CAPA - ROLF LINES - 1989-Vol XVII - 04-Fall

How Does the Body Maintain Its Shape? – Part II

Question from Steven Bankes and Siana GoodwinAnswer by James L. Oschman, Ph.D.
Pages: 30-32
Year: 1989
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

ROLF LINES, Vol XVII Nº 04 – FALL 1989

Volume: XVII
Question from Steven Bankes and Siana GoodwinAnswer by James L. Oschman, Ph.D.

This is the second part of an article answering a question about the scientific basis of Rolfing. The first part appeared in the previous issue of Rolf Lines (Summer 1989,Vol. XVII, No. 3, page 27).

The Question

“My experience with Rolfing leads me to conjecture that the connective tissue system is subject to a number of processes which have the combined effect of expending energy to actively maintain the shape of the body …. If the body is actively maintaining its shape, then there must be some physiological pathways for this. Such mechanisms may have been noticed by researchers who are working with various animal systems, but not placed in context may not seem so significant.”

The Answer

The ability of the body to maintain its shape has two seemingly contradictory aspects: shape is remarkably constant, and shape is remarkably adaptable.

I immediately recognize a friend whom I have not seen for twenty-five years, even though every atom in his body had been replaced at least three times during that period. From a chemical point of view, he is a totally different person; yet I immediately know who he is. This constancy of human shape shows there are remarkable regulatory processes that maintain the features we acquire as a result of our genetic inheritance.

In contrast, another friend, whom I saw a month ago, looked completely different. When I asked what happened, he told me of his new and exciting job and the changes in his attitude and daily activities. This observation speaks to the adaptability of shape. This is not a matter of genetic programming. Instead it is a story of the body’s structural adaptations to patterns of movement, attitudes, and interactions with the environment.

The maintenance of body shape is an important, even essential, function of the organism. We do not usually think this way, because functions are normally viewed as processes that are happening in the moment: respiration, metabolism, the beating of the heart, vision, the formation of urine, hormonal regulations. To view the maintenance of shape as a function requires a longer term view of the body, a recognition of slower processes, of patterns of activity on a time-scale of months and years.

Part I of this series of articles considered biochemical path ways involved in maintaining the shape of the body. Research done about fifty years ago showed that the structure of the body is never fixed; pieces are being replaced constantly. Each part of the body, from the smallest to the largest, has an average lifetime ranging from minutes to years; but all structures are always being recreated. This endless cycle of renewal provides a biochemical basis for plasticity; it enables the body to change its shape in response to the ways it is being used. When habitual or practiced movement patterns change, the distribution of tensions and compressions in the structural fabric changes. This leads to appropriate changes in structure.

These changes are of two sorts. First, an over loaded structure may have been gradually reinforced by the laying down of extra collagen fibers. When tensions in that structure are lessened due to Rolfing or to changes in movement patterns, the reinforcing collagen fibers can be removed; and the structure returns to its more natural size and density.

Alternatively, some structures may not have been used at their normal capacity; and their fabric was, therefore, slowly reduced by removal of some of the collagen fibers. The tendons associated with a hypotoned muscle fall into this category. When normal activity is restored to the hypotoned muscle, the load on the associated myofascial structures is increased; and these are gradually reinforced by the laying down of more collagen fibers.

Both processes were recognized long ago. They were expressed in a concept originally developed to explain how a bone can change its shape. We now know that the same principle applies to all parts of the connective tissue system. The concept is known as Wolffs Law (1892):

The form of the bone being given, the bone elements(collagen) place or displace themselves in the direction of the functional pressure and continued next page increase or decrease their mass to reflect the amount of functional pressure.

Both the laying down of collagen and its removal are active processes. They expend metabolic energy. Work is involved in the building up or the tearing down of any structure.

Both processes are gradual. The changes that take place during the year following the tenth Rolfing session are probably due, in part, to the slow adjustments and readjustments of the connective tissue fabric to a new distribution of tensions.

Specific cells are involved in maintaining the shape of different parts of the body: fibroblasts keep tabs on tendons, ligaments, and cartilage; osteoblasts maintain the bones; and myoblasts adjust the structure of muscles.

For these cells to regulate structure in a coordinated, appropriate, and orderly manner, some form of information flow must take place. A movement, such as plucking a string on a musical instrument, swimming a bat, performing a pelvic lift, throwing a ball, or using a paint brush, must create specific information that” tells” the cells a precise and detailed story of the movement taking place. The cells must then have a means of detecting and responding to this information and of altering their activities in a manner that leads to an enhancement in form and function. Let us examine some of the steps in this process.


Before I wiggle my big toe, a decision must be made to do that. This involves neural processing in my brain. We know the activities of nerves involve the flow of charged ions across the nerve cell membranes and that this produces measurable electrical and magnetic fields in the spaces around the nerves.

While these fields get weaker and weaker with distance, there is no point at which we can say they vanish. From physics, we know that any field extends indefinitely into space. This concept was part of Newton’s Universal Law of Gravity: ALL objects in the universe-attract each other with a force that increases with mass and decreases with distance. You, my dear reader, are presently being attracted to me by the force of gravity! The magnitude of this force is rather small, but is, nevertheless, present; and its strength can be determined using Newton’s equation.

Magnetism, electricity, and other forces of nature obey similar universal laws. For example, a sensitive magnetometer called a SQUID (superconducting quantum interference device) can detect the intricate three dimensional pattern of biomagnetic fields in the spaces around the body. Magnetoencephalo-graphers study the bio magnetic fields emanating from the brain. These fields are direct reflections of neural processes going on in the brain.

Many unsuccessful attempts have been made to resolve the minute field cause by a single thought, such as “now I will wiggle my toe”. But we know that such a field must be present, and someday we may be able to resolve it with our instruments.

My experience of ping-pong convinces me that such fields can be detected by another person. Sometimes when I am immersed in the game, I know where my opponent plans to hit the ball before it has even arrived on his side of the table!

This would not be the first time a living system exhibited greater sensitivity to an energy field than a scientific instrument. Kalmijn has discovered that sharks and rays, for example, can detect the electric field of a flat fish buried under the sand. The fields involved amount to 0.00000001 volt, which is difficult to detect in sea water with a volt meter. But nature has provided sharks and rays with this exquisite sensitivity for a biological purpose: to locate the next meal! So sensitive are these animals that Kalmijn suspects they are able to distinguish different kinds of animals electrically or even to sense their moods or intentions.

The point of these examples, ping-pong, sharks, and rays, is that animals can obtain useful information from the biological fields of other animals. Therefore, it would be surprising if the parts of the individual were unable to listen to each other. The principle relates to a concept in the I CHING:

The superior man sits in his room. If his words are well-spoken, he meets with assent at a distance of more than a thousand miles. How much more then from near by!

Once I have decided to wiggle my big toe, a set of nerve impulses is sent down through my spinal cord via specific motor neurons to a specific muscle-group. The signals jump from nerves to muscles via synapses. The signals then spread over and into the muscles. Again, all of this signalling involves charged ions flowing across cell membranes. Electrical and magnetic fields are generated, and these fields radiate into the tissues around the nerves and muscles and even into the space around the body. The field pattern is precisely characteristic of the action involved wiggling my toe creates quite a different electric and magnetic pattern than scratching my ear, for example. Physiologists who study these electric and magnetic field patterns that correlate with movement are respectively called electromyographers and magnetomyographers.

The point is that the neural pathways involved in making a decision and in signalling the musculature to carry out the decision are not “private lines”: the other cells in the body “listen-in” on the conversations of the nervous system. This ” listening-in ” process has not been widely studied, although the non synaptic communications taking place between adjacent nerve cells has become a topic of research. I am convinced that listening-in on the chatter of the nerves provides non-neuronal cells, including fibroblasts, osteoblasts, and myo blasts, with information that they use to regulate the form of the body.

In the past physiologists have regarded the various fields present on the surface of the body or in the space around the body as convenient artifacts of underlying physiological processes. They are convenient, because they can be used to detect pathology. The electrocardiogram, for example, is a standard diagnostic tool of the cardiologist; and its intricate pattern tells the physician a detailed story of the working together of parts of the heart.

I am convinced that the various fields that spread through and over and around the body as a result of every physiological process did not evolve merely for the convenience of the physician. Instead, these fields convey the information that tells every part of the body what every other part is doing.


Edward Adolph, who has written eloquently about regulatory processes, has stressed that information is ALWAYS created by actions, and the resulting feedback integrates activities.

Consider, for example, the way the vertical stance is maintained. We never stand still. The tone of the anti-gravity muscles is constantly changing; the body sways forward and backward around the axis of rotation of the ankle joint. Gravity tends to carry the body forward. This stretches anti-gravity extensors such as the triceps surae (gastrocnem us and soleus). Stretch receptors within these muscles (called musclespindles) detect the stretch and stimulate the muscles to contract, and the body begins to sway backward. The stretch receptors in flexors, pressure receptors on the bottoms of the feet, and position sensors in the knee joints detect the sway and inhibit the extensors. The body sways forward again.

I am suggesting that the various tissues of the body listen-in on the neural and muscular signals that lead to an action, such as a muscle contraction; and they listen to the subsequent messages that report the activity has been accomplished. These messages are detailed; they provide information on muscle length, tension, and velocity of stretch.


A third way the various tissues in the body “know” what is happening arises because of interactions with the environment. Running on grass is different from running on pavement, for example, and results in a different set of messages. The same muscles may be involved, and similar “information from action “may be reported by the various receptors, but a different set of tensions and compressions generate a set of signals as a consequence of the piezoelectric properties of connective tissue. When a bone or tendon is placed under load, the stresses within the atomic lattice produce measurable electric fields that spread through the surrounding tissues, providing information about the magnitude and direction of the forces present. A Tension in one direction will produce a field of a certain polarity which will cause collagen fibers to be laid down. A different tension will yield an opposite electrical polarity, and collagen will be resorbed.

Virtually all of the tissues in the body exhibit the piezoelectric effect. The skin is piezoelectric. The folding and stretching of skin at a joint produces signals descriptive of the forces exerted on the body surface. Teeth and blood vessel walls are also piezoelectric.

Running creates rhythmic compressions on bones and cartilages, and cycles of tension in tendons. Both processes result in rhythmic piezoelectric fields. Each impact of the foot on the running surface creates a veritable symphony of electromagnetic fields that tell a precise story of the forces developed within the body fabric. Running on grass will produce a totally different melody than running on pavement.

Note that the structures which conduct tensions and compressions to and from the environment and which, therefore, make motion possible are, in a sense, receptors as well. They produce a set of signals that tells the story of the dynamic relations between the body and the environment.


An organism that is competent in carrying out the function we call “maintenance of shape” will have better chances of surviving. First, an individual with the ability to adapt his or her entire structure and movement patterns to a new activity will be less inclined to make mistakes that could lead to injuries. Secondly, this individual will experience less wear and tear on his or her structure, which will be optimized to withstand the tensions and compressions that arise from repeated activities.

To effectively carry out the function we have referred to as “shape maintenance” communication is essential. When tissues are contracted, inelastic, dehydrated, stiff, dense, poorly conductive of information, communication will be impaired and adjustments of the whole body to use-patterns will not be optimal.

A goal of many forms of body-work is to open up free communication between the various parts of the organism. The signalling we are discussing here is one aspect of this communication. When the organism is effective at communicating with it self, the signals that are used by cells to maintain and regulate shape flow freely to all parts of the body. I am convinced that the maintenance of body shape is an important function that is enhanced by Rolfing and the Movement work.

Part III: How the cells respond; the role of tissue memory; conclusions.


Wolff’s Law is described in an article by Bassett, C.A.L., “Biological significance of piezoelectric city”. Calcified Tissue Research1:252-272.

Burr, Harold S. and A. Mauro, 1949.”Electrostatic fields of the sciatic nerve in the frog”. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine21:455-462.

Kalmijn, A.J., 1966. “Electro-perception in sharks and rays”. Nature 212:1232-1233.

Adolph, Edward F., 1982. “Physiological Integrations in action”. The Physiologist 25 (2), 67 pp. Published by the American Physiological Society.

Smith, J.W., 1957. “The forces operating at the human ankle joint during standing”. Journal of Anatomy 91:545-564.

Hellebrant, F.A., 1938. “Standing as a geotropic reflex. The mechanism of the asynchronous rotation of motor units”. Journal of Anatomy 121:471-474.How Does the Body Maintain Its Shape? – Part II

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