Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute – June 2002 – Vol. 30 – Nº 02

Volume: 30

We all value Rolfing® as depth bodywork, on many levels. But depth has been a problem for Rolfing since its inception. Part of the reason that Rolfing got such a reputation for pain is that Ida Rolf kept exhorting her students to “go deeper!” Those of us who were just starting out in this business, in the first rush of pioneering enthusiasm, took “go deeper” to mean “go harder.” It was PERHAPS a limitation in her teaching, and definitely a limitation in our understanding. More than two decades later, the teaching of depth in Rolfing and structural integration schools has changed considerably, though the reputation lingers on.

My own journey into depth was changed by Ida Rolf herself in a singular moment. In 1978 I was in the midst of my advanced training with her. As it turned out, this was Dr. Rolf’s last training – she was to die of congestive heart failure and complications from rectal cancer less than six months later at the age of 83. During this training, she spent most of her time in a wheelchair, although she could still walk for short distances. Mostly she directed the work of others, though she occasionally would do some hands-on work herself.

During this time, I was fortunate to have work from her several times, and to my surprise, the work was not painful at all. Her hands had such authority that my tissue was persuaded to move seemingly of itself. This contrasts sharply with the experience of a number of English osteopaths who studied with her in the’50’s and early ’60’s. To a person – and I contacted a number of them when I moved to London in the early ’80’s – they lauded Ida’s knowledge, perception, and efficacy, but said that she put her clients through far more pain than they themselves could ever countenance in their own practices.

Back to this particular afternoon, I was working with Tweed, my model. Tweed was a nurse, a bright and gentle soul who unfortunately was compelled to live with a severe idiopathic scoliosis, which had strongly distorted her rib cage and spine. At that time, I was living and working in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Tweed, who had benefited greatly from our first 10-session series (I had learned a lot too), had traveled all the way to Philadelphia to be my model for advanced sessions under Ida Rolf’s direction. This afternoon, Rolf’s eyes were going from watchful to baleful to increasingly frustrated. Tweed was seated on a bench, slowly bending forward over her knees, while I stood behind her, using the flat of my knuckles to open the locked myofascia in her knotted erectors.

Ida Rolf was fidgeting in her wheelchair, saying “Get in there, man!” – at which I would redouble my efforts, and Tweed would grin and bear it as her back got redder – but not longer. Finally, Rolf could take it no more: she wheeled her chair over loser to the back of the bench, barking my shins with the footrests. She jammed on the wheelchair brakes so the chair wouldn’t move, and then leaned way forward. At full reach from the chair she was just able to put two gnarled fingertips on either side of Tweed’s sinuous trail of spinous processes. Slowly her fingertips traveled down Tweed’s twisted spine.

Tweed, who was bent forward and so did not know Rolf and I had changed places, cried, “that’s it, now you’ve got it!” as her back started to let go of another layer of long-held tension. At this moment I realized that depth was going to be an elusive and hard-won property. If this failing little old lady could achieve more depth with two fingertips at full reach out of a wheelchair than I could in my young prime, standing right over the client with my fists firmly placed in her back, then certainly going deeper and going harder were not remotely equated.

Of course, a truer language of depth has suffused our profession in the years since. Here is a summary list of my current thinking on the components of depth, with a brief explanation following:

1. The three ins: jntention, invitation and information

2. Practitioner body use

3. Client movement

4. Slower is better

5. Knowing the anatomy

6. Resonance

1) A clear intention precedes your fingers into the tissues, so that mind and body are aligned. Do you know what your intention is each time you enter the field of the other person? Having a clear intent makes achieving depth so much easier for both of you. Each move is also an invitation – I love this word, it means “bringing life in” – an invitation to greater awareness, greater movement, greater relaxation. If your hands are suffused with the attitude of invitation as you come into the body, the waves of tension and resistance part in front of you, and depth is more easily found. And finally, each move informs – brings in form. That is the uniqueness of bodywork. Deane Juhan tells us: Nothing is added but information, nothing is subtracted but what the body lets go of. Hands-on work is essentially an educative process. If – and I am talking to myself as well – we come into the body with the intention of informing the tissues, giving them information they might be missing, our work is very different from when we come in with the intention of fixing it – breaking up that fascial adhesion, stretching that spasmodic muscle, annihilating that trigger point, whatever.

2) Effective body use on the practitioner’s part is a second essential element – use your muscles and your force to change tissue, and the disturbance to the client will be much greater than if you use your bones and your weight. Not only will you generate resistance in your client if you muscle your way in, but your hands and shoulders will likely not serve you well for a long career. The absolute minimum force to get the job done while maintaining maximum sensitivity to the many levels of the client’s state, both local and global, is our goal here. Good practitioner body use, seen in this light, becomes more than a good idea, it’sthe law.

The law in question is the Weber-Fechner law, which states that a muscle (via the muscle spindles) is sensitive to changes equal to or greater than 1 /40th of the load on that muscle. In other words, the more muscular tension I have in my body, the less sensitive I (as practitioner) am going to be about changes in the client’s body. And vice versa – the more relaxed and lazy I can be, the more exquisitely I will enter into the client’s kinesthetic world, feeling the myriad changes in the rhythms and tissues of his or her body.

3) Dr. Rolf said “put it where it belongs and call for movement.” Too many forget the last part – especially those who come to Rolfing from massage, where the client is often thought of as a more passive recipient. Of course, movement is good for the client’s experience – keeping them engaged, activating the body image, resetting muscles’ “tone-o-stat” and dispelling sensorimotor amnesia. But less recognized is how important it is for the practitioner that the client is moving. When the client is moving, the practitioner can feel exactly what level of depth his work is reaching. Try doing the familiar retinacular release on the front of the ankle that (at least in my day) often occurred near the opening of the 2nd session – try it on one side with the familiar’foot up and down’ motions, and on the other side without the motion. Is it not much harder to feel what level your hand is contacting?

4) Speed is the enemy of depth – the faster you go, the more resistance you generate. Waiting and sinking and swimming slowly through the tissue takes a little longer, but, like the tortoise, wins the race. How fast is determined by two simple questions. First, is the tissue melting in front of your fingers? If you have to pry it open, you are going too fast. If nothing is happening and you are bored, you are probably going too slowly. If it is melting just in front of your hand (or elbow or whatever), you are sitting in the Goldilocks seat – just right. The second question is in your perception of the client: is she trying to get away from what you are doing? If your work includes the client having what Ida Rolf called “the motor intention to withdraw,” then, in my opinion, you are going too fast.

I will admit that I make rare exceptions to this when confronted with physically traumatized areas where there is so much pain stored in the myofascial tissues that I will occasionally cross this barrier into directly painful touch. This is with the conscious consent of the client, only after a rapport is established, and the intent is definitely to ‘expose’ the stored pain, not ‘impose’ more pain.

5) Admitting my prejudice – I am an anatomy teacher – I find that depth is also a function of ever more precise knowledge of exactly what is under your hands. If I can reconstruct the picture of where I am in my memory and connect that image to what I am feeling in my hands, my intuition and my ability to go deep improve by leaps and bounds. If I am lost in a wash of tissues whose orientation and purpose I am not clear about, my intuitions become vague and fairly useless.

6) Last but by no means least is the concept and experience of resonance. There are so many rhythms in the body – the rise and fall of breathing, the beat of the heart, the hum of metabolism, the buzz of the brain waves, the idling purr of muscle tonus, the ebb and flow of the cranial pulse, the deeper wash of the long tide, the irregular grumble of peristalsis, the reciprocal metronome of walking, and perhaps a hundred more drumbeats, known and unknown. Training your awareness to your favorite pulses and increasing your sensitivity to the biologic rhythms allows you to enter a state of resonance with your clients. When you are so linked, your ability to make deep change, to obtain access to the deeper layers of tissue, as well as the deeper layers of being, increases wonderfully. At the very least, it is a salutary exercise to spend a whole day breathing in rhythm with your clients, and see what results it produces in your work.

What would you add? What is your experience of depth, and how do you attain it? Depth is an elusive concept, an artistic experience, a mysterious property. The list above is my current one drawn from my practice, and developed even more in my attempt to lead others to depth in my classes. These are the doors to depth that will lead to opening new doors of somatic experience for our clients.

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