Learning, Seeing, and the Continuity of Practitioning and Practice

Pages: 23-25
Year: 1992
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

ROLF LINES – Vol XX nº 02 – SPRING 1992

Volume: 20

In last year’s poll on Rolfing training, two reported phenomena struck me. One was students’ reported discomfort with saying in class that they don’t see what is being talked about. The second was some Rolfers’ expressed lack of confidence. I see these two as closely related. What underlies the discomfort with not seeing is an attitude that not to “see” is to fail, or to be inherently inept. If this persists in class, it’s inevitable that it will carry into practice to some degree, and will show up as lack of confidence.

The issue is around teaching, especially how we teach “seeing”. An unexamined issue is what we are doing when we teach “seeing”.

When I was a student the teaching of Rolfing consisted of presenting a formula, which was sometimes taken as being The Recipe. Students began Rolfing by imitating instructors’ “moves”. Both the formula and what the teachers actually did while Rolfing their models were considered the information of Rolfing.

I once heard a teacher say that when students weren’t getting the results they wanted they often fell into using more force, when what they really needed was more information. In the context of Rolfing, more explication, or more watching. There’s an unexamined notion here regarding “information”. Often we act as though information comes in little bits, like bricks, which are deposited into our brains. We then build edifices of knowledge or ability out of these bricks. But in Rolfing, as in any discipline that is part science, part art, education is more than its information. In order to explore our education as Rolfers, we need to ask, what is it to learn?


We regard learning as something we do, an individual action, but if we look again, we can see that “learning” really exists in the assessment of an observer. (True, sometimes the observer is the self.) The assessment is of a change in behavior. For instance, you say your dog has learned not to jump on people. You can say this because she used to jump on people and now she doesn’t; there’s been a change in her actions.

When we are learning something that someone else already knows, like mathematics, Rolfing, or soufflé making, the assessment of our learning will be (1) if, in our self-observation, we think we can duplicate the actions of our teacher, (2) if the teacher observes that our actions are consistent with what they already know as competent behavior (in whatever realm we’re working). The process of learning is coming to an agreement about what we observe.

Learning begins with distinctions. All knowledge, whether experiential or intellectual, is based on distinctions – perceptions of difference. For us human beings, we are most aware of those distinctions that we make in language. In speaking and writing, we separate actions and, consequently, objects from the constant flow of experience that is being alive.

Distinctions are made by experience. It is by interaction with our environment and other people that we learn differences in our actions and their consequences. Much of our human interaction occurs verbally, and in language, we tend to speak about the distinctions that we make through activity and experience as though they are objects in the world. So we say we “have” strength, or confidence, or a person “has” a line, soft tissue “has” horizontals, as though these distinctions were palapable, quantifiable. In a Rolfing class, when someone speaks about what they see, we behave as though some thing is there (right THERE!) to be apprehended. But the presence of these “objects” depends on an agreement of distinctions that can only arise out of common experience. So our objectification works when the observation made is easily agreed upon, such as a shoulder being higher than the other. We start to run into difficulties when the some-thing seen is a line, or a horizontal, a distinction that doesn’t occur in the everyday world of speaking, but only in the world of Rolfing.

What we are concerned with in learning is experience. A teacher is not someone who points out things to us, but a person who can do something that we want to do, and that will speak to us from their experience. In class, when someone with different experience doesn’t make the same distinctions in “seeing”, it is a difference, not a failure. And as with all differences, it is an opportunity for learning, for moving toward common experience.

Years ago I had a conversation with a teacher who expressed frustration over “how to get the students to see what I see”. I suggested that a more fruitful question might be, “How do I specify what I look for, that I see what I see?”


Seeing incorporates the distinctions of Rolfing, whether principles or moves, into the language and action of the Rolfer whether student or teacher. Learning to see depends on being around the active conversation of accomplished practitioners. What happens in a Rolfing classroom, especially with respect to seeing, is that someone very competent in the craft of Rolfing thinks out loud in the presence of students.*

The distinctions that underlie learning are brought out by presentation and questioning. In anatomy, for instance, the teacher presents finer differences in our map of the human body than arm, leg, belly, etc. In the paradigms of internal/external bodies, distinctions in the patterns of structures are shown and related to the anatomical map. These kinds of distinctions are the basis for a common language. Through the common language, the teacher can then show distinctions in the actions that are Rolfing.

Distinctions become the students’ own when they can notice differences: the difference between a triceps and a deltoid, an external or internal rotation muscle. Differences are brought forward by questions. Paradigms are made out of the questions Rolfers have asked themselves. Students learn to see by their teachers’ questions, and also by asking their own.

However, the questions are not about things. Objects exist in a reality that has already been agreed on, and the process of learning to see, to Rolf, is induction into a different perceptual reality. The questions are about observations of difference, and about relations. Hidden in the teacher’s questions to the students are the teacher’s distinctions. Questions may be about anatomy, spatial relationships, images evoked for the student, but what is happening is that a perceptual world is being revealed.

I once heard Jim Asher ask a group of students looking at models for the fifth hour, “Is the psoas or the iliacus shorter?” Up to that point, everyone had known that the fifth hour was somehow about the psoas. What Jim’s question revealed was a shift of emphasis from the psoas to the independence and consequent relation of iliacus and psoas, and a relation of pelvis (by way of iliacus) to spine (by way of psoas). A different realm of questioning opened up, and a consequent shift from the passive manipulation of the psoas to questions of support, walking and tensional relationships.

It’s immaterial whether a student can answer a question like this “correctly”. What is important is that a world of differences is revealed, a world where not only are there distinct muscles, but distinct relationships, distinct appearances in movement.

Questions of anatomy such as “Where is the psoas?” properly belong to the world of dissection. The accurate answer comes by opening the belly wall and pointing. But in Rolfing class, a similar question demands great creativity. The student must mentally review his image of the distinctions of anatomy (which he may have learned as a two-dimensional map and so is further removed from his present experience), mentally create an image of the body before him, overlay the anatomical images, and imagine a similarity or difference. He may or may not guess the significance of his answer, and certainly can’t guess the image resulting from the teacher’s similar process. In this situation, the “failure” of a student to replicate what the teacher or another student sees is trivial.

But in fact, such a question in Rolfing class is not a question about “Where?” It is about, “Given what we’ve talked about, what do you intend to do about this structure?” Teaching is constantly juggling different perceptions of the obvious, and striving to create common ground. A teacher’s job is to help a student become conscious of what they already see, to introduce distinctions from their own experience, and to articulate both in a way that they can speak of what’s to be done.

* This has been explored in Donald Schon’s books, “The Reflective Practitioner” and “Educating the Reflective Practitioner”. They are well worth looking into as models for training.


It is often difficult for a teacher to know how to lead forth from a student a perception of the obvious that is comprehensible to both of them, that will lead the student to confidence in working and the teacher to confidence in the student. Yet a common obviousness is essential for further teaching to take place. In order to make this easier, we constantly generate models, or paradigms, as frameworks for the distinctions we make. These models become the language of our speaking about what we do.

Models serve a vital function for talking about Rolfing, in bringing an order to the work. But a paradigm by necessity has limits, and thereafter, as with any language, you can say only what that language permits.

For an example, we consistently use anatomy, our western map of the muscles, bones, etc., in speaking of the body. It is an essential convention. However, our model of anatomy is based on separation, the distinctions that are possible by cutting something apart. Our common-sense understanding of the body then is one of pieces. With these distinctions of pieces, we can only speak of relation between the pieces. I question whether our failure to speak easily of “integration” might not lie in our reliance on the language of anatomy. In “integration”, we are not speaking of pieces or of their relations, but of the creation of a new order.

What may be missing in teaching is a clear sense of the limitations of our paradigms. Each sets its own definitions, and so necessarily eliminates other considerations. I believe lack of confidence can sometimes come from an over-reliance on a single model. If the model is accepted as the real description of the world, then when a time comes that the model doesn’t fit what’s in the body of a client, a pracitioner is likely to ascribe a failure to themselves, rather than say, “Oh, that model is not what’s in front of me.”

We all tend to want answers, to want to know what’s so. In Rolfing classes I’ve seen the mutual frustration of teacher and student when a straightforward “Yes, it will ALWAYS be like this” answer is wanted, and the wider experience of the teacher knows that it will not always be any one way at all. The evolution of paradigms and techniques in our work comes at least in part from this kind of frustration, as well as the belief that we always need more information. But I do not believe confidence comes from having a great model. Confidence comes from having a number of workable models, assurance that you are capable of moving among them, and trust in the vision that you have.

Towards New Language

Trust in individual vision comes from understanding that vision is allied to your entire being, experiences and actions. When we are asked in class, “What do you see?” we are being asked not facts about the body under view, but about what we intend to do.

It’s often said that the eighth, ninth, and tenth hours are critical to really understanding Rolfing. In those integrative sessions, we step out of the world of parts and in to a world of systems. It is often difficult to speak of what is to be done in those hours because our lingua franca, western anatomy, cannot express what needs to be said.

We are at liberty to create language; we do not need to rely solely on what we have been handed. Ida Rolf’s work was a creation of a new language of the body, and part of our evolution has been to re-say her distinctions in other language. It is important to do this when we are striving for distinctions to articulate our work, not so important if we think we need to re-define it in “real” terms. The reality is before us, rather than re-definition, we need a new language.

Different languages will lead us to different bodies. Anatomy leads us to a body of parts, with the questions of relation, let alone integration, somewhat mysterious.

We need a kinesthetic language, that will allow us to intelligibly answer the question, “How is the tissue?” When we can speak in that language, we can teach Rolfing by feel. A language for texture, for kinesthesia, leads to a fluid body, a whole where parts are less important than coherence, a unity of tissue.

We need more language for proprioception. A language of proprioception leads us to a sensory body, a construct of contrasts between world-within and world without. Proprioception is a language of ownership. Without it, it is difficult to educate clients in the perception or change of their balance and ease in their body, and its changes.

Our language of movement is limited, except where it relies on metaphor. A language of movement creates a body of geometry, of changing shape in space, and leads us to a view of body-as-whole.

All these languages become possible if we recognize that what we are seeing when we see, is the distinctions we have ourselves made, our experience, and the knowledge we live. From this we act. The body, the world, is in what we do.

The Continuity of Practitioning and Practice

The confidence to say “I don’t see” comes from an atmosphere in which “seeing” is recognized as a process of learning distinctions, not an organic perceptual process. The fact that “seeing” depends partly on experience, and on a background of possibly subconscious evaluations and intentions, might help both teacher and student in bringing their worlds of seeing closer. In teaching, the teacher can bring what is subconsciously known forward.

Confidence in pracitioning does not exist in having good models but in having good questions, and asking them. Our questions, and our languages, expand when we make them fit the actions that we are taking, rather than have our actions conform to the available language. We can speculate on, and be ready to teach, the limitations of any model that we use.

Confidence can also come from recognizing the acts of creation that happen in our language all the time. Confidence will never come from gathering more information alone, but from a willingness to play in the creative chaos of the world.Learning, Seeing, and the Continuity of Practitioning and Practice

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