Recently, when I was about to give up playing the string bass because of escalating back injuries, a friend recommended Rolfing therapy.
I had tried to strengthen the lower back and correct my lordosis (swayback) with an exercise program of partial sit ups and constant pelvic tucking. But walking had become a strain and a puzzlement. I couldn’t imagine how to walk with a straight back without tightening the upper legs.
Occasionally my back would go out, usually while loading my bass into the back of the station wagon. But when a crippling spasm nearly ruined my opportunity to play for an opening night party for the Santa Fe Opera at the Governor’s mansion, I sought chiropractic help.
Relief from the extreme back pain was immediate, and I managed to get through the evening with a back support wrap.
During the months after the back spasm healed, I took a series of chiropractic treatments. I felt a good deal better, but the chronic back pain continued at a low level.
A year later the back injuries were occurring more frequently. I awoke each morning feeling very stiff; I was never sure when a spasm would bring me up short or ruin my tennis game. Carrying the string bass was always a disaster; if I walked any distance in the traditional bass neck-over-shoulder position, another spasm would strike.
Over the next year, since I saw no relief from the continuing back injuries, I began to prepare myself for the end of my bass playing career. To put off the decision to quit, however, I bought a luggage carrier and was amazed at how easy it was to use. It served as an upright stand in my practice room, and, with the bungee cords attached, a very secure cart for the instrument. Lifting the bass and attached cart into the back of the station wagon was another problem, however another source of back strain if I wasn’t very careful.
The cart gave me enough relief to take up dancing again. This had been my prime source of exercise, but I soon learned that my movement was severely restricted.
While watching me struggle through a difficult dance sequence, my dance instructor suggested that I attend a talk on Rolfing. She thought I was a good candidate for the therapy.
I had never heard of Rolfing, but I was willing to try anything. I attended a talk given by the co-author of this article, Robert Schrei, a Certified Roller from Santa Fe, New Mexico. When he started describing the anatomy of fascia, the connective tissue that covers all the muscles and organs of the body, and how it could be released and realigned over the musculature to allow the body to fall straight in the gravitational field, I knew that I had to try it.
What a miracle it would be if I could lose the swayback that was threatening my bass playing! Schrei had some spectacular pictures of children before and after Rolfing. Would a fifty-two-year-old woman respond as well?
“Nearly,” was the answer. He though he could help me.
I started the traditional series of ten sessions a few days later. After the first session I was delighted to find that I could bend over far enough to put my nose between my knees. (No! I didn’t need anyone to drive me home afterward-it felt good, not painful.) The second session included more back work, on a stool this time, with the Rolfer’s elbows pressing slowly down either side of my spine as I bent over to the floor.
That was the end of my back problems! Just like that-gone-all my morning back pain, all the spasms, all the painful injuries incurred while carrying the bass! Ten months later I am still free of back pain, in spite of an active playing schedule.
Some weeks later I saw the end of another problem I didn’t even acknowledge. It happened after one of the later sessions, when Schrei worked on my hands and arms. I was preparing for a jazz concert featuring Claude Bolling’s Suite for Chamber Orchestra and Jazz Trio. I had been having trouble with the plucking hand going into an “exertion” tetany (cramping) on fast passages, and I was somewhat concerned about what Rolfing my arms and hands so close to a concert would do to my playing. The Rolfing session had addressed a tense area in my shoulder and had left it relaxed but sore.
The morning after the Rolfing I awoke in a panic. The shoulder was pretty sore; I held a lot of tension there. I had ignored Schrei’s request to tell him if the Rolfing pressure was painful in that area. Would I be able to play?
I got up early and went straight to the Bolling music, warming up on a few slow walking sections before I tried the fast solo jazz passages. I was amazed at how easily the notes came off my fingers; they felt greased! And the lower arm did not ache with the effort! I set the metronome to performance tempo and tried the fast passages again. No problem. The muscles of the lower arm were released and ready to respond to the finger’s demand for speed.
Now, eight months later, the mobility in my fingers is still good. I am also much straighter and more self confident and there is less waddle in my walk.
So what is Rolling exactly, that it can ease chronic muscular problems and increase mobility so dramatically? Let’s define Rolfing and look briefly at how it works.
First of all it should not be confused with massage or physical therapy.
Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defines massage as systematic therapeutic friction, stroking and kneading of the body. A masseur works with muscle tissue to encourage relaxation. The Rolfer does not work directly on the muscles; he loosens connective tissue that surrounds muscles and other organs.
Physical therapy is the treatment of disease by physical means. A physical therapist focuses on rehabilitation, selecting treatment from a variety of techniques. A Rolfer is interested inbody alignment and balance.
In contrast to physical therapis and massage therapists, the Rolf seeks to restructure a healthy but unbalanced body by reorganizing the fascia, the connective tissue that surrounds, interconnects and interpenetrates all the muscles, bones, vessel nerves and organs-giving shape to the body.
The goal of Rolfing is to release the body’s segments-head, thorax, pelvis, and legs-so that gravity can r, align them. Working like a sculptor, eyeing areas of imbalance or tension before he or she sets to work, the Rolfing brings the body into vertical alignment. The legs, pelvis, thorax, an head are released in a specific order defined by the interrelationship of the fascia that holds one muscle group and pulls on another. The entire procedure, done over ten sessions, is called Structural Integration, the phrase use by the developer of the therapy, Ida Rolf.
Using hands, fingers, knuckles, c elbows, and working with synchronized movements of the client, the Rolfer applies steady pressure to the fascia, loosening thickened areas an releasing places where the connective tissue is stuck together or glued t adjacent structures. Connective tissues bracing (hardening and thickening caused by old injuries or by habitual holding patterns due to stress) is undone and released. As a result, muscle that were restricted can work more freely and more in balance with of posing muscles.
Gradually and systematically, the connective tissue network is reorganized so that the body’s underlying structures regain their natural freedom of movement. As a result, blood flow and nerve impulse transmission is improved, along with cellular metabolism.
To reinforce the newly gainer mobility and straighter alignment, the Rolfer uses movement training to hell the client learn to balance and relax into gravity, to unlearn lifelong pat terns of tension. For example, during several sessions I had lessons in how to walk without throwing my lower back into its tense lordosis set. I learned to use the deep-lying psoas group of muscles to keep the pelvis forward, while swinging the legs freely from the diaphragm area.
The Rolfer needs a keen eye to see areas of imbalance in the client’s bodily structure and to spot tension in movement patterns; a large part of Rolfing training includes learning to see such anomalies.
Dr. Ida Rolf, a research biochemist at the Rockefeller Institute in the 1920’s, developed the technique and training program over several decades. Her methods are taught at the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration in Boulder, Colorado, the only place that grants Rolfing Certification. The training is a graduate program for individuals over 25. Entrance requirements include knowledge of anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and massage.
The basic training starts with 324 hours of learning to analyze and evaluate human structural problems. After a two-to-twelve-month study interval, trainees begin hands-on work. Another 324 hours are required; they include fascial anatomy and the role of movement and body management during Rolfing, as well as the practice of manipulation work.
Analysis is the first order of business when a new client comes to a Rolfer. The Rolfer studies the client’s overall structure by viewing the person standing in underwear, first from each side, then from the front and back. Then the client walks back and forth while the Rolfer analyzes movement and holding patterns. Photographs may be taken for later reference.
When the Rolfer understands the basic structural problems, the client is asked to lie down on the Rolfing table to begin the first session, which usually includes releasing the rib cage. Each session has a particular goal. In ten or more sixty-to-ninety-minute sessions, the Rolfer systematically realigns the body’s body stocking of fascia, working from the superficial structures to the deeper fascial planes. He or she concentrates on areas that have thickened or stuck together around old injuries and on places that have been knotted with tension, noting how the tissue responds to the steady and unrelenting pressure.
Every client has a unique set of tight, hardened, or sticky areas of fascia. The body arranges its connective tissue so that it “splints” an unusual pattern of movement caused by stress or injury. When the stress or injury is gone, the hardened connective tissue remains. The resulting thickened areas improperly influence the position and working of adjacent muscles, bone, internal organs, and adjacent structures in a spreading domino effect.
Rolfers may do “first aid” for a specific area of the body that has reduced mobility from injury or chronic pain from stress, but they prefer to do a complete Structural Integration, Dr. Rolf’s term for Rolfing.
Some Rolfers are more sensitive than others to psychological effects generated by the mental release that Rolfing may trigger. These Rolfers are prepared to accelerate and enable psychological work triggered by the body’s readjustment. In case of serious problems the client is referred to a psychologist.
The reverse can also be true. Some Rolfers work on the staff of psychotherapy clinics and are brought in on cases where Rolfing therapy may induce psychological release.
Some clients don’t experience noticeable psychological effects, as would be expected if a mal-alignment had no traumatic generator.
Learning To Move Again
During a seminar on Rolfing for bassists, Robert Schrei watched three members of the Los Alamos Sinfonietta play while sitting on stools or standing. One standing player was slightly hunched over the bass, which put a lot of tension on the upper back. Schrei helped him find a position that was more balanced.
Perching on a stool while playing tended to throw my lower back into as trained arch. My assignment was to maintain pelvic tilt.
Of course the hand of the player using a French bow tended to cramp with hard use, and the player using a German bow was more prone to wrist problems. The answer for both problems was to grasp either bow with as little pressure as possible. Many problems that Rolfers see start with overexertion or excess tension.
Before the session ended Schrei watched us carry and load a 3 /4 acoustic bass into a station wagon. He was horrified at the traditional over-the-shoulder method of toting the instrument.
“All the weight of the instrument is way out in front,” he said. “It’s throwing your back into an extreme curve. Why not pick it straight up so you can support the weight from underneath?”
Not cool! But strain disappears when you don’t challenge gravity like bending way over into the station wagon to push the bass just five more inches toward the front.
“Come around and pull the neck in from the front,” Schrei said. “The extra time it takes to load the instrument is well worth the saving in lower back strain.”
The principles of Rolfing movement when applied to carrying and playing a string bass seemed foolishly obvious to us during the seminar after Schrei pointed them out. Applying them was another matter.
It is always tempting to Lean over the bass to lift it into the station wagon the last few inches. It is even more tempting to carry it in the old way when the cart seems like too much trouble. What keeps me in line is the memory of the constant back pain, and the joyful, pain-free walk down the hall every morning now. I continually practice my walking and relaxation lessons, and I try not to let the stool dictate how I hold myself while playing.
Rolfing is a two-way process; the client must be willing to learn new ways of moving and lifting so the work is not undone by bad habits.
Recently I talked to two other bass players in the Santa Fe area who have been Rolfed.
Phil Vergammi, bassist for Atomic Grass, experienced some relief in the upper torso that affected mobility and staying power in his left arm. A turned out foot was straightened when the Rolfer, Jan Sultan, released a large area of scar tissue around a childhood appendectomy.
The other bass player, George Matlack, is sixty-nine. He just finished the first ten sessions with Bob Schrei and noted that the Rolfing dispelled the notion of old age in his body. His looks confirm how he feels; he is straighter and walks with a lighter gait.
A common feature in successful Rolfing anecdotes such as these is the willingness of the client to change. A client needs to allow the Rolfer to sculpt the body into a straighter shape, to allow the tissue to move, to learn new habits so that the body can find a better orientation in gravity. The most successful Rolfing sessions are those in which the client works with the Rolfer, concentrating and relaxing under the therapist’s fingers.
If the client tenses against the intrusion, very little long-term change can be accomplished-and the session may be more painful than it need be.
Though most people-especially those whose occupations involve repetitive, stressful, or strenuous activity-would probably benefit from Rolfing, it is not a panacea. It is important to remember that Rolfing does not substitute for medical treatment when it is needed or desired. Rolfers do not treat, prescribe or diagnose illness, disease or any other physical or mental disorder. Though relief from physical or emotional symptoms may occur, the basic goal of Rolfing is structural integration, balancing the body in gravity. Relief of pain, immobility, stress, or emotional disturbance is secondary to the balancing process.
Since Rolfing involves reorganizing deep connective tissue, it should not be undertaken if you have any condition that might be exacerbated by the mobilization of soft tissues. Such conditions include circulation problems like clotting, aneurysm, phlebitis, or hardening of the arteries; connective tissue diseases like lupus; and cancer, hernia or heavy edema. If bone and joint problems exist-such as acute arthritis, spondylosis, and osteoporosis-Rolfing should be approached with caution. It should not be done during inflammatory episodes of arthritis, and little effect on bone joint disease processes should be expected. Since a person needs vitality to absorb the changes made during Rolfing, it is not done on persons who are acutely ill; Rolfing those who have wasting diseases is sometimes debatable. The Rolf Institute tells its students not to Rolf clients past the first trimester of pregnancy. Surgical incisions should heal for two months before the area is Rolfed.
Thanks to Jeff Maitland, Ph.D., Director of Academic Affairs for the Rolf Institute and Maggi McCreery, M.D., for help in formulating the contraindications.