli’s manipulations, often starting with the feet, lengthen, realign and organize the fascia where needed.

Carli also makes suggestions—gently but repeatedly—on what to do between sessions, such as standing on and rolling a slightly squishy ball around under one foot and then the other every day, as a way of keeping the fascia pliable and the feet “fully awake and functional,” as she puts it.  Using that ball was something Carli mentioned to me over the years, but not until a serious injury forced me to focus on and better understand about the fascia did I manage to do it regularly, almost daily.

The amount of pain in early Rolfing® techniques came from the flawed idea that fascia is stubborn and can change only in response to painful manipulation, Carli explained.  But “if the body is resisting because of pain (caused by the Rolfer™), changes to the tissue can’t be integrated, because we are one nervous system.” She compares the process to titration: “if you drop a chemical in too quickly, the mixture explodes.” Instead, she “listens” with her hands to changes in the connective tissue to “figure out the right depth and direction” of her manipulations.

Less pain is one variable that differentiates Rolfing® from other treatments involving fascia, like myofascial release.  Also, those usually work with troublesome body parts in isolation—which Carli calls “sacrilege to Rolfers™, because if you injure your foot, that affects fascia throughout the body.”  Some bodyworkers, including Rolfers™, are more structure-based, for example, relying on photos of the body’s misalignment to determine goals for what Ida Rolf preferred calling “education”—rather than therapy.

In contrast, Carli considers herself “movement-based” and starts sessions by watching the client walk around the room.  She looks at body structure in relationship to coordinated patterns of movement—“patterns that may have developed badly and can be relearned to promote ease.”

Part of the challenge, she says, is getting an individual to be aware of how they are moving and of how they can change that—which, depending on that person’s kinesthetic awareness, can take a long time: “People can’t just be told to sit differently at the table or walk differently, because such movements are deeply patterned in the nervous system. They have become deeply ingrained patterns or reflexes that can’t be changed quickly.”

As with rolling the ball underfoot, over the years I heard Carli’s suggestions and sometimes practiced standing and walking with better alignment—but my body took a long time to catch up, to incorporate her advice into my spontaneous movements.  On the other hand, since my first day-trading Rolfer™, I have tried many body-improvement methods, but none of them stuck in the way that Carli’s Rolfing Movement® work has.

About the reputed psychological effects of Rolfing®, Carli explains: “change must happen on all levels—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.” Rolfing® views the body holistically, so for example, if a person’s underlying perception is that the world is not safe or the world demands a lot from them—or the world loves them— that perception will affect how they move.  Changes in movement patterns may create changes at a deeper, more psychological, level—which in turn can lead to more lasting change.

When a Rolfer™ works on a tight diaphragm, for example, that might lead to the client talking about fears at the root of their breathing difficulties. “Over time, you are building a sense of safety,” said Carli.  “Too often people don’t trust their bodies, so initially part of my work is about building their respect for whatever their body is trying to tell them.”

While Carli’s practice used to be made up of almost half her clients doing the 10-series, the current schedule is usually too full to take on many of these.  Now she has many weekly clients, including actors, dancers and those with severe ongoing problems —severe scoliosis, severe hypermobility, severe arthritis—who come on a regular schedule, she says, “because they function better when their relation to gravity is being tended—like a garden.”

In addition to the basic Rolf training—usually one year or 18 months of classes on an intense schedule—Carli has had many additional years of training.  Also, several times a year, she teaches at The Rolf Institute in Boulder, Colorado, as a Rolf Movement® Instructor.  Despite what might seem like worldwide waxing and waning interest in Rolfing®, depending on health trends, she says the total number of Rolfers™ at any one time rarely varies: about 2,500 altogether.

That Rolfing® has continued to evolve since the death of Ida Rolf in 1979 was Rolf’s intention, Carli says. “She never kept things the same…was more interested in evolving the work.”  Ida Rolf describes her thinking about change:

“Rolfing is a process of change. If we resist change, we experience pain. The goal of Rolfing is a more resilient, higher-energy system.  The organism then is itself better able to defend against illness and overcome stress, and the greater energy does its own beneficial work in healing and relaxing.”

Recently, two friends I hadn’t seen for a while, separately and out of the blue, said I seemed to be “standing straighter.”  By that point I understood better what had been happening over those years of Carli’s slow and repeated manipulation while she encouraged “movement awareness.”  I also realized that, along with body improvements, I might have gained some confidence and courage as well.

—Mary Carpenter
Read more of Mary’s well-being posts. 


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