Ask the Advanced Faculty

Rolfing Strategy: Not Where, What, or When, But How
Pages: 2-3
Year: 2007
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

STRUCTURAL INTEGRATION: The Journal of the Rolf Institute – March 2007 – Vol 35 -Nº 01

Volume: 35
Q Many of my Ten-Series clients exhibit a particular quality of emotional tension and holding that is evident in their structure and movement patterns. This pattern involves the shoulders rolled forward and contracted toward the front, the head pulled forward and down into the cervicals, and the posterior ribs hardened – all seemingly in an effort to protect the heart. In the first session of the Ten Series, when rapport is just starting to be established and we are still largely strangers, we begin opening this closely guarded and emotionally charged area. My question is, with clients holding their main event in this area, is it a good idea to start here in the first session? It seems that in some cases it might be better to wait until the client has developed a level of trust, a few sessions down the road. Would you comment on this?


A: At first glance, this is a strategic question: where should we touch in a first session; when should we contact a highly charged area; how should we approach this client; and how do we best start the process. To me, the key concern is not where or when – but how.

This inquiry brings in many of the layers and dimensions of our work, and provides an opportunity to explore the complexity of their relationships. It also raises matters that our profession has been wrestling with during the past thirty to forty years: The Ten-Series protocol (or ”Recipe”) versus a non-formulistic approach (whether first-hour territory should necessarily be addressed in the first session delivered to the client); the fact that a pattern must be understood on several layers – as a physical configuration (shoulders rolled forward), as a functional aspect (holding, clearly present in movement patterns), and an emotional dimension (an effort to protect the heart); the nature of the therapeutic relationship and how important it is to the success of our work (rapport is just starting to be established and we are still largely strangers).

These issues are all implicated in a single event – a Rolfing® series – and we need to address all of them to answer the question properly.



Ida Rolf’s Recipe has always been a reliable formula for bringing the client to a higher level of integration. However, the Principles of Integration (adaptability, support, palintonicity and closure) indicate that strategies can be developed according to a client’s specific needs. In formulating any strategy, the Principles must be observed on each of the physical, functional and psychobiological levels, and balance must be maintained among these levels. The strategy must allow for integration within each level, among the levels, and with gravity. Just how flexible individual Rolfers can be with respect to designing efficient and effective strategies for particular clients depends on their ability, experience and training; but all of us can improve our work by adjusting the Recipe in degrees appropriate to our expertise.



The question describes the pattern structurally, functionally and psychobiologically. The structural analysis was perhaps based on the line (not vertical), the blocks (head held forward and down into cervicals, front compressed) and the five elements taxonomy (the shoulders rolled forward and contracted toward the front, head forward and jamming into the cervical spine). In functional terms, the hardening of the posterior ribs suggests that perhaps G´ is posterior to G, which would compromise the dynamic line. From the psychobiological perspective, the question presents the hypothesis that the client has assumed an attitude of guarding the heart area, representing a held emotion.

A pattern both manifests and can be approached in various aspects of the being. Currently, the assessment taxonomies we teach may be classified as physical (comprising the structural/biomechanical and functional) and psychobiological (comprising the emotional, energetic, cultural and existential/spiritual). These categories reflect the holistic nature of our being and have implications in how we understand the client’s presenting goals. Therefore, they inform the design of strategies, the choice of techniques, and the management of the therapeutic relationship.

How a personal pattern is either established or changed depends on the subjective meaning the client attributes to both the experiences that generated the pattern and the experience of addressing the patterns through the Rolfing process. We now have abundant theoretical support for the proposition that subjective experience shapes perception of both internal and external events and conditions, and that it plays a defining role in how we adapt to gravity.



The therapeutic relationship is the fourth dimension, ever present in any therapeutic event. It arises between two persons – practitioner and client. As a result, the impact of the event goes beyond the effects on the spatial arrangement of body parts and their movements in space and time; this fourth dimension brings in the relationship between human beings. It gives meaning to the event relative to the environment; in the case of Rolfing, it brings it back to gravity and affects perception, feelings, and function in gravity. The outcome of each Rolfer/client encounter is unique, and synchronic in time – a moment in the personal processes of each participant that will change the course of all their relationships going forward, including the ripples it will produce in their interpersonal relationships.

Tracking the therapeutic relationship is essential for the success of any strategy, any technique, any session – and, ultimately, the entire process. Because the characteristics of each participant influence the process, practitioners must monitor their own characteristics, as well as those of the client. This includes the practitioner’s body use and posture, the feelings the practitioner has when touching the client, how the practitioner conceptualizes the situation, etc. Over the years, the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration® has devoted more and more curriculum hours and assigned greater importance to the therapeutic relationship; and it is now addressed in all training units.

Now, enough of history and theory and back to your question. Once again, the key concern is not where or when, but how. There is a big difference between working on someone’s anatomical structure, on the one hand, and working with someone through the anatomical structure, the functional pattern or a set of meaning patterns, on the other hand. For the latter, building the container, and understanding the goals and patterns from both your own perspective and the client’s are the essential first steps for Rolfing®. Then, and only then, can you design effective strategies.

In framing your question, you state your initial impression that the pattern might be primarily emotional, with physical and functional manifestations. Establishing the therapeutic relationship and building trust allows you and the client to address the pattern at whatever level is available at a particular time. However, you must be clear about how ready you are to deal with whatever you believe is happening and to participate in the client’s journey. It is also important to assess the degree to which the client is engaged – or present – in the process, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is this engagement that allows the client to both explore and release patterns, as well as to own the changes.

There are levels of consciousness, from tissue responsiveness to reflexive mind. All levels continuously feed back upon each other, creating the internal environment for change to manifest in gravity. The tissue may respond to adequate touch even if the client’s mind is not present. In such a case, the practitioner needs to pay particular attention to how the client assimilates the changes, and to follow the adaptation of the whole being in gravity. Sometimes it is easy: the client is happy to let go of an old pattern, and doing so poses no particular challenge. Finally, if the client is sufficiently engaged, we can work consciously: the client knows what is being addressed; understands the meaning of the pattern and the challenges that changing it will bring. Here, the client is engaged in conscious exploration.

The Recipe, with its sequence of structural and functional goals, represents a gradual approach to a client’s pattern. First, we release the more superficial tissue to open the territory, which allows the breath to respond. In functional terms, you may encourage the client to notice the breathing as it is, to let go of holding patterns and allow the breathing to respond, or to explore new breathing possibilities. In connection with any of these, the client may begin to find ground and space, to trust the exhale and expand in the inhale, or to explore flexion and extension and find the sagittal axis of motion. Psychobiologically, these events have meaning and will produce meaning. Conversely, the client’s perception of a pattern’s subjective meaning may initiate the release of the holding patterns.

The Recipe is not about touching here or there to produce a specific result. The whole being is in process from the very first moment. Honoring the holistic principle and recognizing the continuity of the fascial web, we would expect that intervention at a particular place in the body will affect the entire system, with changes manifest in locations very distant from the point of entry.

With this in mind, everything becomes relative. A touch to the legs – part of the traditional first-hour territory – might well be as disruptive or invasive as a touch to the chest too abrupt, too deep or too soon. But, a touch to the chest that allows the client to feel and own the experience – a touch through which the therapist respects and stays firm with the client as the two of them contact whatever is held in the region – will produce a significant result right there in the first hour.

In short, it’s not the location, but the attitude. The Recipe does not describe locations to be touched, but goals to be approached. It suggests particular territory as a means to achieve the goals – not vice versa. To achieve the goals, it might be necessary to start in different territory; this would not be departing from the Recipe, but rather honoring it. In that sense, we can design non-formulistic strategies and use whatever techniques are appropriate to our strategic perspective.



You might begin by exploring the meaning the pattern has for the client. Just asking “What’s your take on this?” or “How do you account for this pattern?” or “What does this pattern mean to you?” might be sufficient impetus for the pattern to begin to unfold and make room for the integration of the physical changes from the tissue manipulation to follow.

Or, you might begin by developing the client’s functional resources – perhaps by increasing support with more functional leg hinges and feet, as well as a better connection of the feet through pelvis to the front of the spine. Then the client has a physical place or function to relate to when you do approach the delicate area or pattern. Maybe with more functional feet and legs, the client can afford to feel the chest and the emotions within. From the classical Recipe perspective, in a first hour you would emphasize release of the hip joint and the extensor group; this would be preparatory to slowly deepening shoulder girdle and upper chest work in the third and fifth sessions.

Or, you could stay with the traditional Recipe territory by touching lightly on the chest itself, observing the response of the breathing, allowing the client to occupy the inner space and to recognize it proprioceptively. Then, through exploration of the breathing, you could encourage the client to better perceive the environment and observe the effect this has on his/her posture.

The three strategies described above are primarily psychobiological, functional and structural, respectively. Each is in keeping with the Principles of Intervention, and each aims both to change the body’s organization in gravity and to engage the client enough to let the client own the changes.

Designing and executing our strategies with various methods appropriate to the multiple layers of a pattern does give us more flexibility in our work. But, if our strategies or choices of methods are random or merely intuitive, the work loses form and structure. Until one has the skills and experience to feel comfortable with non-formulistic work, one can stay within the Recipe and still prepare to address emotional content by establishing a proper therapeutic relationship, continually attending to the context, and modulating touch so that you’re working with the client, not on the client.


Rolfing Strategy: Not Where, What, or When, But How[:]

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