I first found out about Rolfing, also known as Structural Integration, late in 2015, when Yelp’ing around the city for “somatics,” just to see what was out there (earlier that year I discovered somatics, and was eager to immerse myself in it). There is no shortage of weird, niche, and esoteric things for which San Francisco is home to – I’m sure searching “naked goat yoga raves” or “breatharian diaperism” would also return results – so of course my otherwise niche Yelp search yielded a number of Rolfers. At the time, I was trying everything I could to heal injuries old and new, and had not quite yet shifted from the external to the internal. I didn’t know what Rolfing was, but being open and somewhat desperate, I picked one Rolfer at random and checked their website. I soon dismissed the whole idea as some cash grab after seeing how expensive each session was, and on top of that, a series of ten sessions were recommended. “Of course they’d have me commit to ten sessions,” I thought, “I don’t need that. Maybe other people, but not me…” How wrong I was! A few months later, my curiosity and desperation reached a tipping point, and I walked a few blocks into the practice of my neighborhood Rolfer.
My past experience with having bodywork is as follows: I’ve had maybe a dozen Active Release Technique (ART) treatments, same with Graston, a couple sessions of cupping (or as the West calls, “myofascial decompression”), one Swedish massage, as well as a few deep tissue (i.e. “painful”) massages. I also own over half a dozen SMR (self-myofascial release) tools that I’ve employed for self-massage or trigger-point release.
I’ve walked away from these various bodywork modalities feeling a wide variety of things: relaxed, good, sore, indifferent, confused, with sentiments such as “I’m never going back there again” or “I better enjoy this now because I know I’ll revert to being more tense tomorrow.”
Each modality has their benefits and specific uses, but Rolfing stands in its own category, alone among the rest. I’ve never walked away from bodywork as I have from Rolfing sessions: feeling like I’ve inhabited a new body, and thus the experience of daily life as forever changed.
I cited Rolfing as one of my biggest changes in 2016, but if I were to write a post on the biggest changes of my entire life, Rolfing would sincerely make the list. I discovered Rolfing at a point in my life where I was was starting to physically awaken to the limitless aliveness of the body. Naturally as the mind & body are so intrinsically connected, changes to my kinesthetic sensory perception led to parallel shifts in my mental perception. Rolfing helped re-assure me that I’m not crazy (it’s the world that’s crazy for being cut off from the body) and that the path I was embarking on (of embodiment) was one leading me to my true nature.
Each session starts and ends with standing postural and walking gait assessments. Front, back, and side profiles are examined; sometimes we’ll break in the middle to re-assess posture or gait again.
The classic Rolf format consists of a ten series of sessions.1 The way it was explained to me, was that each session has its own intention (e.g. “lengthen the front line”), but the means of accomplishing the intention may vary from person to person – naturally, as we all have different structures. As with any profession, you will find a large variance of skill among its practitioners, but Rolfing seems particularly susceptible to this; results from a “good” vs. a “great” Rolfer could be quite significant. Some Rolfers take a cookie-cutter approach to their bodywork for all clients, each ten series more or less a replica of the last; others are more tailored in their approach. My bodyworker, Steve, observed this variance firsthand from consistently “trading” sessions with other Rolfers ever since he began practicing over 20 years ago.
Note: There was about a week in between each session, sometimes two. And almost 2 months in between sessions 7 and 8. The final three sessions (8-10) were about a week apart.
At the end of the session, I was tasked to do a familiar drill – one I was acquainted with from Da Xuan (the Taoist school I’m in) but had not practiced much – of finding your body’s natural balance point and settling into your center. In Da Xuan this is referred to as “alignment between Heaven and Earth”; Steve referred to this as the Rolf line, where you connect with “infinity above” (outwards from the top of your head), and “infinity below”, downwards into the earth from the center of your feet.
Except when doing the drill this time, alignment really clicked into place, as if you were buckling in a seatbelt. Yep, that goes there. Alignment took on a new feeling; almost like my feet were suction cups, getting pulled into the earth. I felt able to “lock in” a neutral head position.
Legs felt weightless. Much easier to stay in the center line when walking. The session was on Thursday; the week prior I had not practiced or moved much due to vacation & work. I was immobile all day Saturday (aka bottle service Friday night), yet Sunday and the days after, not only was there no stiffness from the accumulated 1.5 weeks of inactivity, but my body felt better than ever before! I was shocked; the “gains” from Rolfing stick.
- Qigong felt more ‘conductive’
- random restrictions felt freed up in movements & stretches
- e.g. takes less muscular effort to get into positions and hold stretches
More subtle improvements throughout the body. The most dramatic change was with the feet; they felt more “flattened out” (though arch is still maintained). Weight is distributed evenly across the surface area of the entire foot, as opposed to a few focal points. Of course, this coincides with enhanced body maps of the whole foot.2 Greater stability and ease of keeping planted to the ground when balancing on one leg or walking. Wrists feel less restricted throughout their ROM (they have been a problem area for me).
After the initial postural assessment, Steve drew a line with his finger on my thoracic spine and asked if I had trouble with that segment. Bingo! That exact segment plus one or two vertebrae above where he pointed out is where I’ve had difficulty connecting to with my awareness during the spinal exercises of my personal practice. I’ve noticed after the first two sessions, that in the “yoga of daily life,” my lower body and hips were able to stack themselves effortlessly and “click” into place (like a seatbelt), but the upper extremity was lacking that “locked in” grounded feeling, as if unnecessary tension was holding the spine upright rather than naturally resting with gravity.
This session really brought out the side lines of the body. Lateral flexion of the spine (i.e. side bend) felt smoother than ever. Shoulders stack nicely back on the ribs. Steve explained it as thus: “Imagine if you are standing in a door frame, your shoulders stay centered in line with that frontal plane.”
No effort required to pull shoulders back; they want to go there naturally, stacked above the hips. Starting the next morning at work, I noticed when first using the keyboard, my shoulders sat back further than ever before, with elbows remaining at the sides – this was not my conscious volition, I had noticed my body assumed this position only after its occurrence. I then reflected on how good proper alignment feels at the desk.
This was the most painful session so far, particularly on the neck area, but still, nowhere near being unbearable.
- Felt much taller, legs able to extend more without holding tension
- More fun in relation to gravity: when lying down, more of the body is in contact with the floor. Feels like my body is pulled into the ground.
- Whenever I sat, I never really kept both feet planted on the floor; I would go on my toes, stagger stance, one foot on the opposite leg, etc. However I now found myself also sitting with both feet planted next to each other on the floor with greater regularity.
- Some changes in Qi Gong (e.g. more “crackles”)
- Better sensations during stretching
I left this session ecstatic, smiling, even mumbling to myself “what the fuck… can’t wait for what’s in store next session!”
Steve said that while every session works at getting the pelvis horizontal, this was the main intent of session five, as well as enhancing the center line.
The biggest takeaway here were my sitting bones (i.e. ischial tuberosity) woke the fuck up – when sitting, I can actually feel and connect with two very strong, clear bony points of contact. From there, it’s very easy to lock the entire spine straight into a neutral, stable position. This is an absolutely essential quality should you ever hope to sit properly in meditation for any reasonable duration.
- reduced unnecessary tension in adductors; he showed me how when flexing the hip (which is primarily a job of the illiopsoas and quads), my adductors were overactive
- connection to the upper sternum/chest cavity “click” into place
A lot of psoas and gut work this session.
When walking, I can feel the stretch and pull of the fascia of the front of the torso with each step. Also, I can feel how movement of the legs originates from the core.
Steve pointed out that my upper extremity seems to be leaning back too far… this was actually a conscious holding pattern of mine, as my sense of proprioception (a work in progress) told me this was an upright spine with a neutral pelvis. I made a minor adjustment which made a huge difference.
Freeing up of the sacrum. From my own explorations I knew my sacrum gets stuck when laterally gliding to the left; it still does, but much more freedom for the sacrum in general.
When walking, feeling the sacrum glide left to right, as well as allowing the hips to move in subtle figure 8 patterns like a Brazilian dancer.
During the postural assessment at the start and end of each session, Steve asks how I am. At the end of a session it can be difficult to verbalize the new feeling as soon as I stand up from the massage table, so if I’m ever at a loss for words in describing the new embodied feeling, he’s able to articulate for me precisely what the new sensation is. It’s much easier to relate how I’m feeling at the start of the session.
And since the sixth session, my head felt like it was “off” my body; from the neck down, I felt solid, grounded, but the head felt disconnected, like a balloon slowly fleeing the earth. Interestingly enough, putting the head on the body was the intention for the seventh session! And then I realized there really is some sort of logical flow to the ten series, the fascia is being altered in such a way that leads to an ending of a story.
OK, so I’ve experienced some interesting bodywork techniques in the previous sessions, but this one easily takes the cake.
Steve put on a pair of latex gloves and began fascial re-patterning work inside the mouth and around the gums.
He continued to inside the nose, which was the most painful/uncomfortable moment of the series so far; still, not unbearable. Later I talked to a different type of bodyworker who said when he got Rolfed ten years ago, the nose work from his session was a religious experience for him. I don’t know nose anatomy, but there were three distinct “buttons” he would find and press on in the nose, which each produced a noticeable release.
Head becomes more connected, and free to move about in a relaxed, dynamic way when walking, just like the hips in the previous session.
Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Sessions
About two months go by and I finally get my eighth session. I wrote the journal entry for sessions eight & nine over a year after I completed the ten series; I didn’t really document at the time what they precisely did to me – I only jotted a few words down.
What I have written is: the eighth session reduced lower body tension, increased grounding, and created more ease. The ninth session produced a sensation where the whole back feels like it’s supported by a wall behind it.
And for the tenth session, my notes:
– so this is what it’s like to stand… to walk! sensation of “dissolution” stronger when in alignment,3 standing meditation
– zero holding tension in the upper body, the shoulders dangling completely dead at the sides
– zero tension in the abdominal and glutes…
– my body is craving [ways of discovering its new limits]; I feel like the soft tissue matrix is adapting quite fast right now so I’m trying to feed it with as much exploration as possible. basically finding areas where there is tension/resistance and relaxing/softening/breathing for quick fascial remolding…
As you can tell, each session was magical, but the tenth session was alchemical.
How Rolfing Works
I had never researched Rolfing and pretty much went into every session with no assumptions. All I knew was that it worked on the fascia, and that was all I needed to know. After one of the sessions I remember reaching to rub my my lower back and was pleasantly shocked to discover it had an entirely different quality to it; the tissue now had a smooth, glassy feel to it.
It wasn’t until after 20 or so sessions that I had to dive into the theory, so I picked up a couple books to learn more and get inside the head of it’s creator, Dr. Ida Rolf.
Her Rolfing and Physical Reality book is truly a delightful read. Of the many gems in the book, I will leave one here:
This is the important concept: that Rolfers are integrating something; we are not restoring something. This puts us in a different class from all other therapists that I know of. It takes us out of the domain designated by the word “therapy,” and puts us into the domain designated by the word “education.” […] How do we put a body together so that it’s a unit, an acting, efficient energy unit? One of the differences between Rolfers and practitioners of medicine, osteopathy, chiropractic, naturopathy, etc., is that the latter are all relieving symptoms. They make no effort to put together elements into a more efficient energy system.
Rolfing educates you to organize your body so that you are in line with the field of gravity. As you add structure to the body, a corresponding change in function results; when the body is better able to transmit the force of gravity, the energy previously spent resisting the flow of gravity is freed up to make us better humans.
Making the Most out of Your Rolfing Session
If you did nothing to supplement your Rolfing ten series, you should still reap positive changes that continue long after your last session.
However, if you’re investing in a ten series in the first place, why not make the most of it?
Here’s what I did, and this is my recommendation:
- having experience in a lying relaxation practice
- standing static postures
- dynamic exploratory movements
I had at least a few dozen hours experience with lying relaxation practice, also known as Yoga Nidra. Anyone who comes to me asking for advice on beginning meditation, I always point them to lying relaxation. As one learns to crawl before they walk, one should learn lying meditation before seated meditation.4
While everyone is familiar with the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system, many remain strangers to the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Ida Rolf was not interested in curing symptoms; she was after bigger game. She wanted nothing less than to create new, better human beings. The ills would cure themselves; the symptoms would melt as the organisms became balanced.Rosemary Feitis (forward for Ida Rolf)
A lying practice is a great way to learn how to induce the relaxation response, to improve body maps of areas of the body that are less-represented in the brain (so you can then detect & integrate greater changes in those areas), to bring into awareness unconscious patterns of tension holding and therefore enabling you to let those tensions go, as well as to expose how unrested you might be (many people fall asleep within the first few minutes of practice) – and hopefully inspire you to alter your habits so you have enough rest that you can actually practice in the first place.
During each session, as you lie on the massage table, the skills you’ve learned from lying relaxation will allow you to relax your body and dissolve unnecessary tension so that your Rolfer has a more moldable canvas to sculpt with their hands. Experiences of pain or discomfort will also be reduced.
Next, I spent at least 10-30 continuous minutes each day standing stationary in the Rolf line, as a standing meditation practice. Standing practice is a perfect way to notice the changes in your relationship to gravity, as well as to learn what proper alignment (i.e. posture) feels like as opposed to what it should “look” like. I doubt most people will set aside time in their day for standing meditation to truly absorb themselves in their body, but it’s a good idea to at least clock time standing in the Rolf line while at work, waiting for the bus, etc.
Finally, I did dynamic movements with the intention of exploring as much space around me and within me (i.e. joint articulation) as possible. This is a fancy way of saying mobility work and limbering movements which take you to end range. The changes Rolfing produces when walking & standing are easily noticed but I wanted to consciously unearth new sensations in familiar movement patterns.
But, be realistic with yourself. Don’t use “not doing the homework” as an excuse to never get started with Rolfing.
I completed the ten series in 2016, and after went back for a three series, followed by an advanced five series, and continued to feel improvements. I then took a 2.5 year break, and this year had a three series followed by a single tune up session.
People spend money upgrading their possessions (TVs, electronics, furniture, clothing, cars, etc.) every few years, but where is the holistic investment in themselves? The most worthwhile “hardware” upgrade I ever made wasn’t a new phone or laptop, it was my initial Rolfing ten series.
Of course, your mileage may very. Going into Rolfing, my body was one patterned by serious weightlifting as the dominant form of exercise for most of my life. Physical therapy brought me halfway in healing a knee injury, but I remained stuck; Rolfing was crucial in taking me the entire distance. I have met others on the way who have shared my sentiments – one woman had neck pain for years after a car crash that she finally was able to heal after her first Rolfing session.
If there was a “magic pill” for suppleness, this would be it.
- for more information on body maps, see: https://ancestralmovement.com/body-maps-changing-bodies-in-our-heads/
- dissolution is a practice whereby you develop a quality of “disappearing”, where it feels like you no longer have a skin, rather you are one porous, permeable membrane indistinguishable from the air around you
- if you’re looking to get started, Stretch Therapy has graciously uploaded dozens of free lying relaxation sessions recorded from various meditation retreats: https://stretchtherapy.net/relaxation-scripts/