Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structure, Function, Integration Journal – Vol. 48 – Nº 2

Volume: 48
ABSTRACT In this interview conducted in the autumn of 2019, Michael Polon, faculty with the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute®, discusses how current neuroscience can help structural integrators of all experience levels create more meaningful and effective clinical experiences for their clients, both within and outside of series work. He begins by describing various physiological mechanisms involved with the experience of touch from skin to brain and back again, then provides detailed examples of clinical application.

ABSTRACT In this interview conducted in the autumn of 2019, Michael Polon, faculty with the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute®, discusses how current neuroscience can help structural integrators of all experience levels create more meaningful and effective clinical experiences for their clients, both within and outside of series work. He begins by describing various physiological mechanisms involved with the experience of touch from skin to brain and back again, then provides detailed examples of clinical application.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the IASI 2020 Yearbook of Structural Integration. We have made some modifications here for our journal style.

Daniel Akins: In your presentation at the 2018 International Association of Structural Integrators (IASI) Symposium, you said that your curiosity as a student, a teacher, and a practitioner has become guided by questions about where our experience of what it’s like to live in this body comes from and how the work of structural integration (SI) might affect, support, or change that. You spoke of how input to the brain from our physical form, memories, emotions, expectations, and beliefs interact in complex ways to result in our present-moment lived experience. How has your inquiry developed over the year-and-a-half since then?
Michael Polon: That’s a long question with lots of factors. My inquiry is still very much alive in all of those aspects which we could bucket into the terms that the neurological world uses – including some in the [SI] world – which would be a ‘bottom-up’ set of interactions and a ‘top-down’ set of interactions. I think it’s useful to explore those terms before we get to a big topic, a present moment lived experience, a salient unit of awareness, even in so far as what somebody bases their desires and goals off of, as in why to even pursue the work to begin with. I think it would be helpful to see what the work looks like from a bottom-up view, then from a top-down view, and then show how this experience of touch, of movement, of therapeutic presence changes the moment-to-moment experience.

Do we have to alter anything in the fascia to create meaningful change? Can we alter anything in the fascia that would support long-term change? And how does our work with people, as opposed to specific tissues, create short and long-term gains that are hopefully in accordance with what people’s goals are?

MP: Bottom-up – another way of saying that would be an ‘outside-in’ view – is how I learned the work initially. It’s been my experience, in my early days as a student and a practitioner, that this is how the work was most commonly talked and written about. Bottom-up, in this case, refers to anything that the periphery of the body would deliver ‘upstream’ to the central nervous system, to the brain. Bottom- up is all about how to make impacts on peripheral receptors, peripheral tissues, in so far that that would turn into some kind of ‘shift’ for the client. The way I learned the work originally was almost exclusively bottom; there wasn’t that much up. It was the tissue plasticity model where we looked at a body as a collection of tissue patterns – maybe they were considered flaws or faults – and we looked at making some kind of plastic or viscoelastic change to the fabric of that pattern.
DA: I often hear it assumed that freeing fascial restrictions is the primary thing we’re doing, and then, secondarily, we educate the client to embody their altered form. Is that what you typically hear or have heard?
MP: I’ve heard something to that effect, for sure. My response to that assumption speaks to an overarching principle and an alternate, perhaps more science- supported view: Do we have to alter anything in the fascia to create meaningful change? Can we alter anything in the fascia that would support long-term change? And how does our work with people, as opposed to specific tissues, create short- and long-term gains that are hopefully in accordance with what people’s goals are?
The bottom-up idea, going back to a fascial distortion model like when I first learned, was looking for deviations in posture, altered range of motion, or places where people hurt and assuming that that was a product of faulty fascia,
typically in the terms of an ‘adhesion’. The problem with that approach – which would be all-bottom since there’s hardly any information needed, it’s just a matter of manipulating the fabric – is that it assumes that what we think we’re doing, we’re actually doing. There’s been some science in the last few decades and which continues to roll out that brings some serious questions to whether or not that’s actually possible with the tools we have at our disposal – in our case, manual therapy.
Looking beyond a simple fascial distortion model – like we’re just rolling lumps out of pizza dough or ironing creases out of clothing – what’s been brought to light by the movement community, whether it’s the movement community at the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute® or other movement practitioners in and outside of the SI world, their focus seems to have been much more of an informational model as opposed to a deformational model, deformation meaning all we have to do is deform and reshape the fabric. It almost invites a lack of care for the client’s experience, which seems ridiculous to say. I don’t think there are many practitioners out there that would suggest their clients’ experience of the work doesn’t matter to them, but because it matters to them it’s obvious that there’s more happening than just the fabric reshaping. With these insights from the movement side of the work and other significant inputs to the field of SI, we start to embrace the idea that it’s the information that gets transmitted through a touch exchange that has a lot of potential gain for us to pay attention to so that we can make SI work better in specific ways that are aligned with our client’s goals, like addressing some kind of injury, pain pattern, or something specific to the way that client experiences themselves which may be a little different than the next client that walks into your office.
When we look at touch as information it makes us do a little bit of homework in terms of physiology. We must ask, how does the myofascia or all of the tissues that are around and superficial to it – the skin, the hypodermis or superficial fascia, the adipose layer – how do they listen to touch? What do they experience in terms of neuron sensitivity – whether that’s free nerve endings or mechanoreceptors – how does all that tissue peripheral to the myofascia pay attention to the touch information that we give during the session? What does the spinal cord, as the first stop for that information, choose to do with that? It either inhibits it right then and there or transmits it up to the brain, and then what does the brain do with it and the various locations to which it will deliver that information?
So that’s the bottom-up view: touch as information creating impulses to carry towards the central nervous system that start to make shifts that actually change part of the experience of what it feels like to be us moment-by-moment, second-by- second – as opposed to the long duration that tissues would need to make a shift.
DA: Would you elaborate on some of those specific bottom-up factors that we might be influencing through our work?
MP: Yeah. The classic ‘fascia is alive’ idea that got popularized with Robert’s Schleip’s work, certainly in that 2003 article. I forget the exact title.
DA: The “new neurobiological explanation” articles (Schleip, 2003a, 2003b)?
MP: Yeah, those really opened the door to start looking beyond just mechanical deformation. He outlined a lot of different feedback loops that are affected by touch. The mechanoreceptors that he pointed us to in that article were the popular ones: the Ruffinis, the Pacinis, the Golgi tendon organs, but then he also made allusion to these free nerve endings, these unmyelinated C-fibers. This is a place I’ve actually studied quite a bit, and it seems like the world of affective neuroscience has a lot to teach structural integrators.

We know that the Ruffinis and the Pacinis are scanning for different types of feedback. The unmyelinated C-fibers have typically been classified as nociceptors, which aren’t quite ‘pain receptors’, more like ‘danger detectors’. Then the world of affective neuroscience has exposed this whole other big network, almost like a subsystem within the afferent nerves. They’re also unmyelinated, they’re also C-fibers (which just indicates the size and conduction velocity), but they’re referred to as C-tactile fibers. When you look at this C-tactile subsystem, what you see is a vast network that outnumbers the rest of the proprioceptors on the order of about seven to one.
Why is this important? The classic network of touch detectors that Schleip pointed us to in 2003 tells us a lot of information in the realm of exteroception, i.e. what’s touching us. It also helps us figure out where we are in space, i.e. proprioception.
What the world of affective neuroscience shows us from these C-tactile fibers – which, again, far outnumber the proprioceptive group – they inform us about interoception, which is a buzzword in the neuroscience community in the last five to ten years. Interoception is less about, “Where is my body and what is it doing?” It’s more about, “How do I feel about what’s happening?”
Clients, for the most part, seek SI because they’re wanting to feel different. This interoceptive network is the gateway to modifying how it feels to be you on a second-by-second basis. So being aware that this system exists and what types of touch really excite it is a huge value gain for manual therapists and SI practitioners, for sure.
DA: This C-tactile fiber subsystem is located where? You’re saying we directly interact with this network through touch?
MP: Yes. These fibers are there to code for how we feel about the touch that is being applied to us. They are for affective touch, meaning, “How does this touch affect us? How do we feel about things?” They code for what most of the literature calls pleasant touch, but pleasant is a subjective term: what feels pleasant to me may not feel pleasant to you; what feels pleasant to me on my hamstrings may be different on my quadriceps; it may be different from Monday to Tuesday; it may be different from practitioner to practitioner, client to client. So, “What does pleasant actually mean?” is a great question. Each client’s experience receiving touch, how that fits into their goals, what they think they need, all of those questions go into whether something feels pleasant or not.
This is what ties into meaning. Pleasant, to me, might mean really strong, heavy- handed touch because that’s what I think is good for me. Pleasant, to someone else, might be very light, just the weight of their hands, more of a cranial touch, because that’s what their nervous system lights up to. It makes our work have to be meaningful to our clients if we want to create the most potential possible. Our clients’ experience drives the meaning, not what we think we need to apply to deform the fabric.
DA: Could you help me understand these C-tactile fibers more clearly? My understanding of nociceptors is that they aren’t receiving information about pain, per se; they’re receiving information about temperature, degree of force, and other such factors, sending that information to the brain which then decides whether or not a threat is present.
You’re talking about these C-tactile fibers coding for not threat, but for pleasant touch. What is the raw information that these C-tactile fibers are receiving? And is that encoding happening at the level of the periphery, or is it happening centrally?
MP: Great. The peripheral receptors are only specific to three types of detection: They can either detect chemical stimuli, thermal stimuli, or mechanical stimuli. Some of these receptors can be polymodal, meaning that they scan for more than one type of information. The key to answering the question you asked about where the encoding happens is to look at where the bottom goes to the up-structures. All the peripheral receptor can do is become excited. In this case, these C-tactile fibers are just excited by mechanical pressure. In our case, it’s touch.
Touch travels along these unmyelinated nerves, they do their thing into the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. In the spinal cord, some very complex immune / endocrine- system factors then decide to either inhibit or facilitate the next neuron in the chain, and that goes up to the brain. The big difference between nociceptors and these interoceptive nerve endings is the delivery site in the brain. The C-tactile fibers end up having synapses in an area in the brain called the insular cortex. The insular cortex is not concerned with proprioception, like the somatosensory cortex.
The insular cortex is involved with creating the experience of how we feel in this moment – not necessarily where we feel or if we’re moving, like the proprioceptive networks are trying to code for – the insular cortex has everything to do with how you feel. So if you want to create an experience of feeling different, this network of neurons is a great pathway to shifting that. This is stuff we’ve been doing for sixty years. Now that we know we’re doing it, we can do what we do a little better, more efficiently, in ways that are more client-specific.
DA: Could you give an example of how this might show up in practice, how we might affect the insular cortex of our clients through these C-tactile fibers?
MP: We’re doing this all the time, whether we know it or not. Even if you’re doing a classic myofascial technique you’re still affecting this highly complex set of neurons, all the way from the mechanoreceptors that Schleip mostly talked about to this subset of C-tactile afferents; any time a body gets touched, all of these neurons are active. The thing I’m most excited about is educating practitioners that there’s this huge window of opportunity beyond the viewpoint of just reshaping fabric. If you do a forearm stroke up somebody’s hamstrings you’re stimulating the Ruffinis, the Pacinis, the free nerve endings that have classically been categorized as nociceptive, but you’re also stimulating these tactile nerve endings. The more pleasant (think meaningful or useful) the touch feels, the more it’s going to light up in the insular cortex – again, that’s the spot that changes how it feels to be me, how it feels to be you, in the moment.
One way to elicit more of a top-down response, to prime the insula to be more interactive with the information it’s receiving, is to ask the client, “What does this feel like?” and to be curious about their moment-to-moment experience. Some schools of thought, in terms of SI education, really focus on this part; other schools don’t. This is a major opportunity for the practitioner to evoke more meaning out of every intervention by being curious about what’s going on in somebody’s world of experience. That may include using something like imagery, an inner vision of what’s happening under the skin, or even just some descriptors or adjectives about what the touch feels like. Whenever we ask clients to ‘come to the touch’ by qualifying how it feels, we start to prime the insular cortex so that they have to ‘ping’ the insular cortex, and then they start to assemble more meaning out of the information that had been going there the whole time.
DA: You’re saying that it’s essential to the quality of our work with clients that we are attentive to and prioritize their present- moment experience. Are there any other bottom-up factors that you find important?
MP: Yes, there are several other bottom-up responses that are often at play in bodywork. It’s important to take note of a couple of very convenient and, at times, confusing touch feedback loops – confusing because they are often times effective yet short lasting in response to classic SI-style touch. The ones that come to mind both revolve around something that doesn’t feel good, like tension or pain. If somebody says they feel tight, or they feel pain somewhere, there are a couple of feedback loops along this bottom-up style of thinking that can trick a practitioner into thinking that they have resolved an adhesion.
When something is hurting or feeling tight, if we stimulate those Pacinis or Ruffinis with either our classic style of SI touch or with some of the faster-moving massage techniques like effleurage or petrissage, or even rubbing a boo-boo on a kid’s knee after he or she falls off the slide on the playground – stimulating these mechanoreceptors will inhibit the nociceptors from being able to propagate their signal from bottom to top. It’s why we tend to rub things when we hurt them: If we slam our shin into the coffee table, we rub it; if we smack our hands onto the countertop, we shake it so that we inhibit these nociceptive mechanoreceptors. This will commonly shut down something acute or maybe even a persistent pain, giving the practitioner and client the experience that whatever was driving that pain has just resolved. The problem with this feedback loop – which is called ascending inhibition and is featured in Melzack and Wall’s gate theory of pain – is that it’s short acting. Sometimes a short-acting response of quieting the pain system down does the trick; other times it just isn’t enough of a change. This is why we probably don’t have to worry about all of these new massager guns putting us out of business any time soon.
Another feedback loop that we can use, especially with heavy-handed touch, can be simply described as counterirritation. The neuroscience world likes to refer to this one as diffuse noxious inhibitory control, which seems to be changing to conditioned pain modulation. What this means is that if you create more pain temporarily you can evoke an experience out of the brain where it will buffer pain globally in the short term. This gives practitioners an opportunity to flood somebody’s nervous system with a lot of discomfort and the aches and pains our client walked into the office with are no longer present. When this happens, it’s easy to assume that their change in experience is because we changed their fascia.
Between the ascending inhibition of moving the mechanoreceptors around along with counterirritating by creating a lot of discomfort resulting in a descending response to buffer pain, both of those feedback loops make it seem like we could address whatever was driving the discomfort rather quickly. Without knowing any of this neurology, if you had to answer, “What tissue changed as a result of the touch,” answering that question with “the fascia either melted, re-sculpted, or somehow let go of an adhesion” would be a logical answer, especially if you’re only looking at what changed in the tissue. If you’re looking at what changed in the nervous system you have a lot more plausible answers to choose from and they seem to match the client’s experience that these changes can be short-lived.
DA: Do you think fascia has any relevance to our work?
MP: People who study fascia know a whole lot more about that question than I do. I like to study how the nervous system
– and by that I don’t just mean nerves, I mean the nervous system, which would be inclusive of what is it like to be you – how that whole system is modified through SI.
DA: Do you think that the surrounding tissues of the peripheral nervous system might play some part in the information exchange of touch? For example, if force is carried through tissues to the neurofascial interface.
MP: This is a good place for histology, i.e. the study of tissue, to show up. I think one of the aspects that is confusing for new students, which is who I usually hang out with in the Rolfing classes that I teach, is: What is the difference between fascia and connective tissue? And which fasciae are we talking about when we say myofascia?
If you look at cross-sections of fascia, skin, or those first few layers of tissue transitions that most texts show, they usually show a very similar thing: the outside of the skin is mostly made up of epithelial tissues, and as you drop down a layer or two just below that you see a mix of epithelial and connective tissue – not quite the myofascia just yet. In that ‘soup’ of the superficial connective tissue, which is just under the skin, is where you see these mechanoreceptors living. As you get lower and lower, you see fewer and fewer mechanoreceptors. When we look at the myofascia, which would be the white stuff on the surface of the red muscles, that stuff seems to have less density of neurons and mechanoreceptors than the layers that are closer to the skin.
The question of what’s happening at the neurofascial interface begs another question: Which fascia are we talking about? The terms connective tissue and fascia are not the same. It seems like the world of fascia research is trying to get unified definitions of what fascia is, what fascia isn’t, what this layer of fascia is called versus that layer. From the surface fascia just under the skin, to the adipose layer just under that, to the myofascia, these are all different tissues with different densities of mechanoreceptive nerve endings.
DA: So your main concern is with the client’s experience. You aren’t saying that fascia does this or does not do that
– you’re saying that whatever fascia does, these exteroceptive and interoceptive factors are highly relevant to the client’s experience whether we intend to affect those factors or not.
MP: Correct. We know that from modalities like craniosacral work, like movement, even something outside of our scope like kinesiology taping. We know that there are lots of ways to influence the different nerve endings that lay in the superficial tissues. We know there are ways of influencing “what does it feel like to be me?” even when someone doesn’t touch me but I just explore my body in different ways, like through movement work. So a good question to ask is, “How does movement work impact fascia?” versus “How does movement work impact what it’s like to be you in this moment?” It’s questions like that that generated my curiosity into pursuing this stuff further.
DA: We could get into how you came to this, but we haven’t gotten into top-down yet.
MP: The top-down conversation would start with questions like, where do these neural circuits end up in the brain? Where do the nociceptive neurons wind up delivering their information? Where do the proprioceptive neurons wind up delivering their information? Where does this whole interoception thing happen?

Proprioception, which is going to be stimulated every time we move and certainly when people touch us in an SI- style of touch, projects into an area of our brain called the somatosensory cortex. The somatosensory cortex is involved with mapping where we experience our bodies to be and how they seem to be moving or not, moment-to-moment. This is a lot about spatial data; it has very little to do with how we feel and more about what the body is doing in terms of movement.
DA: But earlier you seemed to downplay the significance of proprioception.
MP: Proprioception is a critical capacity of a brain, whether it’s helping us not fall down, or coordinating a dance move, or a golf swing, or how to sprint off the starting blocks. It’s critical to all aspects of human movement, and its involvement in things like posture and pain seem to be less of a focal point.
DA: So proprioception may not be as relevant to the touch experience, but it’s relevant to the client’s movement. This might show up more when you stand your client off the table and what they do with that information.
MP: Yeah, so proprioception is always happening and it’s always going to be bouncing off of what we’re feeling about what’s happening, i.e. interoception. Proprioception is critical for things like performance, fall prevention in the elderly, for coordination and learning. When I watched my fourteen-month-old daughter learn to walk her proprioception was firing off like fireworks; it’s easy for us to walk once we’ve mastered how to do it. In terms of touch, the quality as opposed to the quantity, the quality of the touch, that seems to be what’s more responsible for making these big shifts in what it’s like to be us. Some of the stories we’ve seen over the decades about major life transitions with SI – major experiences of maybe what we could call healing and really opening up a new potential of growth for our clients – would have to include more than just proprioception.
DA: Any specifics you’d like to speak to?
MP: Again, if we define proprioception as this awareness of where we are in space and how that’s changing, it’s critical to things like coordination, stabilization, or learning new movements. But this other aspect of anything emotive, anything that has some kind of meaning or valence to us, exists outside of the proprioceptive system.

DA: You’re saying that accessing that sense of meaning, through interoception, is critical to how our clients end up processing their proprioception.
MP: It’s critical, and I imagine a good term for it would be interdependent. Shifts in proprioception – especially for someone for whom proprioception has major consequences, like an athlete, dancer, or performer – have a big emotional meaning. They have some big risk or reward payoff, but it’s not the proprioceptive system that’s tracking that. The proprioceptive system is just tracking spatial data. It’s void of emotion.
The bigger shifts that I hear about in clients, that I heard about through the decades that got me excited to do the work, were more about life-potential opening in new ways as a result of this structural integration process. That’s what never made sense to me: If we’re just changing proprioception, where does all this other stuff happen? If we’re just changing the tension on the fabric network, why does this work mean so much to people?
DA: Have you found some ways to bring a sense of risk and reward to your clients to enhance this interoceptive- proprioceptive interdependence?
MP: I think this has been happening the whole time, for as long as practitioners have been doing SI. This network of nerves, this C-tactile subsystem, the process of interoception have been around for much longer than we’ve known about them, which is why really explosive results were happening from the work, even in the 1950s and 1960s before we knew why they were happening, which brings us to a ‘side road’. Let’s come back to the main road, but I want to take a little tour down a side road for a second.
In speaking with some of the first generation Rolfers™, in the times of the 1950s and 1960s classes before these

I like to study how the nervous system – and by that I don’t just mean nerves, I mean the nervous system, which would be inclusive of what is it like to be you – how that whole system is modified through SI.

neural networks were really understood, it was easy to attribute what we were seeing happen to what we knew to be the most connective of all of the tissues in the body. So if we’re looking for a tissue that goes from one foot to the opposite SI joint to the opposite shoulder again, that is the connective tissue.
Recent studies on how far those tissues actually transmit force and what they do in the presence of ‘SI amounts’ of touch offer some interesting dialogues which we can refrain from here. But as we got into the ‘decade of the brain’ and neurology started becoming more a part of what was included in SI trainings, what we see now is a network of connective relationships that aren’t in the connective tissue. They’re actually in the neural tissue, and information from one foot to the other SI joint to the opposite shoulder again travels at lightning speed and is capable of making radical shifts of experience in terms of embodiment, of movement, of pain, of what it’s like to be you, all without any fascia needing to change. Now that we, in 2019, know that this stuff is there we can start exploring how our touch, movement work, even just our therapeutic presence changes that ‘informational connective tissue’ as opposed to the fibers of the fascia system.
Since we only had fascia as an answer, then of course we used fascia to explain why we saw such radical shifts in behavior, but now that we have neurology it actually gives us more insight and provides a better understanding as to not only what has been happening, but what is possible with the work. That’s where I’m really excited.
DA: Has your sense of possibility for the work changed?
MP: My sense of possibility for the work has burst open into what seems almost boundless, limitless. Whether we are addressing something as simple as postural shape, a pain pattern, a limitation to performance, or some fixation of self- identity, all of those experiences are now well within what’s possible to shift in a meaningful relationship, especially throughout a series of work with a present, patient, empathic, and attuned practitioner
– but we need to look to neurology to figure out why that is so.
Any time we are working through touch, we’re working with parts of this interoceptive system that reach into past experience, into relational presence, and include major developmental experiences like attachment style. This is why we’ve seen such success in supporting people who have experienced trauma, because touch is so informational at this emotional level and it has much more to do with this moment-to-moment attuned, relational presence as it does some kind of technical accuracy to target one tissue over another tissue. As soon as we use touch and evoke some kind of meaning from the client’s perspective, even if it’s just curiosity and bringing them to the experience of what it feels like to be receiving the touch in the moment, we start to light up the neurology of what may have been limiting these pain patterns, these postural patterns, even these emotive patterns of perhaps not wanting to be seen, or not feeling proud and elegant, or not allowing oneself to take up space. All of those aspects seem to be more of what changes posture than just simply a tight muscle.
DA: A fear I often hear when about relating science to SI is that it will lead to us limiting our work to symptom amelioration, or we’ll become over-focused on ‘fixing’. But it sounds to me like you’re just using modern neurobiological insights to bring us back to a more holistic take on the work, a more transformative approach.
MP: That is very well said. Having a focus on just one tissue over another tissue, whether that’s nerves, viscera, cranial

My sense of possibility for the work has burst open into what seems almost boundless, limitless. Whether we are addressing something as simple as postural shape, a pain pattern, a limitation to performance, or some fixation of self-identity, all of those experiences are now well within what’s possible to shift . . . but we need to look to neurology to figure out why that is so.

fluids, or fascia seems to be at odds with the idea of holism. Part of what I love about this neurocentric approach to structural integration is that we look at what makes somebody whole. It’s not just their nerves, that’s not what this is about.
This is not about neural manipulation versus fascial manipulation. This is about working with a broad system of experience which is mitigated through lots of different tissues and brain regions to create the experience of what’s happening in the moment for the client. To truly take a holistic approach, we wouldn’t favor one tissue over another tissue. We wouldn’t favor this technique over that technique; we would favor what means the most to the client, and that might take a little detective work or homework to realize what is motivating someone to come to us.
Why is standing taller important to them? Why is not having back pain important to them, or whatever the presenting goal or desire is on first glance? That’s a way we can evoke meaning and bring our clients more to each session and every series, as opposed to us implying or imposing our own ideas about what we think someone else should have more or less of.
DA: To bring us back to the ‘main road’, you’re saying that tuning into the client’s sense of meaning, what they’re coming to us for, allows us to leverage their own sense of risk and reward to help them embody their desired outcome?
MP: Yeah. I think what it does is reveal how much of a person’s experience is modifiable. It shows us how big the menu is in terms of what is possible with the work; we aren’t limited to loosening this muscle, re-sculpting that piece of fascia, or determining that one posture is better for this other person and a different posture is for someone else, or that everybody should be in the same posture – there’s lots of research that would challenge all of those ideas. If we come to our work humbled, in a position of humility and in true service of what a client really wants – not just what they say they want, but what might be under why they want it – then we can start to tailor our work with much more meaning, knowing that there is this network of nerves and brain responses that are working for us to make these goals happen.
DA: Suppose a client comes to you saying they want their fascia realigned; you wouldn’t necessarily try to convince them whether or not that’s important. You would be more interested in what they imagine fascial manipulation or alignment would do for them, and then you’d go from there. Is that correct?
MP: Absolutely. The truth is, I have no idea what’s happening to their fascia when I work on them. When I’m working with someone, the only way I can really know what they’re experiencing is to ask. I’m also aware that what they tell me will be filtered through their personality, language, beliefs, culture, and other factors that shape their inner world rather than just the biology of what’s happening in their tissue. The best I can do is just be humble and curious.
If somebody comes in with a goal, whether they want to deadlift better, warrior pose better, ski better, stop their back pain, or have their fascia realigned, I still ask why those things are important. There’s usually some value that those things are in service of. Whether it’s feeling free, feeling strong, having their bodies experience some enjoyment in their activities – that’s the stuff I build sessions and series in service of: the deeper values. Now that I know that there is a system of nerves scanning for my touch input that deliver right into the meaning-making structures of what it’s like to be my client, all of those goals are much more reachable and I don’t have to manipulate through one tissue or another to get there.
DA: Since you’re guided by the client’s experience you can just be with the complexity; you don’t have to figure it all out or pretend to.
MP: Knowing the client’s experience and how their experience is or isn’t in service of their goals gives me so much more insight than the strategies, techniques, or goals of the letter of the ‘Recipe’ ever did.
DA: Do you still do series-based work? If so, are you able to use your current understandings to evoke more meaning out of series work?
MP: Do I do series work? All the time. Not exclusively, but still all the time. Do I think this approach evokes more meaning in series work? Absolutely. I think this is something that even new practitioners could include. It’s hard in the beginning if you’re under an imperative to do every technique to every part of the body that you’ve seen every one of your teachers ever do. To work in a way that is attuned with what that client is wanting out of their session with you in the moment, prioritizing what would be most helpful is actually a lot simpler than trying to go through every technique hoping that a few of them land.
DA: Are you saying that by prioritizing the client’s experience we can still proceed through the series, making more relevant choices for the client in every session throughout?
MP: Right. What this is not, is every client gets every session exactly how they want it. This is not, “Tell me how to work on you in the way that’s the most pleasurable.” This is using their experience of what it’s like to receive the work in service of the themes or goals of the session, which may or may not be a Ten Series, a twelve-series, a whatever series. Maybe you only get three or five sessions with someone.
How do you prioritize? While this may sound like an advanced concept to someone who’s coming from the ABCs of the original series, I don’t think it’s that far off base. The students that I mentor in my private practice, I see a lot of ways of applying these ideas even if we follow the letter of the Recipe, how to evoke more meaning each step of the way, stroke-by- stroke, intervention-by-intervention, and how to anchor it into an ‘integratable’ experience
– if that’s a word.
DA: Making the experience integratable. I think that’s a useful concept.
MP: My sense of evoking the client’s present experience throughout each moment of the session has been that the results of the work integrate on the fly. We don’t do an hour’s worth of work and then try to integrate it all at the end; if we bring the nervous system along with us frame- by-frame, it’s really quite easy to learn along the way as opposed to trying to figure out why I feel so disorganized all at the end.
DA: We’re always integrating.
MP: I think we can be. If we bring our clients along, we can be. If we leave them in a more passive state, I think the work can be confusing when the volume of work adds up. When the volume of work adds up before there are enough check- ins, pauses, and digesting points, the work feels like a flooding of information, as opposed to bringing someone on a journey with checkpoints of salience and integration along the way.
DA: What if your client has had a long day and they don’t want to stay engaged? How do you reconcile their present-moment experience with their big-picture goals?
MP: I might ask them what feels more important to them in the moment and why and then maybe even set a context around, “Well, for the next hour,” or whatever amount of time, “we’re here to do this, and the best way I know to lead us through this process would be to include your awareness of what’s happening, so if you’re up for it, I think we would get a lot more value out of staying engaged throughout the process.” And then, of course, it’s up to them.
DA: Is there anything else top-down you want to speak to?
MP: Our work is never not top-down; we are always creating top down experiences. When you follow the bottom-up to top- down metaphor far enough it becomes confusing where the line is when bottom- up becomes top-down. To keep it simple- ish, I think a worthwhile distinction is that, at some point, this information is coming upstream into various parts of the central nervous system and then the spinal cord or brain does something about that. There’s all this affect coming in from our work, and then there’s an effect, a response.
If we take a tissue-centric view of the effects of our work there seems to be some temporary hydration in the extracellular matrix; that comes from the Stecco group in Europe. That’s worth studying, and there’s so much more to it. We know that some of the effects of our work are going to be a temporary modulation of pain – again, back to the idea of why we rub on things. Another effect of our work is that we are going to elicit a sharper sense of proprioception: The more input we get into our proprioceptive neurons, the more our mapping systems light up different parts of the brain and we start to see ourselves, feel ourselves, where we are, how we move more clearly. That has some interesting ramifications for the persistent-pain population.
The next piece of the top-down part – the part that I’m most excited about – is the effect response about what it’s like to be us in this moment: The top-down expression

I think this is something that even new practitioners could include . . . To work in a way that is attuned with what that client is wanting out of their session with you in the
moment, prioritizing what would be most helpful is actually a lot simpler than trying to go through every technique hoping that a few of them land.

of interoception. This is a big component of the work. We can see it any time we take a break from our hands-on work, any time we’re asking someone how something feels or what they’re noticing in response to our touch or movement, and definitely, like you asked about, what’s happening at the end of a session. The way in which people report feeling is very filtered through this interoception, this “How do I feel?” Even when somebody says, “I feel good. I feel better. I feel lighter. I feel less pain.” All of those qualities of lighter, better, good, less pain are coming through a very heavily interoceptive influence. That’s all interoceptive output.
DA: Is all interoceptive output equally useful to the client? For example, if a client says, “I feel good,” every time they stand up. Are you satisfied with that? Do you think there’s more possible for them? Do you push them to inquire further?
MP: I always think there’s more possible. I also try to be humble enough to know that I don’t know what “good” means. I imagine good means pleasant, or more pleasant than before. Maybe they’re just being polite? I always want to know, if somebody says they feel good, “What’s good? How do you feel good? What’s good about the way you feel?” For a client to answer that question they have to ask themselves, and in doing so they ping their interoceptive feed to get more in tune with what feels good, why they feel good, why they said that, and that highlights the circuitry that anchors their integration of the changes they get.
This all circles back to, “How could we be as interactive as possible?” Interactive, in certain phases of my practice, just meant I’d ask the client to move all the time while I’m doing work – that’s one way of recruiting some interaction. The way I find to be more meaningful is to go for this experience of what it’s like to be them. It’s less about doing a pelvic rock, or a knee forward or back, and more about, “What are you noticing as I work here?” When I ask that question, people usually don’t say “good.” Asking a more open-ended question oftentimes will lead to a more qualitative answer, and if it doesn’t then there’s a way to ask follow-up questions about what the experience is like to unpack it further.
When I can get into an interaction where we’re unpacking what something feels like, how it feels, then there’s an easy way to relate it to what the client’s individual goals are. “How does this sensation, how does this awareness relate to whatever goal you came in with?” Because I don’t know the answer. That’s one way to evoke meaning.
DA: Say someone came in with persistent low back pain, you have them supine, you’re working near their ASIS, and you ask them what they’re noticing and they say, “It hurts.” How might you relate that to their goal of resolving low back pain?
MP: That’s a couple steps down the line. First I may say something like, “Does it hurt right where I’m pushing? Does it hurt where the back pain is that you’re coming in with?” I want to know more about what hurt feels like to them. How does it hurt? Does it hurt like, burn, ache, or something else? Maybe it even hurts like it’s scary and they want me to stop. How would I know? I want to unpack their immediate experience of what is hurting and how that feels.
The point is just to bring them into the experience. I think bringing them into the experience does a couple things. One is, it helps them see that there are other ways of experiencing the immediate hurt. It also shows that their practitioner cares, which is a huge element of our work. If you imagine a bodyworker who isn’t interested in their clients’ experience of the work versus one who is, I think it’s an easy assumption to make as to which practitioner will get better results, regardless of technical skill.
A question I’ve asked in classes I’ve taught at the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute® over the years is, “What were the most important or impactful qualities of your practitioners?” Students all answered in terms that indicated how much their practitioners cared about them. Just knowing that somebody cares, that the touch is in service of extending care and support actually hacks into this interoceptive network via the attachment system. Touch means different things to different people; to have it mean, “I care about what’s happening for you in service of you getting what you want out of these sessions” goes a huge way into setting the stage for not only a noticeable shift in experience, but a long-lasting impression of how okay they are in the world.
DA: Besides pain, another common reason people seek out structural integration is concerns about posture. They might think their posture results in certain symptoms. They might have aesthetic concerns about their posture or want to appear a certain way in the world. How do you relate with those clients?
MP: I think there’s a lot of confusion over what Dr. Rolf may have meant or what some of the first- or second-generation teachers took from what she said. Posture shares some etymology with position, which might imply this sort of “you put it there and leave it there” idea. That isn’t what posture is; it’s way more dynamic than that. Maybe it’s an artifact of our classroom teaching, this before-and-after picture model.
It turns out posture is way more context dependent. That’s the big key here. Is there a perfect posture for everybody? No. The saying we’re hearing now is “the best posture is the next posture” because we’re not meant to be in any one posture for very long at all. So to answer your question about what I do with clients who want something to change in their posture, again I go back to why. Why do they want that? If they say, “My neck always hurts because I have terrible posture,” then I say, “There are definitely things we can do to change both your neck hurting and your posture but they might not be related as much as we thought, so let’s see if we can get your neck to stop hurting and maybe we’ll change your posture, too.” And then I would ask how that sounds. If people are rigid with what they want me to do, I ultimately am in service of what they’re wanting and why they’re wanting it, so I may find another route in.
Things like normal anatomical variation, cultural norms, gender norms, injury history, all kinds of factors modify why someone would choose this posture over that posture. This biopsychosocial idea of posture helps us see it as a biologically- driven event, psychologically-driven, and it’s even driven through the social system. The shapes of your bones, the length of your muscles, your tibia-to-femur ratio, things like that are going to help determine your posture. It’s also determined in the psychological domain: how your nervous system interprets signals and when it chooses to act on them, what it chooses to suppress. Some of it may be genetic, some of it may be learned, and some of it may just be the state of arousal you’re in that day. The social aspect shows up in, “My posture’s different when I’m with my family, or when I’m with my boss, or when I’m playing ultimate frisbee versus when I’m trying to sit in an airplane and get work done for three hours.”

Is a change in posture the only goal of SI? I imagine most SI practitioners would say “no,” yet so much of what we measure as results, certainly in terms of before-and-after, does seem to be in postural achievements . . . What are we really wanting to see and then how do we know when it happens? What are clients coming in with and how do we determine when we’ve been successful?

Posture is biologically mediated, it’s psychologically mediated, it’s even mediated through what environmental context we’re in at that moment and who else is around in that social domain. So to think that one posture is going to work for everyone, that every individual has their ideal posture is a bit unreasonable. We have lots of information from the world of sports performance, strength and conditioning coaching, all of the pain-science literature that suggests posture is best when it’s dynamic, when it’s adaptable to different conditions for different purposes. Thinking that SI is designed to instill an ideal posture is, I think, a big miss of some of this potential we referenced earlier.
DA: We could think of posture as an expression of adaptability. How rigid are we, or how adaptable are we?
MP: I think all of this points back to, is a change in posture the only goal of SI? I imagine most SI practitioners would say “no,” yet so much of what we measure as results, certainly in terms of before- and-after, does seem to be in postural achievements. That in and of itself makes me question, what are we really wanting to see and then how do we know when it happens? What are clients coming in with and how do we determine when we’ve been successful? That information seems like it would not exist on a series of before- and-after postural assessment photos. I have thought for a long time that it would be fun to do a series of before-and-after pictures to see how various experiences may modify posture: photos before and after a yoga class, or three sets of kettlebell swings, a nap, or some time in meditation.
DA: Couldn’t changes in posture over time just be an indication that change of some kind has occurred? I mean, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that pain has changed, for example, but it does show change in general.
MP: Sure. I think a lot of the information exchange that happens during an SI session has the potential to modify posture, but the world of science has and will always disregard before-and- after pictures as evidence of any kind of meaningful outcome, and there are good reasons for that.
DA: Sure, because there could be many factors that contribute to long-term posture change and actual experiences may vary. But with so many practitioners over the decades showing photos of significant posture change correlating with SI series work, even though that evidence may not be the most scientifically valid that’s still a large volume of low-quality evidence indicating some kind of change.
MP: Yeah, that’s a game that I don’t like to play, but I know in terms of advertising, marketing, or Instagramming, having a lot of visual evidence is important for some people. I don’t know how to talk about that because posture is not that important for me. I like qualitative evidence, testimonials, word-of-mouth – I think it’s a better transformation metric than position difference. After many years of study I still don’t really know when, how, for whom, and why posture matters or not. Sometimes posture gets “worse,” whatever that means, but what if that shift was in service of a client becoming more authentically themselves?
DA: What assessments do you use these days to guide your work? Do you do any visual assessment? Palpation?
MP: I do both, and I love that you asked that question. Certainly the visual and movement assessments are pretty standard pre-session routine; it’s more a matter of why I do them. I’m less interested in looking at things like scapular mechanics, pelvic motion with knee bends, stork tests, or anything like that. I’m more interested in using these pre- session assessments to set a baseline of experience for clients: “What’s it like when you bring your arms up over your head in this jumping-jack motion? What does it feel like through your low back when you do these knee bends?” That way we have a metric on what it feels like now, after. I’m aware that my eyes and hands are only so sensitive – maybe these are my shortcomings as a practitioner – but there is a lot of research out there that challenges the reliability of both visual and palpatory assessment amongst even experienced manual therapists. And still, meaningful change to the lived experience could happen radically and I wouldn’t be able to see it at all.
My interest has moved away from what I think I see and feel to what I can know about what someone feels like on the inside. So I use those assessments pre- and post-session to set baselines. What’s it like at the beginning, and what does it feel like now? It’s more about qualitative inner experience, less about me trying to figure out if my client got a couple of degrees more motion. We’ve got good research that says maybe that’s not so meaningful anyway, in terms of pain or injury risk. My hands are probably not sensitive enough to feel a millimeter or two more motion here or there, but I’m very interested in what it feels like for someone to live in that body.
DA: So for example, if you’re doing a classical first session [of the Ten Series], I imagine you might start by inviting the client to experience their breath and elaborate on what they notice. Then you get them on the table to do some work guided by their values and their experience, inviting them to go deeper into their felt sense as you’re working, and then you stand them back up and ask them what they feel. Does that sound something like how you might work? Would you add or change anything to that?
MP: I’m sure I could add or tweak a couple things, but in general that’s the approach. I want my clients to be active in the assessment. It’s almost like they are going to do the assessment. I set up the, you know, “face this way and do that thing,” or “feel your breath here,” or “what’s it like in this direction?” But I’m always inviting them to assess themselves, not in terms of proper or improper or how much is the right amount of motion, but about what’s the quality, so that they have their attention placed on some aspect of meaning that we can revisit an hour or so later and ask “what does that do?” It shows them that something has changed, that their experience is modifiable, that they’re capable of much more change than they may have originally thought, and it opens the door into what is possible with a little bit of touch and awareness. So I care more about what my clients are doing in terms of assessing themselves; I’m just there to set up the mechanics of it.
DA: Do you do frequent assessments throughout your sessions?
MP: The way I work these days, it’s almost an ongoing dialogue. Every few minutes is a check in around what’s it like now? What are you noticing now? How was that different from before? I’ve noticed that the longer I practice, the less need for certainty I have. I’m much more willing to go along with my clients’ inner world of experience and not have the mechanics of the session lined out in protocol heading into it. I have themes on my radar of what’s important in terms of whichever session we’re on. I have the meta-themes of why they’re coming to me, what their goals are for the work, and that keeps us tethered to something that looks like the Recipe, but it’s much more easily tailored to individual clients’ inner worlds than me just applying the same thing to everybody.
DA: Would you encourage practitioners to invest less time in studying technique and spend more time developing their interpersonal skills?
MP: Far be it from me to tell anyone how they should do their practice. All I can really report on fairly is what’s made the most difference for me. During the first few years of my practice I was on a continuing education tear, I wanted every technique from every modality possible, but I can tell you that the results of really changing people’s worlds with this work came about not so much through the addition of techniques but more through learning how to relate with people. Everybody’s needs and interests are different when they first start off with the work, but in terms of this interoceptive network and this neurocentric approach to SI as a field of study, all of that would indicate it’s probably less about what we do and more about how we do it, and most importantly, why does this matter to our clients’ goals? If techniques can help with that, then great. In my experience, techniques are a lot about what to do and less about why this ties into the individual client’s needs or wishes. Why not set the bar high?
DA: The relational aspects of our work preclude our effectiveness no matter what techniques we’re using, however highly-refined touch skills might allow us more options that speak to specific client concerns. Would you agree?
MP: Sure. While these specialized techniques or approaches from different modalities probably have some efficacy for different conditions, what they all have in common – whether it’s cranial touch or visceral touch or any of the things that SI students typically look towards for more training – they all make us more confident practitioners. In so far as techniques help us show up with a sense of confidence, we can articulate why we’re doing what we’re doing with some kind of value for our clients. Different techniques are still going to have similar effects on the interoceptive experience of our clients. Being technically sound in terms of touch skills is great, but having these ‘soft skills’ of how to relate to people via these heavily technical touch skills, that’s the high fruit on the tree in my book. For every idea that this is the one technique that addresses this condition the best, there will probably be a whole lot of research that would refute that. I like to think of having lots of techniques as having lots of ways to skillfully induce new sensations and experiences.
DA: Well, then what differentiates the touch of an SI practitioner from, say, the hug of a loving spouse?
MP: Great question. Our highly- refined touch skills in the context of a therapeutic relationship have contextually different meaning than the touch of a lover. The metrics of the touch – depth, speed, direction, etc. – are only a small component of how the touch impacts the nervous system. The exact same touch in two different contexts can have radically different outcomes. What differentiates a slow caress on your neck from your lover versus one from the creep behind you at the grocery store? It’s the context, the meaning. That’s a great example of how bottom-up and top-down are different.
Given our progression through the themes of the series, whether it’s ten, twelve, thirteen or however many sessions you work under, there are a couple of factors that are in favor of an SI series of touch over other forms of bodywork. One is that we get all over the terrain of somebody’s physical structure throughout the course of the series. We have multiple passes through to help somebody re-map and re-associate experience, whether it’s in their shoulders, hips, or feet, we revisit things. The other factor is that it takes time to build a therapeutic alliance, which we know is one of the best predictors of outcome across any modality. Getting ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen sessions with someone is always going to outpace benefits from one or two treatments, regardless of technical factors like skill or precision. Having the repetition to build trust, safety, and rapport, we know that’s tremendously impactful for clients.
I think there’s a ritualistic aspect to healthcare, and to human interaction in general, that has gone away as our culture has become more isolated from one another in this digital age. The presence of ritual and this sacredness of opening into being impacted, I think you can piggyback on the assessment piece.
The act of being assessed sets up in the client the capacity to be impacted, for whatever’s being assessed to be changed. It focuses our salience, it focuses what we’re paying attention to. The skillful presence – whether it’s through touch, movement, imagery, cranial work, or spinal mechanics – the careful and sacred attention of an SI practitioner across a series of sessions is precious.
That’s very much not a hug from a loving spouse. A hug from a loving spouse may help with back pain, a headache, a stressful day at the office, or things like that, but what’s on the table with a repeated series of sessions – this ritualized progression through themes and anatomical terrain, this rich relationship that develops within the client and between the client and practitioner – that’s the beauty of the work, to me. Unveiling the neurology that allows this to take shape over a series of sessions makes it much more reachable and exciting in terms of what’s possible with the work as opposed to just reshaping fabric.
DA: Completion of a series might fulfill another missing aspect from our culture: rites of passage.
MP: Sure. Yeah. I think in many ways, at the end of every session there’s a mini rite of passage, whether it’s how individual practitioners close their work, whether it’s a classic neck / pelvic lift
/ back work kind of thing or even if it’s just a reassessment of, “What’s it like now? How are you going to allow this to shape your life moving forward in the next week (or two, or month, or whatever time you plan between sessions)?” That in-between-session integration is part of those mini rites of passage along the way. But I think you’re right on, that having gone through a series of sessions that has a distinct start, middle, and finish, can offer something that is often missing in our culture.
DA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
MP: Oh, man. There’s so much. What’s most important for me to include in the classes I teach is that I strongly believe this is a way to evolve Dr. Rolf ’s work. It was mentioned to me by one of my mentors and it’s something that I’ve always held onto tight, is that Dr. Rolf left the community a baby on a doorstep, and it was up to the succeeding generations of instructors to continue to learn and evolve what’s possible within this framework. That’s where my excitement has been, in the service of evolving Dr. Rolf’s work, vision, and the power and potential of this work. It can be challenging to reconcile what was originally taught with all this good information that says maybe what we’re doing really isn’t what we think we’re doing, or maybe there’s more to it, and maybe understanding that is going to involve challenging your assumptions even if you’ve been at this for ten, twenty, or thirty years.
At twenty years in, I just taught a class that had a practitioner in it who’s been at it for fifty years. We both sat there side-by-side with students who had recently graduated. We all came to a similar conclusion: that we probably will never know how SI works for sure, but it’s exciting to know what’s possible and to keep learning. I love learning; it’s what I do in a lot of my free time. That may mean I’m kind of dorky and need some different hobbies, but the way I stand with this work is that I’ll probably never be done learning about it. I would encourage students and practitioners that, if they want to learn and grow, to do that in ways that make them a little uncomfortable, not just confirming their own biases because we know the traps that are involved with cherry-picking or echo-chambering information, but to learn outside of their inherent biases.
All perspectives, mine included, are limited. They’re always partial, but they all have value. For me, bringing value back to the community is always supercharged by evidence. I have a bias towards what can be reproduced and validated by the rigors of the scientific method as being more valuable than my own ideas and opinions. The research around manual therapy, movement, and embodiment has gone through the roof in the last twenty, thirty years; there’s so much more information available than there was sixty, seventy years ago when Dr. Rolf was developing this stuff. Why would we not include all of the evidence that we can get our hands on – not just the evidence that fits in with what we already believe?
Continuing to learn and be open to new ideas from different fields of study puts us in a seat of humility which allows for growth and expansion of the field. This is what I believe we’re doing, or at least it’s what I want to do in individual sessions, which is to put myself in a position of humility and honor the growth and potential in front of me in my clients – it’s the same thing that I want to do as a practitioner, as a teacher, and it’s a value that I have for this work. If the work is about helping people grow and evolve, then the work needs to grow and evolve, as well.
DA: Michael, thank you for sharing your time and insight.
MP: Well, I hope it’s insightful.

That’s where my excitement has been, in the service of evolving Dr. Rolf’s work, vision, and the power and potential of this work . . . If the work is about helping people grow and evolve, then the work needs to grow and evolve, as well.

Michael Polon has been practicing as a Rolfer since 1999. That same year he was invited to re-enter the classroom as a teaching assistant and has taught Rolfing® SI and continuing education classes ever since. After almost twenty years of study, Michael still has the same beginner’s excitement when it comes to exploring the art, science, theory, and practice of Rolfing SI and related disciplines.
Daniel Akins, BCSI, graduated from Anatomy Trains in 2013. He earned an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree at Portland State University, where he published a thesis describing the concept of integration in physiological terms using a visual model. Daniel lives and practices in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Schleip, R. 2003a. “ Fascial Plasticity – A New Neurobiological Explanation, Part 1.” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 7(1):11–19.
Schleip, R. 2003b. “Fascial Plasticity – A New Neurobiological Eexplanation, Part 2.” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 7(2):104–116.

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