In our effort to grow in the practice and understanding of Rolfing Structural Integration (SI) we may often ask ourselves the questions: where am I, who am I, and where am I going? These questions can expand to include SI in general and our teaching institutions. Speaking and thinking about our work in terms of anatomy is simpler and more easily agreed upon than its psychological and spiritual dimensions, the latter being a more intangible field. They were important to Dr. Rolf, as she was both a scientist and a mystic. Even as a young woman she studied yoga, a path of spiritual transformation, when it was almost unknown in the West (Love 2010). As these fields are very close to my heart and have been important to me most of my life – as they are to many of us – I want to explore and stake out some landmarks in that vast territory, as others have done, to expand our conversations about our work. Ultimately, a big part of who we are to ourselves and to others is the story we tell about who we are.
Dr. Rolf developed her system and shared it with osteopaths and chiropractors for many years with little traction until she went to Esalen where people saw its potential for personal transformation. I use the term ‘transformation’ interchangeably with ‘evolution’, ‘growth’, and ‘consciousness- raising’, as they mean the same in my vocabulary. Werner Erhard, creator of EST® and a very influential pioneer in personal transformation, promoted it for that purpose and recommended it to all his students. I heard that in the early days of Rolfing SI you could go to a city and tell the local est office that you were a Rolfer in town and you would immediately have a full schedule.
J.G. Bennett invited Dr. Rolf to England in the 1950s to teach her work. He was a brilliant thinker and dedicated much of his life to personal evolution and to the evolution of humanity. Like Dr. Rolf, he was a scientist and a mystic. His autobiography Witness (1962/1983) is a very interesting book. The two of them must have had some great conversations. He founded a school in the US at Claymont, West Virginia, where the Rolf Institute® now gives classes. The first owners and builders on the land were in the family of George Washington (the current mansion was built by his grand-nephew), so I like to think there is some connection here between our lineage and the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with which this nation was created.
Personal transformation is an important part of Dr. Rolf’s SI. Without it we have less to differentiate ourselves from massage therapists, physical therapists, chiropractors, and osteopaths, and the differences between them and us could become minimized over time. Dr. Rolf saw her work as a contribution to the evolution of humanity. In the last chapter of her book Rolfing: The Integration of Human Structures she summed up her work and wrote:
Our personal evolutionary potential lies with us. Originally, this was the message of mystics and occultists. At this point, it is being documented in the changes brought about by Structural Integration. The practitioner of Structural Integration separates the confusion of random fascial structure and re-relates it around a vertical line with new appropriateness. The result is a spectrum of subjective experiences that throw light on conceptual formulations of earlier cultural ideas. The latter, in turn, offer additional keys to understanding our results (Rolf 1978, 285).
This kind of evolution of the material body, accessible to anyone, is a start on the road. There may be other evolutions possible of man – of the “finer body” of the occultists, of the group body, of others yet unsuspected (Rolf 1977, 292).
She saw her work as moving humanity forward in our evolution, both individually and as a species – that our work was on the whole human being, at all levels including physical, emotional, mental, and energy fields. In the book Ida Rolf Talks About Rolfing and Physical Reality she is quoted:
Rolfing [SI] is not primarily a psychotherapeutic approach to the problems of humans, but the effect it has had on the human psyche has been so noteworthy that many people insist on so regarding it. Rolfing [SI] is an approach to the personality through the myofascial collagen components of the physical body. It integrates and balances the so-called “other bodies” of man, metaphysically described as astral and etheric, now more modernly designated as the psychological, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects. The amazing psychological changes that appeared in Rolfed individuals were completely unexpected. They inevitably suggest that behavior on any level reflects directly the physical energy level of the initiating physical structure . . . . Rolfing [SI] postulates on the basis of observation that a human is basically an energy field operating in the greater energy of the earth; particularly significant is that energy known as the gravitational field. (Rolf 1978, 26-27).
At this moment, we have perhaps wider and more sophisticated resources to think and express understandings in the arenas she was interested in. We can make more distinctions and have a more expanded world to play in than she did in the middle of the 1900s.
Integrating Ideas of Evolution into Our Work
There is the concept of a mission statement that each business should have. It clarifies what its aims are. In Rolfing SI, it is much like our concept of the ‘Line’. It is the center of who we are on many levels upon which we build and orient ourselves; the Line can be a profound concept. Perhaps if she had written one, Dr. Rolf’s mission statement might have been: I am contributing to human evolution, both personal and cultural, by organizing people’s physical, emotional, and energetic bodies around a central line in relationship to gravity. And I am creating a system to teach others how to make that contribution.
As for my own personal mission statement, it is evolving. A question comes up as to how big do I dare make it? We can keep it to ourselves, but I think it is good to lean toward grander and express it to reveal all of it or at least an aspect of it to the public. I can at least say that part of my mission statement is that my clients experience the joy, healing, and well-being that comes from experiencing the flow of their life energy more strongly as their structure becomes more integrated around their Line, and around who they are. As I have clarified that in myself, I have brought that focus more intentionally into my work. A mission statement describes: where am I, who am I, where am I going? It tells the world that, but even more importantly it tells our own self that. In Rolfing: The Integration of Human Structures Dr. Rolf writes:
Structural Integration involves fascial change. The pain of fascial change is transitory; the minute the pressure is removed, the “pain” is gone. In a majority of people, the quality of the drama changes abruptly and surprisingly into a feeling of physical lightness and joyousness. This is entirely different from the residual “pain” following hurt or damage of some sort . . . The sensation following fascial intervention . . . is a “high”, a sense of great well-being enveloping the individual totally (Rolf 1977, 283).
I am giving more importance to the feeling of well-being and joy because I have come to believe that these qualities are of great significance; that they are indications of our natural, ideal state, where our bodies are organized around our Line and experiencing that integration. Well-being and joy is the experience of that alignment and is the energetic and emotional nourishment guiding us in the direction of healing.
Later in this article I describe the Ten Series session by session as seen from a psychological and spiritual perspective, or transformative perspective as hinted at in the saying: “The first three sessions are about ‘Where am I?’, the next four, ‘Who am I?’, and the last three, ‘Where am I going?’” First I will go through session one in detail and show how I work in alignment from this perspective. The first session is opening the door to a new sense of who we are and to new possibilities.
We start with the intake. I work with the client’s goals for the work – to be expressed positively such as changing the wording from ‘less pain’ into ‘feel good’. Instead of running from something negative, we are moving toward a positive feeling or potential. We may evolve the goal into ‘feel wonderful’, ‘enjoy my life’, or ‘be able to enjoy specific things I want to do’ – creating a positive vision is a key step towards empowerment and healing. Our work is to keep the client moving toward that vision, step by step.
Rather than just wanting the client’s pain to go away, we want to move forward toward new possibilities. People tend to focus on their pain and malfunctions, which is often why they come to us. I have come to see that shifting towards positive goals as mentioned above, and noticing the accomplishment of steps forward, is more empowering and healing. Paying attention to what is seemingly wrong with them, even if they believe something is, or other people have told them there is, even if they want me to tell them what is, is something I see as disempowering and not contributing to a positive vision of possibilities. It shifts the power to me as the practitioner rather than to them. Healing is about reclaiming our power and self-worth and I want to have everything I do support that.
I begin with an arm and shoulder as a small and contained area for clients to experience the effects of the work, and it is a great place for our bodies, energy fields, and touch to meet. They can compare arms after one is done and I will ask what they notice; after their response, I will point out things that I would hope they notice, and to see how far they can take their awareness – noticing new perceptions is an important part of the work. I may ask: if a difference is noticed between the arms, whether one feels warmer, has better circulation, more energy flow, a sense of lightness, more presence and aliveness, more possibility of self-expression, a sense of well-being? When we feel good our body feels like its composed of energy rather than that we are dragging around 100-plus pounds of flesh. I may say that this energy, lightness, aliveness, or wellness is our natural state that we are trying to restore through this work. We are removing the restrictions that have accumulated and were hindering this natural state.
Understanding that well-being is natural is more empowering to them than that it is something I did. In this state of well-being, healing is possible and likely. Without our awareness of the life energy and well-being flowing, we just shift around our symptoms from one condition to another and do not get to the source of healing. It is our connection to the restorative life energy that heals our condition. Without it we tend to slowly degenerate and may blame it on aging or other things. It can lead to feelings of discouragement and lack of hope. Experiencing this new sense of aliveness on an arm is opening a hole in the proverbial dam of stuckness, which is a longtime habit of disconnection from our natural wellness. By re-experiencing our well-being, life energy and freedom can begin to flow. Expanding the size of this break in the dam is an important part of future work.
I then move on to work with the other arm, shoulder, then the chest. After doing one side I ask clients if they notice more space to breathe there. After work with the hips, legs, and some seated back work, I then ask if it feels different and if they are finding it easier to sit. If so, and if they feel a ‘lift’ – which may include an upward or expanded flow of energy, lightness, ease of sitting erect (most clients do notice such lift) – we expand that sensation as I work with more of the back, neck, and shoulders. Near the end most are feeling the lift quite strongly and a significant reduction in discomfort, pain, or tightness. Expanding their awareness to include noticing further qualities of that lift with words such as ‘buoyancy’, ‘freedom’, ‘lightness’, and ‘joy’, it is explained that these qualities are our natural state that we are working to recover; that young children often feel these things.
At times, I add an additional perception by asking whether they feel an expansion in their chest along with the sensations felt elsewhere. If they do, I explain that these feelings and ‘lift’ are just their own energy, and they can do whatever they choose with it. No one else has any say over it. I ask them to expand the feeling out in front of them and then to fill the whole room with it, that they can expand it as far as they want or bring it in; they have complete freedom with it. This buoyant, free, joyful, expansive energy is who we really are; we have mistakenly come to think that we are the thoughts in our head. This first experience is reinforced in every succeeding session.
I feel that to get clients to some experience of their natural well-being, energy, and joy is a good first session and foundation for the rest of the series. As a yoga teacher said at the end of this session: “I have been teaching about this energy for years, but this is the first time I have actually clearly experienced it”. Some clients do not get much of what I am hoping for, and many exceed my expectations. I feel that healing must come from well-being, and being able to have clients experience this new sense of lightness and a relief from pain and restrictions gives them a great boost toward a new sense of possibility of that. A client wrote in a testimonial: “I would like to express my gratitude for all the good Rolfing work you did for my body and spirit. After each of your great Rolfing bodywork treatments, I have felt re-energized. Hours and even days after the Rolfing [session], the sheer joy of well-being would make me stop what I was doing (in my quite busy life) to ponder why I was feeling so good (and well), when I would realize that it was my body rebounding to a state of inner energy that I used to feel quite often. It is a wonderful feeling and I can only imagine the many beneficial ramifications that will continue to ripple through my life. So very many thanks for your wonderful work.”
One client, a healer and shaman, is an unofficial representative of the Brazilian spiritual healer John of God, who people from all over the world visit, both in Brazil and at the Omega Center in New York. Several times a year she takes people to him in Brazil for healing. During her Ten Series with me she exclaimed: “This work is right up there with John of God.”
Many clients cannot retain the experience, perhaps even as a memory, but we can reinforce it and renew it each session. As that has become more clearly my goal, I can more clearly hold that in my sessions. The search for well-being gets more and more individualized as the Ten Series, and client, unfolds and progresses.
I am contributing some of my understanding that has arisen in the practice of Dr. Rolf’s work from where I am, with my unique perspective. Other people are contributing theirs, based on what we have been given and what we can understand. Dr. Rolf’s legacy is growing and expanding, flourishing in this time and place. I am not suggesting that my viewpoint should be copied; I only want to open the conversation a bit and hope that more people will feel free to contribute. As our culture and we evolve, we need to keep our conversation, context, and space expanding so that our work can always be new and vital.
Thank you, Dr. Rolf, for your brilliant, creative gift to humanity.
The Ten Series
Session One is opening the door to a new sense of who we are and to new possibilities. I start with the arms, a place where people first connect and reach out to each other and the world. It is a mutual place. Here we open a hole in the dam of ‘stuckness’ so that life energy and freedom can begin to flow. Future work is about expanding the size of this break in that dam. Clients get a first experience of the truth that we are buoyant and self-directed energy, consciousness, and/or beingness that is creative and self-expressive. They experience the difference of this place from where they have previously stood, and get a glimpse of what is possible from once experiencing the self as a lump of flesh animated by thoughts, to then having the experience of their self as this self-expressive energy and consciousness.
When our body is in its natural state, like that of a young child, we experience ourselves as energy, beingness, and joy. Healing is possible and probable for this place and our health condition will continue to improve. Further, that expansive energy is beyond the body and beyond our thoughts. This possibility of seeing ourselves as that, rather than as the thoughts going through our head, or just our body, is an important experience. This first experience is reinforced in every succeeding session. This understanding is an experiential one and cannot be fully described or explained through words. Also of great importance is to experience that this well-being is natural to us. Stress is a disconnection from that, and we can continue to develop the ability to choose that well-being over stress. We free the breath, the life force; experience expansion and our natural lift and lightness. We begin connecting those possibilities into our legs and hips and opening to a new sense of freedom in movement.
Session Two: Here we connect deeply into our feet and through our legs. Length and organization arise out of having the up and down direction realized simultaneously. We experience the pleasure of the life- energy flowing through us, especially from the feet, and allowing it to fill our whole body-mind experience. This life energy is the source of healing for our body, mind, emotions, and soul. It is a dimension of how love expresses itself in this physical experience. Pleasure, delight, joy, and harmony colors our experience of what it means to be alive, and of what healing is. Anything else is just shifting around the burden of pain. The feet can be a great reservoir for this delight and pleasure because they can connect to it so easily.
Session Three is where we let the freedom and well-being of the first two sessions fully into our whole body. We begin to experience our true size, length, volume, and fullness. We feel new levels of expansion and appreciation for our physical form. We have new levels of presence and joy at being in the physical.
Sesions Four and Five: We become aware of and start building our center, our Line, and awareness of our own uniqueness and beauty. We are coming to appreciate and experience our personal power and creative center; the center where our body, mind, heart, and soul can be integrated into a powerful, unhindered unity of our self as a unique creative being.
Session Six works on opening the back, where much of our being and resources are, apart from the social self of the front of our body. This social self is where we live in our social world and it tends to consume our awareness, yet our social persona is only a small part of the wonder and magnificence of what we truly are. This session helps us to experience and bring into awareness more of the fullness of who we are and to feel some of the power of what lies within us. The back is in part associated with a lot of struggles to stand upright and adjust to our world. There are many patterns connected with survival that are deeply held there. As we release these patterns a new level of confidence, support, ease, and sense of power can arise. We can more fully rest in our wholeness.
Session Seven is about the head. We tend to live in our head and face, our social identity. In this session we work at clearing away a lifetime of stuck patterns built around maintaining our social persona. The understanding and experience from the previous sessions of the energetic, conscious, and profound nature of who we are provide a potential to experience the world from this new expanded place. The universe itself now can be seen from this new perspective to be a vast multilevel energetic experience. In the language of yoga, we are opening our sixth and seventh chakras.
In session seven we expand our sense of presence into a new connection with creation, the universe, and the vastness of life. In the past, we have tended to identify ourselves with our social persona and with the thoughts in our head. Now we can see more clearly our energetic connection with creation. We can understand that, as is said in Buddhism, our thinking mind is not who we are, but only a sensory organ that perceives thoughts Some thoughts come from what we have learned or are generated by processes within us, some come from other people outside of us, while some thoughts are perhaps inspirations from higher energies or levels of integration. Yet our thinking mind is only one aspect of our awareness and consciousness. To experience that clearly is a great awakening. We can begin to stand as an energetic being in communication and resonance with an energetic universe.
Sessions Eight and Nine: Now that we have opened to an expanded sense of what we are with many facets and dimensions and experience, these two sessions reintegrate all these aspects into a coherent whole sense of ourselves integrated around a central line or sense of self and in harmonic flow with our environment, so that we can live a joyful, loving, creative life in an amazing universe.
Session Ten is the completion of our journey of discovery and integration at a higher level. The completion of one cycle is the beginning of a new cycle. We are born anew into a new world. As Abraham Hicks said:
The basis of life is freedom. The purpose of life is joy.
The result of joy is transformation.
Stress is a major factor in our lives and a major cause or contributor to any dysfunction. If we were to consider what is the opposite of stress, we might answer something like, it is relaxation or peace – the way modern medicine defines health as being the absence of disease. When we try to diminish stress we usually look at how we can change our environment in order to remove stressors. This is good to do, but stress is not coming from the environment so much as it is our own reaction to it. To give external factors all the cause is to disempower us. To realize that stress is our reaction, that we have the ultimate power over our beliefs and over where we direct our attention – the two things which cause our reaction – is to give the power to our own self. I would say that the opposite of stress is a feeling of well-being, happiness, or joy, the same qualities that Dr. Rolf attributed to SI in a quote about Rolfing SI given above. It is connection to our natural energy, self-healing abilities, alignment, lift, well-being, and joy, and from that comes the sense of self, the appreciation of self, our place in the world, and our creativity. Access to these qualities often becomes tenuous and difficult when we have lived a life full of stress. Simply knowing we can access them, and having a way to do so, is a large part of healing. SI can make a significant contribution by connecting people to their well-being. Just knowing that this reconnection is possible is powerful and special. Not knowing we have a choice is almost the same as not having a choice. Experiencing our well-being as the alternative to stress offers a direction to further well-being. Especially if we teach clients that that this is our natural state and SI is one way to clear some of the restrictions that get in the way.
Each series is different depending on the goals of the client and practitioner and what is available to them at that time. It is always a transformational process for both of us. Yet, I think these spiritual dimensions are always present consciously or unconsciously as part of Dr. Rolf’s inspiration and creation. How much, if at all, one may choose to emphasize these aspects of the work is up to the individual practitioner. I relate to each of my client’s understanding and beliefs to decide which aspects of the work I discuss. In general, a significant percentage relate well to ideas of transformation and well-being as goals. We generally attract those with whom we share a commonality. We each need to find a way that suits our self.
Another important question is what is healing at a basic spiritual level? The basis of healing is giving up fear for love. It is choosing love over fear. I believe that love is our basic nature and the basis of creation. Fear is that which disconnects us from that basic nature. This does not mean that fear is bad, because like yin and yang, the interplay of these two is the dance of creation. Losing touch with love and then finding it again gives us the chance to understand and appreciate it. This process of losing it and finding it, and then losing it again and finding it again, is the expansion and growth of the universe and consciousness and the driving force of evolution.
Healing is the process of coming back to love. We have a choice between our natural well-being on one hand and the stress which comes from our disconnection with that well-being on the other. In the Rolfing SI process, we put our hands on those areas where fear shows up, whether due to trauma, the struggle to survive, stress, or other pains that cause these patterns to form in the body-mind. We touch them with our hands trained in the right way and give the client the support to let go of those patterns of fear. Whatever can be let go of allows the natural love and well-being of the truth of who we are to manifest more clearly.
We could view our work as repairing a biological machine and that would be okay. I prefer to have the view that we are working with a profoundly intelligent, sensitive, and complex, conscious being existing on many physical and energetic levels and linked to the entire universe and universes we may know little about. We stand at the doorway of infinite possibility and we must do so with love and respect and humility as if we were standing at a sacred altar, temple, or in front of God, in front of the great Mystery.
Dr. Rolf said that we are educating our clients. One major thing we are teaching them is about relationship; relationship to their body, the parts of their body to each other, to gravity, to their environment, to their inner world, and to other people. We can teach what we have learned, so the more we have, the more we can teach. Hopefully we can teach that the basis of any relationship is love and respect. From that basis a relationship can expand and flourish.
Dr. Rolf was ahead of her time (and still is in my opinion) in her understanding of the wholeness of what we are and the importance of getting our entire structure integrated into a functioning whole as the basis for healing. Most everyone else focuses on fixing a dysfunction. We do not fully understand why her system works so well, but the room is there for each of us to do the work as we see it, and together her work can continue. We attain and retain clients that resonate to the way we see and approach the work. Her creation is a great container for human growth and evolution in many ways. Let us not make it too small in order to fit our own limitations.
I will conclude with an excerpt of Dr. Rolf’saddresstothe 1974Annual Meeting (Rolf 2003):
I am saying to you that as individual Rolfers you need to preach to your clients, your students, your individual people – the recognition of the fact that fundamentally you are not relieving their backache, you are not trying to mitigate that “bellyache” – you are on a bigger job. You are trying to make it possible for that nervous system which distinguishes them as humans, rather than as two-legged animals (of which there are other), to function more appropriately and more economically. . . .
To me, this is a basic and extremely important idea. Some of you, I hope, will someday develop it further than I have. This is our function as Rolfers. When you say it in those terms, the task we have to accomplish becomes more and more apparent. Our job becomes to instigate personal evolution in humans, to further individual differentiations (psychological as well as physical) in mankind. Structural Integration is the tool by which this can be implemented. . . .
To go on this trip, you need to stretch your imagination. This is an important prerequisite. There is no limit to the infinite territory into which this leads. . . .
We must find out what it is that changes spirits as well as bodies, that gives direction and purpose to the man himself, as well as to his body. We don’t know. We can talk at it, we can talk about it, but at this time we can realistically point only to the fact that it happens, that the man himself seems to change. . . .
You have all heard me talk about “relations” and “relating.” I don’t doubt that in our early acquaintance it was a source of confusion. Today I feel that the basic units which are related are less units of flesh than energy fields; these fields are enhanced or minimized in terms of their relation to the larger gravitational fields within which they exist. These lesser energies must first relate appropriately, then the improved physiology really takes over. . . .
Today I hope that among you there are the kind of fish that will go out and bring in another school of fish . . . not to get their aches and pains taken out, not to have their symptoms removed, but that they may contribute to the understanding of energy in the human universe. . . .
You, as Rolfers, are dealing not only with the physical levels, the flesh, but with the finer energy levels – the psychic, perhaps the spiritual (I do not consider myself to be an expert in differentiation of these latter two.) This kind of progression is the reality of energy; it is the manifestation of human energies on their way to a more conscious world. As Rolfers we travel a fascinating road. I thank you for the privilege of accompanying you.
Author’s note: Special thanks to Bob Schrei for posting Dr. Rolf’s 1974 address onto the Rolfer’s Facebook group.
Jim Gates began practicing Zen in 1967 and before long realized how important the body is in that endeavor and in personal growth. After ten years of Zen he worked with J.G. Bennett’s followers and spent some wonderful time with them at Claymont, in West Virginia, in the late 1970s. After that he studied with the great guru Swami Muktananda for a number of years, in the US and in India. He realized a longstanding dream in 2003 when he became a Rolfer, and at present he lives only a short drive from the place where Dr. Rolf studied yoga (Love 2010) and took some of the first steps toward her creation of SI almost a hundred years ago. For more information about Jim visit www.TheConsciousBody.com.
Bennett, J.G. 1962/1983. Witness: The Autobiography of John Bennett. Charles Town, West Virginia: Claymont Communications.
Love, R. 2010. The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America. New York: Viking.
Rolf, I. 1977. Rolfing: The Integration of Human Structures. Santa Monica, California: Dennis-Landman Publishers.
Rolf, I. 1978. Ida Rolf Talks About Rolfing and Physical Reality. R. Feitis, ed. Boulder, Colorado: the Rolf Institute. [Republished as Rolfing and Physical Reality by Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont.]
Rolf, I. 2003 Jun. “Address to the Rolf Institute Annual Meeting, 1974.” Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute® 31(2):15-18.Some Psychological and Spiritual Dimensions of the Rolfing® Ten Series