The Advanced Rolfing Training

Year: 2010
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 38 – Nº 2

Volume: 38
Authors' note: This article stemmed from an informal phone conversation about the advanced training, which took on slightly more of a mantle of formality, if not perfect syntax, in an interview, later. McWilliams went on to attend the 2010 advanced training with Sally Klemm, Gael Ohlgren, and Lael Keen in Kona, Hawai’i.

Robert McWilliams: I wanted to ask you about the advanced trainings because of your long involvement as a Rolfer and a teacher, having assisted, then co-taught the advanced training three times already for the Rolf Institute. Could you tell me a little bit about why the course is structured the way it is?

Michael Murphy: Ida Rolf taught the class in a six-week outline; six weeks of four days each. For a long time, that was the way it was done. It was as if “because she did it that way, we’re doing it that way.” I think it was Jim Asher who initially came up with the idea of splitting the training into two parts. He certainly talked about the idea the most. Jan Sultan actually taught the first one in two segments. The idea was to reduce the time for the instructors to be away from family and their home life, and it also allowed the students to be away from their families and home life for a shorter period of time. I don’t know to what extent they realized it, but certainly from what we saw, in the first iteration of the training, people learned so much in the first segment, that by the second segment, they had actually integrated a lot of it. And they’re working at a much higher level. So, twenty-four continuous days of training did not lead to as advanced a level of practitioner as did two segments, in our judgment at the time. That means a little more airfare for the students going to . . .

RM: . . . Hawaii!

MM: But I think the learning is really expanded . . . the learning potential is much greater.

RM: I wanted to ask you: What types of questions do you think one should bring, and what kind of an attitude should one bring to an advanced training? I will be attending one soon, and I really wanted to ask you about that.

MM: Frankly the most effective thing is a certain level of frustration. When your practice is big enough, and full enough, that you’re starting to see a bunch of people with a wide range of problems, you come to class saying “what I do about this problem,” or “I can’t get the transmission to go through this joint,” which really means “I need some new tools, new approaches, new ways of thinking.” That experience, and that hunger for more learning, make a huge difference. So, we time it in terms of numbers of years of experience, and numbers of days of continuing education. We probably should tie it to numbers of sessions your hands” as well.

RM: When I think of the advanced training I think of learning about post-ten work, and a focus on the five structural elements. What are some of the standard curricular foci of the advanced training? Is it that you want to learn, for example, an axial session really well, or a radial decompression session really well?

MM: The focus is on two different levels: how do you design a strategic series for a post-ten client? [and] how would you do an advanced series? So, clients are recruited to come into the training [who] have already had ten Rolfing Structural Integration [SI] sessions. You learn to think about strategy formation that doesn’t rely so much on a recipe, but one that relies on a series of anatomical and structural goals. We’re teaching a method of analysis that helps you get to those goals. Also embedded in the program are a series of practica. You might spend time on the ankle joint: what can you do to help get things moving better in the foot or ankle? How do you approach a knee, what do you do for a pelvis that’s stuck? How do you work with specific structural elements, to develop the practitioner’s skill? And then you’re doing a series of work, talking about session strategizing, and session sequencing.

RM: So it’s somewhat like a student going through the basic Rolfing training learning how to do [sessions] eight, nine, and ten?

MM: Exactly.

RM: I know that we talked about, and worked on, post-ten work in my [Phase III] with Russell Stolzoff. It seemed that the basic way to think about it was: Look at what you want to do structurally in eight, more functionally in nine, and try to integrate the whole in ten. Will there be some specific things taught in the training – not just “go address that ankle,” but rather “here are some ways to address that ankle?”

MM: Some of what we teach is about “what can we do to free up that particular structure?” and some is about “what can we do at the other end of that structure to free it up?” – as in, “what can we do at the fibular head, to free up that ankle?”  So, it’s not so much that we’re teaching techniques, but a way of thinking, and a way of approaching a joint in question.

RM: I see the connection with sessions eight, nine and ten, but could you explain the distinction between post-ten and advanced work? Also, does the advanced training prepare us to do advanced work on a client who hasn’t had a Rolfing SI ten-session series?

MM: Post-ten work is aimed at restoring the level of integration achieved in a previous series. Most of the time, advanced work is designed to take the client to an even higher level of organization. Also, an advanced Rolfer can strategize a session or mini-series for clients who have not before received Rolfing sessions.

RM: I am also very much looking forward to seeing [in my training] how [instructors] Sally [Klemm] or Gael [Ohlgren] will approach some structural problems, such as how to unlock the ankle. I might not do it exactly the same way, but I look forward to learning how they do it, to better my skill and understanding.

MM: Also, in our current model you have two experienced instructors who are really co-teaching the class, [so] you get that dialectic between the two of them, and then that broadens the intellectual/strategic horizons of the students.

RM: Nice. I know that the Rolf Institute’s curriculum committee has been working to standardize elements of [Phases] I, II, and III, and that this has been implemented. Is there a similar process going on for the advanced training?

MM: The advanced faculty committee has a mission of collecting all the things that all of us do in an advanced training, and [determining] of those what are the things we insist are essential. There’s some range for individuation: [one instructor will] do a little more of this, and [another] a little more of that. There’s been some major progress in the last few years towards codifying that, so there’s more consistency.(1)

RM: What do you think about that? Is that a good thing?

MM: I think it’s a good thing.

RM: Why?

MM: Because among the advanced faculty there’s a level of cumulative experience – they as a group have been able to say “these ten things, or x number of things, are the most effective to help students move their skill to the next level.” We can then make sure that in terms of this level of advancement, these skill sets and thought processes are in place. I think we’ve had a period of exploration and diversity and individuation, and now we are coming to our overall, community agreements about those things. So I think now is a pretty good time to take [the training], because of that.

RM: We talked, earlier, on the phone, about my preparation for attending the advanced training, and you said: “Think back on your practice, about the things you’ve done that have worked well, and the things that have not worked as well.” That was really helpful. I then started thinking about “how am I working with certain clients’ rib cases that are difficult for me to get to release, and what are some other methods I could try?” Then a thought would come, in session – Oh yeah! David Clark talked about work over at the rib angle, in my [Phase] II class, to affect the core and thorax more than just working right at the spine, and other similar ideas. It also really encouraged the process for me of thinking back on all these SOAP notes that I have. One of the main reasons that I’ve being doing SOAP notes is because I really want to get better, having faith that, at some point, some things that didn’t work will make sense later.

MM: Like I said earlier, some of what drives growth for a student is the frustration, and finding a way to try it differently. As in your example, try using a vector from the rib angle, and follow the line of the rib head, to affect the mediastinum.

RM: It seems like it [the advanced training] is the point in your work where you internalize this kind of thing, where you can feel like you are contacting the person’s mediastinum from a point on the back. These are things that seem a bit abstract, when you start out. For me, this is similar to how doing the visceral work with Liz Gaggini was, at first. It is a way of “feeling into” stuff that may be hard to “put your hands on” at the beginning.

MM: Our basic training model was derived from the medieval guild structures, so that you learn a bit of something and then you go and put it into practice, first as an apprentice, then a journeyman, and slowly you build to a more experienced level. It was not all education; it was experience that drove you to that next level. People come and get the basic training, and then they go out and practice for a while. Then, they come back and take a six-day, or some other continuing education class, and they put that in their practice. Over time, they have enough years in the harness, and enough continuing education hours to come back and do the advanced training. If you look at the master agreement, that’s the finished product: it is done only after the completion of the advanced training. So we see the entire arc of the student’s studies, from the beginning to the end.

RM: Is that with the understanding that, even after the advanced training, you still do more courses?

MM: We have not required that.

RM: To me, that seems like a given, but maybe I am just so used to doing trainings, at this point in my Rolfing [SI] development. You’re in there too, like when you took Liz’s visceral manipulation class with me in Berkeley last year. It was wonderful to have you there! Isn’t that one of the things that defines the term “profession,” as opposed to a job – that you have a commitment to continued training?

MM: In my world, it is. It’s not a requirement we hold each other to. It’s a value I hold.

RM: It can be hard to explain to significant others why we spend all this time and money on trainings, but, to me, it’s part of what makes us who we are. I’m inspired to do the advanced training to deepen my understanding of the work. It still sounds a bit mysterious, in terms of what actually goes on there. Is the advanced training designed to be another more holistic approach than, say, taking another continuing education class? Is it supposed to have a different overall scope that those classes don’t have?

MM: It has a larger vision, in terms of transformative potential for the students. We’re not just teaching techniques: we seek to alter their way of thinking about the work. There are also many more days of training involved. Ideally it brings a deepening of what the work of Rolfing [SI] is, both in your own and the client’s structure. You receive a whole new series of work for your body, and learn to offer a whole new approach to a client, as well.

RM: What is your experience, from teaching, of how some people respond in these trainings? What, in your opinion, are some successful strategies?

MM: Well, the three classes that I assisted spanned seventeen years. One was in 1990, one was in 1996/1997, and one was in 2007. The quality of our instruction over that time, I think, has improved, along with the consolidation and codification of the curriculum that has occurred. Probably the best preparation, like I said, is a hunger for a new approach, and a readiness to be in a transformative relationship with the work. The requirements are intended to build to support that. This is designed to work through the combination, in the continuing education classes, of manipulation experience in an educational setting, together with the electives offered, and enough sessions worked outside of that framework.

RM: I’m going to an advanced training, and I want to make sure that I “get it,” and at the same time I know that these things come in layers, and that I will probably absorb information that I won’t know I have until I need to use it later. Do you have any advice about that?

MM: A good general response would be this: a big part of it is the camaraderie and collegial relationships formed over twenty-four days with your fellows, all of whom have come to this level, wanting a transformative experience in the work. Couple that with high-level instruction and investigation of specific techniques and strategies for designing a mini-series in lecture, demos, and practica, and I think it’s pretty easy to bump up to the next level.

RM: It has been my experience, too, in other trainings, that it is the listening and engagement between students that really helps us all learn.

MM: It makes it more of a seminar class, and less of a lecture class – a little more egalitarian. Each person comes in with [his/her] own learning edge: one person may need a little more grounding in anatomical knowledge, another may need more inspiration about the “big picture.”

RM: And I get that it is important to allow that feedback, as a student, to come in; to be modest and relaxed about it. Every bit of experience I have had in my life is helping me, but there are gaps in that, and I need to be ready to listen and learn, which will likely include being “wrong” sometimes. I guess it is important to just try to be patient with yourself and others, for any SI-related training that you do. It can be very humbling! And you don’t necessarily know the areas that you’re weak in until you get there.

MM: Right.

RM: There are a lot of Rolfers who have been certified in the last few years who don’t know the history of the advanced Rolfing [SI] work. How did the idea of doing an advanced series first come up, for Dr. Rolf? It was a five-series, at first, right?

MM: I actually think her first draft of it was a four-series, and then it evolved into a five-series. All of that was before the time that I took the advanced training; I took it soon after her death, in 1979. [It] was before my time, but my belief is that going from four to five allowed the faculty to resolve some of the pedagogical issues that were brought up in the training, to help find resolution and closure.

It helped for the student’s own experience, and for the client’s experience of the work. In the training I co-taught with Tessy [Brungardt], there was a five-session series in the first phase, and a three-session series in the second.

RM: There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since 1979, I would imagine, in terms of the evolution of the advanced training. Is it equivalent to the evolution to a more “principles-based” approach to teaching the basic training that started, according to what I’ve heard, at some point in the 1980s?

MM: I think we freed ourselves to move in that direction after the split. [Editor’s note: The “split” was the departure of some senior members of the Rolf Institute who then established the Guild for Structural Integration.]

RM: When did the split happen?

MM: The first “shots in the war” happened in about 1988. The sense was a desire for different ways of teaching the work. I might frame that, now, in terms of the principles, but not then. The terms we used [then] were “less formulaic” and more “client-structured.”

RM: I always heard that [expression] during my basic training about a post-ten series: that it was “non-formulaic.”

MM: So in that sense, this evolution of the basic training, and the evolution of the advanced work, and training, were parallel developments.

RM: In the advanced training, is there a sort of underlying structure to sessions, kind of like a basic structure in a dancer’s improvisation?

MM: . . . or a blues player’s sixteen-bar blues?

RM: Right. Do we learn some structure to use, referring to, say, certain things to try in an axial session, elements to explore while doing a radial decompression, and so on.

MM: It becomes part of the language that you learn, regarding the five structural elements: girdle, girdle, core, sleeve, axial. You learn to look at the person and ask which of these five would most be benefited by the intervention of Rolfing [SI], and what other structural element could you integrate through. That begins to form the core line of your strategic development. You learn to build a recipe, if you will, for that particular client.

RM: Back to talking about sessions eight, nine, and ten: Did Dr. Rolf truly always do a lower eight, at first, or, for that matter, always start a Ten Series at the feet? I keep hearing that.

MM: A lot of the lore about the development of this work includes stories that Dr. Rolf started her series of structural integration work with a foot session.(2) For a while, she was doing feet, legs, feet, and legs as the initial intro. I don’t know if those tales are apocryphal or grounded in fact. Again, according to the lore, she began to notice that, in general, structures were helped by beginning with the upper – with work in the chest. To me that looks like an argument in her own mind that might have sounded like “Do they need more adaptability, or do they need better support?” In a way, she was saying, perhaps, that it was hard for the client to utilize the added support without increased adaptability. So, in essence, how we teach sessions one and two uses that argument, and how we teach sessions eight and nine also uses that argument. The way to demystify the eight, nine strategizing has to do with that.

In a ten-session series, eight, nine, and ten are an integration of the whole series. In advanced work, however, it is the client who is hungry, the client that is wanting more. As if saying “I’ve come so far in this work, and I want to go a little bit father.” The client, now, is looking for a sort of transformative possibility. The art of designing an advanced series is determining “what are the transformative potentials of the client?” in order to move to the next level. What is emerging from [the client] that will give access to that? That becomes the key to creating an advanced mini-series.



In the process of fact-checking this article, we contacted advanced faculty members Jan Sultan, Pedro Prado, and Tessy Brungardt.


  1. Advanced Rolfing Instructor Tessy Brungardt commented: “First, the AF [Advanced Faculty] has written out and agreed to a curriculum for the AT [Advanced Training]. It does indeed have a certain amount of flexibility built into it, but we have agreed to certain things that are to be included in each training. Another thing that you did touch upon, but is a major goal of the AT, is that each student is to get specific work that s/he needs – [his/her] particular needs are to be addressed in the training – both learning and structurally. As a group, we hold this value strongly.
  2. Jan Sultan reports: “Rolf did say that she originally started the Ten Series on the feet, but later it occurred to her that freeing the breathing was the first step. In those days a Second Hour was a challenging experience, and you needed to breathe to get through it.”

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