Rolfing collection and memory

Undated Rolfers’ Notes – Rolfing history and memory


It is the privilege of the newcomer to a field to question the basic concepts that all others have already accepted as self-evident. In my perception the tensegrity model as put forward by David L. Robbie (Orthopedic Review, Vol. VI, No. 11, November 1977) has become such a concept. During my preparation to become a Rolfer I took a close look at this model and developed serious doubts as to its validity.

Just to remind you: the clever thing about the tensegrity mast as developed by Buckminster Fuller is that none of the solid parts directly touch each other. Instead they rest in slings strung out between protuberances of the next lower solid part.

This model carries special attractiveness for Rolfers for two reasons. One is that as manipulators of soft tissue we would like to put bones into second place as determinant factors for structure. The other is that in the tensegrity mast something is possible which Dr. Rolf writes a lot about but which in the traditional concept of the spine seems absurd: Rolfing is said to give “lift” to the structure. While it is indeed impossible to give lift to a simple column from above, in the tensegrity mast the compressive forces of gravity are transformed into tensional forces as the solid part above rests in the bowstring strung out between the solid parts below if you get a muscle or a group of muscles to pull these solid protuberances in such a way that the string in between is put under higher tension, the solid upper part will really be getting lift.

Unfortunately it ain’t true for the spinal column. If you take a close look there is nowhere ligamentous or muscular or other soft tissue structure that even resembles the sling strung out between separate ends of the lower structure to give tensional support for the upper structure. Not even the short rotators meet this condition since they originate from the bases of the spinal processes.

The structures David L. Robbie cites are the articular processes of the lumbar spine which are secured to each other by ligaments additionally to the joint capsule. The fact that the articulating processes of two neighboring vertebrae relate to each other like the shingles of a roof (the upper reaching down over the upper border of the lower one) misled Robbie into the following conclusion: “Each joint is encapsulated and held together by fibrous connective tissue. This connective tissue could keep a vertebra from sliding down on top of the next lowest vertebra by means of a tensional rather than a compressional force. In other words, it is conceivable that this connective tissue could act as a sling.” No doubt it is a sling. But is a totally different kind of sling from the one involved in the tensegrity model.

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You can see the difference in the two pictures: while the downward compressional force is split up into tensional forces in the tensegrity model, the compressional force in the articular processes really follows the model of the shingles on the roof. Their weight is split into a compressional force perpendicular to the articular surface plane and another vector in the direction along that plane. Now all the connective tissue slings around the shingles do, is to transform that sliding vector back into a compressional vector. There is nothing fancy there. It’s simple archaic architecture like any old roof.

So I propose that Rolfers should forget about the tensegrity mast. I even propose they should forget about all architecture as something to draw models from. It seems to me that David L. Robbie did have the very same intention because as soon as he leaves the field of architecture and describes the function of connective tissue he becomes very inspiring and in my view continues to be of great importance for Rolfing. He summarizes that the connective tissue network “holds the body together by holding the fluids and maintaining proper hydrostatic pressure, supporting every cell and every drop of fluid in the body, -holding bones together in their proper locations, balancing every compressional force in the body with the necessary tensional force, transmitting the tensional force produced by muscle contraction to the appropriate place.” Taking these insights to their logical consequence I propose to supplant the tensegrity model by the “sausage”-model. Let me explain.

Imagine a pile of sand. Its cone-form comes about because except in the central vertical line all the particles of sand relate to each other like the shingles on the roof. The vector of their weight (and the weight transmitted through them from above) is split into one vector directed towards the central base of the pile and another one which is directed at a right angle to the first one (in this I assume that the corns of sand in sum total behave much like balls of sand). Only the sand corns in the central vertical line are kept nicely stacked upon each other by the surrounding mass and therefore pass their weight downwards in a perpendicular vector. The same laws are true for fluids or the strange things that you find in a soft sausage. If you look at the human body as such a sausage (it’s no pleasant image, but bear with me for a moment) many strange connections in the body find a much more Rolfing-like explanation than in an architectural image:

– If the central vertical line is positioned as Rolfing wants it to be, the erector spinae, the sternocleidomastoid, the scalenes, the pectoralis minor and all the other muscles that follow a direction from up to down are positioned exactly to counteract the vectoral force in the pile away from that central vertical line. More important, the connective tissue in which they are contained as watery substances of that sausage truly keep up a tensional counterforce to the centrifugal forces even if they are not following the direction of these forces. Thus the skin of the sausage wrapped around its exterior hold the particles together. In the body the fascial sheaths form a multitude of such skins dividing the sausage into a multitude of watery bags inside the big bag as already David L. Robbie remarked.

– Inside these fascial slings are contractile muscular slings that formdouble helixes around the whole outer surface of that sausage. (Just to mention the most prominent: peroneus longus, biceps femoris, sacrotuberal ligament, fascia lumbodorsalis, latissimus, pectoralis major, sternocleid fascia, splenius capitis, rhomboids, serratus anterir, obliquus abdomis externus, adductors, tibialis posterior.) Additionally there are girdles of muscle encircling the sausage in their fascial sheaths.If these girdles or double helixes contract they act on the sausage as when you squeeze your toothpaste tube: they force the contents upwards. This is how you get the lift Dr. Rolf has been writing and talking about.

– In the sausage model bones function as “spacers” – the way Dr. Rolf saw them to function without making that statement very plausible. But in the sausage-image bones can swim above each other as they really do in their synovial capsules and rest in the tendinous slings that connect the muscular bags around them. But they need not rest in them like the solid parts of the hydrostatic whole and carry weight just like the whole sausage, They only have a more substantial matrix in order to function as spacers, without which the whole structure would tend to sag much more then it actually does.

– Especially as far as the functional unity of muscles, fascia, ligaments and bone in the spine is concerned the sausage model is far superior to the architectural one. The bones and the deeper muscular structures are all pointed towards down, back and out just like the centrifugal forces in the pile. If the central vertical line runs just in front of the spine the muscles and ligaments can lift the spine from the point where the central vertical line is supported by the hydrostatic pressure of the whole structure. If the line is further back and partly runs through the body of the vertebrae, they suddenly are exposed to the high compressive force of the perpendicular vector-line in the central vertical space. If it is too far forward, the muscular pull will displace the vertebrae and let the front collapse which has no such intricate system of counter lift against the centrifugal forces in the pile. Thus a shift in the central vertical line of only a few millimeters can make a world of a difference – just as the Rolfing experience again and again shows.

I send these considerations to be published in Rolf Lines in order to invite comments and contradictions. I think (it) should be a place for such discussions especially since the new Journal will probably never become real since there is no group of people who are more or less forced to contribute to it as is the case with those publish-or-perish University centered journals. But maybe the advantage of that is, that we may get a lively discussion started without the footnotes and heavy language that a Scientific Journal would imply.Tensegrity Concept Examined

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