By Jessica Rae Patton
In committing to reorganize my physical body through Rolfing, I’ve committed to reorganize my greater life priorities as well.
My grandmother scared me into standing up straight as a child. “Scoliosis!” she’d hiss if I relaxed into the couch cushions or bent toward my dinner plate. I didn’t know the definition of onomatopoeia yet, but that slithery word sounded just like the condition it described, and my spine practically curved at its utterance. Her influence coupled with those humiliating scoliosis screenings in the junior high nurse’s office left me with the posture of someone compelled to walk about balancing a bucket of raw sewage on their head.
Despite my lifelong ramrod stance and no chronic physical discomfort to speak of–except for a couple high-heel-shoe-induced bunions–I’ve long been curious about Rolfing. The people I know who have undergone this 10-session series of bodywork, also known as Structural Integration, rave about it helping everything from recurring lower back pain to a herniated disc to TMJ.
I decided to explore Rolfing myself, though, when an acquaintance, Richard Magee, recently returned from Australia, where he became a certified Rolfer–and I didn’t recognize him. He appeared thinner, and he’d traded his glasses for contact lenses, but it was a less tangible difference I was struck by. Before, he’d been a mildly depressed-seeming computer programmer with the requisite slouch borne of the 10-hour stationary workday. Now he seemed to fully occupy his body, rather than just use it as a vehicle, a commuter car for his intellect. He was more animated and just more comfortable and confident-acting all around, like he’d found his mojo in the Outback. I was feeling burned out by my day job and had cultivated a shoulderful of stress knots as the result, so I signed up for a 10-session overhaul with Richard-the-Rolfer.
The story goes that Dr. Ida Rolf, a scientist who earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Columbia in the ’20s, developed the system that now bears her name as an alternative to surgery for her son, who had scoliosis. She viewed the human body as a structure in a continual struggle with gravity to remain vertical. When the various segments, or “blocks,” of the body are properly aligned one on top of the other, their centers of gravity in a line, deep muscles operate reflexively to properly distribute the body’s weight and maintain upright balance. If this relationship to gravity has been upset, however, by physical trauma or poor habits, the external muscles begin to strain to maintain the upright posture. The connective tissue called fascia that holds our muscles together and to our bones adapts to these habits, webbing around and holding muscles out of alignment.
Rolf discovered that the fascia was pliable; it could be stretched and repositioned with deep stroking motions coupled with the client’s movement of a particular area. Her principle was, “Hold tissues where they are supposed to be and induce movement.” This loosening of the fascia allowed the muscles to lengthen and return to their natural alignment. It also, she contended, restored greater freedom of movement and a larger capacity for breathing.
Additionally, Rolf proposed that this treatment could facilitate the release of deeply blocked emotions and traumatic memories “held” in the muscles, and encourage emotional serenity and spiritual connectedness. The Rolf Institute steers clear of metaphysical claims these days, sticking with those that may be scientifically validated, but the idea that the body holds emotional issues that the deep work of Rolfing may release is a prevailing theme on many Rolfers’ personal websites I viewed.
Over time, Rolf developed a series of 10 one-hour sessions that systematically “reorganize” the entire body from the feet up, proceeding from the outside muscle layers to the deeper ones. Sessions one through three are known as the “superficial” sessions and focus on the surface layers of the fascia (and their corresponding muscle groups). Sessions four through seven are the “core” sessions, addressing the deeper fascia and muscles. Eight through 10 are the “integrative” sessions, during which the practitioner synthesizes all the work of the previous sessions. The sessions are systemized to such a degree that, theoretically, there is little variation in the treatment from one Rolfer to the next.
In 1971, Rolf founded The Rolf Institute For Structural Integration www.rolf.org>, based in Boulder, Colo., as a school to train and certify “Rolfers,” of which there are more than 1,200 worldwide.
Sessions 1-3: Or, The Inappropriate Undergarment Sessions
In the first session, Richard took my medical history and asked about any recurring or present pain or discomfort. He asked me to let him know if any pressure was too intense or could be deeper, and told me that unlike a massage, Rolfing is interactive, so if I seemed to zone out or doze off he would “bring me back.”
He then asked me to undress. Rolfing wardrobe protocol is to dress modestly in as little as possible so the practitioner can observe and access the client’s whole structure. For a woman this would be an opaque bra and panties with full back coverage, neither of which I own. I wore too much the first session–a tank top–and forgot a bra altogether for the second. On my way to the third I realized I had a thong on, so I stopped to buy a modest bikini–is that an oxymoron?–which became my Rolfing uniform.
Under this scrutiny, I’m certain I immediately began walking in a way I’d never walked before–hesitant, lurching, butt clenched, not breathing. He pointed out that my posture was hyper-erect, that from the side, my shoulders were more in line with my back than centered (“Scoliosis!”). He observed my overall gait, as well as how air lifted my chest or filled my belly. Then I lay on the table, where he massaged my ribcage to increase breathing capacity–but massage is the wrong word. There was this thing we did as kids called, unfortunately, an “Indian burn,” where you put both hands on someone’s leg or arm and twist the skin in opposite directions. That’s what it felt like, this Rolfing business. But I did feel an immediate expansiveness in my chest.
Session two was foot-focused. Honestly, I was dubious that anything but surgery to shave down the bone spurs that protrude from the base of each big toe could offer lasting pain relief. Since developing bunions a decade ago, acupuncture, massage, stretching and insoles have helped in measures, but an aching sensation always hovers nearby. After examining my feet, Richard gripped my ankles and instructed me to move my feet in opposition to his hold. He rubbed lengthwise down the shinbone muscle, and had me point and flex my foot while doing so. This was the most painful few moments of the 10 weeks, but it lead to the simple revelation that this shin muscle constriction I was previously unaware of contributed to the discomfort in my feet.
Session three was more generalized, addressing the overall side profile alignment, manipulating the fascia along the length of the side body to most efficiently stack shoulders, ribcage, pelvis and hips on top of one another.
One clear theme was present throughout all 10 sessions–the administering of a sensation that all but the most masochistic would classify as pain, followed by immediate relief. I came to think of it not as painful, however, but as the sensation of pain exiting the body. It was certainly never excruciating or unbearable, and never lasted longer than the actual stroke along a calf or forearm or length of my neck. It felt like pain with a purpose–the difference between banging one’s shin on a piece of furniture and the hurts-so-good burn of a hard workout.
Sessions 4-7: Or, “You’re Going to Put Your Hands Where?” Sessions
Sessions four through seven are referred to as the “core” sessions. In concept, the core is the deep center of the body from inner leg, up through the groin and pelvis, under the ribs and through the jaw. Session four focuses on the inner leg and pelvis; five is all about the belly, working on separating the abdominal muscles (“I’m making a six-pack,” Richard reported as he probed my gut) and massaging the fascia around the visceral (vital organ) system. Six was primarily focused on the rotator connectors of the hips and butt. I never knew how much strain sitting on one’s ass for eight hours a day caused until Richard bore into these muscle groups.
Though he had watched me walk around nearly naked and had nearly gone with his hands where no one but a lover or gynecologist had before, session seven was by far the most intimate of the 10. Richard donned a latex glove, brought forth a tube of KY jelly, and swiveled his finger up my nose. Probably very few folks have had anyone’s finger but their own in this particular orifice. I will boldly admit that it wasn’t altogether unpleasant. Afterwards, it felt like there was a breeze behind my eyes, like my sinuses had been spring-cleaned. He also dug into the space where jawbones and muscles meet inside of my mouth (while wearing a different glove), having me widen and close my mouth while doing so, which alleviated significant tension that had collected there from an occasional teeth-grinding habit.
I arrived on time to my appointments with Richard. In fact, I’m starting to be on time more often than not. “Um, what does that have to do with Rolfing?” you wonder. So do I. Procrastination and running late are lifelong themes (just ask my editor at the Weekly ), habits that I hate but haven’t ever quite been able to shake despite therapy, knowing all the theories around the whys of procrastination, and multiple alarm clocks. I can’t say why I’ve been struck punctual, or what that could possibly have to do with someone sticking his finger up my nose, but I thought I’d mention it.
Sessions 8-10: Or, How to Change One’s Life in 2-1/2 Months
The last three sessions are devoted to tying together the work of the previous seven. Session eight focused on the lower body, nine on the upper body, and 10 was minor structural adjustments following my final catwalk around Richard’s table, topped off with movement education reminders. Throughout the series, Richard gave me cues to use in day-to-day life to self-correct old habits in order to help the Rolfing work “stick.” Called Rolfing Movement Integration, as stated on the Rolf Institute’s website, “the Rolfer helps clients become aware of inhibiting movement patterns and gives them the means to change them … Rolfing is as concerned with how people experience and use their bodies as with their structural organization in gravity.”
Two weeks after my final session, all I can say definitively is I haven’t had foot pain since that second session. None, even after several guilty-pleasure hours of wearing stilettos one night. I also have less tension in my shoulders in general.
I cannot prove that getting Rolfed helped me quit my job and find work with more flexible hours, organize my home office, show up on time for appointments and finally pursue an ambitious writing project I’ve put off for two years, all things that came to pass over that 10-week time span. Perhaps Ida Rolf would contend that in committing to reorganize my physical body I’ve committed to reorganize my greater life priorities as well. I sit writing with a new sense of ease in my posture and personally think she was onto something. Even though I’m turning this article in late.
Richard Magee can be reached at (203) 548-7424 or at email@example.com.