When Someone Kneads You

“What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, How infinite in faculties, In form and moving, How express and admirable, In action, how like an angel In apprehension, how like a god!” Hamlet, William Shakespeare

The complexity and capabilities of our bodies are truly amazing! A multitude of systems and parts act with unity to propel us, preserve us, and even procreate us. And from birth to death, the unifying framework of our bodies (our connective tissue or fascia) is influenced continuously by gravity–sometimes generating an imbalance of parts accompanied by aches and pains,loss of fluidity with motion, and decreased energy levels.

Rolfing is a treatment modality that systematically organizes the body’s soft, connective tissue network. The therapy is named after its creator, Dr. Ida P. Rolf (1896–1979) who developed and patented this distinct deep tissue massage. Dr. Rolf was both an accomplished biochemist and a physical therapist. She initially called the treatment “Rolfing Structural Integration”, but it’s now commonly nicknamed “Rolfing”. She maintained that through soft tissue manipulation and movement education, the whole body could be balanced in gravity. Additionally, when restructuring of appropriate physical alignment occurs, Dr. Rolf felt that emotional balance would be improved as well.

The basic Rolfing series consists of 10 sessions, 60–90 minutes in length. Generally, the spacing between sessions is one to two weeks, though this decision is made on an individual basis. Each session builds on the results of the previous one. The first seven sessions remove strain from specific areas of the body (e.g. neck, low back, knees), while the last three sessions organize and integrate the body as a whole. In Rolfing, the view is on long-term results; persistent improved levels of whole body efficiency are not uncommon after a treatment series. Certainly, all of you can understand the gravity of this concept!

“How does Rolfing differ from Massage and Chiropractic?” you might ask. And, I asked the same question. A simplistic answer is that massage therapy focuses on working with the musculature, and chiropractic emphasizes manipulation of the bones–especially the spine. Rolfing, in contrast, focuses on manipulation of connective tissues that include tendons and ligaments as well as the musculature.

It’s also a matter of patent. The Rolf Institute, (located in Boulder, CO) was founded in 1971 and is the only school in the world accredited to teach Rolfing. Additionally, it is the sole certifying body for Rolfers. As a consequence, although there are massage therapists who practice deep tissue and myofascial massage, and there are chiropractors who espouse the philosophy of integrated physical balance and emotional well-being, they cannot ‘shingle’ themselves as Rolfers without the requisite credentials.

So, who benefits from Rolfing? The list is understandably long and diverse. From children of all ages (including toddlers) to elderly adults who desire greater ease of movement and balance, the age of clients ranges widely. People suffering with chronic pain following accidents, sports injuries or repetitive muscle strain (factory workers and computer operators are frequent) can benefit by freeing fascia which has been either shortened or constricted by injuries or chronic tension. Bodies are freed to reach higher, perform more gracefully and more efficiently. Consequently, Athletes, Dancers, and Musicians may find improved performance as a result of Rolfing. Women preparing their bodies for pregnancy and childbirth and women recuperating from the pelvic and low back shifts post pregnancy can also benefit. Rolfing philosophy maintains that people in psychotherapy may also experience additional growth and improvement since the therapy can release the “emotional history” storied in our bodies.

How does it feel? The articles I read stated Rolfing may generate some mild, transient discomfort especially if a person has been injured, but that the prevalent sensations are those of warmth and release following momentary discomfort. Apparently, some of the earlier Rolfers in the ’60s misinterpreted Dr. Rolf’s instructions to “go deeper” as “push harder.” As a result, their patients did experience greater likelihood of pain because of the degrees of physical pressure. Modern Rolfers are taught to ‘listen with their hands’ and to manipulate tissues at their own rate of change.

Though I have not personally experienced Rolfing, I intend to do so after researching the topic. The prospect of increased sense of well being generated by enhancing my body’s overall balance and efficiency is certainly appealing. With increased freedom of movement, I’ll be able to reach higher; and after all, “One’s reach must exceed their grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Robert Browning

Stephen L. Hines, M.D.
October 2000