The Influence of Structural Integration on Behavior and Self-Image

Pages: 29-35
Year: 2015
IASI - International Association for Structural Integration

IASI Yearbook 2015


Leigh Mitsopoulos

Leigh Mitsopoulos practices structural integration in Perth, Western  Australia. He  trained with SI Australia after practicing manual therapy for a number of years, coming to structural integration in search of a way to facilitate lasting change. Currently a large portion of his clinical work is focused on the application of structural integration to assist people experiencing functional impairment in activities of daily living. His research interests include person- centered practice, biomechanics, and functional performance. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to [email protected].



The effects of the structural integration process are examined with respect to the subjective experiences encountered by recipients, with particular consideration to those effects that extend beyond the physical realm. With attention to both self- reports and the structural integrator’s observations, we make an exploration into the client’s mind-body relationship and self-image. The author reports that as improved motor patterns emerge, they are often accompanied by considerable behavioral and psychosocial effects that, although frequently unexpected, often greatly enrich the life experience of the client.

The Effects of Structural Integration was created by Ida Rolf, who described the method as a means to improve human functioning through manual alignment of body components (Rolf, 1989). Rolf developed structural integration through a lifetime of study in human potential, concluding only with her passing in 1979 (Dalton, 2008). Often referred to as one large session conducted in ten parts, the recipient of a structural integration process encounters a range of subjective experiences throughout her treatment, generally arising through a sensation of great well- being (Rolf, 1989). In this paper we will discuss a subset of these experiences with respect to their origin and incidence within the structural integration process, considering particularly those extending beyond the physical realm.

Mind and Body

It is through the relationship between mind and body where we will focus our inquiry in order to explore the ethereal experiences resulting from physical interventions. Structural integration has a significant effect on the human spirit and its development in the psychosocial domain, serving to improve human function (Rolf, 1989). Psychosocial effects were unanticipated in the infancy of structural integration, both in their magnitude and presence within the structural integration process. We  consider these effects primarily as a stabilization and amalgamation of the non-physical body, being the mental, spiritual, emotional, and psychological components of a person. This perspective implies access to the personality via myofascial structures, a relationship which we may consider in its essence as a mind-matter connection. Capra postulates an integral link between mind and matter, stating:

“At all levels of life, beginning with the simplest cell, mind and matter, process and structure, are inseparably connected” (2007, p. 478). Considering Capra’s postulation, we may observe myofascial structures in relation to the thoughts and behavior of clients during a structural integration process. In practice, we may see this (even momentarily) during a manipulation, as confluence between a client’s understanding and the practitioner’s intention results in ease and grace.

People who understand how to function effectively display elevated physical abilities, with minimal conscious effort required, while those with less understanding frequently compensate with an excess of will power, often to their own detriment (Feldenkrais, 1980). Likewise, Rolf identified behavior as a product of myofascial organization and attributed this to the human condition as an energy field existing within the larger gravitational energy field of the earth (Rolf, 1974).

Energy Fields

Structural integration facilitates ease within the gravitational field, promotes efficient operation of the human structure, and moves a person toward a higher level of energy (Rolf, 1990). Rolf noted the relationships that exist within the human body are perhaps more appropriately characterized as energy fields than physical components; these fields are subject to change with regard to the more profound gravitational fields in which they operate (Rolf, 1974). With appropriate interaction between these smaller energy fields comes efficient operation within the more profound energy fields, facilitating positive change within the person. A normative interaction between the human structure and its larger relationship to the gravitational energy field of the earth can develop a restorative process of transformation within the individual (Davis, 1969). When an individual operates in harmony with gravitational forces and travels the continuum toward equilibrium within the gravitational field, her structure moves with comfort and eloquence (Rolf, 1990). In extension, the disassociation of body and mind can be viewed as an internal conflict grounded in illusion; to achieve congruency the individual’s perception must include all components of the self (Davis, 1969).

Subjective Reports

The recipient of a structural integration series is encouraged to self-report upon her experience through both general and introspective consideration throughout the sessions. Largely qualitative, these self-reports are valuable for both practitioner and client, supplementing the collective experiential learning processes. While comparatively personal, generalizations can be made in order to produce a subset of self-reported experiences:

  1. A more upright posture is evident (“without straining or ‘trying’”).
  2. “People almost always notice physical changes that they like.”
  3. Feelings of increased openness and awareness (“in touch with their own bodies and with the world around them”).
  4. Advantageous psychological transformation.
  5. Regression to re-live a traumatic experience, followed by a cessation of attachment (Hammann, 1972, p. 8).

These experiences largely represent conscious, physical change. However, we suspect associated subconscious alterations based on Rolf ’s observation of the integral unconscious connection between mind and body (Rolf, 1989). Ongoing negative mental expression transposed physically represents mechanical entropy; likewise improved mental state corresponds to improved physical order (Rolf, 1989).


We are all unique and individual; no two people are born without difference, whether it is immediately discernible or not. Human experiences, biology, and genetic inheritance amalgamate slowly to create this self-image and further develop individuality.

This individuality deepens and builds over the years, each individual interacting with the world and her body according to the self-image she has developed throughout her life.

All actions are executed within the parameters of an individual’s self-image, which itself is often less than ideal, as in the average individual awareness of some body components is limited or missing.

Considering primarily the movement and sensation components of self-image, the use of a homunculus provides an indication of the proportional area of the cortex dedicated to certain body parts. A motor homunculus represents cells within the primary motor cortex that are dedicated to various body parts. Likewise, a sensory homunculus represents cells of the primary somatosensory cortex dedicated to the respective body parts (Lundy-Ekman, 2013). Areas of finer motor control are represented by a greater number of cells within the primary motor cortex, and these relationships extend to include individual function and ability. For example, a person who is a singer will have a larger number of cells that control breathing, mouth, tongue, and lips, compared to another who does not sing (Feldenkrais, 1980).

All actions are executed within the parameters of an individual’s self-image, which itself is often less than ideal, as in the average individual awareness of some body components is limited or missing (Feldenkrais, 1980). The way a person carries herself, her social interaction, mannerisms, voice, and non- verbal communications all stem from her self-image (Feldenkrais, 1980).

Self-Image and Structural Integration Let us consider the effects upon the self-image brought about through the process of structural integration. It is reasonable to deduce that the self-image will be modified accordingly as the human structure adapts and integrates the changes initiated by a structural integration process, predicated upon the mind-body relationship that we have earlier discussed. Changes occur within the brain as awareness of body components and structure shift: The sensory homunculus changes in response to the new tactile information, while the motor homunculus changes as the person adjusts function and ability to suit her new structural arrangement (Buonomano & Merzenich, 1998; Feldenkrais, 1980).

Personal factors, of both the practitioner and client, will influence the structural integration process. If a practitioner or client does not place personal value or weight upon the presence of non- physical shifts within the structural integration process, it is likely that little attention or focus will be allocated to that particular experience (Gauthier, 2010). This is a situation upon which I can make personal comment, relating back to the events of my second structural integration session, prior to commencing my professional training.

My practitioner was working on my left ankle, which had experienced substantial trauma some years before. After a series of strokes had been completed, I began to observe a feeling of lightness in my leg that extended upwards into my thigh and pelvis. This feeling was soon accompanied with a particularly vivid memory, that of the events of the day when I broke the ankle in question. I related this to my practitioner and asked if working on this particular area could have elicited such a regression, to which she responded that it was unlikely. After her response, the memory faded quickly and the sensation of manual pressure returned, replacing the lightness that had encompassed the leg only moments before.

During my subsequent professional training, somatic coaching techniques were taught to expand upon moments such as these, capitalizing upon the embodiment of trauma to facilitate healing and integration (Strozzi-Heckler, 2014). I then realized that somatic coaching could have been utilized to open or deconstruct the regression I experienced.

My practitioner could have guided me through the physical sensations and emotions that arose as she worked on my ankle. In guiding me to be with the emotional and energetic wound, immersion in the experience would have helped me access my self-image in a restorative manner. When I did unwind that memory, I began to address the lack of confidence I felt when physically and emotionally putting that foot forward.

Somatic Coaching

Somatic coaching guides the client through an exploration of the body-mind relationship, utilizing a holistic approach to work toward the unity of the person through physical and emotional health (Kaparo, 2012; Strozzi-Heckler, 2014). While structural integration is primarily concerned with physical intervention, somatic coaching increases the efficacy of the structural integration process through amplification of interoception (Petersen, 2009).

Somatic coaching has long been used to facilitate embodiment, differentiation, and awareness within a client during the structural integration process

(Frank, 2012; Rolf, 1990). As a practitioner varies his personal depth of embodiment, he may learn of the potential for modification of the self-image through discovery of the boundless nature inherent within somatic exploration (Feldenkrais, 1980; Frank, 2012; Hanna, 1988). It is through this understanding that we may carefully structure the language of coaching instructions, to guide our intention as we make and suggest distinctions that our client can process, differentiate, and explore.

Achieved principally through embodiment, a structural integration practitioner learns to perceive the body process of another empathetically; we learn to know in another what we know in ourselves (Frank, 2012). In this way, as I work with a client

I am able to recall how pressure feels to me as a recipient, how I expect it might feel to another, and make assessment of what may be helpful to develop synchronicity with my client. Open questions surrounding emotion are useful to facilitate sharing of power and emotional expression through gentle enquiry. Inquiring about the associated sensation and temperature of body components is helpful to elicit release during deeper strokes, as is a question surrounding force direction. For example: “Is there more pressure from your hip into my elbow, or vice versa?” I find an indirect approach is most valuable when dealing with movement patterns as opposed to stating a desired outcome; I make queries surrounding my intention and allow the client to arrive in her own way.


Intention and Mirroring

A practitioner of structural integration seeks to guide intention, facilitating a confluent experience through attunement with the client. This combination is unique to structural integration: attempting to per- ceive another’s body process, to mirror intention, and achieve synchronicity in our manipulations. We may achieve this synchronicity through close attention to our client’s physical and mental state, forming an unspoken connection or resonance. At a neural level, our brains enable us to achieve this through a mir- ror neuron system. Residing in various brain regions, including the parietal and frontal lobes, the mirror neuron system creates representations of the minds of others by linking motor and perceptual areas to build models of intentional states (Gallese, 2003; Iacoboni et al., 1999; Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004; Rizzolatti, Fogassi & Gallese, 2001). We create not only what we perceive physically, but also what we imagine the state of another’s mind to be, enabling us to resonate with their intentions. The insular cortex acts as the link between emotional processing and these intentional representations, matching body and limbic responses to the constructed perception to provide emotional resonance and attunement (Carr, Iacoboni, Dubeau, Maziotta, & Lenzi, 2003). We are able to capitalize upon these intentions and limbic responses, allowing us to both understand and feel how another feels when we attune to them appropriately.

It is through this process that the structural integration practitioner may convey inherent understanding of a client’s experience and imbue a sense of validation and awareness. For example, as we work to open the core space and stimulate the enteric brain in Session Five, we guide our clients through the adaptation process required for such deep psoas work. We use emotional resonance to convey understanding and mirror intention to allow our client to feel safe, able to adapt to our manipulations, and release the physical and emotional tension stored within her core.

Motor Patterns and Emotional Clarity Observation of favorable psychosocial differences is often reported after a structural integration process. As individuals move through the process, their bodily organization within gravity improves and advantageous transformations frequently occur (Hammann, 1972). And as vertical organization of the individual improves, fear-based feelings such as insecurity and anger give way to ease, clarity, and balance (Rolf, 1988).

If we consider motor patterns as highly individual constructions created through interactions between person, environment, and occupation (Davis & Polatajko, 2010), these patterns help to form a day- to-day sense of continuity, a choreography that enables occupational performance [ability to engage in purposeful activities] of the individual through development of routine. Using the spatio-temporal adaptation theory proposed by Gilfoyle, Grady, and Moore, we learn that motor control is integrated with sensory inputs along both space and time continuums, through a “spiralling continuum of spatio-temporal adaptation” (1990, p. 49).

We use emotional resonance to convey understanding and mirror intention to allow our client to feel safe, able to adapt to our manipulations, and release the physical and emotional tension stored within her core.

For example, a baby moves upwards through this continuum as key behaviors in the developmental progression of walking are acquired. This developmental progression begins with primary standing, where if a baby is held upright in a feels when we attune to them appropriately.

–              standing posture shortly after birth, the baby will temporarily weight bear and appear to stand with support (Berk, 2009; Bukatko & Daehler, 2011). As the baby’s reflexes integrate, postural control and movement patterns develop, and over time the baby progresses through the key behaviors of primary walking, pull to stand, supported standing, supported walking, squatting, independent standing, and finally, independent walking (Berk, 2009; Bukatko & Daehler, 2011).

The occupational performance of an individual who is extracted from routine and placed in a new situation with unfamiliar context or environmental factors often experiences spatio-temporal stress, followed by regression down the spiralling continuum to lower level behaviors, in order to successfully adapt to the new situation (Gilfoyle et al., 1990). In practice, we may consider an adult who routinely displays mature walking behavior when he walks across the deck of a boat under sail. It is likely we may observe regression to lower level behaviors, beginning with pauses in the walking gait (standing), lowering of body centre of gravity (squatting), and ultimately locating a rail to guide his path (supported walking).

In contextualizing these considerations with respect to structural integration, we may observe new behavioral and motor patterns arising from the increased organization and confluence of myofascial structures. I postulate sustained occupational performance in new situations (limited regression and therefore maintenance of higher order behavioral function) for individuals who have received a structural integration process and are subjected to spatio-temporal stress. Fear-based feelings are likely to give way to mental ease, facilitating improved relation to the self and others through an emotional clarity.

The Case of Mrs. K.

In support of this postulation, I can refer to the case of Mrs. K., an amateur dancer. Mrs. K. had been visiting my practice over some weeks, as we worked through her first structural integration series. During the sleeve sessions, Mrs. K. mentioned ongoing difficulty with her dancing, whereby she would practice and perfect a routine at home; yet when dancing at a performance in a different location, the routine would invariably become more difficult to execute, lending to error and confusion. Mrs. K. commented that as she became accustomed to  a new location, the level of error in her routine would decrease. The subject arose again weeks later during an integration session, as Mrs. K. remarked with surprise that she had danced at two different locations recently and was able to execute new routines without difficulty.

Structural integration alters motor control, improves neural instruction, and facilitates efficiency and balance within the neuromuscular system (Hunt, Bruyere, Massey, Weinberg, & Hahn, 1977). It is largely through these changes that Mrs. K. was able to endure spatio-temporal stress and sustain occupational performance in the new dancing locations that she visited.

Social Interaction and Awareness Improved social interaction is another frequently reported change after structural integration processes (Hunt et al., 1977), with clients finding creation of dialogue and general interaction with their social environment easier, often achieved through associated feelings of confidence and purpose in their interactions. Awareness of body provides increased sensitivity to external environments, notably consideration of others and their own feelings and interactions with their bodies (Linden, 1994). Increased awareness within social environments is a common effect of somatic education as utilized within the structural integration process. This awareness results in cultivation of open dialogues facilitating reciprocal respect for others, with people more likely to display conduct that is productive, considerate, and engaging (Davis & Polatajko, 2010; Linden, 1994).

I have observed numerous recipients of structural integration find new ways to describe themselves and their feelings, often reporting improved bonding relationships and engagement with their social environment.

Relating these findings to my personal experience with structural integration, I have noted that I am more likely to initiate dialogue with strangers than  I was prior to commencing my own process of structural integration. In addition, I observe that my ability to construct social relationships has improved tremendously, along with the capacity to maintain and nurture these relationships over time. This was something that I would not previously have classified as difficult; however, I find I am far more likely to engage and facilitate such connections following the structural integration sessions I have received thus far. Within the role of a practitioner, I have observed numerous recipients of structural integration find new ways to describe themselves and their feelings, often reporting improved bonding relationships and engagement with their social environment.

The Case of Mr. S.

While independent in activities of daily living, Mr. S. experienced chronic physical discomfort related to excessive thoracic kyphosis, and activity modification was necessary for him to engage in certain activities, primarily those involving extended periods of static posture. Mr. S. experienced variable stressors within his work and social environments, with shifting deadlines and a large volume of computer-based tasks creating pressure at work, while his social life offered increasing friction as relations deteriorated between two close friends. Mr. S. reportedly enjoyed the structural integration process and was generally able to engage well with the somatic education components, as described earlier in the somatic coaching section. During the core sessions, I noted that Mr. S. articulated his feelings with greater clarity and displayed progressive insight into the environmental stressors affecting his person. By the time we reached the integration sessions, Mr. S. commented he had been able to resolve a large portion of his environmental stressors, largely due to increased awareness and his new confidence in building open dialogues with the parties concerned.

Considering the stressors Mr. S. was experiencing, involving regular contretemps with feelings of anxiety, stress, and discomfort, we note such negative emotions are intrinsically linked to flexion, requiring withdrawal and flexion patterns for their expression (Feldenkrais, 1981; Hanna, 1988). Notably, the most significant structural changes for Mr. S. could be observed throughout the core sessions, using language from Jan Sultan: arising upward and outward, with a marked reduction in “internal” transmission lines and characteristics (1986).

Mr. S. articulated interoceptive changes more frequently during the core sessions, developing from initially vague descriptions into quite clear pictures of sensations and emotional states. I also noted increased sharing of power within the practitioner- client relationship as we progressed through the core and integration sessions, with Mr. S. visibly more comfortable. At the conclusion of his structural integration process, Mr. S. reserved minor comment for the chronic physical discomfort that originally led him to my practice, while he was particularly verbal in regard to the ease with which he could now relate to others and navigate his social and emotional environments.

Emotions and the Cellular Environment Human brains are able to convert chemical signals from signal molecules (such as hormones, cytokines, and neuropeptides) into sensations, which can be propagated throughout the body (Lundy-Ekman, 2013). The conscious mind interprets these signals as emotions through the use of processing receptors located on nerve cell membranes. In Molecules of Emotion, Candace Pert observes that these receptors exist on most, if not all, cells within the body (1997).

Her findings suggest that emotion is not interpreted only within the brain, but throughout the whole body.

As a client progresses through the structural integration process, emotional release and freedom, or clarity of emotion, is often experienced. I propose that the greater myofascial order that the structural integration practitioner facilitates promotes overall health and congruence of the cellular matrix, also amplifying the emotional processing ability of cells.

Lipton’s conclusion regarding the cell membrane in The Biology of Belief supports this postulation, noting “the cell’s operations are primarily molded by its interaction with the environment . . .” (2012, p. 56). He goes on to comment that our human biology is certainly affected through changes in our mind and emotion (Lipton, 2012). We  know through our practice that increased myofascial order and confluence improves the functioning of human structures and, with respect to these findings, we can also note the observation of Ida Rolf, quoted by French in On The Need of a Coherent Psychological Perspective for Rolfing, “The body is the personality exploded into three dimensions” (2007, p. 8).


As a result of significant experiences encountered throughout the process, the effects of structural integration (SI) are profound and often extend into the non-physical realm, generally characterized as sensations of great well-being. With the understanding of contemporary mind- body integration science, we also note improved psychosocial functioning. The SI process can include exploration of self-image and a deeper understanding of personal interactions within the environment at large. Through physical intervention from structural integration, self-image will be modified accordingly as the human structure adapts and integrates the changes initiated by the process.

Improved behavioral and motor patterns emerge, arising from the confluence of myofascial structures.

This in turn facilitates a more robust individual with elevated resilience to spatio-temporal stresses within the environment. Social interactions and relationships improve, particularly the ability of the client to construct and maintain bridging relationships, improve social engagement, and nurture bonding relationships.

This article has explored a subset of the non- physical effects that arise through the process of structural integration. Frequently they are unexpected, yet often serve to enrich the experience of the client and her journey toward optimal balance within the gravitational field.


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