By Pierpaola Volpones, Basic Rolfing® Instructor, Rolf Movement® Instructor
Holding the head: what a mystery, what a privilege! It’s not unusual in my practice to notice opposite reactions, some people who become very tense and others who totally relax into my hands. Several times I had wondered if there is a sleep switch at the suboccipital area, because some clients fall asleep immediately! Other people become alert, with eyes open and vigilant. These experiences make me resonate with the Dr. Rolf quote: “When you work on the neck, your fingers are closer to the controlling structures in the body than at any other time.” The quote addresses the neck, which is the entry, or exit, to the complex organization of the head.
I remember a client, a woman in her thirties at that time, who had a very high tonus in her whole body, but touching her head made her suddenly become stiff, immobile. In the attempt to reduce the tonus of her neck, I tried several strategies: light, firm, direct, and indirect touch, but nothing helped. Then I tried a trick: I put a towel underneath her head, and holding either end of the towel I gently lifted her head, then slowly pulling the towel side to side, I rolled her head side to side. She could rest her head in the hammock of the towel and allow it to be moved, and enjoyed the sensation. But the moment I again tried using my hands
to hold and move her head, the reaction was again stiffness. Maybe 2% less stiff than before the towel intervention, but still stiff. For me that was enough: this 2% was the greatest amount of letting go she could allow herself. She was aware that she could not let go of her head, and felt guilty about it. I reassured her that it was okay. We kept playing with the towel and the hands so as to enhance her capacity to discriminate holding and letting go.
At that time, I knew nothing about Somatic Experiencing®, and I believe that there was likely something that could have been addressed through that perspective. But, I also believe that creating a safe way for her head to be moved, using the towel, was enough to start a shift in her usual behavior. Years later, she came back to me for more Rolfing sessions. Something she said then was touching: she said she had tried other methodologies, but that I was the only practitioner who had never made her feeling guilty or wrong because she could not relax her head and neck. While this was ego-fulfilling, more than that, it showed me that being welcomed the way we are helps to bring peace. And sometimes that means is a lot to a person.
What did this experiencing teach me? That the head is a private and privileged place, full of symbolic significance and meanings. It’s easy to identify our mind with our head, our face with our identity. Letting go involves many different aspects of our existence, it’s not just about whether we can release muscles. This client taught me to tame my impulse to help, my drive to free fascia, and my will to succeed in lowering tissue tonus. She taught me to accept how people are, and to respect them the way they are; to recognize limits in myself, in my clients, and in Rolfing SI. To do the best possible, within the limits (paraphrasing one of my teachers, Nicholas French).
For me, it is interesting to work at the head, it is such a multifaceted area. I taught a couple of three-day Rolfing manipulation workshops named “Head and Neck 1” and “Head and Neck 2,” and I think I could easily make a third workshop! There is a lot to learn and to pay attention to at the head and neck – we have material for several Seventh-Hour sessions between the structural and functional approaches
Circulatory, lymphatic, neural, respiratory, and digestive systems contained within the cranium cross the neck and travel through the whole body, in both directions: entering and exiting. Differentiating the visceral and neural cranium, and relating these to the rest of the body, is one of the key goals of the core sessions. I studied the craniosacral approach with Rolfer Jim Asher years ago. More recently, studying with Renée Zweedijk, a Dutch osteopath, I have discovered a new layer of the work with the head that bypass its ‘bark’ (the outside of the head). It addresses the fluids within the brain; perceives the shape of the brain and contacts it; and relates the inside of the head with the rest of the body, following inner pathways. Very inspiring!
When we are engaged in helping to free the cranium cavity and the skull apertures for vessels and nerves, I imagine we are at the foundation of setting a physiological state of well-being for the whole organism;
we contact the matter. Yet work on the surface also has also a strong impact. The face changes expression with its superficial muscles, the mouth and tongue make the sounds of our voice possible. We know from Dr. Porges’s polyvagal theory that the nuclei of the vagus nerve are beside the nuclei that control facial expression and vocalization; the auditory muscles of the middle ear are innervated by the vagus nerve too. Knowing this, we might consider that while working the fascial and skeletal system of the face, we may be helping regulation of neuroception (the capacity to perceive the environment in terms of safety or threat), social communication, or social engagement. Basically, to reposition the head is to reset our position in the world.
Focusing on a functional approach, think about how powerful it is to play with the gaze. Peripheral information, a focused field of view, or tunnel vision all can change our breath, our posture, our way to receive and relate to the outside world. For example, awareness of our habit of locating the vanishing point, and whether we habituate to a near vanishing point or one that allows more depth, affects the perspective from which we see the world and ourselves. Changing the distance between ‘I’ and the horizon changes the perspective and the depth. Imagine standing in front of a wall, the vanishing point is very close to you. Now, imagine standing on top of a mountain – here too you might choose to locate the horizon close to you or very far away. In each case, you might experience different sensations, perceptions, feelings. You might also discover that there is a habitual distance where your eyes place the horizon.
In closing, I would like to share that I feel that work with the head gives us the possibility to touch many different aspects of our ‘persona’ at the same time – it just depends where we place our focus. We can organize the architecture of the head to improve ease of physiological functioning, including communication and expression, to modulate relationship with other and our capacity to orient in the environment.
Pierpaola Volpones discovered Rolfing SI through bodywork and her research into well-being and somatic expression. She studied in Munich with Stacey Mills and Michael Salveson in her Basic Training and with Michael Salveson and Jeffrey Maitland in her Advanced Training. Her Rolf Movement Training took place in Italy with Janie French and Annie Duggan. She began her Rolfing and Rolf Movement teacher training almost twenty years ago, and has been teaching since 2006. She runs a practice in Rimini, Italy, and teaches for the European Rolfing Association®. Her website is www.volpones.it.The Many Happenings at the Head[:]