Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 37 – Nº 1

Volume: 37

Years ago, a president of the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration decided to pull together a profile of the average Rolfing practitioner, so he distributed a questionnaire that would have put the CIA to shame. It probed everything from our education, politics and diet to gender preference, lifestyle and spirituality. I waited eagerly for the results, and finally the announcement came: it was hopeless. The answers were so insanely diverse they couldn’t be collated statistically and make any sense. Evidently we were simply a band of curious eccentrics. I like to think that’s still true.

I feel extremely lucky that I got to study and hang out with Ida Rolf. She was intensely intelligent, and she exhibited a rare but important balance of rational thought and intuitive insight. I had never before encountered a person so strongly grounded in science, who was also able to balance rationalism with the slippery domain of intuition, that mysterious world of spontaneous but ungovernable knowledge. More than once, in fact, she firmly pointed out that I needed to relax my tight grip on logic and let in other, less conventional information. Over the years, I’ve had good reason to remember and appreciate her advice.

My first client in private practice was a roofer with back pain and a terrible limp. Joe loved to fight. Ten years earlier, he had been knocked through a plate glass window, part of which fell like a guillotine blade and just about took his right lower leg off at the knee. The local hospital was able to rejoin muscles and tendons, but not the nerves. The limb I saw was gray, badly atrophied and cool to the touch; there was no movement or feeling. The conventional view was that since the nerves had been severed, it would not improve, ever. Knowing that, how could we possibly reestablish balanced support for his back? And what sort of bad cosmic joke or curse was this, anyway? They never covered this in class. But I worked as I was taught, and followed my hunches to fill in the gaps.

When he got up and walked at the end of his second hour, Joe seemed shaken. As coolly as I could manage, I asked what was up. “This is the first time in ten years I’ve felt carpet—or anything—under my right foot!” he said, and his eyes were big. I did my best to appear casually confident, but may have muttered, “Well, I’ll be damned!”

By the end of his tenth hour, Joe’s right lower leg was pink, warm and nearly the size of its mate. Even more impressive, movement and sensation were gradually returning throughout his leg, ankle and foot. He was one happy roofer, and I was one happy, if dumbfounded Rolfer. Over the decades I was in Dallas, Joe came through town for sessions a few times, and each time, the leg was more normal.

My physician friends couldn’t explain such improvement, but neither could they deny the empirical evidence. I began to understand that Joe was not a curse, but a gift , another reminder to let go of trying to know everything and instead observe and learn from my hands and the person under them. Ever since, I have encountered many more unexplained Rolfing “miracles,” just as I assume all my colleagues have—or will. I figure those moments of happy astonishment are what drew most of Enjoying a Work That’s Always New By Nicholas French, Ph.D., Certified Advanced Rolfer us to this work, and that they’re its highest reward.

Of course, I still can’t stop wanting to figure out how it all works. But now and then I remember Dr. Rolf saying that as hard as she worked to figure out Rolfing, it “would never have come together without the help of the Good Lord.” Was this her way of acknowledging the presence and power of what Jung called the Irrational (phenomena that are verifiable by observation or experience, but are beyond reason, incapable of being explained logically)? I submit that it was Dr. Rolf’s ability to balance the rational and irrational realms that enabled her to see and sense with uncanny holism, like Einstein and a few others. Shaped, as we all are, by the intellectual paradigm of linear atomism, she somehow was nonetheless able to include as well an awareness of the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. I believe that ability was critical to the creation of Rolfing, and is still essential to its health. However she did it, seeing her analyze a person’s structure and then help it transform was something like the old stories of seeing the lame healed and the dead raised.

Though I was educated to be reasonable (how boring), I am now also fascinated by inexplicable wonders. For example, my first year in practice was agonizingly sparse, and no matter what I did, it didn’t change. I was about to decide the gods hated me. Then, experimenting with a technique I learned at an unusual weekend seminar, I suddenly got in touch with what I think of as my unconscious resistance to having the full practice I told myself I craved. The emotions and reasons made perfect sense; they simply were diametrically opposed to my conscious goal. Yet it made perfect sense— and something suddenly shift ed. In the next moment (literally), the phone began to ring and suddenly it seemed as though everyone in Dallas wanted to get Rolfing sessions. As loony as that sounds, my schedule books and tax records will back it up. I soon went from four clients a week to thirty-two, and presently my waiting list was a year and a half long. I know there is no way to prove any rational connection between the “Aha!” and the shift , and I also know deep inside that they’re linked.

That’s why I also keep mulling over what I think of as Dr. Rolf’s koans (teaching riddles), the arresting remarks she didn’t explain, such as: “Seeing is touching at a distance,” or “Healing is the intuitive art of wooing nature,” or “Gravity is the therapist,” or “Rolfers don’t work on people; we work with people, in people.” Reflecting on them can prompt new ideas, just as meditating on the koan of Zen tradition can drive one out of one’s “normal” mind, allowing life changing flashes of insight.

For example, one of those bits of instruction originally sounded simple, even obvious: “If you really want to learn this work, keep asking yourself: how did this client get to be this way?” Now, however, I think of that as an invitation, an attempt to encourage our individual creativity and point to the path we must follow to make the work our own. My guess is that Ida Rolf knew each of us would see the structural, psychological, energetic and existential complexities of each client in very distinct, personal ways, and she knew that if we could temper our idiosyncrasies with enough discipline, we could help people as effectively as she did —or ideally, even better.

While I’ve been in practice going on thirty three years now, Rolfing is still new and exciting to me. I’m continually amazed by the degree of positive change it elicits; the “Wow!” factor is ever-present, even in the most challenging clients. I know that over the years, with all the classes and workshops I’ve taken and taught (teaching is a great way to learn), my work has changed. I like to think it’s more refined and effective, yet compared to some of the concepts I read in Structural Integration, I sometimes wonder if I’m a simple, even primitive practitioner. Sure, I’ve done my share of “first aid,” symptom-oriented work, but the most effective first intervention I know to offer is Dr. Rolf’s holistic, ten-session protocol. With that as a foundation, so much is possible.

After Dr. Rolf’s death in 1979, I took the first advanced class taught by Peter Melchior (the first person Ida appointed to teach her work) and Emmett Hutchins, both exceptional practitioners. It was the unveiling of the new advanced five-session series, but I was impressed most by the way Peter worked, and by his effectiveness. His approach looked subtle, even mysterious, but what struck me was the depth of his connection with his client. He was a strong influence for me, and before long I found myself moving away from the formal structure of the series. Its guidelines stayed in the back of my mind, but the primary focus shift ed to attuning myself to the being with whom my touch joined me, to follow and assist the changes that being was ready to make.

If “being” seems a bit imprecise, it’s probably the influence of my fascination with the human psyche. I was a psychotherapist before coming to the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration, and seven and a half years of Jungian analytic training in the 1990s only intensified my desire to understand the presence oft en referred to clumsily as “mind and body.” While my Rolfing and psychoanalytic practices are quite separate, the two approaches clearly affect how I relate to both kinds of clients. For me, the “…how did this person get to be this way?” includes the psychological and spiritual aspects as well as the somatic. There are many ways to touch another. Sometimes, in a session, I just don’t know if a wonderful change was prompted by my touch, by something the client thought of, or the music that was playing, or by something else I can’t identify.

After practicing for thirty-two years in Texas, I now live in Eugene, Oregon. As much as I love Texas (except for those long, hot summers), the death of my amazing wife Janie crashed my world, and one day I realized I needed the nourishment of natural beauty, which is abundant in Oregon. Being quite new in town, working to satisfy local requirements and develop my practices, I can definitely identify with new practitioners. It’s a real challenge. But shaking things up, letting go of attachments and starting over is also exciting. As the Zen master Bunan commented, “Die while you’re alive. And be absolutely dead. Then do as you like: it’s all good.” Retirement, to me, is a foreign concept. Rolfing is a great way to make a difference in the world, and I really enjoy it. Hell, I’d like to follow the old tradition of dying with my boots on, if it weren’t so hard on the client.

Peter Melchior once joked that perhaps some day future Rolfers would laugh at us of the 70s for actually having to work on people with our hands instead of using pure energy. “But,” he said, “if they’re fair about it, they will remember that they stand on our shoulders, just as we stand on Ida’s.”

That’s why I think that along with research and new ideas, there is enormous value in paying attention to the ideas and words of Ida Rolf, and not as a matter of slavish devotion to the past, but rather to acknowledge them as the foundation of our art and its evolving importance. The oral tradition has always been important historically. As an academic discipline, it refers to both the objects of study and the method by which they are studied. During the years I was a faculty member, it was clear that my colleagues were bright, committed people. As far as I could tell, though, none of us had attained the balance and vision of Ida Rolf. That was some years ago, but I still doubt that we’ve outgrown the need to follow her protocol, however much we like to test it or propose amendments to it. To abandon her holistic vision to focus on treating symptoms would be an appalling regression, like turning our backs on Einstein in favor of Descartes or Newton, or scrapping the Internet. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been tried.

Finally, here’s one of Ida’s most intriguing koan: “When all is said and done, Rolfing, ultimately, is for the Rolfer.” What does that mean? Knowing that she saw Rolfing as linked to the shamanic tradition, I suspect it might mean, as one Irish poet says, “Your calling in the world is to keep refining yourself until you find the secret form inside you.” Experience suggests that whatever views we hold, respecting the map Ida Rolf gave us still offers an exciting path for achieving our highest potential as practitioners and as individuals.

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