Rolfing in the Culture of the USA 2004

Pages: 29-30
Year: 2004
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute – Winter/December 2004 – Vol 32 – Nº 04

Volume: 32


Ida P. Rolf often asked, “What is it to be more human, to be more of a human being?” As structural integrators, we observe and address not only structural and mechanical issues, but also the manifestation of human-ness in the world. As such, we see the effects of the ambient culture on our clients’ bodies, nervous systems, and choices of movements and expressions – in short, on the limits of their freedom to be human.

As Hubert Godard teaches, perception is our first movement. Perception of the environment initiates a sequence and coordination of movements, and bounds our choices or lack of choices. What’s more, as philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin posited, a person is not a thing or even an organism but a “carrying forward.” Each of us is an ongoing interaction with our environment. Our nature is a constant process that evolves in and with our culture. This is the evolutionary perspective of which Ida Rolf spoke.

Here in the USA, the culture has undergone profound changes in the last several years. Because our clients today are not living in or responding to the same cultural reality that existed in years past, they are different kinds of beings than those we saw even a few years ago. As structural integrators, we can provide our clients a place – perhaps a unique one – to reflect on the changes in our social environment and to witness for themselves the impact these changes might have on their perception and therefore their bodies and behavior.

This can be radical, as the clients return to their lives with a new awareness. After all, it is easy to not notice the cultural biase we are living and to consider our visible patterns “normal.” It is also easy to sleet through gradual cultural shifts and how they affect our perceptions of what is “nor mal.” Leaving one’s previously-felt “normalcy” can be a shocking wake-up to the differences that beliefs and environmental realities have on one’s way of “being.”


Working in Guatemala during a time of war and oppression, I saw the changes years o fear and restraint wrought on the structure movements and expression of the people Their faces and their bodies seemed frozer in a silent non-expression. These restriction: did not develop in one week or one year Rather, they were the response to a gradual introduction of repressive conditions that required the people to limit their expressions and movements in order just to stay alive in a militarized and violent environment. Under the very real – and accurate – perception of the need to stay small and keep quiet, the ability or willingness to occupy space or speak up for rights was insidiously diminished.

Having seen it before, I recognize the same thing happening right now – right here it the USA. Especially since 9 / 11, ideas and perceptions of patriotism and right and wrong have changed – and so have our priorities. For example, right now people car be imprisoned without notification to families, legal representation, or even a criminal charge. As a culture, we have shown ourselves remarkably willing to sacrifice our liberty and privacy – not to mention our dignity – in favor of some perceived marginal enhancement of our “safety.”


What is the effect of these cultural changes on one’s physical sense of boundary and right to resist intrusion? How might they alter one’s very posture and expressive choices? To see how the changes might be affecting our clients, we might begin by asking how it has affected us. Ask yourself the following, and observe the somatic manifestations:

1) What is your current perception of safety when you travel on an airplane? What is the mood on the airplane if someone gets rowdy or loud? Have your own movements or verbal responses to these situations changed? If so, how?

2) How do your movements and verbal expressions change when you enter an airport?

3) Do you wonder if your emails are being read? Have you curtailed what you write?

4) How does it feel to know that records of what library books you borrow can be monitored?

5) We know that we are increasingly being watched in public spaces that previously afforded us some degree of anonymity. How does this knowledge affect the way you move your body? When you see cameras, do you change your physical behavior or facial expression?

6) Have you narrowed your repertoire of gestures and movements in the last few years? If so, to what degree have you even noticed?

Today, children rarely run and play freely in the streets. Consider: a generation has grown up feeling that police checking them at school is not only normal but preferred.

Freedom of speech has also been curbed in the U.S. My own clients have expressed fear of their corporate employers finding out that they buy certain liberal magazines. Protesters are quarantined to small areas with no recourse. Our physical space and boundaries have been narrowed for our “safety.” Over time, we have acquiesced in this. We file through airport lines, remaining quiet and non-expressive. We submit without question or protest to being physically searched, to having to remove our shoes, and to being frisked and taken aside. These requirements imply threat and danger from an unknown source, and complying with them supposedly tells us we are safe. What might be the effect of the constant sense of threat on our autonomic nervous system set-point?

Images of the attack on the Twin Towers remain vivid in our minds. Still today -three years later – I have many clients speaking of an intolerable anxiety, anger and depression. Clients talk of their anguish, sadness, and feelings of impotence and powerlessness in the “world” and with respect to human behavior. The Washington Post, 2001, reported an increase in pain being reported to pain clinics, along with a diminished ability of the patients to manage their pain. Pain management specialists report a five-fold increase in complaints of flare-ups. They attribute this to the stress of the attack and fear about the future. Psychiatry departments report aggravation of chronic medical disorders due to stress and anxiety over the changes in this country. George Washington University reports, however, that people are largely unaware of how their bodies are reacting to world events.


We are not the same bodies as those that had the expressive and spatial freedom of movement of years past. Surely, the effects of the current cultural milieu manifest in changes in breath, gesture and expression. This can be so gradual and subtle in how it insinuates itself into who we are as to seem trivial. Regardless of how one feels about this new cultural “reality,” we must consider its repercussions on our clients’ physical reality. Equally, we must consider how the perceptions of our space, our expression, our privacy and our safety influence our facial expression, our nervous system activation, our tonicity, and our very human “being-ness.”

If we consider it our work to integrate a different human being into the present culture, does that work, in terms of human evolution, contradict or support our clients’ becoming more fully manifested human beings? Teaching someone in a fearful culture to be more expressive or spacious or to have more breath assumes a world in which these qualities are desired, or at least considered useful and healthy. Should we, therefore, simply help human beings adapt themselves to the times with less pain and resistance?

Perhaps not. Perhaps we offer an oasis in which revolutionary questioning – of both our patterns and the culture that induced them – is possible. What kind of human beings are we becoming? We have the possibility of questioning – and perhaps even altering – the current direction human evolution by being aware of and even taking charge of the “carrying forward” of our relationship with our environment through our bodies.

In those wondrous sessions when we are in our best moments – realizing that the client’s soul is searching, finding and sensing its way through all the body’s history, patterns and restrictions to find a more authentic expression of self – we need to remember the larger context of the world in which we live today, and the choices or lack thereof in that world. But our clients still have the choice to discriminate real and immediate threat from the shadowy byproduct of generalized, government-induced social angst; to regard their fellow travelers with openness and without suspicion, or maybe even to be expansive rather than contractive when in contact with the TSA agent or the riot cop. The interaction between us and our environment goes two ways, after all. So long as we act with awareness, we have the choice either to let the environment encroach upon and overwhelm our being – or to move into the environment in a manner that affirms our being.Rolfing in the Culture of the USA 2004

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