The Golgi Tendon Reflex Arc as a New Explanation of the Effect of Rolfing

Pages: 18-20
Year: 1989

About two years ago I wrote an article in Rolf Lines about two little experiments I did. I wanted to find out how much of my Rolfing work is based on what Rolfer Hans Flury calls “the physical mode” (which is working with the property of mechanical plasticity of connective tissue), and how much it is in” the informational mode”(which means communication with the nervous system of the client).

In the first experiment I bought a fresh piece of meat and tried some “Rolfing” with it. And not to my surprise I found that it didn’t respond very well to my work. I could loosen some fascial adhesions and mechanically stretch some of the fascial planes; but it didn’t feel at all like Rolfing to me: Imissed getting any specific response from the tissue that I normally look for in my work.

So I did a second experiment in which I “Rolfed” the leg of somebody who had been injected with an anesthetic drug. The physiological and chemical condition of the muscles and connective tissue in this leg should be the same as in normal condition. The only thing that was different, was the nervous communication between the leg and the central nervous system was cutoff. The response I got was basically similar to the first experiment with the piece of dead meat. I didn’t get any significant results, and I could not imagine being satisfied working in this purely mechanical mode of deep tissue work day after day.

So I was pretty sure that at least an essential part of my connective tissue work as a Rolfer has to do with communicating with the central nervous system of the client. I knew there are nervous innervations in most fascial sheets, but I didn’t know what kind of nerve endings these are and how they are connected with and organized by the central nervous system. I suspected knowing more about this level of our work could influence the understanding and maybe even the effectiveness of our work.

A few months ago I sat in an airplane next to an anatomy professor who told me, much to my surprise, that most fascial sheets are actually more densely innervated with nerve endings than the muscles they envelop, which I found quite inspiring! And then shortly after that I happened to be a guest for one day at the last Comprehensive Studies Program in Boulder, where John Cottingham lectured about the alpha and gamma motor nervous system. John mentioned that the Golgi tendon organs are not only as I believed and as is still written in most textbooks ? in tendons but also in ligaments and all over in fascial sheets. And he presented his concept of the Golgi Reflex as an explanation of the slow but persistent stretches of yoga asanas (asopposed to bouncing) and also of the effect of Rolfing!

<img src=’https://novo.pedroprado.com.br/imgs/1989/318-1.gif’>

To quote from John Cottingham’s brilliant book Healing through Touch, “The Golgi tendon organs have sensory nerve endings that terminate within minute bundles of collagen fibers. Because they are ‘in series’ with the tendon and fascial fibers, they primarily respond to tension. When, for instance, the tendon is slowly and actively stretched (e.g., deep pressure), the Golgi tendon organs increase their firing rate. These impulses are sent to the spinal cord and inhibit alpha motor neurons and muscle tone.1

This would mean that if, as a Rolfer,I lean with my elbow towards a client’s lumbodorsal fascia and I increase my pressure until I feel a specific “letting go response” under my elbow, I trigger the Golgi tendon organs in this spot to fire which results in specific muscle fibers connected with those fascial fibers to lengthen.

Now, this concept is quite different to our traditional model of the “plasticity” of fascia we usually use to describe our work. Our traditional model claims we are able to change the state of the ground substance of connective tissue from gel to sol by applying mechanical pressure from the outside. And it is speculated this change possibly has something to do with the effect of piezoelectric currents in the ground substance. So far nobody has been able to prove this model or to explain the details of it. It has always remained in the realm of speculation.

This traditional concept as originally suggested by Ida P. Rolf–proved to be, nevertheless, very appealing to us. It allowed us to see the body like a piece of clay that we can mold in any direction, and that these changes in the connective tissue network would be “permanent” (which we call “structural changes”) as opposed to the changes of classical massage, Feldenkrais, Alexander, Trager or other bodywork approaches we consider to evoke only temporary changes in muscle tonus and which we describe as merely “functional”. This traditional model is in deed very powerful and appealing to our minds. I still tend to use it in public talks about Rolfing and with some of my clients. It tends to open our minds to the possibility that change is possible and even long-term, “permanent” traits of our body structure are open for change. And, of course, it also appeals to our Rolfer’s ego to see ourselves as “body sculptors” who can shape the human body according to our image of ideal alignment.

Drawing by Rosalie Sayre Yet, I have to admit I have my doubts about this model. And I want to give you my reasons why I now favor more the explanation that the main effect of Rolfing is not based on the plasticity of connective tissue, but rather on a very skillful communication with the nervous system of the client that evokes specific reflexes in the neuromyofascial net work. Here are some of my reasons:

My own experiment with the limited effect of deep tissue work on an anesthetized body.

The fact that in experimental in vivo and in vitro laboratory research on passive lengthening of connective tissue, it was shown that connective tissue tends to react to short-duration stretching with only recoverable, elastic deformation (or with tissue rupture if the force is too high), whereas a long-duration stretching was necessary to induce permanent, plastic deformation. In many Rolfing strokes in which we claim to see and feel a specific release in the connective network, the time applied to one particular spot is only a few seconds or even less. Them is no doubt the connective tissue is plastic and adapts easily to long-term stress, but I do have my doubts that this property of mechanical plasticity works in such short-term periods as used in our Rolfing strokes.

The fact that the Golgi tendon organs are more densely arranged around the origin and insertion of a muscle than around its belly. And this is exactly where our instructors and our experience tell us that Rolfing is more effective. We know this from our experience but could not explain it with our old model; but with the above described new model, it’s very obvious and easy to explain.

It seems to be an apparent and plausible explanation of the stretching effect of yoga asanas that their slow and persistent statch triggers a lengthening of muscles via the Golgi reflex arc. Many people experience the specific “pain” of some Rolfing releases as similar to the “pain” of good yoga stretches. This suggests both methods could involve a similar and quite specific stretching mechanism: the force of a specific stretch is slowly and carefully increased (and its angle or direction adjusted) until a point is reached where the stretch triggers the first Golgi tendon organs to fire and to evoke, via the Golgi reflex arc, a lengthening in the tissue. A continued slow increase in the force of the stretch or slight adjustments in its angle can often trigger even more Golgi tendon organs to fire, since they are arranged “in series”. But a force fulor too fast stretching can result in the opposite effect of tissue shortening by evoking the stretch reflex via the muscle spindles.

The observations that in our classical Rolfing work we are much better in lengthening tissue than in shortening it. If it were true that the connective tissue reacts simply like clay to our mechanical pressure, it should be just as easy to shorten or “bunch up” tissue as it is to lengthen it. Again with the Golgi reflex arc model this fact is easy to explain. (And it seems our hand shave to work quite differently and less like a sculptor’s when we want to shorten connective tissue).

If we allow ourselves to include the central nervous system in our models of Rolfing, a lot of new and interesting possible explanations and questions popup. Suddenly, it is easy to explain the effect of the specific joint release manipulation as developed by Judith, Aston and now being further refined and taught by Annie Duggan and Janie French in their style of Rolfing Movement work. Watching them work, it seems to me their technique involves first a joint manipulation where a maximum amount of passive shorteningin the length of some muscles is achieved in a very short time (usually not more than one second). This phase results in a sudden “letting go” of the muscle tonus of those muscles. Then the same bones or tissues which were moved “into the pattern” in the first phase are moved “out of the pattern” which means towards lengthening those muscle fibers, but in a way that avoids “stretching” of those fibers. Generally both phases are preferably done in anon-linear way in which the gamma motor system has difficulties anticipating and adapting the tonus of the muscle spindles to the movement and also in which a fast stretch of the fibers is avoided (which would trigger a shortening via the stretch reflex of the muscles spindles).

Clearly this description allows the interpretation that a release in muscle tonus is achieved by what I call “A Reverse Stretch Reflex”: in reversing the mechanism of the famous neurological knee-jerk test the practitioners induce a sudden shortening of the length of the muscle spindles which triggers a reflectoric decrease in muscle tonus.

The question that now comes up is “how permanent is this change?” And it is not easy to answer this in a simple and linear way. Yet if we accept the above, new model of Rolfing as an art of evoking the Golgi reflex are, then the same question comes up again for any Rolfer as well !

I agree this is a bit uncomfortable. It was much more satisfying to believe that we as Rolfers are creating permanent structural changes; because we are directly changing the arrangement of the fascial network system, whereas most other body workers are just changing the momentary muscle tonus. If it is true that our changes in the fascial network induced by our deep Rolfing strokes are just the result of specific muscle fibers lengthening, then we are, as I call it,” back in the club” with other modern bodywork methods who need to explain and to study under what conditions their changes in muscle tonus continue to be more permanent and when not.

I hope this is not considered “heresy”, since I personally admire the insights of Ida P. Rolf a lot, and I consider her a true genius. But as with any other genius I don’t think she would want us to follow her blindly forever or that she would like to be treated like an infallible pope for eternity. I think she deserves students who are willing to question and search and expand the current models in a similar way as she did in her lifetime. So far, we have followed Ida by trying to explain Rolfing by limiting it solely to the biochemical properties of connective tissue and ignoring the role of the central nervous system. A fellow Rolfer of mine used to describe this tendency in our school as “It’s either meat or mysticism” and I agree with him in as much as we definitely need to develop more the missing link between simple meat and bones work on the one side and the sometimes quite inspiring esoteric speculations on the other side. And I suggest that including the role of the central nervous system is urgently needed as a useful link in our work.

If we start to open ourselves in understanding our work as Rolfers in the realm of the complex neuromyofascial system (and maybe soon the neuro endocrine immuno electromagnetic…) many, many new and inspiring questions come up. For example:

What else is currently known about the density, arrangement, location and sensitivity of Golgi tendon organs in our bodies? Can this knowledge influence and increase the effectiveness of our practical work?

How far are we also communicating to the gamma motor system via the muscle spindles? How do we, or can we, influence the gamma motor system not to reinstall the previous muscle tonus from immediately before our Rolfing strokes?

Is our change in muscle tonus via the Golgi reflex arc different to (e.g. more or less permanent than) the change in muscle tonus via the muscle spindles (e.g., as in the joint release manipulation of the new Rolfing Movement work or in Feldenkrais work)?

How can we define “structure” as opposed to function or posture in a new way by including the various feedback loops of an expanded neuromyofascial system?

Allowing us to expand our minds inthis direction will require from us the ability as Ida P. Rolf would say of” walking on shifting sands”. More and more questions will pop up and we will have to be able to face the then quite apparent viewpoint that we don’t know at all what we are doing and how Rolfing works. And probably even with all the exciting new models and information that I expect from the life sciences In the next decades, we will probably always remain quite ignorant.

Tom Myers brought to my attention an inspiring article in World Medicine, Vol. 15, No 15 with the provoking title “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?” It includes a well documented case of a highly intelligent man with a first class honors degree in mathematics, economics and computer studies but with a hidden and formerly undetected hydrocephalic head that has “virtually no brain!”. I love this article! Thank you Tom! since it reminds me again that “We don’t know anything anyway.”

But clinging to our old concepts and making us blind to newer and more plausible models, certainly does not appear as a brave or intelligent response to this wisdom either.


Robert Schleip, an Adv. Certified Rolfer and Institute fascial anatomy Instructor from West Germany, is currently working in Australia where he is teaching a pre-training class for potential Rolfing-training candidates.

1 Cottingham, p. 132.
2 Cottingham, p. 133.

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