When clients ask me how I became interested in Rolfing° as a career, I usually reply “serendipity” – which I recall hearing Dr. Rolf once describe as being one of her favorite words. Serendipity – “the faculty of making delightful discoveries by accident.” This nicely describes my journey into Rolfing. This is beyond “a happy coincidence,” it is synchronicity with a rollicking cosmic giggle tattooed on it. This place where magical things happen unexpectedly is familiar territory for Rolfers. It’s where we find ourselves time and time again when someone we’ve never met knocks on our door for a first session. Peter Melchior likes to describe Rolfing, or perhaps more politically correctly, “The Ida P. Rolf Method of Structural Integration,” as cruising the universe like the Silver Surfer out of Marvel Comix, constantly maintaining his balance while buffeted by the uncertain winds of change and chance. We fly by the seat of our pants.
I had lunch with Craig Ellis a few weeks ago and we talked about the perception that Rolfing is a painful experience. I mentioned my experience of Dr. Rolf as a teacher and he asked if I’d write a few words about her. Now, it happens that I think about Dr. Rolf most days, some more than others. I have pictures of her in my office and people, particularly women, often want to know a little about her. She was a piece of work, I say, and I loved her very much. As I spoke with Craig, I realized that for many newer Rolfers she has assumed a mythological status. She’s been gone a long time. I would like to share some of my impressions of her – what it was like for me to learn from her. I’ll also theorize a little on why I think my early Rolfing was really painful and why I think many other practitioners’ work was, as well. I’ll relate the scary story about how I found myself in a Boulder fraternity house ladies’ room with Dr. Rolf, and why I owe a lot of people in Amsterdam a sincere apology for the way I “Rolfed” them, and a lot of folks in Texas as well.
We spend a lot of time and energy calming peoples’ fears about the pain of Rolfing. A bunch of bizarre stuff about Rolfing recently came up on the Rolf forum (much of it coincidentally dating from 1973, the year I became a Rolfer). Are we tired of defending our profession yet? Recently, when asked for the 60111 time whether Rolfing was as painful as she’d heard rumored, I found myself replying to some poor woman that I had twenty-four people booked that week and “NONE OF THEM ARE STUPID!” I’m just a mite touchy on that topic.
On May 24th, 1974, I was scared but hopeful. Someone had dropped out of Dr. Rolf’s advanced class at the last minute and Richard Stenstadvold called me. I was living in Boulder, in Sunshine Canyon, and practicing in Houston as well. My new practice was in good shape. I’d met Dr. Rolf at the Esalen Institute in Big Sun in 1971. My friend Stuart Karlan was auditing her class that summer and had been deputized to beat the bushes for models. Dr. Rolf asked him to line up some “Rolfed” and “unRolfed” people who were into yoga. She was teaching some fledgling Rolfers that “seeing is touching at a distance” and wanted to lecture on the distinctions between “Rolfed” and “un-Rolfed” bodies. I was the “un-Rolfed” guy. As we performed various asanas, she gave a running critique of how unaware we were in our bodies and how lousy our yoga was. Some of her comments gave me the eerie sensation that she was inside my skin with me. She commented that I had so overdeveloped my abdominal flexors that I had probably managed to “compromise not only my respiration but even my digestion.” Then she invited me to be her model in a lecture / demonstration she was giving the next day as a reward for being helpful. Here was Serendipity raising her pixie dust-sprinkled head and winking at me.
The next afternoon found me in borrowed Fruit-of-the-Looms on the floor in Fritz Perls’ house. I had not managed to understand most of what she talked about and was discovering that she had a pair of powerfully demanding hands. After ten minutes of grimacing and wriggling, I experienced an epiphany. Her hand was invading my armpit and I finally had to breathe. Presto! I let her in. Once there, she changed me. I had let go. My tissues parted sweetly and easily. She leaned over and said, “I didn’t think you were ever going to figure this out – you were making me look terrible.” That summer, ten sessions later (some from her, most from Dub Leigh), I mustered up enough courage to ask her if I had the stuff to aspire to being a Rolfer. She took a quick look at me and said at least I was the right shape to be a Rolfer, get my hair cut (my hair!), and get out of the way, she had a class to teach and to go see Rosemary. I still believe that this was a “yes.”
I audited a class co-taught by Emmett Hutchins and Peter Melchior at Esalen the following summer after a year of nursing school. I trained with Emmett in the early spring in a basement room at the Highlander Motel in Boulder. No matter how many faults we find with our training facility at 205 Canyon Boulevard, it’s a big step up from the Highlander Motel… Count our blessings.
Lo and behold, Peter and Emmett were enrolled with me as students in the 1974 advanced class. During the summer of 1972, they had only managed to complete threequarters of their advanced class because they were co teaching two six-week basic training classes back-to-back the other four days of each week. At this time, advanced training lasted ten weeks. The first six weeks covered the basic series and was followed by a two-week break, during which we had the annual meeting, complete with a concert by John Denver and a presentation by Werner Erhard. He spoke on removing our mental obstacles to achieve Dr. Rolf’s level of excellence in our work with-out requiring forty-odd years of experience (wasn’t the New Age great!). “She’s not holding anything back,” he said, “you’ve got it all now.” I had been a Rolfer for fourteen months, so this insight remained largely theoretical for me.
Then we reconvened for four more weeks to learn what was then a four session advanced recipe. I mention this in part because I have little sympathy for my colleagues who are long overdue in completing their advanced training. It’s a lot more manageable now. It is – please reflect on this a matter of keeping your word. But I digress.
Back to being scared. I was about to be in a class with Dr. Rolf herself at the controls, assisted by Jim Asher, in which my own teachers were fellow students. While Emmett was Rolfing me a few weeks earlier, I asked him what I could expect out of a class with Dr. Rolf and he said, without smiling, “ego reduction.” As the first day of class loomed ahead, in my heart of hearts I was terrified that Dr. Rolf would see right through me. She would know in a flash as I muddled through my first session under her scrutiny that I was a fraud who had somehow slipped through my training with no idea of how to Rolf another human being. I had neither audited nor trained with her so I figured she’d be watching me like an eagle to see who I was and whether I knew my stuff. This is a problem with being a Leo and “on stage “all the time. Emmett and Peter had shared many anecdotes about her. She had given me my first session and odd bits of several others during my stint as a model. I knew she was compassionate and had a sense of humor. In my imagination I’d elevated her into a sort of White Brotherhood fully-realized Master, kind of a Mount Rushmore-like monolith of the human potential movement part wizard, part genus, right up there with Frederick Perls, the Maharishi, and the Beatles. Now, years later, I’ve placed her on a higher shelf with Newton, Galileo, Meister Eckhardt, Lao-Tze, and Einstein. Quite a gal.
Our class was in a fraternity house up on the Hill in Boulder, where Michael Salveson and Dr. Caroline Widmer were teaching a basic class in a room next to ours. Lots of Rolfer energy. On the morning of Day One both classes met to watch Dr. Rolf do a first session on her model. As she asked her model to lie on her back on the table, I heard Emmett murmur to Peter, “I guess we’re doing first sessions on the table now.” Thus does The Work evolve. Prior to that moment, first sessions happened on a pad on the floor. It had something to do with helping clients feel more grounded. Dr. Rolf, at seventy-five, had done my first session crawling around on her hands and knees. Who knows how many thousands of sessions she did just that way when Rolfing was Structural Integration and there was no Guild, no Institute – just a tenacious woman on the road with a suitcase full of new ideas she believed in, helping people one at a time. Wow.
I think she enjoyed being a little imperious, a little intimidating. Sitting in her rocker with her silver-white hair twisted up, always adorned with a fresh flower, she’d lecture, do her demonstration, and settle back to watch us sweat. She did not suffer fools gladly. Time was passing and she had to train as many people as she could to as high a level as she could manage before her body gave out. With her teaching hat on she was all business. Her presence demanded excellence, full attention, and unwavering focus. With several tables going at once she would rock, observe, and confer with Jim Asher. She kept her radar on, attuned to our sense of certainty and purpose as we worked. If anyone started to wobble a little, her first warning was to say “if you can’t get something to happen over there pretty soon, I’m going to have to take off my shoes…” Then she’d be at your elbow, then in your place and everyone would watch as change flowed from her callus-knuckled fingers. Early on, she said “you all seem to think that this is about sticking your elbow into somebody. Well, I do it because I know what I’m doing but none of you are any good at it. You need to strengthen your hands and fingers, so for the rest of this class no more elbows.” There went my best stuff. For two weeks our hands would begin to collapse in the middle of sessions as our extensors fatigued and failed. Occasionally she would offer her famous phrase “it’s under the third finger on your right hand” while using the arthritic finger on her left hand as a pointer. She abhorred a tentative1 approach. She was determined to see us1 perpetuate this work she had given her life to, and she was bound to hammer it into us of by main force of her will. As a teacher she was simply relentless, and in a style whicht seemed to come from what I think of as the “Old School” she was singularly un encourr aging. Praise was not her style. The title of this essay is “That’s better… but it’s not good.” This was the closest thing to a compliment I heard from her lips in ten weeks. I do recall that at some point, mistaking Jim Asher for Peter she said, “It looks like you’ve got something beginning to happen over there, Peter” to which Asher replied, “Thank you, Edith” without looking up. Still funny after all these years.
She was never mean, cutting or unfair. It was simply her personal style as a teacher to point out in our efforts what we’d missed, what we hadn’t seen, and what was left out or unfinished rather than where we had succeeded. Some people thrive on this kind of demanding, challenging teaching. It’s the style of some coaches, Austrian riding masters and Russian ballet teachers. But more of us thrive, I think, on support, encouragement, and occasional praise.
One of my fellow students faltered and collapsed several weeks into class. His selfesteem deflated, his body lost tone. He just stopped, gave up, could no longer work and sat with his head bowed, eyes full of tears, unwilling to talk or make eye contact. It was harrowing and unnerving. It could have been any one of us – “There but for the grace of God go I.” He had extreme stage fright. It was too hot in Dr. Rolf’s kitchen. Fortunately, Caroline Widmer and Tom Watson are psychologists, and Dr. Rolf also embodied an enormous amount of love and kindness totally distinct from her “iron maiden” teacher act. Over the weekend they put my colleague back together and he was in the saddle again on Monday, haunted but willing.
I think it is time to come to my primary thesis in this attempt to explain why I believe Rolfing is universally perceived as painful. Someday our work will be synonymous with “wow” instead of “ow!” However, I believe we’ll have to do many more hundreds of thousands of good Rolfing sessions to bring this to pass. f think it’s because of the way Dr. Rolf taught Rolfing to a whole lot of us. I believe she was an absolute master of her science and her art but I don’t think she was a very good teacher. There are great musicians who play like angels but falter as teachers, destroying careers with cruelty. The same goes for dance, art, and athletics. Geniuses don’t always have a genius for teaching. We’re lucky that people like Michael Salveson, Jim Asher, Emmett Hutchins, Peter Melchior, Jan Sultan, and Tessy Brungardt managed to hang in there and were driven by whatever are their personal angels or demons to dedicate them-selves to this work. These people are great teachers – they nurture our skills and growth in Rolfing. Again, we thrive through encouragement. Well-timed praise spurs us to greater accomplishment.
I speak for myself here. Dr. Rolf demanded much, challenged and drove us, questioned us and dazzled us, but at the end of my class with her I didn’t have a clue whether or not she thought I was any good at Rolfing. Which leads me to my moment with Dr. Rolf in the women’s restroom in the Boulder fraternity house. One of my advanced models was a ten-year old boy I’d “Rolfed” earlier in the year. He was unusually kyphotic and carried himself like a little old man. I liked him and his mom a lot and hoped that with some input from Dr. Rolf and maybe even with her hands on him that he’d benefit. I also was proud of my ten sessions with him. Later in the day I went to use the restroom and – I’m a little hazy on the exact sequence here – Dr. Rolf saw me, looked around, grabbed me by the arm, hustled me into the ladies room and closed the door. She got right to the point and basically said (this is approximate because this was hands down one of the most traumatic moments of my life since birth), “Michael McIver, that young boy’s structure shows me no evidence that he’s had any useful work whatsoever. You had better get in there and show me that you know how to get something to move and fast!” I had a lump in my throat as big as a softball, eyes full of tears as I stammered something inane, I’m sure. The worst thing I could think of, the thing I feared most, was happening. I was a fake and she knew it. I had taken money for Rolfing a great kid who trusted me and nothing had happened. Dr. Rolf said so. She was daring me to show that I could do something, anything, right. It was God, Dr. Rolfing, and me in the bathroom. It was terrifying.
I think it worked. I bent but I didn’t break. She knew me pretty well by then. She needed me to look into myself more deeply, She knew that I needed to be shaken out of my complacency. I got through the rest of class intact. I was determined to show her 1 could do it. I was damn well going to live up to her standards. I can get revved up even today, remembering how frightened and angry I was.
I moved to Amsterdam a few weeks after class was over, had a full practice two months after I got there and just tore those poor people up. I don’t think anyone else was practicing Rolfing in all of Europe in the late fall of 1974. I may be the single handed reason people all over Europe are saying “Rolfing – I hear that’s really painful” twenty-five years later. Sorry.
I think, sadly, that a lot of us who were fortunate enough to train with Dr. Rolf while she still had the juice to teach, thought that “go deeper” meant “go harder.” I think Dr. Rolf sat there, patiently rocking, watched us do our best and silently prayed, “Dear Lord, I hope that someday with your grace a few of these people will get it.” Most of the earliest-trained, long-time Rolfers were men. We tend to muscle up when we’re challenged and afraid. She must have had unswerving faith.
On one of the final days of class, Dr. Rolf came over and worked on my neck. I can still feel her hands and her perfect touch. Her hands, hands that eased so many necks, were in the exact right place moving in the exact right direction with just the right depth at the precise angle for just the right amount of time. Over and over I felt fascia changing with no effort at all, layers separating, my neck lengthening. I could feel my skull softening. I could feel the front of my cervical spine and my sacrum smiling. I managed to think, “How is she doing this? How does she know how to do this so well? How can anybody be this good?” And I started to laugh out of sheer wonder. Then I watched the same thing happen to Don Johnson as his amazement exploded into laughter. She was the best Rolfer in the world.
I accept some of the blame for why people here in Texas, just like everywhere else on this good green earth, always say, “Rolfing, huh? I hear that’s really painful.” I moved back here from Holland in 1975 and continued to just plough through people for several more years. Then I studied with Stacey Mills and learned to get behind my hands better from Judith Aston and my Rolfing changed. I think I’m better at it now.
She gave us all something to do – something that really matters. She was a piece of work and a damn fine Rolfer.
“When what you have to start with is two broken sticks, then that
is what you start with, and by God you put your back into it.”