Maintaining Health Through Structural Integration

Pages: 48-49
Year: 1993
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

ROLF LINES – Vol. XXI – Nº 02 – June 1993

Volume: XXI


National focus on maintaining health and preventing illness is for the most part on nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle. But the maintenance of appropriate body structure has also been shown to be important. Attention to this facet of health maintenance will provide long term benefits in term of a population with less disease, and discomfort, and with more energy, and less need for curative healthcare consequent to aging.

The Principles of Structural Integration

It is well known that form follows function i.e., structure is determined by the function that it must perform. And so it is with humans who use their bodies to do what they need to survive and thrive-we require a body structured for these functions. Human bodies have evolved with a structure that, when not aberrated, serves us well in the pursuit of happy, productive lives. However, as a result of accidents, both physical and psychological, our bodies sometimes transform into structures less than effective for optimum functioning. When the body suffers an injury, even a slight injury, it attempts to contain or isolate the effect of the injury. Fascia (the web of biological material that holds the body together) responds to stress and trauma, whether the cause is physical or emotional, by shortening and thickening. The self imposed constriction results in the reduced range of motion and impaired physiologic function. In an ever widening chain reaction, the body then attempts to compensate for these effects by shortening other areas, even areas quite distant from the original trauma site. Eventually when enough compensations have accumulated, the body expends its adaptive potential and serious dysfunction and pain result. Two common examples are neck and lower back pain, which if not treated become chronic and tend to get worse over time.

The alignment of the body in the field of gravity is extremely important to the well being of that body. The body operates with maximum efficiency and ease, and with minimal discomfort when properly aligned with gravity. This alignment, or misalignment, is a function of fascia. A body of work known as structural integration has been developed to remove compensations and allow the body to function normally again and to function pain free by virtue of its normalcy. The compensations are developed in (and by) our bodies by contraction of fascia and are released by stretching that fascia. Structural integration in general helps individuals restructure their bodies to be more efficient, effective, comfortable and in general more healthy.

History of Structural Integration

The pioneer in these principles of structural integration was Dr. Ida P. Rolf, who after earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Columbia University, started her career as a researcher at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City in 1920. Starting in the early 1940’s,Dr. Rolf’s observations concerning physical dysfunction led her to investigate available methodologies for the relief of structural problems. Her search for improved outcomes of certain structural problems led her to the foundation of what became generically known as structural integration. She formed an organization, called the Rolf Institute, to train qualified people to do her work. Rolfing is the term used by the practitioners of structural integration trained at the Rolf Institute. The practitioner call themselves Rolfers.

Dr. Rolf worked toward improving the physical condition of clients who came to her with all manner of symptomatology by realigning their body through fascial release. Beginning in about 1954, she taught the principles of Rolfing in a classroom setting. She and her students found enthusiastic clients among the people in the human potential movement of the early 1960’s to the late 1970’s, people who were interested in the human condition and were open to try new things. They were especially sympathetic to the systems approach to human problems in part because of their recognition of the connection between physical and psychological well being. These people were often looking for “growth” in psychological terms and consequently, to some extent, some of the claims of benefits from Rolfing focused on those more intangible aspects of the human condition. But the real focus of structural integration from the beginning was on the dysfunction of the physical body and on improving the way the physical body functions in day to day living. A premise of structural integration is that gravity exerts more influence on our body and the way we use it than any other external field of force. Hence, structural integration is based on understanding the systematic interaction of the body with gravity. Gravity is so much a part of our world that we tend to forget how much it influences us.

Although it is clear that overall health is improved, energy level is raised and efficiency is improved, people most often come to Rolfers primarily for the amelioration of pain or physical dysfunction. About 75,000 people elect to be Rolfed per year with the demand increasing at about 10% per year. Since Rolfing is generally not paid for by insurance, this demand indicated the commitment that people have for this work, that the techniques of Rolfing do indeed deliver what is claimed. Clients leave their sessions in structural integration with greater bodily comfort, greater sense of wellbeing, and with better performance and greater efficiency of their bodies. While Rolfing does not direct itself toward the elimination of symptoms such as whiplash, lower back pain, migraine, etc., anecdotal l evidence clearly indicates that it is effective for these problems. Rolfing focuses instead on integrating the structure of the whole body, and it has been found that the symptoms tend to take care of themselves once this integration process is complete. It is felt, though-not quantitatively studied, that Rolfing is useful in the prevention of many afflictions, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, that seem to derive from unusual and repetitive use of the human structure.

Structural Integration is Different

Rolfing is quite different from massage or chiropractic manipulations. It is built upon its own theoretical basis concerning the body as a system operating in gravity. It is designed to create lasting change in body structure with consequent lasting change in body function and is not designed specifically for relaxation or for symptorn amelioration. It is commonly done in a series of ten one-hour long sessions, each session focused on different aspects of the integration of the whole structure. It takes into account the characteristics of the individual being Rolfed and what they perceive to be their particular problems. But it does not focus exclusively on those problems, because it has been found that the body will solve its own specific problems once it is properly aligned and integrated in the field of gravity. The body then can take care of itself.

In the early years of Rolfing, the work got a reputation for being uncomfortable. In recent years, experience has facilitated the refinement of the techniques used to work on the fascia. Consequently, clients experience less discomfort. Rolfing is generally not as uncomfortable as its reputation would have it.

Scientifically Demonstrated

Some research has been done on the effects of Rolfing. Peer reviewed scientific articles have shown that structural integration enhances movement, reduces stress and anxiety, and enhances the homeostatic functioning of the autonomic system. V. Hunt et. al. 1, 2 of U.C.L.A., published studies of the effects of Rolfing using electromyography (EMG). Measurements of muscle contraction during resting, throwing, lifting a stool, jogging, and stepping up on a stool demonstrated that Rolfing leads to smoother onset of muscle contraction and relaxation. This is correlated with more skillful movements and with greater efficiency in sustained or repetitive activities. It suggests that Rolfing increases the length and resiliency of connective tissue, thereby reducing the tension in the muscles and resetting the neural system that regulated muscle tone. Rolfing has also been shown to significantly decrease anxiety as measured with a widely used state anxiety questionnaire3. John Cottingham, et. a.l 5,6, published in Physical Therapy, studies demonstrating that the pelvic lift mobilization procedure used in Rolfing reduces muscle spasm and peripheral vasoconstriction commonly associated with myo fascial pain syndromes, as well as restricted breathing patterns, hyperactive behaviors, and hyper extensive neck and back patterns. Studies have shown that Rolfing manipulations significantly increase parasympathetic tone. Current research is directed at questions of perceived efficacy, such as the characteristics and expectations of individuals electing to be Rolfed; how individuals perceive the Rolfing experience; whether Rolfing is uniformly beneficial or if there are contraindications or side effects.


There are several schools training people in the techniques, philosophy, and scientific basis of the work of Dr. Rolf. The school established by Dr. Rolf trains practitioners of Rolfing in a post-graduate program of 27 weeks of segmented full time study. Prerequisites for this study include a bachelor degree, training in anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, psychology and massage. Licensing requirements to practice this work vary from state to state. There are certification examinations, promoted by a coalition of body workers, currently offered to practitioners of structural integration. It is felt that this certification will provide the future basis of state licensing, an essential as this field of health maintenance and healing expands.

More information on Rolfing can be found through the Rolf Institute, 302 Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado 80302.


Structural integration, the therapy attentive to the structure of the body and the effect of that structure on optimum performance and comfort of that body, should be included in the armamentarium of health interventions directed toward maintaining health and preventing illness. This intervention is highly cost effective for maintaining well being.


1 Hunt & Massey, Electromyographic Evaluation of Structural Integration Techniques. Psychoenergetic Systems, 1977, Vol 2, pp. 199-210.

2 Weinberg R. and Hunt V., Effect of Structural Integration on State-Trait Anxiety, Journal of Clinical Psychology, 1979; 352; pp. 319-322.

3 Spielberger C., Gorsuch R., Lushene R., Manual for the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, Palo Alto, California, Consulting Psychiatrists Press.

4 Cottingham J., Porges S., Lynn P.,Rolfing Pelvic Lift Procedure and Associated Changes in Parasympathetic Ton in Two Age Groups of Healthy Adults; Physical Therapy; 1988; 68; pp. 352256.

5 Cottingham J., Porges S., Richmond K., Shifts in Pelvic Inclination Angle and Parasympathetic Tone Produced by Rolfing Soft Tissue Manipulation, Physical Therapy; 1988; 68; pp. 1364-1370.

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