Anatomical Riffs

Pages: 29-32
Year: 2005
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Ntegration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute – June 2005 – Vol. 33 – Nº 02

Volume: 33

You might think that the importance of a solid knowledge of anatomy for Structural Integrators would be beyond debate. That speaking this fundamental language of the body with fluency, if not virtuosic facility, would be an irrefutable goal of all practitioners. That every serious student of our work would be constantly working to improve their evaluative and palpatory skills and that those among us who are the most proficient in these areas would be universally sought to share their expertise. That clarity of thinking grounded in secure palpation would be so fundamental that its universal approbation would sweep away all resistance, like the inexorable force of manifest destiny. Clearly this Utopian Xanadu, my optimistically nonprescient vision of Valhalla, has yet to appear on the distant horizon. In fact, many among us actually resist anatomical thinking for a number of reasons, some of which reflect perceptual biases or odd philosophical notions, while others manifest phobic reactions, as if such an approach challenges some sacrosanct paradigm of Structural Integration. This seems an odd state of affairs and yet it shows up again and again under various guises. Below we look at a few of these intriguing misreadings of anatomy.

One such misapprehension is the frequently repeated argument that we do not need a precise anatomical understanding to be good structural integrators. Yet, we hear that Dr. Rolf, though not trained in this area, had a more than adequate knowledge of fascial anatomy. We also know that her belief in the value of anatomical thinking shaped her decision to have Louis Schultz develop the anatomy lead-ins with Peter Melchior and that this process began in 1973 at the same time that Judith Aston introduced her movement sequence. Louis has shared that his job was to make the anatomical grounding more specific and his gratitude to Dr. Rolf for giving him the giftof this profession remains undiminished. All this would seem to support the importance of a sound anatomical knowledge. So, we can only speculate why anyone with a clear sense of our history might choose to ignore the evidence supporting the central importance of anatomy for our work.1

Let us trace another variation on this theme in our exploration of matters anatomical. This one goes something like this:

“Rolfers are interested not so much in muscles as in fascial layers. Overfocusing on origins, insertions and individual structures fails, since this approach does not connect through the layers and is too local in scope to create broad fascial change.”

Many would argue that feeling and working with layers is much more important in our work than precise location of specific muscles. Maintaining consistency in our work, not opening deep structures before the sleeve has been eased and discriminated, and not “punching holes” in the fascia are all fundamental notions of how many of us work and think.’ We might add to this line of reasoning the frequent criticisms that highly specific work, along the lines of, say, NMT, is non-integrative and belongs more to the repair (second) paradigm than what we should always aim to do. We might then consider the heated arguments about the value and nature of local vs. integrative work, as if these two approaches are mutually exclusive, and as if the former is somehow not “real Rolfing.” This need not be the case, as we can obviously do highly specific work in an integrative and coherent manner.’ We will look at some additional weaknesses of this argument later.

Another interesting dimension of this matter has to do with anecdotal stories of profound transformation, which we equate with some epiphanous intervention. When we describe such “magical moments” of palpatory skill, we usually narrate how avery specific and precise contact create,. “structural ripplings” where a local gesture broadened out through the fascial bed, resulting in global change and simultaneourelief from some tenacious chronic i:,ue that plagued the client for years. Such stories are now almost a cliche in our field and are used in our literature and teaching w% i th great effect. An inevitable claim accompanying these ubiquitous examples is that the insight that led to said intervention came not from the world of anatomy but from the world of intuition and highly refined sensing, a knowing that somehow transcends “mere anatomical” thinking. Such sensing is almost universally held in higher regard than precision on an anatomical level and is naively cited as some ill-defined proof of a given Rolfer’s exceptional perspicacity. While this may often be the case, our preference for this model reveals a perceptual bias rather than providing a reliable confirmation of how a given individual “knew” where to work. Intuitive thinking is not in and of itself superior to anatomical thinking. They coexist in the best practitioners and any hierarchical ranking of one over the other reveals more about the espouser of this point of view than the nature of the work itself or the manner in which many of us actually work, sense and see.

Magical thinking such as described above reveals an ignorance of the need for a highly developed technical grounding and speaks to a transparent bias in what we value in our work and teach in our classes. This preconception is one among many. And how can we avoid such favoritism, as we are all ultimately prisoners of our points of view?4

Our profession’s ubiquitous anti-intellectual predispositions are further complicated by some writers and teachers of matters anatomical who speak an arcane language that by its technical nature serves to erect barricades that many are simply unwilling “to storm”, rather like those numerous devotees of 2011, century literature who balk at the logorrheic meanderings that infect Finnegan’s Wake. The immediate reaction to such highly technical language for most is withdrawal and defensive sniping at its authors. Along with this eschewing of the intellectual we hear rumblings of discontent with how such practitioners present our work: as an abstraction that has little relevance to the quotidian activities of our practices. We often get the impression that anatomical thinking and truly integrativework exist on two discrete planes and that real Rolfers don’t eat the same quiche (remember Bruce Fierstein’s witty 1982 book: Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche?) as those more technically oriented practitioners among us who are criticized yet simultaneously respected if not prized for the knowledge they bring to their practices and classes. Such an odd inconsistency. We do suffer from many, but this one proves particularly troubling as it is a symptom of a tenacious prejudice.5

One arena in which these conflicts most plainly play out is our Unit Three anatomy lead-ins. They certainly prove an interesting testing ground for how these issues develop while revealing the biases that fragment us over and over again. The goal of this week-long intensive is to review the anatomy of the first seven hours and provide detailed palpation exercises to sharpen the student’s touch skills. A more fundamental goal should be using anatomical discussions to inform the student’s fascial and integrative thinking, reviewing the goals of the sessions and illustrating how anatomical precision enhances the transformative power of the sleeve and core hours.

In this introductory intensive we have a real opportunity to further embody fascial anatomy and reinforce fundamental ways of seeing and working with patterns not merely locally, but globally as well. Here we should always approach palpation exercises as introductions to Unit Three strategizing, rather than as some mundane anatomical drill on perhaps a slightly more sophisticated order than a massage school musculo-skeletal palpation class where we talk about: origins, insertions, actions, fiber directions and myofascial geography in a linear and mechanistic manner.’ Yet we get the sense that most students and teachers consider the anatomy phase more of an isolated abstraction than a thematically related prelude to the ten-movement suite that spins out over the next seven weeks. This would suggest that we are not unifying our teaching with what follows.

How well an anatomy instructor succeeds in creating continuity and integration here has more to do with his ability to translate abstract ideas into meaningful felt experience and a subtle understanding of the underlying principles of the sleeve and core hours than his anatomical knowledge per se. He must also face the challenges of finding the middle road, which will reach the kinesthetics as successfully as the right-brainers, an interesting problem which first requires an acknowledgment of the camp to which he belongs and a willingness to stretch himself well outside his comfort zone. It further requires an ability to dance in esoteric energetics while simultaneously translating the intuitive into the technical. When a student, for instance, draws strain patterns on the inner thigh, how helpful is it to translate these contours into myofascial structures (such as the muscles of the pes anserinus group)? Why even bother as the student clearly “sees the pattern”? If the student, when asked where she is, reveals that she is clearly not sensing the structure she intends to locate, what is the value of correcting her error as she seems to feel something of interest? These may seem silly questions, but they reflect actual classroom interactions and are not used merely rhetorically.

Energetic seeing and sensing are highly praised, but precise anatomical languaging rarely is. However, in practice, most students happily welcome such anatomical translations, as they anchor and enrich their perceptions. We might say that such reframing concretizes energetic seeing and provides those who process affectively an alternate language for their experience, allowing them to more precisely communicate their felt sense to others, most of whom will not speak their exquisite intuitive dialect.

There are obviously those for whom the opposite problem is equally true: those who obsess over detail and somehow lose sight of the larger picture. I, for instance, recall my erroneous belief that what would most challenge me in my training was a mastery of facts and landmarks, all that terminology, all those lists of goals, locations and specific techniques I needed to master for each hour and ultimately the entire series. Such was certainly understandable, but in reality paled before the task of learning how to feel, see and communicate so many highly abstract ideas, translating them from the world of language to the world of sensation and embodiment. How to anchor anatomical seeing and strategizing in my nervous system and develop some cohesive language for imparting that laboriously acquired felt-sense into words. That was and still remains the most interesting challenge of this work, at least for this practitioner.

What seems obvious, however, is that themore comfortable a non-kinesthetic is with the technical language and the less anxious he is about “getting it all,” the freer he is to sense and feel through the tissue and open his senses to more global information within or even extending outside the client’s system. What is equally evident is how difficult this process will prove. Yet, to quote Louis again, you have to know anatomy to start forgetting it. Such knowledge helps create a security that ultimately leads to freedom and need not encumber the creative process of being in the moment. Such understanding does not impede, it liberates.

One richly rewarding means of freeing oneself from the tyranny of anatomical detail is refining your sense of proper pacing. This pacing has much broader implications than working respectfully and from the heart rather than the head, although these are fundamental issues for all practitioners. Pacing involves not only timing but also a willingness to learn how to subtly sense layers and structures, to be patient enough to wait until the system meets you and invites you in. Certainly an ever-increasing understanding of this process shapes not only our practices but also how we communicate and how we time our interactions.

Such pacing extends into the classroom as well. Let’s look at how this might work for a moment. As they teach, the best instructors entrain the class (just as the best Rolfers immediately entrain with their clients long before touching them), subtly shifting the patterns of movement and influencing many aspects of how the students interact with each other and their models in the class. Those students who are most able to perceive this entraining will quickly assimilate its profound effects and begin the protracted process of learning how to recreate an analogous experience in their practices. Those who are not yet fully awakened to these subtle energetic manipulations are nonetheless exposed to them, as I was many times before it became clear to me what I was experiencing and how to form words for these non-ordinary experiences. Such exposure is more critical for embodiment than any technical detail we might teach. And yet, the cumulative weight of the details will inexorably point the way and ground the student as he wends his way through this challenging journey of discovery.

Clearly, discussions of this subtle entrain-ing process and explanations of refined seeing have an effect as significant as the more technical facts communicated in our classes. Such pacing and seeing issues can certainly be imparted in small doses during palpatory exercises and during group movement explorations. The mere fact that this is possible speaks as much to the quality of our SI teachers as to that of the students themselves.

But let’s return to the challenges faced by anatomy teachers. Many of us are first and foremost students and teachers of anatomy, and hardly professional anatomists, an important distinction which removes some of the onus of expertise from our overburdened shoulders, and which allows us more latitude in how we choose to play with and extemporize on this subject. Yet, along with this ambiguous label comes a set of challenges of understanding who and what we are.

Like many academics who love acquiring and sharing ideas, and who luxuriate in complexity, we find the efficient communication of said information aesthetically and intellectually satisfying. We derive immense pleasure from distilling a cornucopia of beautifully complex facts into discrete and clearly articulated concepts and doing this in a way that stimulates discussion, challenges creative thought and helps ground kinesthetic experience in a technical language of the body. Many teachers of anatomy feel driven to share their understanding and passion for this subject with others in a manner that borders on obsessiveness. Yet we often fail to reach many of our students precisely because of our love for detail and the inevitable conflict this creates with those who find such a wealth of information overwhelming and totally irrelevant to their felt sense of the tissue beneath their hands.

When addressing a kinesthetic audience, linear thinkers confront many interesting difficulties, not the least of which is bridging the gap between the facts and acts. But, to present an unconventional view, why assume that all anatomists are left-brain and their students right-brain? A limiting stereotype based on facts not in evidence. While a left-brain person might be more attracted to technical information, kinesthetics are hardly precluded from joining the ranks of the anatomical. What they bring to the table is as important and relevant as that presented by their technically-minded cohorts. What we are really talking about here is bridging a perceptual gap between these two approaches and delighting in the diversity of linear and organic practitioners drawn to our field. Such cohabitation frequently creates friction yet in a larger sense makes for a richer and more interesting household.

Anatomical relevancy and grounding of our work are essential. And, if they fail to successfully elucidate this fundamental principle, abstract-thinking teachers of anatomy may well deserve the marginalizing judgments they frequently encounter. One way they might neutralize this marginalizaton is by truly knowing and being able to communicate with their audience. To make this subject potent, enriching and relevant to all students. Just as we always aspire to pace our work in a way that can be integrated and received by our clients, so our teaching must be done in a way that our students can integrate. This requires that we track how our students are assimilating our information as precisely as we track how our work facilitates change in our clients. As we are generally very good at the latter, there is no obvious reason why we cannot eventually master the former. And yet, the very passion for detail that inspires so many of us may cloud our perceptions and create confusion where we intend clarity. Here, humor, patience, gentility and vigilant tracking of the “temperature of the room,” as well as said “temperature” of each individual in the room, are obviously more critical to learning than those beloved details we present in our lectures.

And the Word was made Flesh. A pun too Biblical for some perhaps, but an evocative reframing for the transition from technical knowledge to truly integrative understanding.

The world of anatomy not only has great relevancy for all SI practitioners, but, when applied and understood properly, it grounds our technique and enriches our seeing. Those quick to dismiss or marginalize anatomy as too specific or abstract limit themselves and may fall prey to fascial meanderings and imprecision that reduce the efficacy of their work.

Profound and subtle seeing are not exclusively dependent on a high level of anatomical knowledge, but also evolve as we refine our intuitive abilities. Elevating and broadening our perceptions at all levels certainly will aid us in receiving and decod-ing the complex language of the body. However, to assume that energetic seeing unfailingly trumps secure anatomical seeing reeks of misguided smugness. Similarly, to assume that those who see anatomically are inevitably excluded from the celestial spheres of empathic embodiment is more than smug, it is judgmental and arrogant. When we limit our seeing and create barriers between ourselves and those who process “fascial reality” differently, we fractionalize.

What is most important here is to acknowledge the biases of our students and ourselves and use this information as a bridge to improved communication between these two (and other ancillary) factions. The best teachers of anatomy are those who are not only secure with articulating their bias but also exploring ways of reaching beyond their limitations to entrain and transform the nervous and fascial systems of their students. Anatomy need be no more an abstraction than our most treasured concepts such as integration and embodiment, although we face numerous problems of language in these realms as well. Yet, with proper training and practice, the affective can learn to dance more comfortably in the world of the technician just as our academic thinkers can more fully embody the kinesthetic magic which we all strive to evoke each time we engage one another.7


1. Louis Schultz and I have discussed these matters in some detail. I am much in his debt here for sharing with me his rich sense of our history and deep understanding of the role of anatomy in our work. I admit to borrowing some of his language (i.e., the phrase “fascial bed”), as it is so clear and interesting. Here, for instance, is an intriguing quote that strengthens my argument: “The first anatomy lead-in was an elective. When the teachers realized that those who took the elective had an advantage, they asked that it become part of the curriculum.” (Personal correspondence to the author 4/22/05). For an edited transcription of our interview, see: “Interview with Louis Schultz, Ph.D.,” Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute, Vol. 31, No. 2 (June 2003): 5-7.

2. As our discussions continued, Louis offered a very different take on fascial thinking than what I present here (personal email to the author 5 / 1 / 05). We might readthis passage as an intuitive approach to the work and might argue that it is in the same family as my subsequent “ripples through the body” metaphor. “Our approach to anatomy is quite different which is fine. In my years of teaching ‘touch’ the criteria of finding the proper level in the fascia to work was seeing a ‘wave’ in the tissue in front of your hand(s). This shows that it is the reaction to the “level” in the bed of fascia. So I don’t really believe in layers other than the dermis and the myofascia tightly wrapped around the muscles. Other layers result from movement, I believe, and will differ within a few inches from each other within the bed or web. I’m trying to point out that our words don’t mean much if we don’t explain them (the old ‘words are symbols’ which differ to each of us). The other important aspect is development which means that the anatomy is different in each of us.” This rather different experience of the fascial net is quite interesting and raises some intriguing questions well beyond what we can address here. Louis’ description of the net is quite metaphorical and conceptual, an interesting instance of an anatomical thinker using intuitive language and formulating a model based on felt sense.

3. I discuss this problem in a recent article on Rolfing and NMT in which I look at Dr. Maitland’s three-paradigm model and use the trigger point paradigm as a test case. I wish to again thank Dr. Maitland who generously reviewed and critiqued my article prior to its publication last year. See: “NMT and Rolfing: A Consideration of Second and Third Paradigm Modalities,” Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer/June 2004):35-38.

4. Here and elsewhere I allude to ideas found in my recent article on patterns: “The Pattern Conundrum: or, What is the Sound of One Hand Rolfing?” Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Winter/ December 2004): 20-24.

5. One very amusing insight on this disparity was pointed out to me by Liz Gaggini who suggested that when we are moving tissue we are working with the “hypothalamic loop” and that the cortex is not directly engaged at this juncture. She likes to explain the difference to her students and, once they are clear on the distinction, say to them, so now we are going to work with the cortex for the next three days. This of course ties in nicely with Louis’ notion of forgetting anatomy. Ideally we use our cortex whenwe need it to evaluate and strategize and then, once we know the territory and pattern clearly, we drop into the hypothalamus and work, reengaging the cortex as required. Another very nice way to address this notion of floating between two paradigms (or in this case two routing systems). Thanks to Liz for this wonderful construct Jconversation with the author in Atlanta, 5 / 10/05).

6. For more on teaching this rudimentary approach for massage therapists, see my article: “Overcome Your Fear of Anatomy,” Massage Magazine, Issue 115 (May/June 2005): 124-32; and Issue 116 (July/August 2005).

7. Many of these ideas have been explored in a series of shorter papers, all of which have been submitted for publication. So far two have been accepted by Massage and Bodywork. They include “The Kinesthetic Bias,” “And the Winner is … No One”, and “To Boldly Go.” The first two (both due out some time later this year) have been accepted by Massage and Bodywork. They deal with problems of kinesthetics and academics, while the last deals with empaths and how their gifts might be ideally suited to working with autistics.

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