The Making of a Science of Rolfing from an Individual Path to a Collective Activity

Pages: 22-25
Year: 2007
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 35 – Nº 4

Volume: 35
The text presented below is the introduction to my doctoral thesis, entitled "Exploratory Study of the Psychobiological Dimension of the Rolfing Structural Integration Method: Creation, Development and Evaluation of Questionnaires”. It describes how my individual path has been intertwined with the collective path, showing how these two roads have converged: personal concerns and desires evolved as a result of finding resonance with those of others, and in this collective manner were converted to objects of investigation and study.In terms of the evolving science and practice of Rolfing, we can only progress by transforming our individual inquiries into collective ones. This text, therefore, is intended as a stimulus and impetus for others interested in the psychobiological question and many other personal concerns to combine their efforts toward the continued development of Rolfing as a multifaceted art and science.

I received my bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1971 from the Pontífica Universidade Católica de Sao Paulo (PUC-SP). In 1973, I completed PUC-SP’s professional degree program in psychology. Right after that, I began working in my own clinic, and also teaching introductory classes in psychology for the university’s basic curriculum. In 1974, I began teaching subjects related to psycho-diagnostics in the professional degree program for the Department of Methods and Techniques. In those years, clinical psychology was rapidly evolving. Wilhelm Reich’s ideas had brought the body-oriented approach to psychotherapy; some of the classical paradigms were being challenged; and an important discussion was taking place concerning the “mind-body connection”. A holistic paradigm of health emerged, which attracted my attention.


Meanwhile, we were all in the midst of the larger counterculture movement; and personally, I was seeking an opening for new experiences. I wanted to free myself of repressed feelings, and to make room for my emergent self. I was immersed in matters of the body and soul in this context – experimenting and reflecting upon my experiences, while at the same time going through profound

personal transformations.


Professionally, I was working with a “neo-Jungian” and “neo-Reichian” approach. I had important mentors like Maria Isabella de Sanctis, Petho Sandor and Jose Angelo Gaiarsa. All of them were exploring the integration of Jung and Reich, and were going far beyond that to develop their own approaches.


Gaiarsa posited that Reich, with the definition of muscular “character armor”, had transformed the idea of the unconscious into something concrete – translated it to the body, and turned it into something visible and palpable. With this, Reich brought to light a possibility that fascinated me: one might lay hands on the unconscious if one could touch upon psychological attitudes through the character armor. With Gaiarsa, I began to experiment with my own emotional organization by way of the somatic dimension; and I also began to learn about the biomechanical organization of the human body.


Gaiarsa presented studies that set forth the role of gravity in the maintenance of postural balance and the coordination of movements, as well as its relationship to the emotional dimension. He emphasized the role of proprioception for the maintenance of bodily balance and the concomitant correlation of this experience with emotional balance. He thus expanded the notion of psychotherapy to include a prophylactic perspective: that one could prevent psychological disturbances by addressing the musculoskeletal system, the posture, and the coordination of movements. According to his studies, free flow of emotions coincides with the absence of muscular armoring on the one hand, and with the ability to perceive the environment and oneself in simultaneous and continuous relationship, on the other hand. Therefore, by acquiring possibilities of more and better movement and sensation, a person might both improve his body image and build a more adaptable ego structure. And all of this takes place in the context of gravity.


During this period, I continued to be puzzled by psychotherapy’s emphasis on interpretation. The postulated unity of the “mind-body” led me to believe that with the transformation of one of these dimensions, the other would necessarily be affected because they were aspects of a single phenomenon. However, I observed that in actual practice, even though body-oriented psychotherapy addressed the somatic dimension (transforming character armor, softening physical tensions) – typical clinical practice hardly even took the physical results into account. Instead, it continued to fall back on verbal and cognitive interpretations.


This discrepancy really bothered me. I was trying to identify that which was hidden and unconscious, trying to interpret hidden conflicts and repressed emotions, and wanting to make sense of them in the context of the organization of the body. This whole panorama led me to explore different roads that did not always converge; I felt lost, exploring the human phenomenon through both somatic and symbolic avenues, but without any organizing framework.


Then, in 1979, Gaiarisa invited Jim Hriskos – a professional structural integrator who specialized in the Rolfing method – to work with this approach in Brazil for a small group of us. I went through the experience and really appreciated how liberating it felt – on the emotional level as much as on the physical level. I intuited that it was not just an improvement, for example, in my athletic performance or the pleasure I experienced in my own movement – yet I did not have the words or language to describe the entirety of the experience. It was something unconscious, transformative.


I directed my attention to this method – which seemed to me to be a systematic theoretical proposition with a well-organized practical method – and decided to take the Rolfing® training. For one year I prepared myself; and in January of 1981, I began the first of two phases of training that, in those days, was offered only at the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration® (RISI) in Boulder, Colorado, in the United States.


There, as to the work itself, I encountered something different from what I had been expecting. I had been seeking an organized technical system that would assist me in my psychotherapy practice. What I found was a theory and method more comprehensive than a merely psychological approach. I encountered a paradigm that treated a person as one with his entire context – a theory completely open in respect to human expression and manifestation. No interpretations or expectations – only observation of manifestation. This was in keeping with my own ontological perspective, and I felt good about it.


Rolfing speaks of the integration of the human structure in the environment and in the context of gravity. It is a somatic approach that capitalizes on the plasticity available to the human structure through the myofascial tissues; this plasticity yields a structural arrangement that, because of its adaptability, is also transformable. The process of structural reorganization coincides with the process of human transformation. These principles were congruent with what we had been exploring when I was studying Reich-Gaiarsa, but they appeared to me to represent a more organized method.


I was the first Brazilian to complete the Rolfing training, and along with that I was part of the first “institutional” relations and all their idiosyncrasies: different cultures, other parameters, etc. On the one hand, the young Rolf Institute that sheltered a pioneering viewpoint; on the other hand, for me, beginning a new kind of work in Brazil and participating in its introduction and expansion.


Upon my return to Brazil, the task was to introduce this viewpoint and make it publicly known. There were references in the press and other public media, and in the scientific community. At this point, in 1982, I prepared my master’s dissertation at the University of Sao Paulo (USP), in which I explored as theoretically as possible in “Assessment of Ida P. Rolf’s Contributions to a Postural Approach in Psychology”.


In the same period, I left PUC-SP where, after having taught techniques of psycho-diagnostics, I had directed my attention to forming the “Nucleus 28” – a special curriculum for senior psychology students, the purpose of which was to explore a body-oriented approach to psychotherapy. Thereafter, I devoted myself to clinical practice using Rolfing with my psychotherapy clients – first in a combined approach, and then gradually moving toward Rolfing exclusively.


At that moment, the general socio-political and cultural atmosphere in Brazil was one of openness to new ideas; and before long, several of my former clients followed my footsteps and trained as Rolfers. This led to the formation of a group of professionals with similar goals and problems: the introduction of a new concept of how to work with the human being; and the creation of robust institutions that could contain, organize and foster our efforts – propagating and teaching the ideas, as well as continually re-examining our own work.


In Brazil, distant from the wellspring of the founder’s first insights, as well as from the Institute that was the trustee of her legacy and institutional foundation of the work (the Rolf Institute Structural Integration, or RISI, in the United States), we needed to maintain a connection to the RISI and, at the same time, to develop the thinking and approach to Rolf’s theories within our particular cultural circumstances.


With that in mind, we undertook an enormous project together, inviting foreign instructors to give workshops here in Brazil, attending to our own professional evolution, and working toward becoming a “proto-institution” to shepherd Rolfing candidates through their processes and select those who would study outside Brazil. And we were also promoting public awareness of the work.


In 1987, we organized the first Rolfing class in Brazil, in which I assisted RISI faculty member Stacey Mills. Then, in 1988, we founded the Associaçao Brasileira do Rolfing (ABR) as a non-profit organization with the mission to foster public awareness of, instruction in, and research about Rolfing here in Brazil. The ABR established a formal affiliation with the RISI.


Of course, it was clear from the beginning that we had to grow our numbers and still maintain the quality of the practitioners. We had to go beyond the individual realm and into the collective realm, with all the challenges this represented. It was important to honor our own work; reflect upon it to continually refine our conception of it; and develop scientific modes of thinking and practice in respect to this new method. But for our own work to become a contribution to a larger process, our group had to maintain its position as part of the international Rolfing community.


I headed the ABR in its first years, and I still participate in its continuing development. But it was always clear to me that a process of such importance was inherently collective, and that the end result had to be inclusive – not just a manifestation of my own will or perspective. And to launch a collective effort of this magnitude, a critical mass of practitioners had to combine their strength.


With this mindset, I began my career as a faculty member of the RISI as an assistant teacher in international classes. In 1991 I first taught my own class, which the ABR had organized in Brazil; and from then on, I taught in many other countries as well. As an international instructor, I would also participate in RISI faculty meetings. The faculty as a group had goals and priorities: we were developing the educational curriculum and the structure of the school on all levels (selection of candidates; organization of evaluation systems; appointment, training and evaluation of the teaching staff). In short, we were designing the entire educational structure. The RISI centralized this process. Courses were given internationally by the RISI faculty, and faculty meetings were held at the RISI’s headquarters in Boulder, Colorado.


I was the first faculty member from Brazil. Gradually, other colleagues trained as faculty, and eventually we became a working team, the members each covering different topics of the curriculum. We put the Brazilian Education Project together, and in this context, we were the first to explore and develop certain cutting-edge teaching ideas. Some of the most important of these were (1) teaching both structural and movement work through the Principles of Rolfing® Strategy; and (2) teaching the structural and movement components of the work together. Both of these themes are elaborated in detail [in the body of my dissertation].


Throughout these past twenty-five years – from 1981 to the present – our local professional community, with its first-rate and up-to-date education, has been delivering our pioneering work to more and more people.


In 1998, a few young Rolfing professionals from Sao Paulo decided to get together and work as a group – seeing clients, studying, and exchanging information – while at the same time performing a public service by offering Rolfing at fees far below the normal going rate. Their having contacted the ABR school through me, we began a clinical case supervision program, which was the starting point for integration between the school and the recently formed Nucleo de Atendimento, PesquisaEstudo em Rolfing (NAPER). NAPER’s potential is suggested in the name, which translates into English as Center for the Delivery, Research and Study of Rolfing).


Now we had a triad: the ABR, providing institutional support and credibility in the eyes of the public, along with administrative services; the school, which offered continuing education in a real clinical context; and NAPER, which provided a public service.


In the training courses, different instructors emphasized different aspects of the work, which gave rise to a degree of content variability from one class to the next. In this respect, we saw that NAPER had the potential to become a locus of information exchange that brought coherence to the education that the students had received. In fact, this is what has happened.


Along with a more institutional focus to the delivery of the work arose the need to organi he client would have to be assigned to work with a particular practitioner; but at the same time, he was a client of NAPER. The need for clear communication in relation to the work is implicit in this clinical context.


To meet the need to organize the clinical data, we produced a data bank, the contents of which serve both NAPER and the school, and support research efforts. The project has shown itself to be very much alive as a vehicle of improved understanding, in furtherance of the evolution of the science of Rolfing.


As both the clinical process and the science of Rolfing are still in their infancy, the school curriculum does not yet include a system for recording and studying data. Thus, we are still a long way from having systematic ways to track the processes and evaluate the results of our work. Although the training courses have a common basic curriculum, each instructor may have a different way to follow the clinical processes; therefore, as a collective body, Rolfing lacks any uniform and systematic method for documenting clinical outcomes. This hinders research. It also limits our ability, within the professional community, to examine and share our experiences with the work.


So, recognizing the need for standardization in the institutional context of the clinic, and also as part of our ongoing search for an aid to our own understanding of our work, we designed the NAPER questionnaires. This was an iterative process that allowed us to continually re-evaluate and refine our thinking. And, having uniform clinical records made it possible for us, as a group, to study our processes and outcomes. Along with the compilation of the data bank to facilitate administration, education and research came a way to facilitate group reflection on what we were doing.


That we were working from a holistic perspective was a given. How could this be reflected in the questionnaires? How were we to understand our clients’ objectives? Would all of us be talking about the same thing? How would we evaluate our own work? What techniques would be suitable for which objectives? What was it that we had all been doing? A healthy orientation toward research was already in place. Every year, we have re-assessed the adequacy of the questionnaires, and revised and refined them.


As we increasingly perceived the validity, necessity and utility of the questionnaires, the project was expanded to include using them in the school. There, the questionnaires might serve to put us all on the same system; and to instill in our graduates attitudes conducive to good clinical work, scientific research and self-examination of one’s processes and outcomes. The idea was that the process would enhance the therapeutic relationship; further the development of a common language among practitioners; and yield a sound method to document and evaluate the results of our work. In 2003, the questionnaires were translated into English; and for the first time outside Brazil, I had students use them to document the processes of their classroom clients as part of their professional training, with both the pedagogical and research objectives described above. The results were interesting: a documentation system had been established and firmed up; and by using the system, the students’ evaluation and understanding of what they were doing became much more mature. Finally, the students’ use of the questionnaires also oriented them toward research. Soon other faculty members also began using the questionnaires in different countries.


The very process of questionnaire development in the context of NAPER and the schools (in Brazil and elsewhere) actually constitutes a practice-driven recursive research activity sometimes called “action research”. Those who participated in it recognized its value: the activity of reformulating and refining the objectives of the questionnaires and their technical application yielded better understanding and assessment of the results of the work, as well as improvements in the practice. Moreover, this activity allowed us to integrate instruction, clinical practice, practitioner self-assessment and research. At this stage of the scientific development of Rolfing, the creation and ongoing elaboration of the questionnaires is a research-based means for continuing the theoretical evolution of the work itself.


In the process of carrying forward the inquiry that Ida P. Rolf initiated, those of us here in Brazil expanded the scope of our activities over time. From our beginnings as a small group of pioneering practitioners, we gradually developed the ABR as both a school and a research center. It has also become an organizing container for various inter-related segments of our professional community (the cooperative clinics, the school, and individual clinical practices), through which all can participate according to the particular role of each, and by means of which the contributions of each can be fed back to the others. At this juncture, the process of questionnaire development, as described above, has proven itself to be an essential methodological link in the evolution of our science.


Rolfing is a holistic proposition, the purpose and outcome of which, theoretically, affect one’s entire being. Affecting all dimensions of the being through Rolfing depends on the practitioners’ intention and conscious observation. Unless we have a conscious and collective standard methodology to govern the practice of Rolfing, its impact can be no more than individual – dependent upon each Rolfer and a bit compartmentalized – with little space in which to advance the science as a collective product.


Twenty-five years ago, I started my search for a way to address the psychobiological dimension of being through a somatic approach. Through Rolfing, I perceived – in both the theory and the practice – something that conceptually embraced this idea, and also a somatic method designed for this practice.


Personally, as both a teacher and as a clinician, the focus of my interest has always been on Rolfing as a process of personal evolution. My vision of the person and the paradigm inherent in Dr. Rolf’s theory are congruent. My clinical work has yielded empirical evidence that this method influences the psychological dimensions.


Perhaps, through further conceptual evolution of this work along the lines I have presented here, we will eventually perceive clearly the integration of the psychobiological dimension – i.e., the subjective, or psychological, dimension – with the current somatic/biological perspective. Then, giving the psychobiological dimension adequate attention will bring greater possibilities not only to the practice of Rolfing, but also to the larger field of somatic psychology.


I believe that to really change the paradigm we work with, we need time, as well as deep personal and collective transformations – especially when the work involves new approaches that bring a contemporary psychosomatic lens through which to explore the nature and the unity of mind-body dimensions.


I propose, therefore, to advance the inquiry undertaken by Dr. Rolf and her followers with: “Exploratory Study of the Psychobiological Dimension of the Rolfing Structural Integration Method: Creation, Development and Evaluation of Questionnaires.”


Translated from the Portuguese by Heidi Massa

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