The Art of Rolfing® SI and the Art of Sculpture, Part 1

Pages: 27-31
Year: 2017
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 45 – Nº 1

Volume: 45

Forget the anatomy and take on art and you’ll look at a body as something built around a line, a vertical line.

I came late to my ‘Line’. At age thirty-one in 1978 I underwent a Ten Series in Santa Barbara, California, with Rolfer Hal Milton, ostensibly for a back problem. I did not know at the time that that life-changing event would be a psychic divide in my life. Until that point I had been wrestling with the religious ethos of my Orthodox Judaic upbringing versus the siren call of the ‘rational’ secular life. (I got my bachelor’s degree from Yeshiva University, a men’s college for orthodox Jews, then got my master ’s degree in European intellectual history from the University of Massachusetts.) I didn’t realize that no matter what the degree of my rebellion, I was still a prisoner escaping from one room of abstract ideation to another. Ten sessions of Rolfing Structural Integration (SI) pierced that veil and suddenly my burdensome cerebral existence stood on one side and I, as a body, stood on the other.

Szaja Gottlieb

Monopolylith (wood, wire, sandstone), 1992, Art City, Ventura, California.

Some who undergo the transformative experience of Rolfing SI soon travel a path moving from client to practitioner, but I was not to complete that journey for another twenty-three years, becoming a Certified Rolfer in 2001. The intermezzo was a period in which I was a manual laborer – including construction work, carpentry, painting, truck driving, and furniture moving – as well as being an artist and sculptor. In my own mind, becoming a Rolfer years later was simply a continuation of my career switch to manual laborer.

Exchanging the pen of the scholar for the hammer and chisel of the sculptor did not happen overnight. A life-drawing class from an artist, Margaret Singer of Santa Barbara, a Holocaust survivor like my parents, proved pivotal. Her instruction to me was to put the charcoal to the paper and look at the model without looking back at the paper as the drawing developed.

This process-oriented method, which emphasized open-ended exploration, liberated me from the deadening idea that a drawing should look like what you see and instead freed my life force. Other students in the class who saw my drawings commented that the work looked like that of a sculptor, emphasizing the physical aspects of space, form, mass, weight, and density. A series of fortuitous events led me to a stone-sculpture studio a year later, and I took up the art until the mid 1990s. In so many ways being a Rolfer simply feels like a continuation of my explorations as a sculptor, but now with a human body rather than stone or other materials. Upon discovering my background, clients often ask whether I still work as a sculptor. My usual reply is, “Yes, right now, on you.” This article is an exploration of the relationship between these two art forms and how they inform one another.

Seeing and the Senses

The art of Rolfing SI and the art of sculpture are both explorations of space involving the senses of the body, the sense of seeing certainly being the dominant component. Dr. Rolf put a premium on seeing, and it was a tradition of the SI teaching model for many years to limit students to observation for a number of months before being allowed to actually put their hands on a client. Each observed session was thus an exercise in seeing spatial relationships in the body.

But Dr. Rolf’s concept of seeing was no simple affair. She suggested there were five levels of seeing derived from the ‘epistemological profile’ of French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard. The first three levels are defined by mechanical, everyday seeing based on Newtonian mechanics. The fourth type of seeing, which she called ‘relational’, is based on visualizing how various structures of the body relate to one another. Significantly, she noted that this fourth level is the appropriate dimension for the Rolfer. The fifth level of seeing is based in the intuition, which may be available to an experienced Rolfer but which is a double-edged sword in that it may also undermine the logical foundations of his/her analysis and conclusions. Dr. Rolf’s comment is instructive, “I bid you to examine your own ways of thinking and looking. What you clearly do know, as long as you can measure it, is on solid ground. The ground becomes less solid in the fourth area, and when you get into the fifth area, your feet are off the ground. Your security lies in your ability to look at these levels of abstraction and thread them apart.

Up Down/Down Up, charcoal, 1979.

It will give you a great deal more security in your intellectual and emotional life if you can do this and not simply say, ‘I feel’” (Rolf 1978, 45-47).

The Rolfer and the artist/sculptor engage physical reality, not just with the eyes but with all the senses. An artist looks at the body and draws. The line on the paper not only expresses what the eye sees but also what the body feels. All the sense organs of the body are in a sense eyes. Similarly, when a Rolfer views a body, he or she is not just seeing that structure but feeling that body through his/ her own. The more the Rolfer can feel the client through his senses while delaying cognitive conclusions to appear, the better. So says Dr. Rolf, “There are five senses and here are five ways of getting experience into you. Rolfers need to be able to focus on the level that impinges on senses. The sense of taste doesn’t really enter into it: the sense of smell sometimes enters into it, but not often. What can be seen is the most important clue; describe what is visible. Typically, we like to think quickly, to think and to infer, to get on with it. But there is too wide a gap between experience and inference. Mistakes get made” (Rolf 1978, 107). Clearly, Dr. Rolf celebrated body experience as superior to cogitation.

This body-to-body information is instrumental in evaluating not only the client but also our own work during the process of a session. In a recent interview Advanced Rolfing Instructor Michael Salveson spoke about the importance of a practitioner knowing his information system: in other words, how he or she receives information while working. “Every practitioner needs to have confidence in their data set that they use to determine whether or not the organism is actively integrating as a result of what they are doing. You can watch the nervous system or the energetic flow; or, you can watch movement. But there needs to be a way” (Gottlieb and Salveson 2016, 15). Clearly the process of an SI session between Rolfer and client is a body-to-body experience at the sensory level. Said Dr. Rolf, “When I am ‘Rolfing’, he and I form one [my italics] for at least the time that I’m working. Look and feel. You don’t need feedback, you need to look at what’s there” (Rolf 1978, 96).

The artist and Rolfer both withdraw to their place of seeing, studio or office, to engage the object. In the case of the sculptor, the object might be a piece of stone on a table or a rock large enough to be freestanding on the ground. In the case of the Rolfer, it is a human body, but I would submit, an object nevertheless. The history of science from the time of Galileo is a movement from the belief that phenomena revolve around humans to an understanding that humans are part of natural laws that govern all phenomena, including humans. And here I would like to stop for a moment to fully realize the radical implication of Dr. Rolf’s vision which I believe is underappreciated – that everything, both living and nonliving, is equal in the field of gravity. The human body thus takes on the same quality of ‘thingness’ as every object in the gravity field. Some might instinctively recoil to being classified an object, feeling perhaps their humanity is being questioned. However, I submit that the Rolfer’s first critical task is to demonstrate this ‘objectness’ to the client as it implies that he or she accepts living in the gravity field along with all other matter on earth. One might consider this acceptance as the first step of embodied awareness in the SI process.

Rolfers and sculptors both view the object with the goal of remodeling its spatial organization within the larger gravity field. As object makers and shapers, Rolfers thus have more in common with the manual laborer and craftsman than with the university professor and academic. Their proper sphere is the physical plane, not the cerebral one. This explains why Dr. Rolf many times eschewed intellectual approaches to SI, particularly in prospective Rolfers, preferring more direct handson experience. “In this culture we tend to overweight the importance of head judgments. You could make a good Rolf practitioner with a man who’s deaf, dumb, and blind, guiding his hands along. His hands could function” (Rolf 1978,179).


Ideas expressed or manifested in the physical universe are ideas embodied, and this concept of embodiment is fundamental in SI. The dictionary definition of embodiment is “a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling” or “the representation or expression of something in a tangible or visible form.” In SI, the practitioner, in his role of educator, leads the client into a greater awareness of his body in the gravitational field to manifest, for example, the Line when walking, or feeling balance through the ischial tuberosities when sitting. The essence of this concept of embodiment for a Rolfer is for the client to internalize a concept and then express it in his body structurally, particularly through movement so as to, as Rolfers often put it, ‘own the work’.

In the technological, cerebral age we live in, with computers, cell phones, etc., the clients who walk through our doors are often disconnected and disembodied. During SI sessions, clients often ask the practitioner for help to define their experience. Our job at this critical point, according to Dr. Rolf, is to refer them back to their own physical sensation. “It is very important to make the person being ‘Rolfed’ realize he is the one who can do the feeling about what has happened to him. So many people are still asking, ‘What should I feel?’ I say to them, ‘Well, who the heck knows what you should feel except you. I can’t feel what you feel.’ It’s very important with some people to shift their attention and get their agreement to take responsibility for themselves” (Rolf 1978, 58).

Similarly, the client’s complaints can be presented to the client as an invitation to engage, to listen, and to reintegrate with a body that he or she may relate to only if there is pain. This reintegration with his or her body, this body embodiment, is no small matter; it seeks to address and resolve a fundamental division in Western culture between mind and body. And, it mirrors the attempts of phenomenological thought in the twentieth century to bridge this great divide between mind and body that, as practitioners, we see clients display every day in our workspace.

Embodiment is quintessential in art in two ways. First, the thoughts and emotions within the artist are transferred into the physical universe, in different media such as stone, clay, paint, or, as a dancer might, with his or her body. Second, the human body, whether in the work of Michelangelo or the more contemporary Picasso, is the central symbol, the touchstone, of all art as far back as we can trace it, even to the Paleolithic cave paintings in France and Spain. We even refer to the artist’s output as a ‘body of work’, an interesting counterpoint to the bodywork of the Rolfer.

Sacral Vision, onyx, 1980.

However, the body as a repository of values, as a truth, has been traditionally looked upon with suspicion by the value drivers of civilization, philosophy, and religion, even to the point of religious prohibitions on creating images based on the human body in Judaism and Islam. This divide between body/mind, and this deep distrust of the body in religion and philosophy as a repository of truth, deeply embedded in Western culture, was recognized by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century. Some of Nietzsche’s comments about the body are notable in their defense of the body as a source of truth and inspiration:

“My genius in my nostrils.”1

“There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”2

“Body am I entirely and nothing more; the soul is only the name of something in the body.”3

Though we as Rolfers may not realize it, I believe that one of the critical tasks for SI is to restore the body as a touchstone of truth and what one might call a reality generator within our society.


Besides being material, the body is of space and in space. Ostensibly the art of practicing Rolfing SI on a body and the art of sculpting a stone would seem to be analogous in that both the Rolfer and sculptor are shaping material to realize form potential. As Rolfers we might refer to this as plasticity. However, the primary relationship begins not with the becoming of the material but with the being of the object in space. The primary relationship is thus not between Rolfer and client, or sculptor to stone, but of object to surrounding space.

We experience this interaction when we visit an artist’s studio or a gallery or museum. The art work, sculpture, or painting sits within a cleansed spatial setting, removed from the distraction of the world, offering the possibility of experiencing the physical world in a new way. The client, similarly, stands or moves within the space of the Rolfer’s office, removed from the usual artifacts and usual human relationships, and is given an opportunity to experience his physical existence differently as a result of changes in his spatial organization. Even the changes the Rolfer performs on the client lying on the table are not activated until the client stands erect and vertical in space, once more in the gravity field, which is why Dr. Rolf said that gravity, not the Rolfer, was the therapist (Rolf 1978, 87).

It may be said that Rolfing SI is about simple things that are overlooked, simple things like the constants of the gravitational field or breathing. The physical location and orientation of the body might be considered another one of these overlooked factors. There is a famous work, a triptych, by the French painter Gaugin, painted in 1897, entitled, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? – valuable questions in considering our identity. But, perhaps, the key question in discovering ourselves in terms of identity is missing, “Where are we?” In practical terms, where is our body at the present moment in space?

Spatial awareness as a key to knowing self and identity is a relatively new idea in psychology. “Who we are might be integrated with where we are and impact how we move through space” (Proulx et al, 2016). Asking clients where they live will usually elicit the street address of their home, but if you remind them of the present body that they entered this world with and the very same body that they will leave when they expire, their concept of ‘home’ is immediately and dramatically altered.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous drawing of the Vitruvius Man, which can also be referred to as the Vitruvian Compass, expresses this directional spatial awareness The ten-session series thus can be presented as a series of sessions to reorganize the client’s directional awareness of space: the first session, up or north pole; the second session, down or south pole; the third session, sides; the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh sessions, center (lower), center, center, center (upper), respectively.

The idea behind this spatial awareness model is simple enough: it’s difficult to go anywhere if you don’t know where you are starting from. Also its corollary: without an embodied awareness of gravity, direction is difficult to find. Ostensibly, Vitruvius Man is about the proportions of the human body as applied to architecture. But when you look closely there is much more. The feet stand on a square, an ancient symbol of the earth, and the figure is inscribed within a circle, a symbol for the cosmos, indicating, as in our own work, the relationship between structure, integration, and higher consciousness.


Szaja Gottlieb first received Rolfing sessions in 1978, which resulted in him becoming a stone sculptor, which, in turn, led to his becoming a Rolfer in 2001. He lives with his wife Ko and daughter Judith in Los Osos, California and practices in San Luis Obispo. He believes in the transformational potency of SI.

Author’s Notes

Part 2, “The Art of Rolfing SI and the Art of Sculpture: Ground and Transformation” will be forthcoming in a future issue.

Though I have only scanned it, I want to mention Advanced Rolfing Instructor Dr. Jeffrey Maitland’s latest book, Embodied Being, as it discusses, probably with greater depth, some of the topics in this paper.

In regards to the topic of the ten-session series and sensory awareness, Certified Advanced Rolfer Dr. Ed Maupin has covered this topic more extensively in his writings on expansional balance. See “Expansional Balance and the ‘Line’”, which was published in the June 2014 issue of Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute® 42(1):19-21.


1. Nietzsche: www.azquotes.com/ quote/365108

2. Nietzsche: www.goodreads.com/ quotes/68916-there-is-more-wisdom-inyour-body-than-in-your)

3. Nietzsche: http://kindlequotes.tumblr. com/post/11571318902/body-am-i-entirelyand-nothing-more-and-soul-is


Gottlieb, S. and M. Salveson 2016 (Sept). “Burning Man, Part 2: Continuing the Interview with Michael Salveson.” Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute® 44(3):14-18.

Proulx, M. et al. 2016. “Where am I? Who am I? The Relation Between Spatial Cognition, Social Cognition and Individual Differences in the Built Environment.” Frontiers in Psychology 7:64. (Published online; available at http://journal.frontiersin. org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00064/full.)

Rolf, Ida P, 1978. Rolfing and Physical Reality. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.The Art of Rolfing® SI and the Art of Sculpture, Part 1[:]

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