"Some individuals may perceive their losing fight with gravity as a sharp pain in their back, others as the unflattering contour of their body, others as constant fatigue, yet others as an unrelentingly threatening environment. Those over forty may call it old age. And yet all these signals may be pointing to a single problem so prominent in their own structure, as well as others, that it has been ignored: they are off balance, they are at war with gravity. " - Dr. Ida P. Rolf
Ida P. Rolf PhD was the visionary and charismatic founder of Rolfing Structural Integration. Dr. Rolf was demanding both of herself and of her students. Among her demands, she strongly insisted on an ideal body structure. This structure has the classic hallmarks which are also common to other disciplines, including - yoga, tai chi and chi gong; mainly proper alignment which is also visible from the outside, left-right symmetry, and a vertical lateral line through the ear, shoulder joint, hip joint, knee joint and ankle joint. most important here is the central, vertical midline relating to the gravitational field. This midline is also perceptional and the center of our orientation towards the outside.
For us today the main point of this ideal exists in an adaptable body moving without restriction in any direction in relation to the gravitational field, resulting in an effortlessly aligned being with an upright posture.
During her lifetime Dr. Rolf had more focus on static alignment. She was aware of the importance of movement qualities but delegated the development of the movement awareness side of her work to others.
Dr. Rolf was also aware that she did not leave a finally described, defined, and finished method for achieving that ideal. Her school taught both a manual therapy method and movement awareness education. Both are still very much in development today as they were at her passing in 1979. She envisioned that within a few years of her passing there would be several different Rolfing schools, each with its own specialized focus and path of development.
Also, in hindsight, the methods which Dr. Rolf taught, focused on a generalized ideal rather than on the uniqueness of each person. Today her somewhat static, rigid, and generalized ideal has been replaced by more emphasis on coordinated movement qualities tailored to the unique body structure and lifestyle of each individual.
Dr. Rolf was an innovator, actively continuing to develop her work throughout her career. Through her continuous recognition of not just the possibility, but the necessity of improvement she left wide space for those who followed her to explore and further develop from the base she gave us.
If we are to be true to Dr. Rolf’s nature as an innovator we too must always continue to learn, understand, and innovate.
Dr. Rolf first began to practice her work, which she then called Postural Release, in 1944 immediately after taking a six-week workshop with Amy Cochrane DO in Los Angeles. Soon Dr. Rolf changed the name of her work first to Postural Dynamics and later to Structural Integration. The name Structural integration came in response to Dr. Rolf learning about the work of Moshe Feldenkrais which he called Functional Integration. She said, “If Moshe’s work is Functional integration, then mine is Structural integration.” The name that stuck was Rolfing®. In time the term Structural Integration would become the generic term for both Rolfing and the several spinoffs from it.
After creating her work in 1944 Dr. Rolf practiced for 35 years and taught for about 30 years until her death in 1979. Now, 43 years after her death, and 78 years since she first created her work Dr. Rolf’s lineage holders, and more recent teachers have made substantial further developments in all dimensions of Rolfing structural integration.
Here we describe seven dimensions of the whole, we currently see at the forefront.
Describing these dimensions separately is useful, though in practicality they are no more separable than a person’s heart and brain.
Originally the term Fascia referred to certain kinds of membranes found in many diverse parts of the body. More recently our understanding of Fascia has enlarged to include more types of tissues and more properties. Other kinds of connective tissue include tendons, ligaments, joint capsules, loose areolar tissue, cartilage, and even bone. Gradually it was realized that all these different kinds of connective tissue are, and developmentally always were, structurally continuous with one another, as one big connective tissue web pervading every part of the body.
Today the term Fascia is used to refer to the whole web of connective tissue including ligaments and cartilage, rather than just certain membrane components of the connective tissue web.
Recently the term Interstitium has been introduced and applied to this pervasive connective tissue continuity. The new term Interstitium highlights the pervasive fluid content between the fibers.
It’s important to understand that fascia includes many diverse properties, functions and capacities:
so that its properties are constantly adapted in relation to the needs and use of an area, connecting, gliding, supporting and transmitting.
For Dr. Rolf Fascia was the tissue of form, the organ of support. For Rolfing teacher, and fascia researcher, Robert Schleip Fascia is the Sensory Organ for body awareness, for us it is the transmitting and interconnecting system. All of these views are true, each describing some properties of fascia.
Thus, the single area of greatest development for Rolfing took place in the science of fascia with the many and ongoing discoveries of its properties and functions.
all the large continuity of all the forms of connective tissue in our bodies.
From a Rolfing perspective, our colleagues Robert Schleip and Tom Findley have been at the forefront of fascia research. Information on their work can be found at https://fasciaresearchsociety.org/ and www.somatics.de
Interest in Fascia has spread well beyond the community of Rolfers and Osteopaths.
For some fine examples see also the works of the Stecco Family, Jean-Claude Guimberteau MD, P.A.J.B.M Huijing, and Jaap van der Waal MD:
The Stecco family, Father Luigi, son Antonio and daughter Carla,
Jean Claude Guimberteau MD.
Jaap van der Waal
Jane Stark Book, Still’s Fascia
Our nervous system has many components. A basic distinction is between, on the one hand the brain and spinal cord, which we call the central nervous -system, and on the other hand, the peripheral nervous -system, which is all the nerves running to and from the brain and spinal cord, connecting the central nervous system with the rest of the person. Within each of these two systems, there are more distinctions. One distinction is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which regulates involuntary physiologic processes, including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and digestion. The ANS has components in both the central and peripheral nervous systems. Due in part to the autonomic innervation of fascia, the ANS is currently an area of active exploration and incorporation in the practice of Rolfing.
Although French Anatomist Léo Testut MD described the innervation of fascia in detail in his 1880 doctoral thesis * this knowledge lay dormant until researchers at the University of Leipzig, J. Staubesand & Y. Ly used electron microscopy to see and describe in fine detail the innervation of fascia, principally by the autonomic nervous system. **
Dr. Rolf recognized and spoke of the importance of the ANS in the work she taught. However, she offered little to operationalize this awareness. Building on Staubesand and Ly’s work, Rolfer and researcher Robert Schleip conducted extensive further research on the functional relationships of fascia and the nervous system, leading to substantial improvements in the practice of Rolfing.
Further developments in how to work with the ANS were made independently by Steven Porges, Ph.D. (Polyvagal Theory) and Peter Levine, Ph.D. (Somatic Experience). Both Porges and Levine’s methods are incorporated in many Rolfing practices. Porges’ and Levin’s work aligns with Robert Schleip’s research results. Diane Jacobs, PT, developed therapeutically practical interventions with portions of the ANS in another direction, naming her work Dermo-Neuromodulation. This also has found its place in the constellation of nervous system approaches associated with Rolfing.
Steven Porges Ph.D.
Peter Levine Ph.D.
Osteopathic Thinking and Methods
Osteopathy is a many-faceted method of manual therapy developed by Andrew Taylor Still MD around 1870. Dr. Still created his healing system by combining his thorough knowledge of anatomy with the long oral tradition of manual therapy found in many cultures. See the biography of A.T. Still by John Lewis DO https://www.atstill.com.
Dr. Rolf extensively studied Osteopathic philosophy on the way to developing her own work. Her Osteopathic mentors included Amy Cochrane DO and Kenneth Little DO. Dr. Rolf first taught her work at the European School of Osteopathy at Maidstone UK in the late 1940s, where she gathered additional Osteopathic insights, including from John Wernham DO.
Osteopathy and Yoga are the parent disciplines of Rolfing. From the ideas of Yoga and Osteopathy, Dr. Rolf assembled her model of how a body should be aligned, how it should move, and how to create change.
Beginning in the 1990s, some Osteopaths began to teach outside their profession on a larger scale. This was pioneered by John Upledger DO (Craniosacral Therapy) and soon followed by Jean-Pierre Barral DO (Visceral Manipulation), Paul Chauffour DO (Mechanical Link), Bruno Chickley MD, DO (Lymphatic Drainage), and others. Many Rolfers, including most Rolfing faculty members, studied with these pioneers, bringing many practical insights and methods back to their Rolfing practices and teaching.
Incorporation of Osteopathic assessment and treatment methods enriched and refined Rolfing, providing means of achieving the goals of Rolfing that were more effective, more efficient, less effortful for the Rolfer, and more comfortable for the client.
Osteopathic methods integrate very well with the developments of the methods mentioned above for working with the nervous system. Many osteopaths, including Jean-Pierre Barral and Alain Croibier, were already working on this frontier of integrating work with connective tissue and the nervous system. Rolfers, notably Peter Schwindt, Robert Schleip, Don Hazen, Jon Martine, Ron Murray, Jan Sultan, and others, have carried this integration forward.
Toward the end of her life in the 1970s, Dr. Rolf required her students to read the works of Edward Gallaudet and Bern Singer, which described membranes associated with internal organs and their continuity with planes of the fascia of the musculoskeletal system. This showed her interest and intent to incorporate the membranes associated with internal organs into her work. While these two books were required reading for her students, the books were little discussed in her classes. Working with the internal organs and their membranes was one of the frontiers she left for her followers to develop.
French Osteopath Jean-Pierre Barral DO extensively developed methods of working with the internal organs, their fascial connections to the musculoskeletal system, their innervation, and vasculature. Many Rolfers studied with Barral and his associates and integrated parts of his methods with Rolfing.
Similarly, methods of working with the cranium, developed by John Upledger DO, Alain Gehin DE*, James Jealous DO, Torstein Liem DO, and others, have been incorporated, at least by some, into Rolfing, again providing efficient access to the additional anatomic territory.
Through these many developments and discoveries, it also became apparent that a light touch is usually, though not always sufficient, to make changes in body alignment, adaptability, function, integration, and movement, which are central to Rolfing. Rolfing should not hurt or be painful.
Some relevant books are:
Jean-Pierre Barral DO
Alain Croibier DO
John Upledger DO
Alain Gehin DE
James Jealous DO
Torsten Liem DO
In the decade before Dr. Rolf developed her own work, she studied extensively with yoga teacher Pierre Barnard. Her Yoga studies with Barnard contributed to the ideal alignment she adhered to. Osteopathic philosophy showed Dr. Rolf ways to change the alignment of the body.
From the beginning, Rolfing SI included movement education as a tool of body awareness. Amy Cochrane DO’s teaching, a major inspiration for Dr. Rolf’s work, had a large movement education component. At first, under Dr. Rolf’s direction and then continuing after her time, many people contributed to the movement exploration side of Rolfing, including Dorothy Nolte, Judith Aston, Jane French, Annie Duggan, Jane Harrington, Vivian Jaye, Heather Starsong, Hubert Godard and others.
While each made essential contributions, Hubert Godard, teacher of Rolf movement and dance, may have made the most enduring contribution.
Godard’s contributions included understanding pre-movement, the relation of the gravitational centers and posture in the moving body, and his Tonic Function Model.
Our bodies are formed by the intersection of genetics and our early and ongoing environment and experience. The genetically determined embryologic development is the more significant determinant of structure. Environmental experience and patterns of body use also contribute throughout life.
In turn, the form of each person’s body affects how it can and does move. Dr. Rolf referred to this as two sides of a coin; how we use our bodies over time shapes the body, and the body's shape affects how we move. Changing either side of the coin will undoubtedly change the other side.
The manual therapy applied by Rolfers evokes change in the body's shape and, allows the body to move in more efficiently and comfortable ways, also bringing people’s awareness to their bodies, often exploring what had been unconscious patterns.
The changes made by Rolfers in the body's structural alignment lead to improvement, efficiency, comfort, coordination, movement, presence, and physiological function. Finding these new movement patterns also changes the continuing development of a person’s awareness of self and being in the world.
Working with clients on body awareness is an actively developing frontier.
More about movement exploration and awareness education:
In the beginning, Dr. Rolf taught a very strenuous form of touch. She approached the client’s body with her knuckles, elbows, or the tips of stiffened fingers. She would lean into this with most of her body weight. People’s bodies changed in response to this, often accompanied by bruises and screams. Her work was taught this way for a long time. As the decades went by, Rolfers, step by step, developed their touch to change tissue with less force and more finesse. This less forceful touch began to develop even before we gained more neuroscience insight and knowledge. The rapid development of neuroscience in the 21st century accelerated the evolution of Rolfer’s touch.
“Touch makes it possible to live in a body that can move in response to being moved.” - Bessel van der Kolk
Rolfers developed more refined touches for achieving multiple goals and addressing diverse systems, tissues, and their relationships in the body.
Along with qualities of touch developed by Rolfers, expansion and improvement of the touch vocabulary came through incorporating methods taught by Osteopaths. As Osteopathic founder A.T. Still wished, osteopathic practice has diversified to a great degree. Some streams of Osteopathy have influenced the ways Rolfers touch, notably Cranio-Sacral therapy, visceral manipulation, and neural mobilization.
As touch lightened and Rolfers developed a greater interest in the human nervous system, touch began to be used along with dialog to increase the client’s body awareness. At the same time, Rolfers adapt their touch by deepening their awareness in each moment of the tactile dialogue.
This also shows the overlapping of touch with other dimensions of Rolfing, including neuroscience, body awareness, socio-psychobiology, and Fascia.
In addition to awareness and different intentions of touch, another important point is the many aspects of the context of touch. Examples of the context for touch include the therapeutic relationship between the Rolfer and the client, the life circumstances of the client, the presence and awareness of the practitioner, the pacing within each session, the spacing between sessions, the novelty or familiarity of each touch, and each person’s sensitivity, threshold, perception, and the meaning or experience of each touch for that person.
For each of us, how we think about life, experience the world, and ourselves are profoundly formative to our lives and continuing into our sense perceptions which build a perception of our context, presence, and how we think about ourselves and the world.
In building our perception of the world, we shape the world and, at the same time, shape our bodies. Body shape is, in part, an outgrowth of how we build the world in our perception. The bodily ease and comfort Rolfing provides are an opportunity or a different feeling about the world. https://bit.ly/3C0g2BY
Philosophy in the community of Rolfers develops over time. We see new possibilities, contexts, and relations, sometimes expanding and sometimes re-directing how we interact with our clients and how we comprehend our work.
In the field of philosophy, Rolfing instructor Jeffrey Maitland, Ph.D., made the most significant contribution to clarifying Dr. Rolf’s vision for Rolfing SI. Maitland had the gift of articulating this understanding in a way both accessible and profound. Together with Jan Sultan and others from the community, Maitland also developed in the early 1990s the “definition and principles of Rolfing.”
Based on the principles of Rolfing, Maitland showed the path forward to shift from exclusive use of the 10-sessions-series in the Rolfing practice to a more “non-formulaic process,” more oriented to each individual client than to the protocol.
In addition to Rolfing, Maitland talks a lot about life, being, relations, and meaning, both as they apply to Rolfing and to life in general.
His books are highly recommended.
As a part of the philosophical development, Maitland distinguished and articulated several dimensions of Rolfing, which he refers to as taxonomies.
Maitland’s categories are; Structure, Geometry, Energy, and Function.
Questions continue to abound at the frontiers of the rapidly developing field of Rolfing and within each Rolfing session.
During each Rolfing session, there is a series of essential decision points. Through assessment and application of algorithms, we chose how and where and how to intervene first, and the how and then where and how next. Essential to this is the choice of dimension; to begin with dialoguing, body awareness, manual therapy, or movement exploration.
There are many different ways to approach the body manually; the ten series includes many approaches. Dr. Rolf Created and evolved the series as a teaching tool for beginning Rolfers. The ten sessions provide various approaches, perspectives, goals, and a development that can unfold very logically, richly, and positively.
Nonetheless, for some clients, the 10 Sessions can be a limited approximation of what needs to be done—really learning to see body alignment, movement-coordination, and applying anatomic logic does Iead to a more comfortable therapeutic process and better outcomes. This can be within the ten sessions but also could be tailored or set up very differently.
More recently, our Brazilian colleague Pedro Prado has developed the Socio-Psychobiological dimension or taxonomy, which is described and integrated into our practice.
The main reason for bringing awareness to the socio-psycho-biological aspect as its own dimension is to find more refined and appropriate ways to interact with our clients. This is another foundational way in which we continue to expand from Dr. Rolf’s original one-shape-fits-all formulation to honoring the uniqueness and context of each person.
We continue to make conscious and aware of how we and our clients get to know each other and how we build a therapeutic relationship, starting with our practice promotional materials, then how we interview, and continuing into the collaborative decision-making of how to work where with each individual.
Pedro Prado also developed and operates the rich, informative, and constantly evolving online Ida P. Rolf library.
The seven areas mentioned above of development are what we consider keystones in the evolution of Rolfing-SI up to the present. They are definitely not everything that relates to, developed within, or grew out of Rolfing.
This article about the developments of Dr. Rolf’s work, up to the present, is our way of answering the question of “What is Rolfing today in 2022?”.
Even as Rolfing offers a way to be a more adaptable and integrated being, which includes embodying more ease in an ever-changing world, Rolfing, too, will constantly grow and adapt.
This way of giving our perspective grew out of many months of rich conversations between the authors Janco Volk and Jeffrey Burch, Rolfers of different generations and different backgrounds working in different cultures (the USA and Europe). We are both convinced that Rolfing SI has something important to contribute to humankind.
Feeling a need to place our profession's constant ferment, we created this text, maybe just for our own peace.
*Leo Testut, Vasseux et Nerfs des Tissues Conjonctif, Fibreux, Séreux et Osseux, 1880, G. Masson Editeur, Libraire de l’Acadamie de Medicine
**Staubesand J, Li Y 1996 Zum Feinbau der Fascia cruris mit besonderer Berücksichtigung epi- und intrafaszialer Nerven. Manuelle Medizin 34: 196–200
*** A Description of the Planes of Fascia of the Human Body: With Special Reference to the Fascia of the Abdomen, Pelvis and Perineum, Bern Budd Gallaudet, Columbia University Press 1931.
**** Fasciae of the Human Body and Their Relations to the Organs They Envelop, Edward Singer, Williams & Wilkins, 1935.
****B. Gallaudet *** and B. Singer
Jaap van der Waal