Rolfing: a Third Paradigm Approach to Body-Structure

Pages: 46-49
Year: 1992
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

ROLF LINES – Vol XX nº 02 – SPRING 1992

Volume: 20

Before I became a member of the Council of the Certification Program for Massage Therapists/Body workers, I participated as a member of the Job Analysis Advisory Committee. Part of our job was to help in the creation of a job analysis survey questionnaire in order to determine the knowledge, skills,
and abilities required for an entry level massage/bodywork practitioner. Early in our discussions, I and a number of other members realized that Rolfing and certain other forms of manipulation clearly were not entry level practices. Furthermore, I recognized immediately that the scope and nature of our work had been not understood properly and hence was not being represented properly in the
emerging job analysis questionnaire. In an effort to explain-what we do and the nature of our work, I gave a little talk on the nature of Wholism and showed how Rolfing was a Wholistic system. We then attempted to complete a rather exhaustive review of all the forms of bodywork currently practiced in America. From these discussions, we discovered three fundamental paradigms of practice which in turn allowed us to both understand and classify all forms of massage/ bodywork.

These three paradigms underlie all forms of massage/bodywork. In fact, I would argue that all systems of thought and practice that are dedicated to the health and well-being of others must belong to one or more of these three paradigms. These paradigms provide, therefore, a powerful yet simple way to understand and distinguish between all forms of somatic education, psychotherapy, and healing. By implication, these paradigms also provide us with a way to understand and distinguish Rolfing and its scope of practice from other forms bodywork and manipulation. As part of the ongoing effort to clarify and define our work, I want to examine Rolfing by means of these paradigms.


The Three Paradigms

The word paradigm has gained some popularity lately. Many people use it without a clear understanding of its meaning and few realize that the present use to which it is put was originally pioneered by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The word paradigm comes from the Greek, paradigma, and it means pattern. A paradigm is a highly structured way of perceiving,valuing, and thinking about some aspect of reality. The revolutionary creation of science, for example, gave rise to the mechanistic paradigm. Through the lens of this paradigm, the Western world now tends to view all of nature as a vast machine to be understood according to causal laws which are articulated in the language of mathematics. The Western world did not always look at nature in this way and many cultures throughout the world still do not. Nevertheless, to most Westerners, the mechanistic paradigm of science seems like common sense. So much so that Western medicine, anatomy, physiology and many forms of manual medicine are
all based on the unexamined assumption, first put forward by Descartes in the 1600’s, that the body is nothing but a soft machine. Accordingly, anatomy studies the parts of the soft machine and physiology studies how they function.


All systems of thought and practice that are dedicated to the health and well-being of the human being can be categorized according to which one or more of the following three paradigms of practice to which they must belong: Relaxation, Corrective, or Wholistic.

Practices that fall under the Relaxation Paradigm are oriented toward creating the relaxation response in their clients. While well-being and healing are obviously promoted and enhanced by relaxation techniques, the ability of relaxation practitioners to treat pain, disease, dysfunction, and structural problems, is quite limited and clearly outside the scope of their training and practice. Typical examples of relaxation practices might be some forms of Biofeedback and some forms of traditional massage.

The symptomatic treatment of pain, dysfunction, structural problems, and disease is the focus of practices that fall under the Corrective Paradigm. Compared to relaxation approaches, practice at this level obviously demands a great deal more training and the more highly developed skills of evaluating, assessing, diagnosing and treating the client’s presenting conditions. Typical examples of corrective practices that do not treat disease might include many forms of Physical Therapy, many forms of Chiropractic and Osteopathic manipulation, deep tissue therapies, myofascial release therapies, and neuromuscular re education therapies. Allopathic medicine, whose scope of practice obviously includes diagnosis and treatment of disease is also a corrective practice. Typically, the great majority of corrective practices are based on, supported by, and embrace the mechanistic paradigm which assumes that the human body is a soft machine composed of parts.

Practices that fall under the Wholistic Paradigm are devoted to enhancing the natural tendency of the whole person to seek higher and higher orders of functioning and well-being at every level of being ‘from the body to mind to spirit. The symptomatic re mediation of pain, dysfunction, structural disorders, and disease is not the primary focus of this paradigm. Nevertheless, because of the all-encompassing nature of the wholistic approach, the remediation and correction of disease, pain, and dysfunction are more often than not the welcomed and expected outcome of balancing and organizing the whole person.

Every wholistic approach, each in its own way, enhances a system or systems which is/are fundamentally important to the organization, structure, function, and well-being of the whole person. Two examples of such fundamental systems are the myofascial system in relation to gravity which is the focus of the Rolfing and the energy systems which are the focus of many disciplines in Oriental medicine. Homeopathy is an example of a wholistic practice that is oriented toward the curing of disease. Even though many contemporary practitioners have abandoned their wholistic roots, Osteopathic and Chiropractic manipulation were clearly understood as wholistic by their originators. These paradigms are not exclusive and opposed to one another. They are, in fact, inclusive and interrelated. The divisions between them are neither arbitrary nor rigid. In the hands of many practitioners, various approaches from all three paradigms are often employed and overlap. Although the paradigms are not in opposition to each other, they nevertheless are hierarchically related. Thus, for example, third paradigm approaches can and often accomplish the work of the second and first paradigm approaches. Second paradigm approaches can accomplish the work of the first paradigm but not the work of the third. If a second paradigm approach appears to have accomplished the work of a third paradigm approach, the effect is only accidental. First paradigm approaches cannot, except accidentally, accomplish the work of second and third paradigm approaches. In some cases, first and second paradigm approaches may be necessary in preparation for a third paradigm approach.

Notice also that a distinction exists within the corrective and wholistic paradigms between those practices that treat disease and those that treat structural/ functional difficulties. Thus, the second paradigm Allopathic treatment and understanding of disease is quite different in scope and intent from the third paradigm Homeopathic understanding and treatment of disease. Furthermore, third paradigm structural/functional approaches like Rolfing, for example, sometimes apparently release clients from disease processes. And third paradigm approaches like Homeopathy on occasion release clients from structural/functional problems. Obviously, however, even though Rolfing sometimes releases clients from disease, it is not our intent nor is it within our scope of practice to treat and cure disease. Likewise, Home not handle structural/functional issues very well. If one is seeking structural integration in gravity, I would think that one the last practices she would seek out to accomplish this goal would be Homeopathy.


The Structural/Functional Wholism of Rolfing

Among wholistic approaches, Rolfing is unique in theory and practice. Whereas most wholistic approaches aim at balancing and integrating the whole person (body/ mind/spirit) with respect to itself, Rolfing adds the further requirement that the whole body-structure also must be balanced and integrated with respect to gravity. Indeed, from the Rolfing perspective, balancing and integrating the whole person is not fully possible without taking account of the ubiquitous presence and impact of gravity on the human structure. In a real sense, the results of Rolfing manipulation and movement education must always be measured against the absolute reference of gravity. As Dr. Rolf said, “Gravity is the therapist, not the Rolfer.”

The unprecedented inquiry standpoint and new wholistic approach initiated by Rolfing requires, furthermore, a rethinking of our traditional ways of conceptualizing body-structure and wholeness. Traditionally, the concepts of wholeness and structure, as well as most corrective practices, tend to be rooted in the mechanistic paradigm created by Descartes and Newton. The view that the body is a soft machine implies that the body is a complex thing composed of thing parts. The obvious wholeness of living beings is completely missed when the body is conceptualized as complex-thing made up from thing-parts. Because of the implied conceptual and ontological commitment to body-parts in the part/whole distinction, the phrase, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” also fails to grasp the nature of living wholes. Similarly, the concept of structure tends to be misunderstood by being reduced to the concept of body-parts.

In contrast, Rolfing maintains that the human body is not a complex thing or a soft machine, but rather is a unified whole which must relate to gravity. In the language of systems theory, the body is a living unified system in which no one system is more fundamental to the make-up and organization of the whole than the whole itself. To be sure, some systems are more important to the continued life of the body than others. But, no one system is more fundamental to the whole than any other. The body is not composed of parts. Since there are no parts to the body, there are no fundamental building blocks out of which the body is constructed. What we call an organ, a bone, a cell, etc., are not parts but systems. Thus, every system belongs to some other system or set of systems, every system is made up of other systems, and the forces between systems are themselves systems. To make the same point in the language of relationship, the body is not a collection of parts but a living relationship in which all relationships are related: every relationship is an aspect of other relationships, every relationship is made up of other relationships, and the forces between relationships are also relationships.

Therefore, because Rolfing conceptualizes the body as a living unified structural whole that functions best when it is integrated and organized in gravity, the meaning and use of the word structure in Rolfing theory and practice is quite different than the meaning of structure in corrective and mechanistic approaches to the body. Since the body is already whole and thus not composed of parts, Rolfing does not view the concept of structure through the conceptual lens of body parts. Furthermore, since the body is not composed of parts, the practice of Rolfing does not and cannot aim at aligning body parts. Rolfing as myofascial manipulation and education aims at integrating and aligning the whole-body both with respect to itself and with respect to gravity. Every structural intervention performed by a Rolfer must take account of and affect the body as a whole in relationship to gravity. Every intervention must affect the body as a system of relationships in relation to gravity.

As we all know, Dr. Rolf insisted that our orientation and interest as Rolfers must always be focused on appropriate relationship. Indeed, she claimed, quite correctly I believe, that the Line, our most profound and important indicator of structural integration in gravity, is a logos of relationship. The Line is neither a property of gravity nor ananatomical structure. It is, as Dr. Rolf insisted, a logos of relationship. The Line does not and cannot exist apart from bodies and their relationship to gravity.

In terms of Rolfing’s conceptual commitment to appropriate relationship consider a joint, for example. It cannot be understood properly as the simple articulation of bony, cartilaginous body-parts. A joint is a relationship among many systems. It is more than the articulation of bones and cartilage. It also must include all the myofascial structures that cross the articulating surfaces. Since fascia is the tissue that connects, it is the tissue of whole body relationship. By structural and fascial implication, a joint is connected to the whole body. A body is organized and moves through space in its own unique way because of the way its joint system functions and the joints function the way they do because of the way the whole body is organized and functions in gravity.

Every reference to a segment or component of the body, whether a bone, muscle, cell, or organ, is already a abstraction from the whole. The theory and practice of Rolfing, therefore, understands the concept of structure as a system wide relationship that stands in a profoundly uncompromising relationship to gravity. The organization and functioning of the whole structure in gravity determines the organization and functioning of any individual structure and the organization and functioning of any individual structure determines the organization and functioning of the whole structure in gravity.

Clearly Rolfing is not a second paradigm practice that attempts to align body-parts. Nevertheless, when a body is structurally integrated in gravity according to the principles of Rolfing, to the eyes, hands, and conceptual framework of second paradigm practitioners, it will appear to exhibit the proper alignment of parts. This recognition, however, does not justify reducing the Rolfing concept of structure to the concept of body-part. Structure in Rolfing theory and practice is always understood and articulated from the point of view of integrating the unified body-whole in gravity in order to create better function.

Our concepts of structure and integration in gravity coupled with a clear statement of the principles of Rolfing, provide a way to understand why many second paradigm approaches to structural problems fail to make lasting change. A second paradigm approach whose therapeutic goal is joint mobility and whose theoretical commitment is to conceptualizing the body as mechanical thing composed of parts, will ultimately fail to recognize the ubiquitous presence of compensatory, adaptive strain patterns throughout the body. Simple joint mobilization strategies without any understanding of how these patterns reinforce structural dysfunctions can only produce temporary change. Many Chiropractic practitioners, for example, have forsaken their training and heritage and substituted the QUICK TEN MINUTE STOP ANDPOP method of joint mobility. Their clients, of course, bitterly complain that the work does not hold.

In contrast to the simplistic STOP AND POP method of organizing and de-rotating the spine, consider the implications of Rolfing theory and practice. Our wholistic structural/ functional perspective and principles have led us to a number of important observations about how to handle spinal rotations. A body that has not been properly prepared to adapt to a new level of order will either revert back to its original pattern or show strain somewhere else in the structure (Preparatory Principle). Since order is a function of available support, de rotating a spine at least demands that the feet, legs, and pelvis are properly organized (Support Principle). If back/ front organization has not been addressed, then the likelihood a significant and functionally beneficial spinal change is unlikely (Palintonic Principle). The Rolfing method of structural /functional wholism provides a very powerful and lasting way to both organize the body in gravity, appropriately reposition bones, and create appropriate joint mobility without resorting to high velocity osseous manipulations. Some our ability to accomplish these results is due to our having uncovered and explored a whole new range of Rolfing indirect techniques.

More needs to be said about the concepts of structure and function. What is structure? What is function? What is the relation of the interplay between structure and function? These questions have not been fully or adequately answered yet and are the subject matter of another article.

Hopefully, however, I have provided the beginnings of a way to understand the nature of our work. We need to better understand ourselves so that we can both clearly distinguish our work from other disciplines and consequently enter into a meaningful dialogue with them.Rolfing: a Third Paradigm Approach to Body-Structure

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