Empathy and Applied Empathy through the Lens of Rolfing® SI and Actor Training

Pages: 30-32
Year: 2015
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 43 – Nº 1

Volume: 43


What brings people together? What builds lasting relationships? How can we facilitate deeper connections to clients? How do you evaluate the performance of an actor? How can empathy transform lives? How can these questions possibly be related?

In my third phase of Rolfing Structural Integration (SI) training, my teacher Ray McCall included at the top of our study materials his quote, “Rolfing [SI] is a self-taught art.” My control freak balked at this originally, though I find this statement to be true and ever-changing with each client. The basis behind this quote and my experiential understanding is the somatic relationship (relationship between mind and body). I find many emotions lie in the body, waiting for the safety to express themselves. Emotion psychologists LeDoux (2003) and Ekman (1999) agree that recalling emotions can promote physiological and biological responses, so that memories from the past can potentially arouse emotions in the present. During these occurrences, a Rolfer can employ empathy in the safe space of the studio. I find this to be the most common use of empathy in the realm of Rolfing SI. However, upon further reflection, I believe there are profound empathetic events that impact Rolfing clients as much as the Rolfing practitioners. In this article, I will explore what those relationships are by looking at actor training, Rolfing SI, and how both can be informed and affected by empathy.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is “the ability to communicate an understanding of a client’s world” (Reynolds et al. 1999, 1,177), or having the ability to feel another person’s feelings (Eisenberg et al. 2006). Similarly, performing artists practice skills of empathy when inhabiting a role (Verducci 2000) because actors are stepping into a character’s life and embodying that character’s choices and ways of being. As Rolfers, we ask questions to discover how life has impacted our clients and also witness our clients’ walk of life, literally and figuratively, through an empathetic lens. Plus, the presence of empathy allows for a more fully integrated healing because a witness (the Rolfer) supports the integration of the event. Since integration is one of the principles on which we are able to facilitate change of any form (i.e., release of traumatic holding patterns in the body), empathy would also support the evolution of alignment.

Empa t h y i se cs s a r y imay circumstances, especially when facing trauma. When my mother died suddenly after months of what I thought was recovery from a liver transplant, my life shattered. I was in the process of training as a Rolfer and had relocated to Boulder, a new place with few friends. Thankfully, a dear friend of mine from graduate school (I had graduated the year before) lived a short drive away in Denver. She came over and we sat on the stoop together in silence. I knew she could feel my pain radiating through me like a radioactive volcano. The fact that she could just be there with me, allow me to feel the largeness of my grief, and respect the depth of my pain, describes one of my more profound personal experiences of empathy. My friend understood from losses in her own life how big my pain was and was able to feel into my pain in a supportive and allowing manner.

Empathy exists on many levels, can apply to many experiences, large and small. The point is, through empathy, a person is able to begin integrating the feelings. Empathy does not always have to surround negative events, though we often recognize the presence of it more around trauma, because a larger need for empathy seems to surround devastating events. Later in this article, I will expand on the idea of empathy and how applied empathy can be transformative.

As Rolfers, every day we work with people who have unresolved trauma. We may not know it, and they may not know it. However, you may notice that a few sessions into working with a client, you have a session that seems to be profoundly impactful and organizing. I would argue that the reason for this is that a relationship has been established, and the relationship between client and Rolfer is able to be therapeutic on so many levels because successful Rolfers knowingly or unconsciously are able to practice empathy with their clients continually. Foundationally, the skill of listening without judgment fosters empathy. Even before I earned a doctorate in clinical psychology with a somatic concentration, I knew from decades as a bodywork practitioner that being present and in the moment allows the space for transformational healing. These same elements of listening, being present, and being in the moment are the cornerstone of actor training, in which I’ve trained, practiced, and taught for over twenty years.

Understanding the Actor’s Task

When I work with actors as a Rolfer, I often find these clients to have more open bodies, which seems to reflect the mind’s predilection to be open. I see a correlation between the actor’s ability to morph with ease on stage and the ability to integrate Rolfing work. An actor’s responsibility to the craft of acting is to be able to adapt and invest in endless choices and circumstances that may include physical adjustments. For example, when I was working at Tennessee Repertory Theatre doing the show W;t, the woman who played the old professor/mentor of the main character made a terrific physical choice to hunch over as if she suffered from osteoporosis with a dowager’s hump. Maintaining such an exaggerated contraction or anterior shortening of the body for ten minutes a performance, eight performances a week, can take a toll. More to the point, this actor was required to have a deep love for the main character because she was the only person who truly loved this woman – and in this scene, she knew the main character was on her deathbed. This is where Rolfing SI can come into the picture: getting sessions can help support artistic choices that are demanding on the performer, notably repetitive stress. Repetitive stress can also apply to the emotional demands of a role. (Tension is a common result of highly charged emotions in any situation, whether the person is portraying a role or not.)

An actor’s physical adjustments, as just discussed, are usually easier to perceive than her ability to remain in the moment or engaged in listening. When in the moment, a person is neither distracted with events that just happened nor concerned with things that have yet to happen. (Many philosophers would say that being in the moment is also a key to enlightenment, but I digress.) One way to clearly know that a person is not in the moment is to recognize that his attention is inward rather than outward, which implies a lack of presence in the now. As an audience member watching a stage or film performance, you may not be able to put your finger on why you don’t believe or like a performance; one possibility is that the performer may not be in the moment, which may make the performance look rehearsed or technical. Another way we realize that a person is in the moment is recognizing that he is working spontaneously with impulses: you see the person want to do something – an action – that he does, which makes the person seem more alive, real, and in the moment. When a performance is done well, all the actor’s focus and energy are poured into the role to tell the story, which should be spellbinding!

Let’s look at applied empathy through the character of Hecuba from the Greek tragedy Hecuba by Euripides. Queen Hecuba has to endure learning that her one remaining son is dead (he was entrusted to and then killed by a close friend of the family; the show opens with the ghost of her son addressing the audience), and that her daughter will be sacrificed to appease the gods. This is after losing her beloved husband and seeing her youngest child killed right in front of her. Portraying that kind of grief is exhausting. Not only does the actor have to make us believe she mourns these losses, she has to make us believe she would do anything for justice (the ancient Greeks preferred this word to what might also be called ‘revenge’). The actor must empathize with the character to produce a believable portrayal. She might also find it helpful to empathize with some of the other characters being portrayed to make the story more alive and engaging for the audience. In other words, the actor will want to play the role in such a way that the performance is true to the story while making choices that include very human vulnerabilities; this is where the audience hopes to find an inner human struggle that is relatable. This process can inspire the strongest connection from the actor to the audience (inspired by their empathy).

Applied Empathy in Acting and Rolfing SI

I see many parallels between practicing Rolfing SI and creating a relatable role as an actor through applied empathy. Both actors and Rolfers are required to research the client or character. Both must find a way to relate (to the client or to the character) to be successful. If understanding of the background and given circumstances of a client or character is ignored, that’s when either bad performances or a disappointing therapeutic relationship can occur. As Rolfers, we listen to our clients and have intake forms, which can build understanding – the underpinning of empathy. As actors, we read the play many times to learn how other characters talk about our character, examine time period and social norms that do or do not exist in the play, and filter our choices through how we would relate to being put in those circumstances (in other words, we listen to the life of the three-dimensional character who has to become a person on stage). Oftentimes the character has a fatal flaw, which harkens back to Aristotle’s requirements of good theatre. What I witness in great performances is an actor’s ability to meld the character to her person in such a way that she is able to bring out the characteristics demanded in the role. When roles are breathtakingly alive, the actor has gone a step further: through applied empathy there is a magical fusion of who the actor is and who the character becomes – they’re the same entity, the actor, but the character has forever changed and informed the life of the actor. Thus, I would define applied empathy as the ability to reach into another’s experience and feel it personally without judgment. In these conditions, the observer is emotionally touched to the degree of eliciting compassion.

I see a similar process of applied empathy in the magical transformation of the client’s pre-Rolfing body into the aligned post-Rolfing body in the most effective and transformative therapeutic relationships. The significant difference is that this exchange exists between the client’s experience of self and the Rolfer’s perception of the aligned client. Another way to say this is that the Rolfer helps bring out the client’s potential through applied empathy. I’ll give the example of a client I will call “Jane,” who when I worked with her was in her late forties and had survived breast cancer, including double mastectomies and reconstruction surgeries that went awry. Jane had been told by medical professionals that she would never be able to fully extend her arms again. Being a health professional herself, she didn’t agree with this diagnosis but, nevertheless, had little hope. When she called me with her situation, I said we would have to try at least one session to see how she responds, and my empathy was already engaged. In assessing the situation at our first session, I told Jane that I would need to work directly on the scars, and I wanted to honor her limits and boundaries (along with California laws). She looked at me for a moment, gazing directly into my eyes as if sizing me up, and said, “I’ll do whatever it takes to play volleyball again.” I understood. Using applied empathy, I could see her playing again – and so our work began. That first session was heavy for me, because I carried the weight of hope on my heart and in my hands. Intention, hope, and desire aligned to free up the First-Hour territory, indicating that we could indeed make headway through our work together. Near the end of the session, after continuous feedback from both parties, I said to Jane, “I really think you can play volleyball again. It may take about twenty sessions, but I think you respond so well to Rolfing SI that it’s possible.” I meant every word. Jane cried with relief. She told me that no one had given her hope. Through applied empathy, Jane was playing volleyball again in less than twenty Rolfing sessions. To sum it up, Jane knew there was a version of herself that would play volleyball again, and my Rolfer’s eye, heart, and hands were able to help her craft herself into that form.


Empathy and applied empathy can support tremendous emotional healing in the Rolfing studio and tremendous stage and film portrayals. Whether working as a Rolfer, acting a role, or simply being a human being, empathy allows for lasting and meaningful connections with other people, connections that ease the relentless stressors of life. As a Rolfer, I find applied empathy invaluable when working with clients. As an actor, I find applied empathy necessary to create a believable portrayal of a character as well as a nuanced and engaging performance. As a person, I find I am less angry and more congenial when I engage empathy – especially in trying conditions.

Heather Corwin PhD is a Certified Rolfer and has been practicing bodywork since 1993. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology with a somatic concentration from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and an MFA in theatre from Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory. Corwin teaches actor training at Pasadena City College and Azusa Pacific University. She runs her wellness studio (BodybyHeather.com) in Altadena, California.


Eisenberg, N., T.L. Spinrad, and A. Sadovsky 2006. “Empathy-Related Responding in Children.” In M. Killen, J.G. Smetana (Eds.) Handbook of Moral Development (pp. 517-549). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Ekman, P. 1999. “Basic Emotions.” In T. Dalgleish and M. Power, Handbook of Cognition and Emotion (pp. 40-60). New York: Wiley.

LeDoux, J. 2003. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. New York: Penguin.

Reynolds,W.J., B. Scott, and W.C. Jessiman 1999. “Empathy Has Not Been Measured in Clients’ Terms or Effectively Taught: A Review of the Literature.” Journal of Advanced Nursing, 30(5): 1177–1185.

Verducci, S. 2000. “A Moral Method? Thoughts on Cultivating Empathy through Method Acting.” Journal of Moral Education, 29(1): 87-99.Empathy and Applied Empathy through the Lens of Rolfing® SI and Actor Training[:]

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