Some Thoughts on the Assisting Process

Pages: 18-20
Year: 2006
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute – September 2006 – Vol 34 – Nº 03

Volume: 34
In my time as the Faculty Liaison at the Rolf Institute I have had the privilege of supporting many Rolfers as they enter our classroom assistant program. Some of them are at the beginning of their paths toward becoming a part of our esteemed faculty, while others are looking for ways to develop themselves both personally and professionally.It is a pleasure to witness a new assistant's excitement as they re-engage in the classroom experience and feel again the inspiration of being a part of the educational community here. As we begin this series of articles from current assistants, we hope to share a glimpse and window into this unique experience available to all Rolfers.-Maya J. GammonRolf Institute Faculty Liaison

After we complete our basic training, there are certain watersheds in our development of the art form that is Rolfing. These landmarks have much more to do with an evolution of our ability to articulate and see structure than with an inevitable improvement in our ability to “fix someone’s back,” although raising the level of our manipulative skills inevitably holds great sway over our thinking, particularly when we are challenged by problems that we did not learn in our initial trainings. While many signposts along this journey come to mind, the first time we learn a post-ten three series, there is a qualitative shift in our work. During this training, we are usually taught some permutation of the familiar girdle-girdle-line model, a way of thinking that offers a more sophisticated paradigm for addressing relationships between axillary and appendicular structures. Similarly, an improved ability to resolve mechanical restrictions, a topic often addressed in these classes, results in an expansion of our skill set. But, most importantly, we begin to experience a refined understanding of asymmetrical patterns. This clearer recognition in turn affects our ten series, which, we all learn, must evolve to help sustain interest in the work and to keep our growing number of post-series clients happy.

Similar shifts occur when we attend intensives devoted specifically to the girdles, the spine, the head and neck, the viscerae, and other region- or theme-specific topics. With each new class, we deepen our understanding of what we feel. Also, as you might expect, for some time after each class we see “new” patterns in our familiar clients as our perceptions temporarily narrow in response to an inevitable focusing on local topographies. We may also temporarily fixate on novel energetic sensitizations as we learn to engage the various fluid tides and the nuances of the CSF (cerebrospinous fluid). After a period of reorientation, these once new techniques and alternate modes of sensing become a part of our work, transforming it while, in the main, not moving us too far afield from the core principles we learned in our basic trainings. Sometimes, unfortunately, this recalibration takes considerable time since new technologies will always fascinate and distract like imaginary borealises lighting up an acid trip. Yet, the responsibility of integrating new information lies I think more with the student than the instructor. Therefore, we must remember that when studying with the many excellent teachers both within and outside of our community, the pull to move in other directions can prove quite strong. An interesting balancing act, this. And we will each find our own way as we encounter much contradictory information among the proliferation of principle and non-principle based approaches.

Another defining experience for many is their movement certification. While we are now taught movement protocols in basic trainings, these are meant, I suspect, as adjuncts to the structural series. Such sessions can be introduced in part or in toto as a part of the integrative phase. The later independent movement trainings are in and of themselves, however, very important. They function not as supplements to our basic series but rather as a discrete cohesive unit that shares many important overlappings with the underlying concepts of the “magical ten.” Having such skills and tools at our disposal provides a paradigm shift for structural Rolfers, since those who love to do must now learn to wait and allow as the client explores internally. Such limits can ironically become a wonderfully liberating experience, particularly for those of us who are highly goal oriented. The patience and stillness required to execute a successful movement session may be compared to accessing and engaging what osteopaths call “the Health” while waiting for the long tide to find us rather than while sounding it out. Both models potentially take us to a new place in our interactions with another’s system, although some might justifiably argue that there is normally more doing in movement work than in most biodynamic or other osteopathic-inspired sessions. Despite this not-so-subtle distinction, movement work opens new doors.

For most of us, the major component of our continuing education process is the advanced training experience. Here we are introduced to a methodology that distills the work to a principle-based decision tree which when properly understood and executed provides a creative model for achieving higher levels of continuity and integration than we previously imagined. While much is made of the technical presentations on such topics as spinal mechanics, rib fixations, joint mobilizations, ligamentous release techniques, and visceral and craniosacral protocols, the main thing most take from the training is a more specific and deliberate approach to reconfiguring tissue. Practicing a more localized application of focused pressure, what Advanced Rolling Instructor Jan Sultan calls “control points,” soon leads to remarkably fast change with minimal exertion on the part of the practitioner.’

This experience of observing and then working with several precise integrative strategies opens a new world of technical understanding. Yet, for all this specificity, the least discussed yet most interesting aspects of the training often emerge in the intuitive and affective realms. Fascinating discussions of some rather esoteric subjects within the context of the sessions the students observe may prove wonderfully provocative. Such experiences will add richness to those intuitive approaches they have previously employed while providing rich fodder for any subsequent energetic explorations. Also, the training’s various considerations of the global aspects of the work leave many with a greater sense of the artistic gestalt of Rolfing. That such seems possible in what many perceive as an intensely intellectual environment may astonish, yet such often seems the case.

While all the above experiences serve as major milestones, for a relatively small number, the defining step in their evolution is a decision to pursue the teaching track, the first stage of which is the assisting process. The reasons young practitioners choose this path are as diverse as the individual assistants themselves .2 Many have as their fundamental motivator a profound love of the work combined with a strong desire to communicate this passion to others. For some, the recognition and sense of accomplishment that come from working through the ranks from assistant to senior instructor serves as a strong motivation.

However, a certain number of us choose to throw our hats into this complex arena because of an intellectual and personal curiosity. We are driven to test the eddying waters of communication and embodiment with others. This experience therefore serves as a personal and professional litmus test if you will, one that measures our evolution as practitioners, educators, and embodied human beings. To reframe metaphorically, it provides the perfect crucible for melting and melding the diverse metals we bring with us to the classroom in our search for the elusive alchemist’s gold that teaching may provide. What this approach offers, if it is foremost in the assistant’s mind, is a freedom to experiment, to find a personal yet successful style of communicating on a variety of levels. It poses great challenges but offers profound rewards as well. Either way, the opportunities for learning that are available for those choosing this path seem virtually limitless.

Whatever the fundamental motivator, the jobs of the assistant are surprisingly diverse. The most obvious is to provide technical support and reinforcement for the lead instructor. This secondary function may challenge some, particularly those used to running the show. Being able to leave your ego at the door and allow a more experienced instructor to run the show may prove difficult, while learning to live with that difficulty may be exactly what is needed for growth. The assistant’s most important lesson here may be letting go while still maintaining his own distinct presence in the room, a very intricate balancing act, for sure.

Assistants provide valuable input into the trainings, and normally are given the opportunity to present at least one lecture. Also, students frequently look to the assistant to help them distill the lead teacher’s presentations. This can prove very difficult particularly if the lead instructor is introducing unfamiliar ideas or approaches that diverge substantially from what the assistant has learned or how he processes the work. Finding a way to assist without bowdlerizing or mangling what the instructor has actually said can be very tricky and requires a healthy degree of self-awareness to say nothing of the necessary ability to reframe what you (believe you) understand with as much humility, patience, and clarity as possible. It is here, whether helping students with their assessments, technical skills, or sensing tools, that the assistant may shine or sink like a stone. Or, more typically, fall somewhere in the middle, missing the mark by varying amounts during each interaction.

This critical piece of the assistant’s job may prove most rewarding or exasperatingly difficult. Yet again, the greater the challenge, the greater the potential for learning, assuming that you are in an appropriately receptive mode each time you approach a student or express an opinion in class. Honing the skills necessary to work with young Rolfers when you yourself are relatively new to this highly specialized type of teaching will really test you. It will also have such resonance in your practice that it will transform your work if only you will pay attention to the dynamics with each student with the same level of sensitivity you employ when you do your most focused sessions.

One of the most unanticipated gifts of this training may well be the relationships you form while in class. You must remember that while the packaging of the information and palpatory or reading skills are very important, the greatest rewards of this experience are those potentially enriching connections with instructors and administrators as well as those that may develop with future practitioners. These professional relationships can potentially create profound rapports that last for years, or, more commonly, serve as a more transitory series of personal mementos, plaques in a treasured trophy case that mark defining moments in your development as a Rolfer. This marvelous benefit, one rarely contemplated, may well help buttress you from a number of storms that rage in the room as well as future challenges you will face in your practice.

One key to a successful interaction is not to confuse kindness with attachment and to find an appropriate post-class balance that respects your colleagues’ boundaries. Examining their transference (and your countertransference) issues, both with lead instructors and students, is fundamental. Also, the emotional entanglements that may arise as a consequence of any blurred boundaries offer revealing opportunities to look more closely at yourself and others. This in turn will inevitably help you when similar issues arise with clients, particularly those you most love and admire.

As suggested above, the rewards here are many and surprisingly diverse. They are most readily reaped when you are as free from attachment to any predetermined outcome as possible. While such may seem practically speaking an impossibility, the challenge of holding this intention in the face of personal triggers and many inevitable emotional eructations will help make your pursuit of the improbable an instructive exercise in growth and surrender. Whatever your preconceived notions of the assisting process, they will usually prove very wide of the mark. However, subsequent repetition and practical experience will help you recalibrate your goals and preparation for those future classroom encounters.

Most will recognize in this approach an essential element of how we meet our clients and work in each session, even when working with those we have treated for many years. Experienced practitioners will realize that what I outline here is precisely what makes our work special, the freedom from expectation, the joy of discovering others, and the creative spontaneity that comes from constantly adapting and refining our models as we respond to the nuances of the client’s reconfiguring nervous system. If we reframe the teaching experience in this light and aspire always to have the adaptability to respond to the subtle shadings of the dynamic process that is the Rolfing classroom, how can we not grow?3 When viewed through this lens, the classroom becomes the perfect environment for expansion and transformation.

Properly framed, the assisting experience liberates, instructs, and integrates as much as our most memorable sessions, those we recall with the greatest fondness and wonder. Our teaching experience informs the work as much as the work informs our teaching. And, if we accept Dr. Rolf’s notion that Rolfers are teachers rather than “merely” fascial manipulators, how can we not feel drawn to engage in that sophisticated play readily available in the classroom? While not all feel so inclined, those willing to dive into these deep waters will be rewarded incalculably. I guarantee that with the proper mind-set, they cannot help but emerge from this process as more integrated and aware Rolfers. An astonishing claim, but one that all those who have persevered in this journey will, I suspect, readily echo.


1. The recent series of articles on the advanced training by the “three amigos” (Advanced Rolfing Instructors, Jan Sultan, Micheal Salveson, and Jeffrey Maitland), as well as my more general piece (referenced below), provide considerably more information on this topic. For more discussion of the control points and the intuitive aspects of my experiences, see my article: “Advanced Training: A Personal Perspective,” Rolf Lines, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Winter, 2001): 25-28.

2. When I use the term young, I am referring to their time as practitioners rather than their chronological ages, as these often do not match up.

3. The notion of adaptability as a hallmark of a highly integrated system has been discussed by me elsewhere and was first introduced to me by Jan Sultan. See my article on the advanced training cited above as well as my “What is Integration?” article for additional discussion of this point.

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