Excruciatingly Slow Motion Movements

Pages: 27-29
Year: 2012
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 40 – Nº 1

Volume: 40

Dr. Rolf’s primary ‘how-to’ in our work is: “put it where it belongs and ask for movement.” In the full range of possible movements and motions, using excruciatingly slow motion (ESM) movement is a highly productive technique. This article will explain: what it is; how to find it; things to be aware of with your clients; how to help your clients do it; and some of my perspectives on why this technique is so meaningful for the tissues, the client, and me.

What Is ESM Movement?

You might think that ESM movement is the same as ‘micro movement,’ but it isn’t. ESM movement is a highly effective and efficient how the client is to move within the context of “put it where it belongs and ask for movement.” ESM movement is so much slower than you might imagine, and it is this slowness that allows for consciousness, embodiment, precision, sometimes twitchy releases, and always highly productive, global, results. Since the word ‘slow’ is such a relative term, our question of what this is might be more easily understood by knowing how to find it.

How Does One Find ESM Movement?

Here’s the bottom line for ESM (and, yes, sometimes I use this cue to help a client find it): “If you think you’re moving, but you think maybe you’re not, but it seems like you are, but you’re not completely sure, then you’re doing it exactly right.” ESM, for me, has three components. The first two – slowness and quality – are almost inseparable. The third is the direction.

Slowness and Quality: I use many descriptors to help people find the slowness and quality necessary for ESM movement because moving this slowly is not normal. Nearly all my clients don’t come anywhere close to moving slowly enough when they first try to do it. My standard descriptor to help people find the slowness and quality of ESM has been: “Imagine a plate with a small blob of honey on it. Imagine tilting that plate ever so slightly. Now, imagine how slowly that honey will move. That’s how slowly you are going to move.” Even with this, many clients don’t move slowly enough to be doing ESM. With each attempt, however, you can cue them with, “Now, do it even more slowly.” If a few cues to move even more slowly don’t help the client do ESM, I’ll tell the client to think of ‘oozing’ instead of ‘moving.’ Oozing is a really good cue. It takes people out of an habitual “I know how to move.” I’ve also said things like “move one hundred times slower than a snail, or float as softly and gently as a feather floats on the air.” Once clients get the pace of the ESM, they have it. You may need to remind them to do it, but they will remember how to because it is a specific quality of motion.

Direction: ESM movement is not an arbitrary motion. It can be done as an arbitrary motion; but, most times, ESM movement is more productive when it fits within the context of living and being. Give your clients the big-picture – the overall direction of the movement. In my experience, when the client knows the overall direction of movement, the whole system is participating. This is akin to the concept that a tiny motion anywhere creates response everywhere. Consciously knowing the overall direction activates and engages the whole system so ESM movement can travel responsively, and with learning, through the whole body. An ESM movement within a knee bend might have the overall direction of knee-to-nose, or it might be heel-to-butt. Other examples are: “Bring your whole arm toward (or away) from the side of your body,” or, “stretch your fingers out.” Sometimes a direction can be externally oriented rather than body-centered. Examples of this are: “reach toward the clock,” or “let your knee float toward that spot on the ceiling.”

Here’s an unusual cue I used recently to get ESM movement, which contains all three elements: slowness, quality, and direction (both body-centered and externally oriented). My client was lying on his side. He was having great difficulty doing ESM movement. I asked if he was familiar with fabric and how the cotton threads are woven tightly together to make this sheet he’s lying on. Then I said, “The overall direction of the motion you will be doing is knee-to-nose; however, you are going to move your knee toward your nose on this sheet one thread at a time.” With this focus, he did ESM movement perfectly.

Using ESM Movement: Things to Be Aware of with Clients

Moving excruciatingly slowly reveals the imperfections and restrictions to a movement. In general, people don’t like to show, or experience, their imperfections. It is as if there is a natural impulse to override the slow motion so we won’t feel exposed. If this is true for your clients, compassion, coaching, and explaining (that tissues want to move slowly in order to change) can help the client over this hurdle. My clients engage even more precisely in finding ESM movement once they realize that there are fewer repetitions to be done and much more productive work accomplished based on how truly slowly they can go.

The great thing about ESM movement is that the process itself (learning how to do ESM movement) is already putting learning into the tissues and the client. Remember that clients might take your repeated coaching as an indication that they are doing something wrong. Remind yourself, and remind your clients, that each of the client’s attempts to accomplish ESM movement allows the tissues to learn and to change. It is all productive; there are no mistakes.

How to Help Clients Do ESM Movement

Clients understand immediately when I tell them that if you move fast, your tissues can only grab what they already know and so they learn nothing new. I also tell clients that tissues are very willing to change but that you have to ask for it slowly. I tell clients that the slower they go, the more productive work we will get done; and the faster they go, the less we will accomplish. These concepts help clients understand more of what we’re doing and why. These also help clients refine their awareness and have patience in those moments when they don’t yet have ESM or haven’t yet experienced the changes, results, and benefits of it.

One extremely important concept for clients to know is that every motion in the body is important, relevant, and purposeful. Sometimes we move as if we don’t know this, as if some movements have meaning and others don’t. I can feel it in the tissues when a client has this kind of orientation. It is as if the client’s thought processes have decided that bending an elbow or knee is purposeful because it is accomplishing something and unbending it is irrelevant. Clients need to know that to the physical body every motion has value. In the body, bend and unbend are equally important, equally managed, and equally experienced. Feel for this type of imbalanced orientation or meaning within the client’s movements as you use ESM movement. You may find you need to explain this concept to some clients.

Often you’ll find that there is more productive change occurring when the client is doing an ESM unbend. In this case, direct the client to pay even closer attention to the movement during the unbending phase or, perhaps, have the client do repeated unbends. That might not sound logically possible. How can one unbend if one hasn’t first bent? Believe it or not, if there’s value in the unbend phase, then there is a lot of unbend that the client hasn’t yet accessed within the tissues and will find through ESM movement. If this isn’t the case for your client, then begin by passively putting the client in a slight bend and then ask for a continued unbend.

Perspectives on Why This Technique Is So Meaningful for the Tissues, the Client, and Me

  1. I believe tissues are very willing to change, but you have to ask for it slowly.
  2. I believe if a movement is done normally or done quickly, the body and tissues can only grab what they already know, so they learn nothing new.
  3. I believe far too many people, in general, are living in their large superficial muscles. I call these muscles the ‘bulldozers’ of the body. They heave, hoist, haul, punch, grab, and run. They move big, and they want to do their job quickly and be done with it. When we live in our bulldozers, there’s little room for effectiveness, efficiency, and integration, or for core and fluidness to participate. We’re stuck in ‘sleeve’ and, perhaps, we become convinced this is the only world that exists or is possible. Bulldozers try to do it all. It’s as if the body and the bulldozer muscles think


every aspect of moving and being is their job. They can even have quite an attitude, like “this is right,” “I know how to do it,” and “I am the only one who can do this job.” Underneath the bulldozers is a world of motion not available as long as the bulldozers dominate. ESM movements will allow you to immediately notice when, where, and how those large superficial muscles are dominating.

  1. ESM movements are nearly impossible for the large superficial muscles because the motions are too refined for those muscles to accomplish.
  2. During a client’s session, ESM movements keep the action in the tissues under the radar of the large superficial muscles so the bulldozers can’t and don’t engage. This allows new options for movement to be learned within the system without being overridden or drummed out by the bulldozers.
  3. ESM movements make it easier to notice when a bulldozer has engaged (both easier for me and easier for the client), so we can find ways to disengage that part of a pattern.
  4. ESM movement lets you feel, within the tissues, the nuances, hitches, glitches, and improper function of a movement or pattern. When we move fast, or move normally, these hitches and glitches remain mostly unnoticed. ESM structural work causes the glitches to be noticed. It also lets the tissues begin to resolve these restrictions. By the same token, ESM movement allows you to feel the fluidity, effortlessness, and integration (what I call the ‘deliciousness’) of those tissues when they are well-functioning.
  5. ESM movements create room for deep, refined, efficient actions/integration to wake up, shake off the habitual tensions, and begin to contribute/participate.
  6. ESM requires that the client pay attention in order to accomplish the movement.
  7. ESM also helps me (and the client) find that exact little range in which a particular restriction might exist. ESM movements back and forth through a minuscule range, can release the restriction. It often reminds me of what we do when we try to wiggle a rusty screw back and forth in order to get it to move.
  8. ESM movement lets the practitioner, and eventually the client, perceive so much more accurately what is really going on.
  9. ESM movement lets the tissues begin to resolve some of the dysfunctional p a t trs t h a t h a vrm a ie d unperceived and unresolved (and yet fully functioning) within the system.
  10. ESM movement lets clients experience a fluid and effortless world that they hadn’t previously known was possible. This, in turn, amplifies how habitual movement had been robotic, hard-working, and painful. Some clients will expand this physical experience into life learning. They will project this learning onto many other aspects of life by questioning old beliefs and seeking new ways to be.
  11. ESM can be applied to the motion of a few fibers, to a joint, across joints, or to the full structure. An example of full structure is one client’s recent session. The client was on his side and well-supported with pillows. The ESM movements were ipsilateral arm/finger reaches and leg/foot reaches as I worked the spinal groove of that same side. I felt through my work for those exact moments when he needed to discontinue an ESM arm reach, maintain the arm effortlessly in its reached position, and begin an ESM leg reach. Then, I felt through the tissues for those moments when he needed to discontinue the leg reach, maintain the leg effortlessly in its reached position, and do a further arm reach. We continued alternating ESM arm and leg reaches, reaching further each time, until one side felt complete. Then the client turned onto his other side and, supported with pillows, we repeated this. The session finished with a slight amount of neck work, just to make sure all our changes could travel through it.


When it comes to Rolf’s primary ‘how-to’ of “put it where it belongs and ask for movement,” consider ESM movement as the preferred approach. When I am connected into a client’s tissues, eighty percent of the time the movement I ask for is ESM movement. I do this for all the information it gives me, for all the awareness it gives the client, and for all the change it produces in the structural system’s capacity to release, move, function, and integrate.

Deborah Weidhaas has just completed twenty years as a Rolfer. In addition to structural integration, movement integration, and visceral manipulation, she is highly skilled in the mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects that arise for clients from our work. She lives and works in Los Gatos, California.Excruciatingly Slow Motion Movements[:]

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