Human Doings of Human Beings

Pages: 43-45
Year: 2017
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 45 – Nº 1

Volume: 45

Anne Hoff: Heidi, you’re active as both a Rolfer and a lawyer. Aren’t those radically different professions?

Heidi Massa: Not really. Right after finishing my training as a Rolfer, I mentioned the new career direction to a medical psychiatrist I know. His astute reply: “It doesn’t matter. Either way, you straighten people out.”

AH: So – do you agree with him?

HM: Absolutely. The main idea that informs how I practice both law and Rolfing® Structural Integration (SI) is rectification. That means moving from disorder to order; from disharmony to agreement and congruence. It’s about putting things right. That’s just what I do.

AH: What other concepts from law come over to your Rolfing practice?

HM: Rectification isn’t a concept from the law. It’s an aesthetic that informs my particular legal practice. It can also inform SI, architecture, interior design, gardening, writing, and a host of other fields one might think of – but those are a few I happen to care about.

AH: What did you do first – law or SI?

HM: I think SI came first. My mom tells a story about my first real words: as an infant, I was crawling around on a floor of agedegraded 12×12 tiles. I stuck the pointed end of a pencil into the tiny space where four tiles met, and when the pencil stood straight up, I exclaimed, “How nice!” So there you have it – an infant’s recognition of support in the field of gravity. By grade school, they say, I was remarking to friends and acquaintances about posture – stuff like, “Why are you always looking at the ground when you walk? Why don’t you stand up straight and look where you’re going?”

Heidi Massa

Anne Hoff

AH: So when did law come into the picture? HM: Early grade school. Childhood was a chaotic experience for me; and very early on I discovered the organizing power of language. As a kid I got preternaturally good at language. Law, like philosophy, is an instantiation of that – organizing the world through language. So even as a kid, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.

AH: What did you study in college?

HM: Officially, political philosophy – but at the University of Chicago in the 1970s they let you study pretty much whatever you wanted. For me, one thread was the purposive nature of living beings, including humans. In that regard, two modern authors stand out. Philosopher Erwin Straus (1952) wrote a remarkable essay on the meaning of the upright posture and what it tells us about how humans should be in the word. Zoologist Adolf Portmann (1952) describes his book Animal Forms and Patterns as a study of the appearance of animals. He explores the meaning of animal gestalt, and of what we can learn about the essential nature of an animal just by looking at it. These authors’ inquiries are scientific and philosophical, but also aesthetic. And they’re fundamentally Aristotelian – both the authors and the questions of form they’re exploring. So there’s SI again – and then I went to University of Chicago Law School and became an attorney focused on complex business litigation. That was a full-time gig for nearly ten years.

AH: How did SI come into the picture as formal study?

HM: That’s funny – and also too long of a story here – but it’s always been in the background. In our culture, anybody with a big left brain who can string a sentence together is shunted into being an information worker – regardless of whether that suits the animal. At one point, the need for physical labor and manual work became clear to me, so the question was what kind.

Now even though my law practice never had anything to do with bodies – no personal injury, and no medical malpractice – I had these laminated anatomical charts behind my credenza and staff members would come to my office and say, “Heidi, I hurt my whatziz-whoziz . . . what should I do?” And they’d always want me to touch them.

Maybe it’s atavistic. My dad was a gifted orthopedic surgeon who thought surgery was usually a bad idea – but he’d tell you he was “the best cast man in Denver,” and probably was because he grooved on bone setting and other minimally invasive restoration techniques. In fact, he taught in the medical school there how to set complex fractures by feel without cutting the patient. And when there was no choice but to cut, it was always, “Take it back to where the body’s still good and build out from there.”

AH: I’d like to take a step back to those fields you said can be informed by an aesthetic of rectification. These areas can be pretty subjective. How can you go about ‘putting things right’ in something like design? Isn’t what’s ‘right’ more a question of taste?

HM: Not at all. Taste is what someone happens to like – not what’s good or what’s right. Whether I prefer blueberry pie to cherry pie is a question of personal taste – and the answer, whatever it is, says exactly nothing about whether fruit pie is good food. We like lots of stuff we wouldn’t call good in the sense of being excellent, advisable or suitable.

AH: Okay – but it seems hard to call any one thing more ‘right’ than another in an aesthetic sense, don’t you think?

HM: I disagree. There’s often more than one way to be right, but there are myriad ways to be wrong. Just walk down the street and you see wrong all over all the time – but you see right only once in a while.

Last month I was planting a parkway bed outside my Mies van der Rohe condo building. The bed has a tree in the middle of it. It was just diagonal lines of plants – two purple and one white, over and over – but because it’s outside a Mies building (Mies began his career as a bricklayer), the lines had to be oriented strictly with respect to abstract space. A neighbor came to help and installed the plants where I’d placed them – but in her mind the lines oriented on the tree. Her section looked pretty cool – it had a curved surface like a Grant Wood painting – but it had to come out because in that context it just wasn’t right.

The point is to have the ability to recognize a right option and the willingness to choose one. At the margins, it becomes an ethical question.

AH: So how does it play out in the therapeutic relationship with your SI clients? Are you defining what is ‘right’ for the client, imposing it from outside? Wouldn’t that be authoritarian?

HM: That would be – but that’s the opposite of what I do: I tell every one of them on the first walkabout, “You’re the one who’s lived in that body for however many years and knows what right is.” So there’s nothing authoritarian in the sense of me telling the client how things should be. In fact, when the client asks me if some structural or functional thing is ‘right’, my response is, “Why ask me?”

AH: So the client has the answer?

HM: Of course. My job is to guide the client to find at least one instantiation of right and to recognize it.

AH: How do you get clients to that place?

HM: The starting point is helping the client get who and what he is – as an upright human being in general and a unique individual in particular. Then I guide the client to find ways to be more right in the sense of being more his better self. Of course, where any one of us is at any particular time is somewhere on an asymptote with respect to the ideal of being rightly.

AH: So there are limitations and you work within those to get the best you can?

HM: Or the best they can – exactly.

AH: What’s your tactical approach?

HM: Show and tell: I show – in the sense of shining a light on what’s happening – and the client tells. Once the client observes and perceives his own experience, telling it – putting it into language – crystallizes it. So language is a self-organizing tool. The conversation with the client is a giveand-take, an iterative process, the same kind of Socratic process I learned in college, the same kind of conversation I’d have in prepping a witness.

AH: So your Sl process is similar to what you do as a lawyer?

HM: Sure – in many ways it’s the same thing. As a lawyer, I take in a big tangled mess of data and put out a clean, coherent narrative. It takes an instinct for the jugular, which sounds a lot like, “Find the most obvious restriction and go from there.” It also takes an eye for the incongruent, for where the story doesn’t add up, which is the same idea we use in body reading. In both fields, the points of incongruence show you conflict, and working through the conflict, rectifying it, reveals what’s true.

And that circles back to language as an organizing principle: whether I’m working with a Rolfing client, a deposition witness, a space to be designed, or even an author of a Journal article [Editor’s note: Heidi has been on our editorial team for more than fifteen years], there’s nothing more important than articulation of what’s right – or to say it another way, what’s true. “Tell me what” and “Tell me why” – asked in that order – have enormous power to get to the essence of things. And when we do get to it, we can feel it.

AH: You mentioned that at the margins, the aesthetic we’re discussing can be an ethical question. What do you mean by that?

HM: Ethics is about how to be in the world. We can’t go there without first answering, “Be what?” Being an upright human makes demands very different from being, say, a lizard. The demands are inherent in each of us as instantiations of the form we call human. SI is all about this. As our colleague Dr. Karl Humiston would say, there’s a blueprint of perfection in every human being, and as Rolfers we evoke clearer instantiation of it in each of our clients. If we don’t keep this idea somewhere in the background, our work might still be helpful at some level – but it won’t be particularly interesting and certainly won’t be very meaningful.

AH: So with SI we are talking about the human species. How do you address each client’s unique situation and attributes?

HM: You mean moving from what kind to which one? From a human to this particular human?

AH: Exactly.

HM: Most of the time, though not always, the client has some particular focus or theme that we can get him to notice and articulate. Maybe the client repeatedly solves the same problem or gets over the same obstacle, as it shows up in different flavors or guises. Maybe the client continually instantiates, in a variety of different situations, a single archetype or ideal. In other words, maybe the client is a one-trick pony – and there’s a good argument to be made that each of us is just that, that each of us really does only one thing, but in many ways – like a behavioral fractal.

AH: Is the idea to help clients escape repeating patterns? To develop more tricks?

HM: No, because if we tried that, we’d fail. There’s not necessarily any choice in the matter. We’re not only particular human beings, but also particular human doings – and the doing is inseparable from the being. The thing is, when a person recognizes his one trick, it’s a very powerful lens for detecting both opportunities and pitfalls.

We can use me as an example. Since my one trick is rectification, I’m drawn to opportunities to straighten stuff out – particularly by guiding others to articulate their truths, which is what I do as a lawyer and as a Rolfer. Beyond that, in our SI community, for instance, I look for colleagues with great ideas who have a hard time getting them on paper, and I help them to do that; and I serve on the Ethics and Business Practices Committee at the Rolf Institute® – which is the best job going, by the way, because its process, which I wrote back in 1997, requires getting things totally straight.

On the flip side, knowing my trick lets me stand back and recognize that just because I can put something right doesn’t mean I have to. I don’t have to jump into every steaming vat of silly string in my path and untangle it.

AH: You try to pick your battles?

HM: Yes. I’m trying to stay out of those that aren’t worth the aggravation.

AH: You called the Ethics Committee “the best job going.” Why is that?

HM: We’re the fire department without the sirens. Because fortunately we don’t have much to do in the Rolfing community, hardly anybody has even heard of us; but when needed, it’s a dirty job that somebody has to do and we’re remarkably good at doing it. The Ethics Committee exists to protect the Rolf Institute – period. But the Institute is protected when its members behave well – which helps both the members and their clients, and at the same time protects the public. Totally aligned interests. With rectification, everybody wins.

AH: We’ve talked about helping clients to recognize their tricks, as you call it. But what about practitioners? Should we be identifying our own?

HM: Absolutely. First off, to know your trick – or raison d’être, or calling, if anyone would prefer one of those terms – is to know your sweet spot, which helps you choose the clients you can help the most and refer out the rest. So when the client’s big focus is to improve his triathlon time, I accept that his concern just doesn’t interest me and send him to someone else. Everybody wins.

But more important, when we know what it is we really do, we can distinguish what we are doing, on the one hand, from how we’re doing it, on the other hand. Now for our readers here, even though the what is personal and individual, the how of SI is the same for all of us: it’s basically a discipline of working in the connective-tissue matrix and the perceptual systems to improve structure and function in gravity. So when that psychiatrist told me that I’d “straighten people out,” he was commenting on what I, Heidi, would be doing as a Rolfer – and not on the nature of the work itself.

AH: Why is that distinction important?

HM: Because each of us needs some modesty and sense of place. We need to avoid conflating our personal shtick with the work itself. Otherwise there will be a big mess . . .

AH: . . . that you’ll be tempted to straighten out?

HM: You got it.

AH: How would I identify my trick?

HM: Notice what you do over and over. Discern the patterns, draw the analogies, and find the universals of which the particulars are instantiations. Or else just ask your oldest and closest friends.

AH: Would our profession benefit from more of us making that inquiry?

HM: I should think so, since making it involves discriminating the personal from the general and cleaning up our perception and language accordingly.

Take the adage, “If the only thing in your toolbox is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” and turn it inside out: “If what you do is drive nails, then everything in your toolbox looks like a hammer” – to you. After my dad closed his human restoration practice of orthopedic surgery, he started treating rare books. In the bookbinding shop at the back of the house, he still used the old familiar tools – the scalpels, clamps, scissors, suture, whatever – but since his new patients didn’t benefit much from plaster, he added a nipping press and some other book-specific stuff to his restorer’s tool box. My point is that the surgical tools remained surgical tools – even though he deployed them to restore books.

And one time my elderly and way-too-dotty dentist needed a smooth bit for burnishing a gold restoration. When he could find only regular barbed drill bits, he ran out and returned with a frigging carpenter’s hammer, of all things, and announced, “This will work fine!” Imagine . . . Even though he used the hammer as a dental implement – if only to burn the barbs off the regular drill bit so he could use it for burnishing – the hammer stayed a hammer.

So, whatever the practitioner’s particular trick happens to be, SI remains SI and doesn’t morph into something else by virtue of sitting in that guy’s toolbox.

AH: How would that idea affect how we talk about and think about SI?

HM: Well for starters, maybe Rolfers who see themselves as ‘healers’ could spare us their insistence that SI is a species of healthcare – or, God help us, ‘alternative medicine’ – before they bring a supersized ration of regulatory crap down on our heads. That they do their health-care worker’s or healer’s trick through SI doesn’t make SI ‘health care’. And maybe the ones who come from massage could refrain from calling SI a type of ‘deep-tissue bodywork’. ‘Bodywork’ is what they do – not what SI is. The engineers, mechanics, and others in Hephaestus’ camp – bless their hearts, I’d be a wreck without their fine work – stay pretty quiet. They don’t need much external validation, so they rarely bloviate or toot their horns or otherwise make an issue of their worldview.

We do have a few shrinks and shamans among us who believe that SI is a form of somatic psychology, emotional release, whatever. Two of my instructors in what was the precursor to today’s Phase I were from that tribe. Just because one might like to practice psychology or shamanism or induce catharses or visions or whatever through SI doesn’t mean that’s what SI is – and anyone who says it is will just scare off the poor guy whose back has been hurting for twenty years and he just wants it to stop already.

There are lots of other examples, but those are a few. Meanwhile I won’t insist to our colleagues or to the public that SI is an existential and ontological inquiry into how to be more fully human in our bodies – even though that’s what my clients and I do.

AH: In closing, how is this interview an example of what you do?

HM: Open a door to cleaning up an existential discussion and I’ll walk right through it. Just can’t help myself . . . Thanks for the opportunity!

AH: Thank you!

Heidi Massa, a Brazil-trained Certified Advanced Rolfer and Rolf Movement Practitioner, has been guiding the somatic adventures of the discerning, the curious, and the brave since 1994. She has served on the Rolf Institute’s Ethics and Business Practices Committee for twenty years, and been an editor for this Journal since 2000. While Chicago is home to both her Rolfing and complex business litigation practices, as well as to her architectural and interior and landscape design interests, Heidi travels frequently to Colorado, where she maintains a fine pre-War home in impeccably original style, hikes in the mountains, and dances the tango.

Anne Hoff is a Certified Advanced Rolfer in Seattle, Washington.


Portmann, A. 1952 Animal Forms and Patterns: A Study of the Appearance of Animals. New York: Schocken Books.

Straus, E. 1952 (Jan). “The Upright Posture.” The Psychiatric Quarterly 26(1):529-561Human Doings of Human Beings[:]

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