What is Rolfing?

Structural Integration, also known as the Rolf Method, is a hands-on form of body work. It is related to massage therapy in that it is hands-on manipulation soft tissues, specifically the myofascial tissues. The difference between Rolfing and massage is that Rolfing takes into consideration the entire body and how stressed areas of the body can affect the rest of the organism.

As example and in extremely simple terms, let’s consider a hypothetical Client named Jennifer. Jennifer is in an auto accident during which she slams both knees against the dashboard as well as receiving a whiplash. In the process of that accident, the impact of the knees against the dashboard not only affects the knees, bruising and compressing them but impact is transmitted through the knees and through the upper legs, shoving the pelvis out of alignment in relationship to the rest of the upper body, causing probable strain and pain in the lumbar area of the back.

The whiplash, in spine examplescausing the head to whip forward and backward, causes injury to the large and small muscles of the neck, the upper back, the upper chest, and possibly the lower cranium. Imagine the head whipping forward as the knees make contact and what that might do to the entire back, sacrum, pelvis, knees, neck and head.

Now stand Jennifer up in gravity. All she knows is that her back hurts, her neck and shoulders hurt, possibly her arms, her knees aren’t happy and she has difficulty standing for any period of time. Jennifer can’t really articulate exactly what is bothering her except that she can tell the practitioner that she has pain in certain areas or feels like she’s leaning in one direction or another.

When Jennifer stands up in front of the practitioner, the practitioner can see that:

  1. Jennifer’s pelvis is rotated anterior, causing extreme lordosis in the lumbar spine, throwing her center of gravity far forward of her ankles. The knees are both locked to keep Jennifer upright.
  2. The right side of her pelvis is rotated further anterior than the left;
  3. Her head is tilted to the right and rotated slightly left;
  4. Her left shoulder is noticeably higher than the right one;
  5. Her right knee is turned medially and her right foot appears to be flattening toward the floor.

These are the most easily observed changes and compensations of Jennifer’s posture. There are many more changes going on beneath the surface of the body. Let’s assume that all are in response to the sudden and violent impact of the accident.

While Jennifer can continue to function in her life, the accident’s resulting compensating distortions that have taken place in Jennifer’s body will take their toll over time. Because her body is no longer in balance in the field of gravity – she is, in fact, leaning – the whole body is going to continue to physiologically migrate toward her current posture, adding even more rotation, collapse and additional distortion over time, in the body’s attempt to address Jennifer’s constant need for stability.

This will result in new patterns of posture and movement – some efficient and most not so efficient; some painful and some not so painful. Some of the pain that is present now may diminish or even go away, but as time goes on and the body takes on more distorted means of keeping Jennifer upright or in balanced motion, she will experience pain in areas that do not appear to reasonably be related to this accident-when in fact it was the accident that caused all of the initial compensations and distortions that sent Jennifer toward the current state of her body.

How Does Structural Integration Work?

The basic work in Structural Integration is ten sessions, called the Ten Series. Over the course of this series, the practitioner literally lengthens the soft tissue of the entire body, from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, through hands-on contact.spine curve xray

The Client is frequently called upon to make movement during the work. The sessions are done with the client lying on a massage table or while sitting or standing. Through this work, the tissues are not only changed physiologically but also re-educated as to appropriate movement and balance. There is a great deal of education happening here – both for the body in its small and large movements and how it relates to its own segments, and how the body as a whole relates to gravity. The client is also educated about her body and its movement patterns; ergonomics, how to sit without effort, and much more.

What Happens to the Client?

Most noticeably, the body changes the ways in which it uses itself. In Jennifer’s case, the primary changes would probably include re-alignment of the pelvis so that both ilea (hips) are rotated back to their appropriate position, reversing the lordotic curvature at her low back, creating a more normal arc and easing the muscles of the lumbar spine. In re-positioning the pelvis, the knees are given permission to unlock as the center of gravity has moved back over (above) the ankles.

As a result of the change in the pelvis, the neck is now positioned over the shoulders and the cervical curve is a reflection of the lumbar curve – both gently curved and balanced over the upper body. Jennifer’s head is “on straight” – no longer tilted or rotated, taking the strain out of her neck and lowering the raised shoulder. Her right knee is no longer rotated medially and arch of the right foot is at an appropriate height, matching the left, acting like an arch should – as a shock absorber and supporting the entire body above. Again, these are the outer observations. There are many changes that have taken place in the deeper recesses of the body that will sustain and support this re-alignment.

Is it Permanent?

The results of Structural Integration are permanent so long as the Client “embodies” them. When the Client returns to her workplace or her hobbies and daily movements, she will be using her body in ways that are very different from ways she used it before she had the work. By simply being aware of changes that have taken place in her body and the inherent comfort and ease they bring to the body, the client automatically opts to use them, as opposed to returning unconsciously to old and painful ways of using the body. The Client is now comfortable! She feels fluid, balanced and flexible.

Returning to old ways is uncomfortable – the body doesn’t enjoy going there. Clients often return after a few months for a “tune-up” to fine-tune the initial changes they received and to further explore additional change. It is unusual for a client to revert in any major way, to old ways of using the body. Of course, it the client simply returns to all their old ways of using the body ergonomically, in movement, etc., they will readopt old patterns that are uncomfortable. Hence, the educational portion of the process. The changes that have taken place are not simply due to the consciousness of the Client – they are also due to the physiological changes that have taken place and become a part of the body’s knowledge, memory and makeup. More on that when we talk about fascia and its miraculous properties.

How is the Practitioner Trained?

There are several schools that teach the Rolf Method of Structural Integration. Of the many, there are two original schools that teach specifically and only the process of Structural Integration or “Rolfing”, as developed by Ida P. Rolf, PhD. The process is taught over several sessions lasting several months each. Overall, more than a thousand hours are spent studying this particular process. The training involves months of observation only, in the classroom, before any hands-on work can be done – this is the Auditing phase. After the Auditing phase, there are weeks, perhaps months of the Practitioning phase wherein students are closely supervised at all times by teachers in the classroom.


Is the Practitioner Licensed?

The Practitioner is certified as a Structural Integration Practitioner or Rolfer when training is completed. Each state has its own requirements of licensure for people doing body work. The State of Oregon requires that anyone doing bodywork be licensed as a massage therapist, regardless of any certification by other schools.


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Lauren Bailey, ©2014