Moving Toward Our Evolutional Potential

Pages: 5-24
Year: 1996
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Rolf Lines – (Genérico)


Anyone who has spent any time reading Dr. Rolf’s written word knows that she was profoundly interested in the effect of Rolfing on human evolution. But exactly what this effect might have been was never stated clearly. In some references she speaks about evolution as if it had to do with personal growth and transformation. In other places she clearly says that Rolfing can have an effect on the evolution of our species and even goes so far as to suggest that because of Rolfing we may be “seeing the first conscious attempt at evolution that any species has ever evidenced.”‘ Whenever I read or heard about the latter claims I simply dismissed them because they flew in the face of accepted evolutionary theory. How could Dr. Rolf make such a claim when she of all people should know that evolutionary theory would never support her view? How could she not know that she was committing the Lamarckian heresy of claiming that acquired characteristics are inherited? As a highly trained scientist and well educated woman she had to know, of course, the full implications of what she was saying; my problem was that I just could not square it with what I knew about biology. As a result I simply ignored that part of her theory.

Then in the Fall of 1994, Jan Sultan and I taught an Advanced class in Seattle. Carla van Vlaanderen was in the class and informed us that her significant other, Bruno D’Udine, wanted to deliver a paper she helped him prepare on evolutionary biology and Rolfing to the class. Of course, we immediately said yes. Professor D’Udine is known to many Rolfers, especially in Europe as an interdisciplinary and imaginative biologist who is particularly interested in the relation between biology and Rolfing. The paper was called “Biology and Rolfing” and had been given at a European Rolfers’ meeting in 1986. From listening to Bruno’s paper and talking with him later, Jan and I were immediately impressed with how new developments in Biology seemed to be especially formulated to support the claims of Rolfing.

When Bruno returned to Italy he generously sent me a book and a number of papers on the latest thinking in biology. Jan and I were even more excited by what we read. Jan had been exploring the “influence of the ancestors” on our bodies and I had been studying with a Chi Gong teacher who believed her system of energy healing could undo the fixations and conflicts inherited from our ancestors. But how could such a thing be possible?

Traditional evolutionary biology claims that all inherited characteristics are the result of the random mutation of the genes, that the environment cannot affect genetic material, and that all evolutionary change occurs gradually and slowly over many generations. If this view of evolution is accepted, then Jan’s perceptions and sense that Rolfing can significantly alter ancestral influences, Dr. Rolf’s suggestion that Rolfing’s effect on the morphology and behavior of the human body can be passed on, and my Chi Gong teacher’s claim to change genetic problems all seemed highly suspect if not downright peculiar. As it turns out, the New Biology provides startling evidence that seems to support many of the claims about Rolfing and its effect on evolution. This information and its relation to Rolfing is part of what I want to discuss in this article.

First, I shall show how Dr. Rolf’s understanding of plasticity and biological form is very close to the conclusions of the New Biology. Then I shall show how understanding the full implications of the New Biology for Rolfing creates a conflict in the theory and practice of Rolfing. As it turns out, Dr. Rolf’s Template of the Ideal Body coupled with formulistic ten session recipe, besides being problematic in themselves, are also incompatible with her and the New Biology’s theory of living form and plasticity. After I discuss those developments in biological theory that are relevant to Rolfing theory and practice, I will briefly sketch how Rolfing must be expanded to accommodate these insights into the nature of living form.

Most of this article is an abridgement of a couple of sections from a book I am presently writing and articles that will be published elsewhere. Some of what follows depends on understanding what I have already written on the three paradigms of somatic practice, the principles of Rolfing intervention, and non-formulistic Rolfing.2 Since the publication of “Rolfing: A Third Paradigm Approach to Body-Structure” a number of peculiar and rather confused attempts to reformulate the paradigms or even add a fourth paradigm have appeared. I do not want to restate the three paradigms or deal with these confusions here, but only say once again that the holistic paradigm, by its very nature, must include the transformative and spiritual aspects of Rolfing. This particular point was clearly made in my original formulations. If there are any lingering doubts about what I really meant, my recently published book, Spacious Body, which is devoted to the phenomenology of transformation, fleshes out the same point in considerable detail. My purpose in the present article is not to repeat these points, but to articulate the biological framework that supports a view of transformation that is, or is at least consistent with, Dr. Rolf’s view of evolution and transformation.

Plasticity, Biological Form, and Evolution

Implicit in the concept of the three paradigms is a distinction between two related but different goals for any therapeutic intervention. The most commonly agreed upon therapeutic goal, and the one to which all health care practitioners are committed, is the goal of restoring normal function. Thus, a practitioner working in the relaxation paradigm assists the client in overcoming somatic dysfunction by introducing the relaxation response; the corrective practitioner attempts to return local areas of dysfunction to their pre-dysfunctional state; and the holistic practitioner by attempting to introduce order, harmony, and balance throughout the whole system restores normal function as a natural by-product of enhancing the whole person. Thus we clearly see that goals of the holistic practitioner are quite different form those of the relaxation and corrective rective practitioners the relaxation and corrective practitioner aim only at the restoration of normal function, whereas the holistic practitioner aims at the enhancement of function.

Since the restoration of normal function has been uncritically and mistakenly adopted by many Rolfers as the goal of Rolfing, it is important to re examine what the goals of Rolfing actually are. Dr. Rolf clearly embraced the goal of restoring normal function. But, as every Rolfer knows, she also was interested in a much more comprehensives goal. Fundamentally, she was interested in creating a system of somatic manipulation and education that was capable of transforming the whole person. Although they are obviously related, the larger goal toward which her work was devoted was the enhancement of function, not merely the restoration of normal function. She was inspired by the theory and practice of Dr. Andrew Still, founder and creator of osteopathy, and saw her work as the continuation of his original insights. She agreed with him that structure determined function. She insisted that it also determined behavior and psychology. In addition, because she was convinced that function determined structure, she taught that structure and function were bidirectional and reciprocal. Restoration of normal function was important to her, but only as a stepping stone toward achieving the larger goal of enhancing function. “Form and function are a unity, two sides of one coin,” she claimed. “In order to enhance function, appropriate form must exist, or be created. A joyous radiance of health is attained only as the body conforms more nearly to its inherent pattern. This pattern, this form, this Platonic Idea, is the blueprint for structure. In turn, the function of this more appropriate structure is vitality, vitality of a degree unknown to the average person.”3

When she employed her techniques to bring greater structural order to the body as a whole as it related to gravity, she discovered that she could restore long lasting normal function much better than the corrective approach. She also discovered that her holistic approach often enhanced the being and functioning of the whole person, sometimes to an astonishing degree. By achieving the goal of integrating the human structure in gravity, she found that she was able to enhance human function at many levels, from the bodily to the psychological to the energetic and beyond. Her clients discovered that their movement patterns were less encumbered, that their behavior was less sterotypic, that they were emotionally less conflicted and fixated, and that they experienced an enhanced sense of lightness, vitality, flexibility, and a greater overall sense of well-being. Some even reported experiences that rivaled the depths described by mystics and contemplatives from around the world. She said:

“Our personal evolutionary potential lies within us. Originally this was the message of the mystics … The practitioner of Structural Integration separates the confusion of random fascial structure and re-relates it around a verticalline with new appropriateness…. Our ability to create these changes predictably and reliably and, by measuring, to validate them widens the scope of the word ‘evolution’. Evolution is matter moving toward more effective order; in the words of Herbert Spenser, ‘Evolution is an integration of matter and the concomitant disposition of motion; during which matter passes from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity; and during which the related motion undergoes a parallel transformation 4”

The title for the chapter from which the above quote is taken is “Evolution is the Expression of Internal Events.” In all of her writings Dr. Rolf clearly was interested the effect of her work on human evolution. She insisted that our evolutionary development was far from finished and that her work was capable of releasing latent development possibilities. She implied that her work could affect the course of evolution: “A human being is an erect animal … As he becomes more erect, man moves toward his evolutionary potential”.5

Over the years Rolfing clearly demonstrated its ability to profoundly change the course of a person’s life. Many clients can attest to the life altering nature of Rolfing. Certainly, we can understand how a system of manipulation might initiate and enhance one’s personal growth and evolution. But, in what sense might Rolfing release inherited ancestral fixations or affect evolution in the Darwinian sense without falling prey to the Lamarckian heresy? What is meant by man moving “toward his evolutionary potential?” As the above quotes show, Dr. Rolf’s answers to these questions are not well developed and are far from clear.

If Dr. Rolf had been aware of some of the more recent discoveries of developmental biology, she would have found o line of inquiry that both supported and made sense of he own scientific and philosophical inquiry into the nature of human plasticity and evolution. Before there was a New Biology she already was in agreement with many of its tenants. She would have agreed that the nature and functioning of any organism cannot be analyzed and understood apart from its environment. As she herself insisted, enhancing function requires not just that the body is organized with respect to itself but also integrated with the environment. Although I cannot be certain, I believe that she would also have agreed that genes do not completely determine biological form, that biological form is very much an epigenetic phenomenon that changes for good or ill over the entire life span of an individual as a direct result of interacting with an ever changing environment, and that many environmentally induced changes in morphology can be inherited. Perhaps she would have agreed also with the recognition that organisms and environment reciprocally influence each other and co evolve. As it turns out, the New Biology is so much in accord with the theory and practice of Rolfing that it appears as if it were specifically formulated to support the goals and claims of Rolfing.

According to the theory of orthobiosis proposed by Elie Metchnikoff, every organism, both in relation to itself and its environment, strives to harmoniously maintain and enhance its growth, reproduction, functional integrity, configural identity, and systemic coherence over its entire life span. How effective an organism is in turning its genetic code into ordered patterns of morphology and behavior that enhances its developmental possibilities over an entire life is very much a matter of how well organized and integrated the organism is at every level of its being. The more well integrated and hierarchically organized an organism is, the more flexible and creative it can be in the face of its ever changing environment.

The evolutionary and ontogenetic processes by which every organism develops its ability to transform, modify, adjust, and fit its form to the demands of a changing environment is called “plasticity”. In contrast to the New Biology, neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory claimed that all the essential causes of the phenotype were contained within the programs of the genotype. True to their Cartesian heritage, neo-Darwinian theorists believed that biological form was reducible to its components and ultimately explainable in terms of how these components interacted causally. Plasticity, therefore, was seen as a pre given program rooted in the gene encoded blueprint of the organism.

Recent developments in molecular genetics, however, cast serious doubts on these claims.

“One of the foundations of neo-Darwinianism is August s Weissmann’s doctrine of the independence of the germ line: the tenet that modifications induced by the environment3cannot pass from the body to the cells that make sperm or egg … however, recombinant DNA research has shown that Weissmann’s barrier is far from I absolute … Messenger RNA I can be converted into DNA… which is then reinserted into the germ line genome …Even more striking are the changes in the DNA of the a germ line that can be induced by the environment within a single generation … Molecular geneticists are being compelled to adopt the revolutionary concept of a ‘fluids genome’…Inheritance is a property of the whole system, not just the genes in the nucleus.”6

As a result of these and other discoveries, molecular genetics demonstrated that DNA cannot be solely responsible for all morphological and behavioral complexity. “Species of amphibia that are virtually identical morphologically nevertheless have great differences in the DNA content of their chromosomes, whereas … humans and chimpanzees, with significant morphological and behavioral differences, are very similar in their DNA content. So it is not content or composition that counts but organization …7 ”

The New Biologists thus arrived at a view of vital form which was implicit in Dr.Rolf’s understanding of her work. Since living systems are not made of parts, there is nothing more fundamental to the make up and organization of the whole than the whole itself. Any theory of form which tries to understand a living whole by reducing it to abstract hypostatized parts is, therefore, fundamentally mistaken. This mistake is embedded in the mechanistic paradigm that informs traditional biology and the theory and practice of most forms of Western health care. Since knowing the composition of a living system is not sufficient for determining its form, and since “organization is what counts” and “inheritance is a property of wholes,” a theory of biological form must be primarily a theory of how living wholes are organized. In turn, any theory or practice of restoring or enhancing function must be based on this theory of organized vital form. Without falling prey to the temptation to reduce the form and function of living wholes to constituent parts, this theory must be capable of articulating how living wholes, as living wholes, dynamically organize themselves appropriately and inappropriately in relation to their environments. Likewise any attempt to understand the behavior of local events in a living system is radically incomplete without an understanding of the state of the whole.

Since plasticity is not essentially rooted in a pre given genetic program, it is a developmental phenomenon that manifests over the entire life span of every living organism. Organisms are self organizing, self generating, and self arising. They possess their own immanent power to maintain harmony and stability through constant change. Plasticity arises as the inherent striving of the organism to harmoniously enhance its life through enhancing the integrity and hierarchical organization of its form and function. Plasticity is both a process and a product. Form and function are equally plastic. Organism and environment are plastic. Organisms are not just born into pre given environments; organisms and environments co evolve and shape each other. As a process, plasticity leads to plastic outcomes in behavior, biological form, and environments which in turn can lead to further plastic processes. Structure and function, process and product, organism and environment are bi directionally, relativistically, and reciprocally related.

The plasticity of form and function is not unlimited, however. It is always constrained by certain limitations. Indeed, these limitations are part of what make plasticity even possible in the first place. Part of what makes a form a form are its boundaries. The boundaries of form constitute a limitation. If the limitations of form could somehow be removed, the form would cease to be. To be is to be a form and limited. Limitation by limiting makes plasticity possible. The more constrained by its limitations an organism is, the less plastic it is. The less limited it is, the more plastic it is. For any living form, therefore, there is no such thing as unlimited possibility or impossible limitation. Living wholes are self-organizing and self-regulating systems characterized by the continual ongoing attempt to balance, organize, enhance, and harmonize their lives between limitation and possibility. Although genes are not the “central directing agency that can make all conceivable things happen,” they do impose some necessary constraints or limitations on an organism’s plasticity: “their role is to introduce consistent biases into the patterning dynamics.8”

The inherent plasticity of an organism can develop either into an integrated and hierarchically appropriate organization of form and behavior that is highly flexible or it can develop into less well organized forms and behavior. Poorly adapted forms are less flexible at many levels. They exhibit a lack of integrated, hierarchically appropriate order, and as a result they exhibit patterns of function that are stereotypical and fixated in ways that are detrimental to their well-being. Flexibility of form and function allows the organism to enhance its life by adapting appropriately and well to its context. Fixation in form and function stands in the way of life enhancing adaptations. Thus, limitation is not the enemy of plasticity, fixation is.

Of all the creatures on the earth, human beings exhibit the most potential plasticity. As a direct consequence of our highly plastic natures, we also exhibit large and varying degrees of flexibility and fixation. For good or ill, we demonstrate an uncanny ability to manipulate our environment, bodies, minds, and behaviors to an astonishing degree. And even though the research shows that this enormous potential for plasticity declines as we age, it nevertheless exists throughout our life. Since a well integrated and hierarchically organized biological form is at the heart of all successful adaptations, it only stands to reason that any system of intervention that aims at appropriately organizing the human form in relation to its environment would potentially enhance the overall functioning of our whole being at every level. By releasing fixations at many levels with an eye toward organizing the whole, such a system would trigger new levels of inherent plasticity and make us more flexible at many levels. As a result, it would be capable of releasing more and more of our unrealized potentials at many levels of our being. In a very real sense the existence of biological plasticity is the organismic ground of human freedom. Plasticity is one of the essential characteristics of all living form, and with form plasticity is given as an inherent potential to be realized at higher and higher levels. Like a flower, the meaning of our life is not found just in our continued existence, but in our ability to blossom again and again.9

The attempt to enhance human function and development was at the core of Dr. Rolf’s practice and theory. Her goal was not just to restore normal function but to enhance the being of the whole person. She recognized the importance of restoring normal function, but she clearly understood that it was not sufficient for achieving the larger goal of enhancing the whole of our being. She believed her system of intervention could trigger the evolutionary potential of our species she intuited that Rolfing was capable of affecting the morphology and hence behavior of future generations. In order to understand in what sense Rolfing might effect human evolution we only need to draw out the consequences of the New Biology.

Traditional neo-Darwinian biology claims that any change in form happens slowly ‘ over many generations and only by means of the random mutation of the genes. Since biological form is rooted in a pre-given genetic program and all evolutionary change is the j result of their random mutation, the environment cannot effect the genetic make-up of the organism. Dr. Rolf’s intuition that a profound change in the hierarchial organization of living form could trigger a release of the evolutionary potential of future generations clearly finds no support within the context of traditional biology. But, the assumptions of traditional biology are being called into question by the New Biology. As we have seen, not only can the environment alter biological form and its inheritance in sometimes as little as one generation, but the genes are not the only determinants of form.

A profoundly fascinating discovery by an American biologist, Tracey Sonneborn, shows that inheritance does not just depend on genes, but also on the impact of the environment on the organization of living form. Sonneborn surgically removed patches of cilia from the surface of a normal paramecium and placed the patches back onto the body in a reversed orientation. The genes were not affected by the operation. But when the paramecium reproduced through cell division, all of its progeny possessed the same reversed row of cilia. “So here is an example in which a mutation arises from change in a cell structure rather than in a gene…it is clear that inheritance does not just depend upon genes: it also depends upon any cytoplasmic organization that is transmitted from one generation to the next and can exist in different stableforms.”10

Changes in the morphology of an organism can be passed on in two ways, through genetic and structural change. Sonneborn’s investigations demonstrate structural inheritance: how the organization of form of an organism be altered and passed on to future generations without any corresponding change in the genes. As it turns out, the environment can also affect the genetic make up of an organism, and these genetic ancestral fixations also can be inherited. According to Waddington, ‘a eminent geneticist and imaginative scientist, “prolonged exposure to particular environment can lead to genetic fixation of the adapted state that can be inherited.”” This inherited genotype often exhibits adapted fixations in the inherent plasticity of organism.

In a very real way, the adaptations of our ancestors, whether genetic or structural, live in and through our bodies. When form and function are fixated at any level of our being, it can be due either to ancestral or present life environmental influences. Whenever some aspect of our being is fixated, whether at the bodily, emotional, mental, or energetic levels, the flexibility of our plasticity (our freedom) is compromised. As the New Biology demonstrates, at every level of our being, form and function are profoundly plastic. But, this plasticity of form and function is a double edged sword. It can work in our favor when it is the source of flexibility and it can work against us when it is the source of fixation.

“The existence of plasticity is not a point of minor significance. If all levels of life are open to change, then there is great reason to be optimistic about the ability of intervention programs to enhance human development.”” Since integrated and hierarchically organized form and function is one of the hallmarks of a flexible and well adapted organism, one obvious way to enhance human development would be to enhance the integrity and organization of the human form in relation to its environment. Given that some genetic fixations are the result of environmental influences, it is not too far fetched to speculate that another environmental influence in the form of a system of holistic somatic manipulation and education might be capable of releasing these fixations. And given that many ancestral fixations in form are not determined primarily by genetics, but by fixations in the organization of form, it is even easier to suppose that these fixations in plasticity can be released through appropriate forms of intervention. If these ancestral and present life fixations are released, a flexibility in plasticity could be triggered to the benefit of our whole being. Thus, it is possible that by introducing integrated and hierarchical organization into our form and function, we can, as a species, consciously move ourselves toward realizing our evolutionary potential, just as Dr. Rolf believed.

Since the corrective approach to somatic dysfunction has no understanding of the profound importance of enhancing the whole, Dr. Rolf insisted to the end of her life that she had “bigger fish to fry” than just fixing aches and pains. Richard M. Lerner, whom I quoted in the previous paragraph, argues that we should be optimistic about the ability of intervention programs to enhance development. In an effort to understand what such intervention programs might look like, Lerner concludes his book with a discussion of values. Once we recognize that every level of our being from our DNA to our cells to our organs to the structure of our body to our emotions to our psyche to our energetic processes to our social nature to our history and beyond is plastic and radically contextualized, and that any intervention at any level could profoundly alter for good or ill any and every other level, the difficult question of where and how to intervene becomes highly significant. Lerner asks, “What is enhancement and how does one choose a target to enhance?…Does enhancement mean increasing people’s intelligence? Does it involve increasing personal freedom and/or individuality, or does it pertain to building group cohesiveness and the respect for the collective nature of human life?”13

The way Lerner asks and answers these questions suggests that, even though he briefly discusses holism, he does not fully grasp the nature of biological form. Instead of dealing directly with the theoretical difficulties surrounding what to enhance, he abruptly concludes his study with a rather unproductive relativistic stance toward what different people might consider valuable to enhance. Instead of trying to decide what component of the body we should enhance from a relativistic stance, the obvious answer about what to enhance seems to be Dr. Rolf’s: enhance the hierarchial organization of the human form in relation to its environment from a holistic perspective.

Enhancement must respect and enhance the whole, not components or “parts.” If any attempt is made to enhance some aspect or part of our being, e.g., our intelligence or group cohesiveness, from an unexamined corrective standpoint without understanding the potential compensatory effect on the whole, we run serious risks. Dr. Rolf anticipated these difficulties. She cautioned against enhancing any system of the body at the expense of enhancing the whole. She said, “a man’s overall vital or psychic competence is determined not by the individual energy level of any one component system … but by the functioning of all as they interrelate in the total somatic individual. It means specifically that training the nervous system in an effort to produce a superior person cannot be successful. Part of the general malaise of our culture is the over stimulation of the nervous system.14”

Lerner’s issues about what to enhance are the same issues that face somatic practitioners every day: what do we do first, what do we do next, and when are we finished? In order to formulate a rational decision making process for intervening in a living form, we must be clear about how to work holistically; we must know what the principles of holistic intervention are, and we must know how to sequence our interventions according to these principles and in accordance with what is empirically observable. When one considers the enormity of the task of enhancing the human species, we should remain cautious about assuming that we have stated all the principles of intervention. Nevertheless, the principles of Rolfing intervention, or something very much like them, are what we need to know and understand in order to carry out any program of intervention that Lerner or any other plasticity theorist might imagine.

When Lerner wonders whether enhancement involves increasing freedom, he reaches the heart of the matter. The investigation into the nature of plasticity is the investigation into the biological ground of freedom. Such an investigation requires a theory and description of human freedom which Lerner does not provide. A theory of freedom and form that is in accord with the theory of plasticity is absolutely essential to any discussion of enhancement and has already been worked out in my book, Spacious Body, and in the articles mentioned in footnote 9. Other places to look for a biological and physiological basis for a theory of human freedom are in the works of Brian Goodwin, Peter Levine, Hubert Godard, and the research of John Cottingham and Steven Porges.

Somatic Idealism

Dr. Rolf’s understanding of plasticity and the unified nature of living wholes led her to attempt to instill in her students a reverence for vital form. In order to lead Rolfers away form being seduced into treating the body symptom by symptom, she quipped “If at first you don’t succeed, get the hell out and work somewhere else” and “Go where it ain’t.” Whether we are interested in the therapeutic goal of restoring long lasting normal function or in the more comprehensive goal of enhancing the whole being, a holistic perspective is absolutely critical to how we sequence our therapeutic interventions. Dr. Rolf clearly understood this requirement and attempted to lay out a comprehensive and systematic holistic approach coupled with an understanding of the body as a living form in relation to its environment. In her struggle to pass on her work to others she created a system of manipulation and education in the form of a ten session formulistic protocol. Since the description of what appropriate human form looked like was critical to the theory and practice of Rolfing, she struggled until the end of her life to find a way to articulate her vision. What she left to her students was a vision of an ideal form to which every body was supposed to conform and that was enshrined as a kind of Platonic goal for every Rolfing session or series.

Without an appreciation of the difficulties she faced as a pioneer in holistic somatic education, it is easy to criticize her for creating a form of somatic Platonism.15 Recall that she claimed enhanced vitality resulted only as the body conforms to its inherent pattern. “In order to enhance function, appropriate form must exist or be created … This pattern, this form, this Platonic idea is the blueprint for structure.” On occasion, she also described the process of manipulation to be one in which the inherent pattern of normal structure and economy of function were uncovered. “A structural pattern exists; work in Structural Integration is not so much creating this pattern as uncovering it.”17 The fact that she said this pattern was inherent to the body shows that she did not understand Platonism. To be more precise, her position more nearly approaches the Aristotelian view that the universal is present in the particular. Her mistake was not the belief in somatic Platonism, but the assumption that only one inherent pattern was to be uncovered in all bodies. Therefore, it is more correct to call her position somatic idealism.

Like all other somatic theorists and practitioners, Dr. Rolf never articulated a clear understanding of the principles of intervention. Unfortunately without this understanding of principles, teaching a holistic approach by means of formulistic protocols and a template of the ideal body actually undercuts the ability of practitioners to think and intervene holistically. Although we can be critical of Dr. Rolf’s formulistic ten series and of her idealizations of structural and functional order, we must recognize that she was a pioneer in the holistic approach to somatic education struggling to free her system from the corrective approaches and from the more mundane goal of restoring normal function. The goal of enhancing the whole being arose from her own experiences and what she observed when her interventions were successful. She perceived this possibility first and then struggled with great frustration to articulate it properly. It was what she attempted to train her students to look for in order to determine both the strategies for each session and whether a session or series of sessions were finished. It became part of the way in which she attempted to answer the three fundamental questions (what do I do first, what do I do next, and when am I finished?) in clinical decision making. Unfortunately formulism and somatic idealism cannot provide us with a rational and empirically based decision making process and they are ultimately incapable of understanding and responding to the rich diversity of human form.

No matter how comprehensive the techniques and protocols, no matter how extensive the research that supports them, and no matter how often holism is espoused, the formulistic approach will never constitute a rational decision making process in either the corrective or holistic paradigm.” Formulism forces the practitioner to follow the same protocols in every case. By necessity, formulistic protocols must impose the same sequence of interventions and therapeutic outcomes on every body, regardless of whether the body is helped or hindered by their application. Imposing the same therapeutic outcomes on every body amounts to accepting a form of somatic idealism. Somatic idealism is, therefore, implicit in every formulistic approach. Furthermore, somatic idealism, by its very nature, is a theory of what constitutes normal. So, whether a somatic practitioner consciously realizes it or not, this concept of normal informs every step of his or her clinical decision making process.

Formulistic protocols are like cook book recipes. They specify how much and in what order. Even though recipes and formulistic protocols allow for variations, they nevertheless always specify a particular order and sequence of actions. In the formulistic ten session recipe, for example, it is unthinkable to perform something like the seventh session as the fourth session, even though at times just such an approach and nothing else is what is required. The application of a formulistic protocol is always tantamount to imposing a concept of normal in the form of a somatic ideal on every client. No matter how many variations it permits, a formulistic protocol cannot be sufficiently attentive to individual differences. Because a formulistic protocol provides no rationale for how to sequence techniques and strategies and imposes the same therapeutic outcome on every client, it also tends to blind practitioners to the system wide effects of their work. In some cases, it either produces no clinically significant effect or it actually creates dysfunction.

Except in the hands of the more gifted and intuitive practitioners, what usually passes as a holistic approach to somatic therapy or education is often only a kind of formulism coupled with a set of segmental or bodily ideals. In some cases, the holistic approach is in name only. Often it is nothing more than a series of techniques applied in the corrective paradigm according to formulistic protocols that are neither sufficiently attentive to individual differences nor to the system wide effects the application of these techniques have on the whole. In other cases, like traditional Rolfing and its imitators, it is a formulistic sequence of treatment strategies that is also neither sufficiently attentive to individual differences nor to the system wide effects the application of these protocols have on the whole. To make matters worse, practitioners in both the corrective and holistic systems often are committed unwittingly to the mechanistic paradigm which sees the body as a soft machine composed of parts. Since they do not grasp fully the implications of the mechanistic conception of vital form, they are seduced easily into chasing symptoms and again missing the system wide effects of their interventions.

When practitioners schooled in these system of intervention are asked to state the basis on which they sequence their interventions, they often reply that they proceed intuitively. Clearly however, such an answer is inadequate. If intuition alone were the basis of clinical decision making, we would be left with an unwelcome consequence. We could never know in any given case whether an intervention was successful because the so called intuitions were correct or because a treatment protocol just happened to match the needs of the client. We could never know whether our intuitions were indeed veridical or just accidental occurrences that have nothing to do with intuitions. To reply to this difficulty by claiming that intuition tells us that our intuitive decision making process was correct only involves us in an infinite regress of empty justifications. Since the pure intuitive practitioner has no way to evaluate the effectiveness of his work, he has no way to determine which interventions are best applied or not applied in any given case. I do not dispute the importance or existence of intuition in clinical decision making. I only contend that much of what passes as intuition among somatic practitioners is not intuition at all and that intuition alone does not provide the basis for knowing what to do first, what to do next, and when to finish. As the philosopher I Kant pointed out in a rather different context, “Principles without intuitions are empty and intuitions without principles are blind.”

Formulism and somatic idealism, with their attendant concept of what constitutes normal, are always linked together conceptually and practically. The confusions that result from this unhappy marriage are found in each and every form of formulistic Rolfing, in all the schools of structural integration that found inspiration in Dr. Rolf’s traditional recipe, and in all correct. Live and holistic approaches. These confusions clearly have practical consequences for every somatic practitioner. Following formulistic protocols and evaluating the effectiveness of our work against somatic ideals very often undermines our ability to attain restoration or enhancement of function. The commonly accepted views of good posture, ideal structure, or proper positions for individual bony segments not only create dysfunction when indiscriminately applied to certain people, but also lead to a faulty understanding of somatic dysfunction. Since somatic idealism defines what is normal for all bodies, it predisposes practitioners to look for the same therapeutic outcome in every case and to either see somatic disorder where none is present or miss it when it is. As a result, it tends to blind practitioners in the evaluation process both in the beginning when strategies are planned and in the end when the results of interventions are evaluated. By creating yet another set of blinders, somatic idealism adds to the blinders already created by formulism. As result of being schooled in this double set of blinders, practitioners tend to miss both the desirable and undesirable system wide results of their interventions.

Formulistic protocols are taught in each and every form of health care throughout the world. It is quite common for somatic practitioners in other disciplines to criticize Rolfing for being a form of somatic Platonism. Often those who are the most vocal are the ones who have been the most profoundly influenced by Dr. Rolf. While proudly proclaiming to have freed themselves from Platonism, they teach their work by means of formulistic protocols. Because they do not realize that formulistic protocols by necessity impose the same somatic ideals on every client, they end up unconsciously teaching and practicing a form of somatic idealism far more pernicious than the one they claim to have abandoned. Their predicament reminds me of Nietzsche’s warning that when fighting dragons one must take care not to become one. The unfortunate consequence of such confused training programs is not the creation of highly skilled practitioners, but often the graduation of somatic Philistines.

What is Normal?

Clearly, an understanding of the nature of the principles of intervention and how to apply them in the clinical decision making process is part of what will allow us to free ourselves from the grip of formulism. Understanding the principles of intervention, however, does not automatically free us from somatic idealism. Somatic idealism shows up in many different forms and in every system of intervention. Somatic ideals are typically put forward as standards against which practitioners can evaluate their client’s bodies in order to determine what areas need work. These ideals are also used to gauge the effectiveness of their work. In fact, these ideal norms play a role from beginning to end in the clinical decision making process. Because these ideal norms specify a vision of normal, they appear to provide the practitioner with part of what is needed to answer the three clinical decision making questions, “What do I do first, what do I do next, and when am I finished?” So even if we have learned how to work non formulistically, and still evaluate our clients through the lens of a somatic ideal, we will remain blind to the unique requirements of many clients. A somatic practitioner caught in the grip of formulism or somatic idealism is like a blind cat who sometimes catches a dead mouse.

Many examples of somatic ideals can be found in the manual therapies. Some theorists believe that there is only one normal pattern for the spine, regardless of how the rest of a person’s body is structured.” Others believe that each bony segment has its own ideal position and that the appearance of this correct position after a treatment shows that the normal function has been restored. Many believe that certain bony segments are normal only if they display certain angles. For example, some argue that the femoral neck angle is normal at 125 degrees and others argue that it is normal at 135 degrees.20 Even when faced with the obvious fact that bodies are not symmetrical, some theorists believe that normal structure is always symmetrical. And still others agree with Dr. Rolf’s view that there is an ideal body and posture that every body should strive to match and that this ‘ structure is the hallmark of normal or enhanced function 21.” All of these ideals, whether for individual segments or the whole body, are maintained quite often in the face of the profoundly obvious variations that actually exist in individual body form.

By displaying a vision of normal, idealizations of form and function provide a much needed standard against which practitioners can evaluate and gauge the success of their therapeutic interventions. But as we all recognize, the concept of “normal” is a notoriously illusive term. Many argue that there is no such thing as normal. Since these theorists are skeptical about the existence of normal structure or function, they see no sense in pursuing the question of how to recognize normal or enhanced function when it appears. When we compare the commonly agreed upon standards for good posture and ideal position against the wide diversity in human morphology and behavior, they argue, we must be struck with the huge gap that exists between these ideals and how people actually are. Perceiving this gap should lead us to reject the idea of normal as an impossible dream.

I agree that the wide diversity of human form should lead us to abandon somatic idealism. But I do not agree that the concept of “normal” also should be abandoned. Without a coherent understanding of what constitutes normal for any given person, we would be left with no way to recognize somatic dysfunction and no way to gauge the effectiveness of our work. In the place of somatic idealism we need a view of normal that squares with a biologically based concept of living form and still makes sense in the face of the great variety of human morphology and behavior.

The conclusion that then is no such thing as normal turns on the assumption that “normal” means “in accordance with an ideal standard or norm.” Etymologically “normal” is rooted in the idea of measuring up to a model of pattern like a carpenter, square. If this definition of “normal” were the only correct use of the word, then the concept clearly ought to be rejected. But “normal” also carries another meaning. It can mean “natural” in the sense of “being in accordance with the inherent nature of a person or a thing.” This meaning is at work when we say that a person is a natural born artist or healer.

Like so many other theorists, it is obvious that Dr. Rolf systematically confused these two senses of “normal” throughout her writings. When I use the word “normal” I mean it in this second sense as being natural or inherent to the being of the whole person. This concept of “normal” is clearly quite different in scope and implication from the idea of measuring up to a norm, statistical average, or standard that is external to the body. “Normal” in the sense in which I use it refers to what is appropriate and optimal for each individual person. It cannot be determined apart from a careful case by case examination of the possibilities and limitations inherent in each person’s form and how s/he has adapted to her environment. It implies Metchnikoff’s theory of orthobiosis and, therefore, refers to the plasticity inherent in every organism as it strives to become most fully itself. Being normal is not a static state achieved once and for all. Like all forms of life, whether we are severely fixated or not, we are always ongoing and striving toward becoming more fully ourselves. To restore normal function means to remove enough fixations in form so that the client can return to his or her pre-dysfunctional state. To enhance function means to introduce higher levels of order and free fixations in such a way that triggers possibilities in the plasticity of the whole person, so that the evolutionary potentials inherent to the form are released.

Templates and norms make sense when the aim is to mass produce machines and, other non living products. Templates and norms are important in the development of quality controls. Clearly, living bodies are not machines or products, and it makes little sense to claim that all human bodies function best when they measure up to some external standard or statistical average. Living wholes are self organizing, self-regulating systems characterized by the continual ongoing attempt to balance, organize, enhance, and harmonize their lives between limitation and possibility. Given the tremendous plasticity and resulting diversity of form that actually exists among humans, clearly there cannot be one ideal way for every body or every segment of the body to be.

The meaning of the word “form” should not be limited to ?shape? or “contour”. It must also refer to dynamic hierarchical herarchical organization and functioning of the whole person, or, what amounts to the same point, to the way or manner in which a person is or becomes who s/he is. Every form has its own unique set of limitations and possibilities and what is normal function or structure for one individual may, if .imposed on another, produce dysfunction. What constitutes normal or enhanced function for any given individual cannot be determined in isolation from the changing and unchanging limitations that are unique to each individual form. These limitations, furthermore, cannot be understood apart from gravity and the environment to which the individual form and behavior is uniquely adapted. Some limitations are time bound and changeable and some are not. What is not changeable in the present may be changeable in the future. What is changeable for one person may not be for another.

What we mean by “normal” should not be confused with an ideal standard or a statistical average. Neither of these two ways of conceiving of normal are sensitive to the diverse ways in which our unique somatic natures are capable of adapting to our environment while still maintaining a healthy functional life. What is functional, normal, or even capable of being enhanced for any given person cannot be determined properly if it is divorced from the ways in which his or her unique soma has adapted to the environment.

The New Guinea highlanders provide us with an striking example of this point. Their “urinary potassium/sodium ratios are often 400 to 1000 times the normal Western ratio. These people are not sick but rather are showing a suitable metabolic response to a sodium-scarce, water-poor niche. At the level of physiological functioning, different means are utilized to achieve functional coherence and systematic integrity.”22

Another interesting example is found among children born to peoples living at very high altitudes. Such children “exhibit considerably lower birth weights than do the babies of comparable populations living at lower altitudes. Because the lower birth weights are associated with increases in neonatal and infant mortality…, this modification, if considered in isolation, would appear disadvantageous to the population. In this high altitude context, however, the limiting factor, a constraint, for survival is hypoxia rather than child mortality from other sources. Thus, low birth weight provides an advantage: a decrease in birth weight-placental ratios provides increases in oxygen flow and other nutrients to the fetus.”23

These examples should make us suspicious of any form of somatic idealism. Somatic idealism puts blinders on every stage of the evaluation process. Evaluating clients by means of a somatic ideal like the line of gravity or working in accordance with formulistic protocols can result in either no clinically significant effects or create dysfunction. Such ways of evaluating and working also prevent practitioners from designing effective and efficient treatment strategies for releasing the inherent possibilities that lay dormant in the uniqueness of each client’s form. The effects of these blinders show up in many ways. Through the work of Jan Sultan we now realize that the traditional recipe favored the Internal body type with embarrassing regularity. In too many cases, when the Internally biased recipe was applied to Externals with low back pain, their structures and spinal dysfunction actually worsened.

Pilates® instructors, exercise therapists, physical therapists, and many other somatic practitioners often indiscriminately recommend bringing one’s waistline back while performing various exercises or tasks. Most internal bodies cannot adapt to this position without a great deal of manipulation and/or sophisticated movement education. As a result, following these instructions creates loss of mobility and very often dysfunction for Internals. Since these instructions are the very opposite of what the External body requires for bringing about normal or enhanced function, following them often creates more dysfunction in an already compromised body.

As I pointed out in another article24, designing the third session of the five series advanced recipe around the C position as a way to normalize spinal curves is a mistake. In some cases such an approach produces nothing more than a vigorous massage. In other cases it either has no effect on or actually aggravates the dysfunctions involved in flexion fixed Type II articular fixations, bilaterally flexion fixed facets, and retrolitheses. Likewise, as Michael Salveson and Jan Sultan realized years ago, designing the second session of the formulistic five series around the Z position is also highly problematic. Because working in the Z position often drives a considerable amount of strain into the spine, preparing the upper quadrant to adapt is of paramount importance. Unfortunately, the first session of the formulistic five series, no matter how it is conceived, more often than not, is completely inadequate to the job. As a result, after the Z session, many clients’ spines are in something of a mess. To make matters worse, the strategies of the C session which are supposed to normalize spinal disorder are also not adequate to the job. And as we have all discovered, it is often more difficult to deal with strain that has been driven into a poorly prepared area of the body than to intervene in already existing strain patterns. So the formulistic five series sometimes creates more problems than it can solve.

One of the stated goals of the Pilates method is to lengthen the core of the body. When the External follows the instructions to flatten his lumbars against the moving platform of the Pilates table while performing various exercises, not surprisingly, the very opposite of the intended goal appears. After completing the exercises the External is characteristically shorter through the torso, displays predictable strain in the neck that results from flattened lumbars, and loses pelvic and spinal mobility in walking.

Although there are many more examples of how dysfunction can be unconsciously introduced into our clients’ bodies by adhering to somatic ideals, let me conclude this part of the discussion with one more. In many clients with upper neuron problems like cerebral palsy, any attempt to align their heads on top of their bodies as the ideal of the line of gravity recommends will often result in tonal overflow to the extremities, possible increase in non functional reflex patterns of movement, and loss of control. In neither this case nor any mentioned above would it be reasonable to assume that we have achieved the goals of normal or enhanced function, or anything close to somatic integration.

When behavior, morphology, or physiology do not measure up to accepted norms, bodily ideals, or statistical averages, we cannot automatically conclude that they are abnormal. As the above examples clearly demonstrate, the structure and functioning of our bodies is radically contextual. Any attempt to understand what constitutes normal for any given individual must take the uniqueness of both their soma and environmental context into account or ultimately fail to understand and properly treat somatic dysfunction or enhance their somatic nature.

The rejection of somatic idealism is the rejection of a theory that understands normal in terms of an ideal standard or statistical average. It is not the rejection of the concepts of “normal” and “abnormal”. As long as we recognize that this use of “normal” does not mean anything like an ideal standard or statistical mean, it is clear that we are not saying there is no such thing as normal and abnormal structure and function. By “normal” I mean a rather complex context dependent concept that trades on the meanings of “natural to” or “inherent to.” “Normal” in this sense refers to what is inherent to the limitations and possibilities present in the plasticity, morphology, and behavior of each individual organism as it successfully or unsuccessfully strives to maintain its functional and structural coherence as well as harmonize and enhance itself over an entire life time within a unique environment that it is also capable of changing.

Many common patterns of similarity in body form and in ways of being normal and abnormal actually exist across the great diversity of human form. These overlapping patterns of similarity can be understood and evaluated only in terms of the unique set of limitations and possibilities inherent in each person’s being and to the environment to which he or she is uniquely adapted. Once we abandon somatic idealism it turns out that the determination of what is normal and abnormal for any given individual is clearly far more diverse and complicated than we or the tradition ever suspected. I will briefly discuss this complexity below.

Position, Fixation, and Functional Appropriateness

For too long, somatic practitioners in every discipline have analyzed and evaluated clients by comparing their somas to some conscious or unconscious somatic ideal. Too often contour, position, and asymmetry are used as the only indicators of somatic dysfunction and disorder. But, contour, position, and asymmetry when considered in isolation from the unique form, functional possibilities, and environment of each individual are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for determining dysfunction. Once we abandon somatic idealism, we realize that odd contours, odd positioning of segments, and asymmetries must always be evaluated in terms of the unique limitations and possibilities for each body and each body type. Rejecting the notions of an ideal body and ideal positions for individual segments does not destroy our ability to analyze and evaluate our clients’ bodies. There are recognizable patterns of dysfunction that show up in every body type; there are also common patterns of asymmetry that show up in various types of bodies; and there are asymmetries unique to the individual client. When these patterns are associated with fixations of various sorts and are properly managed in accordance with individual needs, overall function can be enhanced. Internals and Externals, for example, are often quite different from each other in how they each manifest dysfunction. An asymmetry or odd segmental position may be dysfunctional for the Internal and functional for the External. Low back problems in Internals tend to manifest as degenerative joint disease, whereas the Externals tend to manifest low back problems as disc disease25.”

Without understanding the unique structure, movement patterns, and fixations involved with each individual client and her relation to gravity, we cannot know where any given segment, whether a single vertebra or a larger component like the legs, should be positioned. Even more importantly, without understanding where and how the various fixations (myofascial, articular, emotional, energetic, etc.) show up in each individual’s unique local and global patterns, we cannot know, just from a description of position alone, whether a segment is dysfunctional or a manifestation of somatic disorder. Hence, a description of position alone will not tell us whether segment or larger component of the body is dysfunctional and ought to be manipulated and repositioned. Likewise, a description of the whole body in terms of contour, position, or asymmetry alone will also not tell us whether a person’s body needs some form of somatic intervention. In fact, asymmetries and what appear to be oddly positioned segments are actually quite functional and normal in many people and, therefore, require no intervention whatsoever. At every level both locally and globally, from articular fixations to asymmetries to the organization of the whole form, we cannot separate structure, position, function, and environment. The truth of the matter is that we will never understand properly the concepts of “position” and “structure” if we abstract them from the concepts of “function,” “fixation,” and “gravity,” that is, from what is functionally appropriate for each individual client in her relation to the environment.

Consider spinal manipulation. When we discover a dysfunctional vertebra, we often say that it is “out of place;” but this designation is actually imprecise. The vertebra is dysfunctional because it is motion restricted, because it exhibits an articular fixation, not primarily because it is “out of place.” Vertebral dysfunction can be described in positional terms because it often shows up in the form of side bending and rotating to the same or opposite side. Ultimately, however, a vertebral segment or any other group of segments are dysfunctional and in need of intervention because they involve fixations at some level, not because they are “but of place.” Dysfunction is never an isolated local problem. Somatic disorder is never a simple matter of being “but of place,” having one in nominate higher than the other, having one shoulder lower than the other, having anterior lumbars, being asymmetrical, or displaying odd contours. Sometimes, for example, vertebrae dysfunctional as a result of either bilateral flexion or extension fixed facets. They display this dysfunction without showing any positional change or appearing “out of place.” Other times, vertebrae rotated and appear to be “out of place” when in fact they are perfectly functional and could not be positioned in any other way.

Just as fixation is the enemy of plasticity, it is also the enemy of normal or enhanced function. From the Rolfing perspective of somatic integration, every vertebral and/or larger segmental dysfunction involves more that just local articular fixations, they also involve segments that are fixated and out of appropriate structural/functional/energetic relationship with the wholebody and its environment. Somatic integration results as the body becomes freer and freer of its many levels of fixations (myofascial, articular, energetic, emotional, etc.) and moves more and more toward its appropriate relationship locally and globally in spacetime, gravity, and the environment.

To generalize, then, loss of somatic integration is much more a function of fixation than position. What appears to be an oddly positioned segment is often no more than a clue for possible somatic dysfunction or disorder, not the guarantee of it. Unless accompanied by some level of fixation, it may not be even clinically significant. Asymmetries, oddly positioned segments, and odd contours do not always demand intervention. When they do demand attention and manipulation, it is under the following conditions): 1) when they are accompanied by a fixation or fixations (across the four taxonomies); 2) when they contribute to a dysfunction or fixation; or 3) when manipulating them will clearly enhance the overall functioning of the whole. For each individual, appropriate position is determined by appropriate function.The same is true for all local and global asymmetries. A perceived asymmetry may be dysfunctional in one body and entirely functional and normal in another. Appropriate function is determined by understanding what is possible in relation to each individual’s unique patterns of changing and unchanging limitations. In turn, these limitations must be seen in terms of how the person has adapted, appropriately or inappropriately, to gravity and his or her environment. Position can never be abstracted from what is functionally appropriate for each individual in relation to gravity and the environment. The goal of our work is achieved when we have established appropriate or enhanced function, not when we have established ideal position.

The Art of Rolfing

Rolfing is a science and a philosophy. But, it is also an art. It consists in knowing what to do first, what to do next, and when to finish. It requires learning to see and appreciate the uniqueness of each person’s form while at the same time; learning to see and treat appropriately the many similar patterns of fixation that show up in every body and the common fixations that typically show up in various body types. Ultimately, we must set aside formulism and somatic idealism and learn to see and appreciate the inherent form that is continually striving to become itself in each person’s life. Our job is not just normalizing function and removing irritating symptoms, but also the profound attempt tos enhance the being of the whole person by unearthing the potential plasticity that lives within each soma as it strives to harmonize and enhance itself over an entire lifetime. Rolfing is ultimately a process of discovery, not the process of imposing an ideal form on everybody. Since normal function is often a stepping stone to enhanced function, we must always be attentive to what constitutes normal for each person. Neither the restoration nor the enhancement of normal function is an ideal or static state, but an evolving achievement that is won again and again over the course of a life. Normal is the achievement of what is inherent and natural to who we are as we continually strive to become ourselves.

There are four fundamental ways to articulate and classify the overlapping strands of similarity in what constitutes enhanced, normal, or abnormal somas. This system of classification can be called the Taxonomies. These taxonomies specify the types of classifications that are relevant to all health care practices. By recognizing and classifying the complexity of human somas, they take the place of all narrowly conceived somatic ideals in the evaluation process. These four taxonomies are as follows: 1) The Structural/Segmental, 2) The Geometrical, 3) The Functional, and 4) The Energetic. If it were possible to fill in completely all the information that properly belongs in each taxon under each of these taxonomies, we would come close to an exhaustive description of what constitutes normal and abnormal for every human being. We would have created an encyclopedic classification capable of describing common patterns among the great variety of possible somatic types without losing sight of individual differences. Although conceivable, such a goal is impossible. Nevertheless, enough work has already been accomplished in many systems of health care toprovide us with a rather extensive amount of information. This information is relevant to our every attempt to evaluate, treat, and know when we are finished. Some of these taxons are descriptive, others contain tests for determining what is normal and abnormal under certain circunstances, and others give us descriptions of enhanced or somatically integrated persons.

None of this information by itself is sufficient to describe what is normal and abnormal. And none of it is sufficient by itself to describe somatic integration. But if all of this information were taken together and codified by a holistically oriented interdisciplinary group of somatic practitioners, we could begin to create a rather lengthy set of descriptive possibilities and tests for what would constitutes a normal or enhanced life. Clearly, determining and describing what is normal and abnormal for the great variety of human forms that are possible is no small task. Such a task is ever ongoing and subject to constant revision in the face of new discoveries, refinements, and the evolutionary potential of every human being. That this task can never be fully achieved should not mislead us into concluding that it cannot be achieved to the degree necessary to be useful to our clinical decision making process. Enough of it has already been accomplished to be immediately useful for every practicing health care practitioner. What has not been accomplished is the proper systematization of this information under workable taxonomies like the ones proposed here. This systematization has not been accomplished, in part, because our understanding of what constitutes normal has been informed by the mistaken notion that “normal” means “that which measures up to an ideal standard” and because the prevailing mechanistic concept of the body is incapable of understanding living form.

Understanding these taxonomies is critical to the evaluation and clinical decision making process, and to understanding many of our key theoretical concepts. For the sake of clarity and completion, all of our important concepts, from core and sleeve to continuity and somatic integration, need to be articulated in structural, geometrical, functional, and energetic terms

At the January 1995 faculty meeting we attempted an interesting exercise. We tried to lay out all the taxons we presently work with under their appropriate taxonomy. Since somatic integration is a matter of enhancing function, and since fixation is more important to the evaluation of somatic disorder than position, it was not too surprising to discover that the Functional taxonomy ended up with the largest number of taxons. For the purposes of the present article, I will mention just briefly some of the taxons that are engaging the attention of the faculty. It is worth pointing out that there are no hard and fast divisions between the taxonomies. Sultan’s Internal/ External taxon can be placed under the Structural/Segmental taxonomy. However, because it also describes gait patterns for each type, aspects of it could easily find a place among the Functional taxons.

Because the Biomechanical taxons created by the osteopaths describe joint dysfunction in terms of motion restriction they properly fall under the Functional taxonomy. Like Sultan’s taxon, the biomechanical taxon also includes structural and positional considerations. Thus, aspects of these descriptions also belong under the Structural/Segmental taxonomy.

Under the Functional taxonomy, we should also include Gael Ohlgren’s and David Clarke’s taxon of unencumbered walking, Hubert Godard’s taxon of the up and down types with its attendant theory of tonic function, Hans Flury’s taxon of and tests for normal function, and the other taxons developed by our movement teachers. These movement taxons are very important because they give us more precise ways of recognizing somatic order and disorder than many of our positional indicators. They also flesh outin valuable detail our concepts of organized patterned fluidity of motion, continuity of motion, functional economy, and somatic integration. Under the Functional taxonomy also belong the neurological taxons based on the work of Peter Levine, Bill Symthe, and John Cottingham. Visceral manipulation and its resulting taxon also belong under the Functional taxonomy. We should not forget our traditional geometrical taxons, as well as the important discoveries and refinements made by Hans Flury in this area. Finally, a number of us are working on developing the Energetic taxonomy.

These and other taxons not mentioned give us a way of recognizing the appearance of a normal, abnormal, or enhanced soma (that is, a person who is somatically integrated) across the rich and wide diversity of human adaptation. Understanding the details of these taxons and how to recognize them are essential to the evaluation and analysis of clients as well as to the question of when our sessions or series of sessions are finished. When coupled with the principles of intervention they give us a non-formulistic decision making process that is both attentive to the uniqueness of our clients and based what is empirically observable, structurally, geometrically, functionally, and energetically.26

Once our concepts and perceptions are organized under the four taxonomies, it is immediately obvious that process of analysis, evaluation, and Rolfing intervention is far more complex than most of us were originally taught. Rolfing can no longer be conceived of as the process of imposing a template of the ideal body on clients by means of ten session, advanced three session, or advanced five session formulistic protocols. Because it has become more precise and attentive to individual differences, Rolfing is a process of discovery that seeks to uncover, normalize, and enhance the inherent form unique to the whole person. Through the application of non-formulistic intervention strategies based on the principles of Rolfing and what is empirically observable across the four taxonomies, Rolfing has finally freed itself from some of its most problematic roots.


The philosophy, science,and art of Rolfing is a rich tapestry of understanding and method that is undergoing continual development by many practitioners. Rolfing is a theory and practice that promises to profoundly transform the meaning and nature of human life by evoking our evolutionary potential. We are living in the midst of an amazing explosion of world wide interest in human transformation. Clearly the rest of the world has caught up with Dr. Rolf’s pioneering insights. As biologists explore new realms of enhancing human life, the theory and practice of Rolfing also continues to move toward its evolutionary potential – as it surely must to be worthy of the legacy that Dr. Rolf left in all of our hands.


1.Ida P Rolf, “Rolfing: The Vertical – Experiential Side To Human Potential”, available from the Rolf Institute.

2.The interested reader may refer to the following articles all of which were published in Rolf Lines: “Definition and Principles of Rolfing” coauthored with Jan Sultan and “Rolfing: A Third Paradigm Approach to BodyStructure”, both published in the Spring 1992 issue, Vol. XX, No. 2.; “What Is The Recipe?”, June/ July 1991, Vol IXX, No. 3; and “Das Boot”, June 1993, Vol XXI, No. 2.

3.Ida P. Rolf, Rolfing: The Integration Of Human Structures,(New York, 1971), p. 16.

4.Ibid., p. 285s

5.Rosemary Feitis, editor,Ida Rolf Talks About Rolfing And Physical Reality, (New York, 1978), p. 133.

6.Mae-Wan Ho, Peter Saunders, and Sidney Fox, “A New Paradigm For Evolution”, New Scientist (Feb 27, 1986), p. 43. My emphasis.

7.B.C. Goodwin, “Organisms and Minds As Dynamic Forms”, Leonardo, Vol. 22, No. 1. (Great Britain, 1989), pp.27-31. My italics.

8.Ho, Saunders, and Fox, “A New Paradigm for Evolution”, New Scientist, (Feb. 27, 1986), p.42.

9.For a detailed discussion of the nature of human freedom see my “Creativity,” in The Journal ofAesthetics and Art Criticism(Summer, 1976), “Creative Performance: The Art of Life,” inResearch In Phenomenology, (Vol.X, 1980), and especially Chapter4 of Spacious Body: Explorations in Somatic Ontology (Berkeley, 1995), where freedom is defined as the creative appropriation of limitation. Translating this definition of freedom into the biological realm, we could say that every successful adaptation of an organism to its environment is an example of the creative appropriation of limitation. My articles, “Creativity” and “Creative Performance,” argue for the view that the aim of art is to display the achievement of human freedom in aesthetic form. The theory of plasticity demonstrates how humans are the most plastic of all the creatures on the earth. Not only do we have the ability to manipulate our plasticity, we also have the profound ability to display the achievement of this flexibility in art. Since flexible plasticity (or the ability to creatively appropriate limitation) is the biological ground of human freedom, we also could say that the aim of art is to display the achievement of flexible human plasticity in aesthetic form. For a related discussion on the nature of aesthetic form and the persistent and common mistake of understanding the work of art as a kind of object, see my “Identity, Ontology, and The Work of Art”, in The Southwestern Journal Of Philosophy,(Nov., 1975).

10.BC Goodwin, How the Leopard Changed its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, (NewYork, 1994), p. 14. My italics

11.B.C. Goodwin, from “The Waddington Conferences,” Significance of Form in Nature and Art, (1993), P. 3.

12.Richard M. Lerner, On The Nature Of Human Plasticity,(Cambridge, 1984), p.xii.

13.Ibid., pp. 172-173.

14.Ida P. Rolf, Rolfing: The Integration Of Human Structures,p. 201.

15.For an interesting and useful criticism of Dr. Rolf’s view see, for example, Don Hanlon Johnson’s “Somatic Platonism” in Somatics, Vol. 3, No. 1, (Novato, California, 1980), pp.4-7, and his book Body, Spirit, And Democracy, (Berkeley, 1994).

16.Ida P. Rolf, Rolfing: The Integration Of Human Structures,p. 16.

17.Ibid., p. 29.

18.What I mean by the word “rational” is simple and straight forward and in no way opposed to intuition. I mean one of its root meanings: “to think in accordance with principles.

19.For a drawing of Dr. Rolf’s view of the ideal spine see p. 77 of her book, Rolfing: The Integration Of Human Structures (New York, 1971). On p. 208 she also provides a drawing of eight spines from Spalteholz’s Atlas of Human Anatomy and claims that until the creation of her system, “there has been no criterion for judging the normal in spines; in common parlance, structures lacking in pathological symptoms are called normal. More properly, they might be called average.” It is highly questionable whether Dr. Rolf’s somatic idealism can provide the criterion for judging normal spines. Since the principle of Holism tells us that no component of the living form can be adequately understood in isolation from the state of the whole, it follows that the normality of a spine cannot be determined apart from the soma in which it is embodied. Since Sultan’s Internal/External taxon removed the blinders from our eyes, we also have also come to see that highly functional spines exist that will never measure up to Dr. Rolf’s ideal. We have also discovered spines that match her ideal but are quite dysfunctional.

20.See Warren I. Hammer’s Functional Soft Tissue Examination and Treatment by Manual Methods, (Gaithersburg, Maryland, 1991), p.105.

21.See, for example, Muscles: Testing and Function, Third edition, by Florence Peterson Kendall and Elizabeth Kendall McCreary, (Baltimore, 1983). Although it is always difficult to determine, Kendall and McCreary claim that the center of gravity in an ideally aligned body is slightly anterior to the first or second sacral segment. They then describe on page 19 a version of the ideal body similar to Dr. Rolf’s. “In the lateral view of the ideally aligned posture, starting at the base, the plumb line will coincide with the following points or skeletal parts: slightly anterior to the lateral malleolus, slightly anterior to the axis of the knee joint, slightly posterior to the axis of the hip joint, bodies of the lumbar vertebrae, external auditory meatus, slightly posterior to apex of the coronal suture. In the posterior view, starting with a fixed point midway between the heels, the plumb line will be equidistant from the medial aspects of the heels, legs, thighs; be equidistant from the scapulae; and coincide with the midline of the trunk and head.”

22.Eugene S. Gollin, Gary Stahl, and Elyse Morgan, “On The Uses Of The Concept Of Normality In Developmental Biology And Psychology,” in Advances in Child Development and Behavior, VOL. 21, (New York, 1989), p. 65

23.Ibid., pp. 66-67. For a plethora of examples that demonstrate how normality varies from context to context see On The Nature Of Human Plasticity, by Richard M. Lerner (Cambridge, 1984).

24.”Re-thinking the C-Position,” Rolf Lines, March, 1993 Vol. XXI, No. I (Boulder) pp.6072.

25.This issue requires much greater treatment that what I have suggested here. For a start the interested reader can refer to John Cottingham’s research, some of which he summarizes in his “Effects of Soft Tissue Mobilization on Pelvic Inclination Angle, Lumbar Lordosis, and Parasympathic Tone: Implications for Treatment of Disabilities Associated with Lumbar Degenerative Joint Disease, ” reprinted in Rolf Lines, Spring, 1992, Vol XX, No. 2 (Boulder), pp. 42-45. This paper was also presented to the National Center of Medical Rehabilitation Research of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development March 19, 1992 in Bethesda, Maryland.

26.When I use the expression “empirically observable” I mean to refer to the rich and diversified ways we perceive our world whether through visual, tactile, or energetic means, through our feeling states, or the many other ways of which we are capable. I also believe that most of these ways of perceiving can be taught to and shared by others. I certainly do not mean to limit the observable to the simplistic metaphysical notions of scientism that reduce the objective world to the measurable.

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