Gravity’s high priestess, Ida Rolf, discovered that she could transform the universal field of the earth from foe to friend. She ignored the popular assumption that the passage from birth to death is a steady deterioration of the body due to the downward pull of gravity. She discovered that a body whose large segments are organized about gravity’s plumb line can be supported by the earth. Physical life then becomes not a drag but a new source of energy.
Aging becomes a gradual appropriation of one’s own wealth of experience instead of a process of painful deterioration.
A woman once told me she had been Rolfed by a man whose name I didn’t know. She said he was trained in Morocco. I said she definitely wasn’t Rolled; Rotting is as American as a McDonald’s hamburger. Its most esoteric source was learned in the Bronx, where Ida Rolf took yoga classes in her younger days.
Ida Rolf is an eighty-year old triple Taurus from the Bronx. She looks like a Druid: short, with heavily muscled arms and gnarled hands showing the imprint of the forty years of bodies into which they have plunged. Like most eighty-year-olds who have founded a school of thought with many loving disciples, she’s often grumpy and authoritarian…
When she speaks from her center however, her wisdom is as powerful as any guru’s. There are mornings when she arrives at class looking sleepy eyed, seeming to have prepared nothing. Someone asks a question. We suddenly find ourselves transported into a profound trip linking the fascial network of the body with world history.
In 1920, Ida earned her Ph. D. in biochemistry at Columbia and went to work at the Rockefeller Institute until 1928. Like a true New Yorker, she explored the local healing market, hatha yoga, different forms of body movement, and esoteric philosophy. Her young son had been born with a problem spine that physicians could not help. Seeking elsewhere, she encountered naturopaths, osteopaths, practitioners of radiasthesia, spiritual healers, and yogic physicians. As she began to apply to her family what she was learning, she discovered she could radically alter their bodies. She began to experiment with other bodies and trained her son, Dick, to assist her. Those early years set the pattern for the rest of her life, which she would spend traveling from, pillar to post” (as she often says wearily), living out of suitcases, working on the discomforts of mankind. In an instance typical of those early years, she traveled in a snowstorm all the way from Long Island to work on the stiff back of a countess living at the Waldorf Astoria. She gratefully received five dollars for her two hours’ work.
In the early 1960’s, Dorothy Nolte, one of the hand full of people Ida had trained, met Fritz Perls at a conference in Los Angeles. He had been given a few months to live because of a heart condition. Dorothy gave him a first session of Rolfing, telling him about Ida, whom he immediately invited to Esalen. She packed her bags, leaving her West Side apartment, and overnight became a star of the newly born human potential movement. She was encouraged to organize her knowledge in a way that could be taught systematically. She started teaching small groups of practitioners–twelve to fifteen a year–until by her eightieth birthday in May, 1976, there were a hundred and fifty practitioners, a staff of well-trained teachers, and a sophisticated program of continuing education. A number of research projects are in progress…
Like all the geniuses of history, Ida got a very simple insight that unraveled a web of confusion: (1) consider the body as an aggregate of large masses (head, shoulders. trunk, belly, pelvis, legs, and feet) traveling through the field of gravity; (2) realize that the relation between those masses can be changed because of the plasticity of connective tissue: (3) notice that the body functions best at every level (physiologically, mechanically, emotionally, spiritually) when the centers of gravity of the segments are aligned with the plumb line of gravity, balanced front to back and side to side. “So get your hands in that body,” she often says. ”Stop thinking and get to work.” That’s all there is to it.
Editor’s Note: This is a portion taken from the book The Protean Body by Don Johnson, published by Harper & Row, 1977. $5.95 paperback edition.Ida P. Rolf… A Portrait in Words