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What is Rolfing anyway?

Rolfing, also called Rolf therapy and on a broader scale, structural integration (SI), is a holistic system of bodywork that uses deep manipulation of the body’s soft tissue to realign and balance the myofascial structure. Rolfing improves posture, relieves chronic pain, and reduces stress.

In addition to improving posture, and perhaps more importantly, the aim is to bring the body’s natural structure into balance and alignment, and to eradicate general aches and pains. As a result, there is improvement in the breath, an increase energy and self-confidence, and relief from physical and mental stress. Rolfing has also been used to treat such specific physical problems as chronic back, neck, shoulder, and joint pain, and repetitive stress injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome and conditions such as ‘frozen shoulder’. Many amateur and professional athletes, including Olympic skaters and skiers, football, basketball players and golfers alike, use Rolfing to keep in top condition, to prevent injuries, and to more quickly recover from injuries.

Ida Pauline Rolf (1896–1979) was a biochemist from New York who developed structural integration over the course of many years after an accident as a young woman. As the story goes, she was kicked by a horse in Montana, where she developed pneumonia-like conditions and was treated by a physician who called in an osteopath to assist in her treatment. After the osteopath treated her, she was able to breathe normally. After her return to New York, her mother took her to a blind osteopath for further treatment. He taught her about the body’s structure and function, after which Rolf became dissatisfied with conventional medical treatment. It has also been documented that Ida’s son was chronically ill, and in efforts to find a cure for his many ailments, she was transfixed on exploring the world of healing and wellness beyond a general curiosity.

Following completion of a doctorate in biochemistry from Columbia University in 1920, Rolf studied atomic physics, mathematics, and homeopathic medicine in Europe. After 1928, when her father died and left her an inheritance that allowed her to pursue her own studies, she explored various forms of alternative treatment, including osteopathy, chiropractic medicine, various forms of yoga including extensive study with BKS Iyengar, the Alexander technique of tension reduction through body movement, and Alfred Korzybski’s philosophy of altered states of consciousness.

By 1940, Rolf had synthesized what she had learned from these various disciplines into her own technique of body movement that she called structural integration, which later became known as Rolfing. During the Second World War, Rolf continued to study with an osteopath in California named Amy Cochran. In the mid-1960s, Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls invited Rolf to Esalen, where she began to develop a following among people involved in the human potential movement. In 1977, she published Rolfing: The Integration of Human Structures, the definitive book on structural integration bodywork. She continued to refine the therapy until her death in 1979, when her son and a handful of gifted Rolfer’s continued to develop her work. Rolf’s work is carried on through her Guild for Structural Integration, now known as the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration, which she founded in 1971 in Boulder, Colorado, but which has since spread internationally, including to Great Britain where the first class of The British School of Rolfing and Stuctural Integration (BARSI), is about to graduate.

Rolfing is more than just a massage of the body’s surface. It is a system that reshapes the body’s myofascial structure by applying pressure and weight, thereby freeing the body from the effects of physical and emotional traumas. Although Rolfing is used extensively to treat sports injuries and back pain, it is not designed as a therapy for any particular condition. Rather, it is a systematic approach to overall wellness. It works by counteracting the effects of gravity, which over time pulls the body out of alignment. This pull causes the body’s connective tissue to become harder and stiffer, and the muscles to atrophy. Signs of this stiffening and contraction include slouching or an overly erect posture.

Rolfing identifies the vertical line as the ideal that the body should approximate. The mission statement of the Guild for Structural Integration describes Rolfing as “a method and a philosophy of personal growth and integrity….the vertical line is our fundamental concept. The physical and psychological embodiment of the vertical line is a way of Being in the physical world

[that] forms a basis for personal growth and integrity.”

Basic Rolfing treatment consists of 10 sessions, each lasting 60-90 minutes and costing about 100£ each. The sessions are spaced a week or longer apart. After a period of integration, specialised or advanced treatment sessions are available. A “tuneup” session is recommended every six months. In each session, the Rolfer uses his or her fingers, hands, knuckles, and elbows to rework the connective tissue over the entire body. The tissues are worked until they become pliable, allowing the muscles to lengthen and return to their normal alignment. The deep tissue manipulation improves posture and agility, and increases the body’s range of movement. Rolfers also believe that the blocked energy accumulated in the tissue from emotional tension is released through Rolfing treatment, causing the patient to feel more energetic and have a more positive frame of mind.

Clients are asked to wait for a period of at least six months before scheduling advanced work, known as the PostTen/Advanced Series. This period allows the body to integrate the work done in the “Basic Ten.”

Rolfing Movement Integration, or RMI, is intended to help clients develop better awareness of their vertical alignment and customary movement patterns. They learn to release tension and discover better ways to use body movement effectively, including and focusing on movements particular to the life of the individual.

Since Rolfing involves vigorous deep tissue manipulation, it is sometimes described as uncomfortable, especially as an awareness is gained about the level and depth of touch. In the past decade, however, Rolfers have developed newer techniques that cause less discomfort to participants.

Rolfing has certainly transformed my experience of life in my body and I recommend it to anyone who has had life experiences that have left an imprint on the body, and that is everyone I can think of! Of course, I am biased. If you don’t like being touched or are not interested in changing or learning a new physical reality, it may not be for you.

Rolf·ing (rôl′fÄ­ng) A form of bodywork and deep massage therapy developed by Ida Rolf, PhD, who believed that postural and muscular tensions are locked in place by trauma, adhesions, chronic connective tissue tension and locoregional compromise of movement, resulting in a malalignment of the structural units (termed a “pile of bricks”). Rolfing seeks to realign the body by altering the tone of myofascial tissues, facilitating structural integration and resulting in a “tower of bricks”.Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, 8th edition. © 2009, Elsevier

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