Do We Choose a Path, or Does It Choose Us?

Pages: 45-49
Year: 2018
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 46 – Nº 2

Volume: 46

When I first heard of Rolfing® Structural Integration (SI) I was not impressed. I was always skeptical, and it sounded like just one more ‘new-age’ trip. I was a psychotherapist at a well-regarded institute in Concord, Massachusetts, focused on more serious matters. But its devotees were enraptured and rather emphatic, so I couldn’t help hearing Dr. Rolf quoted.

The first of her statements I recall was, “The body is the personality exploded into three dimensions.” Hmmm . . . .

The next one I heard was more striking: “No psychotherapy, no matter how good, will be asdeep, aseffective, noras lasting unlessthere is also deep, concomitant physical change.” That one really got my attention.

My training had been primarily Freudian with various modern ideas added, but I had already begun to feel that perhaps my schooling and preparation weren’t as excellent as I’d been led to believe. If they were, wouldn’t my patients be making more rapid progress?

I began to ask about Dr. Rolf’s background, which did sound impressive. The woman was a scientist with a PhD. So even though it might be a waste of time and money, I’d try one session of Rolfing SI if only so I could prove that it was just another silly idea. I located the one Rolfer in Boston in 1972 and booked a session a month off.

Two weeks later I was called in to Harvard Health for my annual physical exam, and after all the tests and poking and prodding I was pronounced to be “In perfect shape, healthy as a horse.” Obviously that poor Rolfer was in for a surprise, having to work on someone as perfect as I was.

Of course I was the one who was surprised. My body had recorded various sports injuries, cycling crashes, fights, falls, and other mishaps, but while some of his work was painful (though not nearly as much as people had warned), I could feel my body respond to his pressure by relaxing and letting go of long-term pain and stiffness.


When I left that session I felt extraordinarily

different: excited, lighter, and more relaxed. I suddenly felt as though I’d been living in a suit of armor or a straitjacket, but now could move more freely and breathe deeper, and I felt more energetic. I wanted more of this amazing work.

By the time I completed the Ten Series I was even more astounded by what I was experiencing, and much more curious to know who Dr. Rolf was and what else she knew. Eventually I found out there was a Rolf Institute® and wrote for information on the work and training.

When I told my Rolfer friends that I was about to apply for training, the first thing they all told me was to avoid being placed in one of Dr. Rolf’s classes. What? Why?

“Because there are only two ways to be in a class with Dr. Rolf: you’ll either be scared to death of her all the time, or furious with her all the time.” And they were clearly quite serious.

But . . . but she’s the wellspring, the genius behind this work! “Hey, it’s your neck, and we’re just telling you — you’ve been warned.”

Experiencing Ida Rolf

Perhaps she had changed, because I never knew that scary Ida Rolf. It was clear that she was there to offer her best information to us, and she had no patience at all with any goofing off: to do so was dangerous. To do it a second time was to risk being thrown out of class permanently. She was brilliant, tough, and demanding, but also compassionate and respectful. She had a great sense of humor. And she could be as calm and direct as a Zen master.

One day, following her lecture, during the time for us to ask questions about anatomy or process, a student suddenly asked her the kind of question one might ask one’s guru, a mushy question about how to handle a sensitive, uncomfortable, personal issue. We got very quiet as Dr. Rolf sat and looked down at the student in silence for what felt like a very long time before she spoke: “Why are you asking me that question? . . . To do so implies that I can answer it but you cannot . . . And my answer might be perfect for me, but disastrous for you. What I suggest you do is to get up off your bottom and begin to work out the clearest answer you can come up with. Do your best to think through the issues you face and you may learn something important.” (General sigh of relief in the group.)

Halfway through the class I spent a weekend visiting a friend in Aspen, and when I left he gave me a couple of loaves of a local bread that he knew Dr. Rolf was very fond of. Back in Boulder I stopped  at the house where she was staying and handed them to the woman who opened the door, planning to leave quickly so I wouldn’t have to face an intensive pop quiz by Herself, but I could hear Ida asking “Who is it?” and then saying she wanted me to come in and talk with her. So while she ate lunch (and griped about the food) we talked about the class, Rolfing SI in general, and the relative merits of mesomorphs and endomorphs as Rolfers. (She said she believed that endomorphs were more capable at the work than the mesomorphs.)

Then we both fell silent for a while, until suddenly she asked what was on my mind. I don’t know how to explain this, but something had changed and I knew I needed to speak frankly.

“Well, you’re getting pretty old,” I said. “Yes, I am,” she replied.

I paused. “You aren’t going to live much longer,” I said.

“I think you’re right,” she said.

“Well,” I ventured, “there are stories that you know people with unusual capabilities, and you must know that there are a lot of us who’d be willing to donate a year of our lives to give to you so you can live longer and teach us more.”

She smiled. “I know, but I don’t want them. I’ve worked hard for a lot of years. I’m tired and I’m looking forward to a long rest.”

We talked a while longer, and when I got up to leave I simply wished her whatever she wanted for however long she wanted it. She replied, “Thank you, kind sir,” and though seated did a great imitation of a formal curtsy. That’s probably why after that I always tended to associate Dr. Rolf with Victorian royalty.


Dr. Rolf frequently spoke from a slightly elevated platform so she could see her students more clearly, and I liked to watch her eyes, which were large, luminous, deep, and very expressive. I didn’t see her angry often, but when that happened it was quite impressive. More often, though, I saw light and humor in her eyes, and kindness, too.

One day I received a very important, but very painful, advanced session from two advanced Rolfers whom she used as her hands (saving her energy to work with children) as she directed them to work on me. Afterward, as everyone else was getting tea or coffee, I pulled my clothes on and, feeling deep fatigue, sank into a chair with my notebook, ready for her lecture. She looked down at me and said, “Why don’t you go over to those mats and lie down?” Being a guy, I said, of course, that I was fine. She leaned forward for emphasis, pointed to the pile of mats, and raising her voice said, “Go over there and lie down.” I went, and in a few seconds was out like a light. Later, my friend Marten told me that a couple of times I snored a bit, and Ida stopped and looked around to locate the sound. Seeing it was me, she nodded and said, “He worked really hard – he deserves a rest,” and then went on with her lecture. She could be fierce, but after all, she was also a mom and a grandma.

Unique Capacities of Consciousness

I also began to notice the way she seemed to have uncanny awareness of what her students were thinking. She would sometimes come down the hill to class late, and her assistant, Charles Siemers, would have gotten us busy discussing some aspect of the work. When she arrived we sat quietly as she made herself comfortable, and then she’d pick up on the subject where we’d stopped and build her lecture on that point. But how? No one had told her what we’d been talking about.

On the first day of our combined Basic and Advanced class, Dr. Rolf asked us to define ‘energy’. Many tried, and I thought some of the ideas put forth were rather brilliant, but Ida just kept shaking her head, and eventually said that we obviously didn’t know what we were talking about. She chose to address her words to the last student who’d spoken (Marten Gygax, now Marten Gabriel), a very bright friend. She really seemed to be chewing him out, telling him he needed to look farther, think


deeper, because “the roadmap is not the territory.” His face was flushed, but he took the rebuke bravely. Weeks later, on the last day of that class, she asked Marten to stand again. Reminding us of the first day’s exchange, she thanked him for letting her use him to make an important point for the rest of us. It was suddenly obvious that she’d chosen someone she knew was logical and well-grounded, strong enough to use as a lightning rod to make that point, and somehow knew he wouldn’t be wounded by her words. (For those who are curious about the combined Basic and Advanced class, we met together in the mornings for Dr. Rolf’s lectures and demos, then our basic group went to another building for the afternoon of work with Peter Melchior while Dr. Rolf worked with the advanced group.)

And though she would occasionally complain that she didn’t have any psychic gifts like some of her friends, students who’d been paying attention would often smile. We smiled because frequently, while working with one student, she would call to another student that he was missing the most important place to focus on in his session and would offer the solution — when she was in fact totally blocked from seeing him, his client, and his hands.

During one of the last days of our class, any skepticism I’d had about Dr. Rolf having paranormal gifts evaporated. That morning I was feeling very strange — mostly mentally. I’d received some very powerful work, so did feel a bit strange physically, but was also working on one of the most powerful dreams I’d ever had, and the fact was that I just plain felt weird — peculiar, alone in some new space. I chose to sit well off to her right side, going on the theory that if she couldn’t see me, she wouldn’t call on me. In fact, when she came in and took her seat I quietly pushed my chair backward a bit at a time until I was behind her line of sight. As she began her lecture — always oral, never written — I tried to focus on taking notes.

But soon I began to experience a phenomenon that had begun when I was twelve: I could hear what a person was saying, but also — at the same time — what he or she was going to say next. (Years later I found out that such strange phenomena are not uncommon during early puberty.) As a pubescent kid, when I got used to that, it was kind of funny, like a new skill. But when I told some friends about it, and they


backed away and looked at me strangely and said that I was “crazy,” it wasn’t funny any more; it apparently was dangerous — or evil. I worked hard to stop it, to shut down the inner voice. It took a while, but eventually it fell silent.

But suddenly here it was again: I was hearing what Ida was saying, but also what she was going to say next. That’s confusing, like hearing dual soundtracks. And it was unnerving. I didn’t know what to do about it and was frightened — I wondered if I were really cracking up.

Suddenly Ida stopped in mid-sentence, turned all the way around in  her  chair so she could look straight into my eyes, and asked “Now what’s on your mind?” I felt I’d been caught eavesdropping. I was lost, disoriented, and had no idea what to say — “Uh . . . well, uh . . . uh . . .” But she just grinned and waved her hand at me. “Don’t worry, it’s just a quantum leap in your spiritual development. Nothing to be afraid of — you’ll be fine!” And smiling, she turned back, picked up her lecture in mid- sentence, and went right on with it.

Now I was really dazed and confused, certain I was losing it — it was an hallucination, obviously — what was I to do? Finally the break came. I stumbled outside and began trying to clear the cobwebs from my mind. Then some of my classmates came up and asked, “What the hell was that?” Huh? Stalling for time, I asked what they meant and they went through the event word for word, just as I’d heard it. It hadn’t been a bad dream after all. Not that I could figure out what had happened, but I seemed to be back on firm ground again. Whew, what a day! Another mind-blowing experience with the amazing Ida Pauline Rolf . . . .

At the end of the final day of the class, alone for a few minutes with Dr. Rolf and wanting to thank her for what she’d given us, I had to admit I was unable to find the way to express my gratitude adequately, just couldn’t come up with the right words. She looked in my eyes, smiled, and said, “Then go out there and get to work.”

A few years later, I had the feeling that Ida’s life was finally coming to an end, so I wrote a letter to thank her again and let her know how much I was enjoying sharing the work she’d given us, how busy I was, and how happy my clients were. A week or two later, as a client was changing in the bathroom to get ready for a session, Executive Director

Richard Stenstadvold called from the Rolf Institute to let me know that Ida had just died, and asked me to pass the word to the other Texas Rolfers. As I hung up, my client came out into the Rolfing room, saw my face, and could tell there was bad news. When I told him, he was very sympathetic and offered to reschedule. That’s all it took to wake me up. “Are you kidding? She’d kick my butt. Let’s do what we’re here to do.” We both agreed that it was a really good session.

Open Consciousness and Continued Learning

If you’ve read Remembering Ida Rolf (1996, Rolf Institute / North Atlantic Books) – the wonderful little book of students’ remembrances that Rosemary Feitis and Louis Schultz put together for her centennial year in 1996 “. . . to give people who never met Ida Rolf a feeling for who she was and what she meant to her students” – you probably have a good sense of that remarkable woman. However, over the years I had begun to wonder if my memories of her were accurate. Could she really have been that exceptional? Or had I simply begun to exaggerate my memories of her? But reading Remembering Ida Rolf reassured me, because most of my colleagues’ stories are just as astounding.

And lately, as I read them, new thoughts popped up. Some included questions she had asked me or others in class, or during our private conversations, and suggestions she’d offered. Now the familiar ideas seemed more complex — yet also more open. Clearly, different kinds of understanding are possible, and many questions have come to mind.

How should we understand the importance of Ida’s continuous emphasis on finding the top of the head and letting it ‘float’? (Not always as easy as it sounds.) I’ve been working with that idea/feeling for forty- two years, and it still feels mostly like a thought-provoking experiment. But as a psychoanalyst who’s been studying and working for a lot of years to find ways to uncover thoughts, feelings, and experiences in clients’ unconscious psyches, it suddenly struck me that when I let the top of my head come up, I experience a very different quality of thoughts and awareness than when I let the front of my head alone float higher. When the top of the head leads, I experience a heightened sense of internal presence — quieter, calmer — yet I’m also


aware of thoughts that are unfamiliar, more challenging than usual. I may also feel more alone or independent, not the person I’m used to being aware of, so I feel free to consider other possibilities in my world. At the same time, I generally have the sense that I am more aware of others who are nearby, and the ways in which they and I are both similar and different.

It’s like engaging some strange new sensitivity. Fragments I could remember her mentioning, but were so new to me before that I couldn’t retain them, came and went, while some stuck. What if I could I recall still more, and learn things I’d missed all those years ago?

After a lot of time working with the top of the head up, I began to notice that more and more images of my life were appearing that were not like dreams, but rather events from my life that are familiar, like snapshots and bits of home movies. They are not always pleasant, but seem quite real, as though I am being offered information that can help me to learn about myself and the world in new and different ways. It requires focus and can often be uncomfortable, but something tells me it’s important — and useful. (And you can try it for yourself.)

On the other hand, letting the front of my cranium float up higher than the top offers very different sensations and results. It tends to happen easily when I’m with friends or in a group, and then I notice that my thoughts and feelings blend more easily with theirs. It’s even more obvious if I’m listening to a speech or watching a film or play, probably because usually that’s the normal posture in a theatre or auditorium, where the presentation or speaker is above audience members’ eye level. And what suddenly struck me at the end of a Rolfing session, as I was helping a client to find the top of his head and let it float, was that it seems so easy and normal for us to lift the front of the cranium, but often quite challenging, even uncomfortable, to find the top and come up through it. Why should that be the case?

That’s when it occurred to me: that’s the natural reaction of a small child responding to an adult — looking upward to see what the big person’s face indicates: warmth or amusement, or perhaps anger and coldness, life-supporting inclusion, or frightening detachment. In other words, normal animal watchfulness to decide whether to hug the big person or run like hell. At first it seemed funny, but not for long. It’s too easy for


adults to take out their personal frustrations or anger on defenseless children, which often encourages them (us) to be little automatons who try to act nice or cute to fit in, and thus avoid punishment, scorn, or abandonment. No wonder autocrats and politicians make speeches from platforms above audience level. I think at such times there’s a natural tendency to surrender our independent awareness. It’s a simple way for politicians to infantilize their listeners, to reduce their maturity in age or experience and encourage childlike dependence.

Rolfing Work

and Consciousness

In psychoanalytic practice, one of the most fascinating and sensitive aspects of analytic work is to listen for and detect patterns of thoughts and vulnerability that are present in the background, though the analysand is often quite unaware of them. Patience is absolutely essential, because these are usually very sensitive connections to childhood events that have been suppressed due to frightening, painful, or traumatic content. Ideally, with adequate time it’s possible to learn enough about the person and  develop  a working partnership that allows us to gradually, cautiously raise past traumas to awareness so we can explore them in ways that are emotionally acceptable, and therefore healing.

While a Rolfing Ten Series is vastly different from normal psychoanalytic work, if communication with clients is sufficiently honest and open, it is possible to learn enough about their pasts to help some of them develop a connection that may support them, too, in opening up to deal better with the imprints of past traumas, wounds and fears. [Please note: it is essential not to minimize the complexity and power of deep, early trauma. Caution is important. I can testify that seven to ten years of analysis, continual study, and intensive training provide only a beginning platform for analysts. We quickly discover that we’ve just begun to scratch the surface, and that what might at first appear simple is actually extremely complex, unpredictable and even, possibly, dangerous. Lots of time and attention are required to know how to deal with helping a client confront such potential shocks.]

When I first stumbled onto (or was found by) Rolfing SI all those years ago, it was still common to speak of body and mind as though they were separate and discrete


forms of life. There’s an ecclesiastical argument many centuries old in which the Christian church makes quite clear its position that to focus on, or even talk about, most aspects of the physical body was to invite the worst kinds of perilous thoughts and temptations, thus opening the door to “ . . . carnal lust, sexual peril and Satan’s hideous punishments.”

Some things have changed over the centuries, but that viewpoint still strikes fear in our nation. Frankly, I’m not sure that any of us are entirely free of it yet. Though we may think of ourselves as modern, well-educated Rolfers who are happily dedicated to serving our clients, it’s important to remember that we also are creatures of the psyche, and as much as we might be aware of some layers of positive and negative issues in our lives, there are always elements we’re not aware of that can activate us in ways that we might not expect, nor approve of. Recalling Ida’s statement, “The body is the personality exploded into three dimensions,” doesn’t it make sense that those elements would be expressed in the physical body as well?

Once I was a Rolfer, I withdrew from my psychotherapy practice to focus on Rolfing SI, and soon realized that I had also been strongly influenced in other ways by my teachers, Dr. Rolf and Peter Melchior in particular, and also Emmett Hutchins, all of whom were very bright and had their own views of how to best integrate mind and body. While training was focused primarily on anatomy, physiology, and how to free the body to move and balance around the ’Line’, there were also comments on psychic activity, astrology, metaphysics, shamanism, native American traditions, etc. All very interesting, though I was focused on the ten sessions.

A few days after I got home from training in Boulder, my very first client appeared. James said he had terrible back pain, and watching his severe limp, I wasn’t surprised. But when he undressed to begin the session, I was stunned to see the source of the limp. Ten years before, he’d been in a fight and was knocked through a plate-glass window, the upper part of which came down like a guillotine blade and took his right lower leg off at the knee. Doctors were able to rejoin the blood vessels, tendons, etc., but told him the nerves couldn’t be connected, so he’d have to live with a ‘dead’ leg. The leg wasn’t actually necrotic, but it was shrunken, gray, and cold, as though lifeless. Oh boy. He lay down on my table, I took a deep breath and began the first session.

He really liked how he felt from the session, so scheduled the next one. I began with the left leg to get a feel for his ‘normal’ one, and then did my best for the right  leg and foot. When we were done he got up to walk around and suddenly looked shocked. As calmly as I could, I asked what was happening. He looked at me and then at that right leg. “That’s the first time in ten years that I’ve felt carpet under my right foot.” What? (I was stunned, too.)

By the time we completed the ten sessions, the right leg looked like its mate: it was warm and pink, approaching normal size and support, and he had increasing control of subtle movement and balance. Some medical friends said that was “impossible — it couldn’t have been completely severed.” But it had been, James sure remembered that: it rode separate from him in the ambulance. And not only was his back a lot better now, he smiled much more often. Over the years he came in for sessions when in the area, and not only was the right leg always more normal, he was a much happier, healthier man. What a gift for both us!

Over the past forty-two years as a Rolfer  I have encountered so many other ‘impossible’ positive changes in my clients, in my students’ models in class, and in colleagues’ reports that I tend to assume that’s simply what Rolfing SI does: miracles. Oh sure, I know that Rolfing SI is demanding physical and cerebral work, too. I just haven’t figured out how to understand if the transformations are affected more through physical contact, the Rolfer’s intention, the client’s hopes and dreams, or some combination of those ideas — and more that is unimaginable.

Oddly enough, I just remembered that many years ago I learned that Dr. Rolf intended that one day there would be three Rolfing schools. As I recall, there was to be a scientific/anatomical school on the East Coast, a psychological school on the West Coast, and a metaphysical school  in Boulder. I liked the idea because it emphasized that our brilliant founder knew that for our work to be most effective we had to learn to include and balance 1) a clear and active knowledge of human anatomy;

2) an understanding of the most important principles of psychology; and 3) a clear grasp of the most controversial domain, metaphysics — the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space. (Metaphysics is also concerned with whether what exists is inevitable or driven by chance, but as interesting as it is to ponder that question, it’s rare to find clients who want to spend much time with it.)

In my years on the faculty, while it was clear that most of us were focused on what we’d learned from Dr. Rolf, it also became obvious that some members were restless with following her ‘Recipe’ and wanted  to experiment with their favorite different ideas. A few years after I left the faculty to bury myself in psychoanalytic training, I was told that they had abandoned Ida’s Ten Series and taught other principles, but after a year or two had decided to return to her concepts after all. Clearly, it’s normal for a faculty of bright people to seek ways to change and grow, and then share them. Perhaps the challenge is to share and expand on the strongest ideas while pruning the ones that, over time, have not proved essential.

Rolfing SI has always seemed to attract people who are different from the norm. I think that’s partly because we are amazed at how much the work improved our own lives, but also because something in us wants to help others as we have been helped. It’s not surprising that Rolfers also like to experiment with the work. I think that’s also a natural part of what attracted us. If you’ve read Betsy Sise’s excellent book, The Rolfing Experience: Integration in the Gravity Field (2005, Hohm Press), with her interviews of Peter Melchior, Jan Sultan, and Emmett Hutchins, it’s clear that each of them were soon following their own ways of building on the effectiveness of what Ida taught them. Investigating and expanding on what we’ve been taught by people we respect seems only natural. And because the effects of the Rolfing work with our clients can be so amazing, how can we not keep experimenting?

Finally, I’d like to offer something many of you may not have seen before: an image (Figure 1) with some words that was shown on one of the opening pages of the initial edition of Dr. Rolf’s book, Rolfing: The Integration of Human Structures (1977, Dennis Landman Publishers), which she’d been working on for years. Clearly, it was important to Dr. Rolf, who chose to offer it to us. The picture shows a smiling Buddha flanked by two smaller figures, and overlaid on the image, under the heading “Admonition for 1977,” is this quote from the Buddha:

Do not believe in anything merely because it is said, nor in traditions because they have been handed down from antiquity: nor in rumors as such: nor in writings by sages because sages wrote them: nor in fancies that we may suspect to have been inspired in us by a deva: nor in inferences drawn from some haphazard assumption we may have made: nor in what seems to be an analogical necessity: nor in the mere authority of our teachers and masters.

Believe when the writing, doctrine, or saying is corroborated by reason and consciousness.

Gautama Buddha

[I’ve never found out why the title of Ida’s magnum opus was changed when the publisher changed, from the direct Rolfing: The Integration of Human Structures to the odd Reestablishing the Natural Alignment and Structural Integration of the Human Body for Vitality and Well-Being, nor why Dr. Rolf’s carefully chosen “Admonition for 1977” was removed.]

Because of my experience with Dr. Rolf, and my sense of how much she hoped we would continually work to expand our knowledge of what she gave us and of what it is worth to the world, I would like to offer another quote I still carry with me, in case it might serve you, too. This is from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart. And try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers that cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Nicholas French has been a Certified Rolfer since 1976 and a Certified Advanced Rolfer since 1979. He was a Rolfing instructor for ten years in the US, Europe, South America, and Australia until he left the faculty to spend seven and a half years in psychoanalytic training at the Jung Institute. He now enjoys his Rolfing and psychoanalytic practices in Dallas, Texas.


Do We Choose a Path, or Does It Choose Us?[:]

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