What is Hellerwork Structural Integration… What’s in a Theme?

Pages: 133-138
Year: 2009
IASI - International Association for Structural Integration

IASI Yearbook 2009

Volume: 2009

The ongoing legacy of Structural Integration

Having practiced SI since 1978, I have had the opportunity and privilege of facilitating thousands of people through the series of SI sessions, and of studying with many of the great SI teachers.

As one of the very first practitioners who were trained by Joseph Heller, founder of Hellerwork Structural Integration (SI), I have never felt that our school of SI has actually come to the SI community and explained what Hellerwork really is. In an effort to instill clarity and dispel rumors and misunderstandings, I would like to share Hellerwork with you.

The various schools of Structural Integration

The field of Structural Integration began with the genius of Dr. Ida P. Rolf, whose students have both maintained and evolved the essence of her work, as was her expressed desire in her later years. Through that evolutionary process, several SI schools came into being, including the school she founded?the Rolf Institute?and others created by her students and followers, such as the Guild for Structural Integration, Hellerwork Structural Integration, Aston Patterning, Soma, IPSB, and KMI, to name a few.

The Ten-Session “Recipe”

All of these schools differ to some degree in perspective and technique, but all are based on Dr. Rolf?s revolutionary understanding of the human being and their body. Most schools have maintained the basic and fundamental methodology? “the recipe,” as we like to say in our profession. These schools make excellent training available, and continue the lineage of Ida Rolf?s concepts of SI.

It is important to begin with some understanding of Rolf?s formulating insights and influences.

Rolf?s eclectic influences

Rolf was surrounded by a wide array of fascinating and creative people, ranging from noted psychologists of the day to physicians, mystics and hippies. Although she was described as a deeply spiritual person, she always presented the work in a straightforward way, teaching the science while acknowledging the human factors. Even when Rolf was approached about energy, mysticism, and psychology, she would always come back to the fact that we are slow moving, three-dimensional objects living in the field of gravity. Rolf had a profound understanding about the way human bodies deviate from their design. She said, “There is a pattern that the body knows. When the body and the pattern are made to coincide, the body understands this” (according to Dorothy Nolte). That understanding guided Rolf to develop a way of helping the body get back to its optimal pattern of structure and function.

There were many talented and highly intelligent students who studied with Ida Rolf in the early years; Joseph Heller was one of them.

Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller, a Cal Tech graduate and former NASA aerospace engineer who was also deeply interested in the body/mind realm, left his career in the early 1970?s to train with Rolf. In addition to combining Movement Integration directly into the SI sessions, Joseph was also influenced by his exposure to consciousness work, and its effects on the body, which he brought in as an additional component of his evolving approach to SI. That aspect of what became Hellerwork included influences from Brough Joy, MD and Carolyn Conger, PhD ? teachers of energy and consciousness work ? and from Hal Stone, MD and Sidra Stone?s Voice Dialogue method, an offshoot of Gestalt therapy.

It is important to understand the times in which Rolf?s work grew in popularity. Rolfing was birthed a little earlier, but it was really launched in the throes of the human potential movement of the 1970?s. This was a time of encounter groups, tough love, the sexual revolution, bioenergetics, the Esalen Institute, Werner Erhard?s EST, and many other branches of the human potential tree. Joseph studied and worked on himself using many of these methods. Instead of being confined to one modality his field of vision extended across many. His understanding of how all of the parts of us come together was progressive, and his commitment to assisting people to become who they really are was, and is, the driving force behind his work.

Coming home to your body

Heller’s early understanding was that SI was more effective and life changing when combined with movement education and personal processing work ? that this unified approach allowed people to experience SI processes more completely. His vision of combining what he learned from Rolf with those other elements has empowered thousands of people by bringing his broadened vision and version of SI into their daily lives. “Coming home to your body” is a principle that Joseph teaches with great passion.

Bodywork, Movement Integration, and Self-Awareness Dialogue

The three major components of Hellerwork SI are Bodywork, Movement Integration, and Self Awareness Dialogue. In my own journey to better understand and practice SI, I had the pleasure of studying with Dorothy Nolte, and both Peter Melchoir and Emmett Hutchins, two of Rolf?s appointed teachers of the work. I pursued this study to improve my skills and also to find out what Heller did and didn?t teach us. I had heard Heller?s statement that he taught us everything that he learned from Ida, and that with only a few small deviations; the series and the recipe were virtually unchanged (as far as the bodywork was concerned). Although my studies with Dorothy, Peter and Emmett were some of the most impressive and valuable studies of my career, I am happy to report that Heller?s statement was absolutely correct. Because the Bodywork of Heller is so similar to the other schools of SI, I will focus on the Movement and Dialogue aspects that are Heller’s additions to the work.

A History of Heller’s Movement Integration

The Movement Integration work to which I refer is educational in nature, and takes place both on and off the table. Rolf recognized the influence that our patterns of movement have on our bodies and that without changing the movement patterns, the work was not as lasting or integrated.

Heller?s recognition that movement work is essential to the longevity of SI results fostered the union of these two powerful modalities. To better understand the Hellerwork movement model, here is a little more history about its development.

As a Rolfer, Heller noticed that in spite of working so diligently and thoroughly with his clients, they would sometimes return months or years later with the same kind of problems or patterns which had led them to see him in the first place. This was a source of frustration for many Rolfers at that time, and apparently Dr. Rolf as well. One of Rolf?s early practitioners, nurse and noted poet Dorothy Nolte, worked with Rolf to develop methods to enhance the placement of her principles into the actions of daily living. Progress was made until Nolte had personal matters to attend and discontinued her efforts.

Around the late 1960?s Judith Aston, who had suffered a serious auto accident, sought out Rolf for treatment. Aston was a trained dancer and a former dance department head at Long Beach State University, California. As their relationship developed Rolf asked Aston to develop a movement education counterpart to follow the myofascial work of Rolfing so that clients could maintain the gains achieved through Rolfing. In order to truly understand SI, Aston trained with Ida and became a Rolfer. She worked with Rolf to create Structural Patterning, a separate series delivered to the clients of SI by Rolfers or non-Rolfers who were trained in this work. It was designed to complement SI and give clients a tool for becoming aware of their structural patterns. This gave them the ability to bring themselves into better integration and balance. Heller trained with Aston in Structural Patterning and found it to be of great benefit to his clients.

The style of the day was that a Rolfer would deliver the ten sessions, then send their client to a different person to receive the Structural Patterning work. Heller believed that the Rolfer who knew the client so intimately would be the ideal person to deliver this whole movement education idea, so when he eventually left the Institute and started teaching he not only included the movement education as part of the basic client series and practitioner training process, but declared that movement be the context for this emerging work which would eventually be called ?the Heller Method? and later Hellerwork Structural Integration.

Along with his early training with Aston, Heller was immersed in the energetic world of Bioenergetics and the work of Brough Joy, which had also been of interest to Rolf. This introduced Heller to a method of seeing the body’s movements as an energetic process. He used his understanding of energetics as a method to evaluate movement patterns as well as a method of working directly with tissue. For example, he would send the energy through his hands so that the energy moved into the client’s field and body before his hands did. This approach seemed to prepare the body for the work as well as made it less painful.

Heller was also influenced by his dear friend, Hal Stone, who was particularly active with Heller when he first opened the school. Stone, the developer of Voice Dialogue, illuminated how the dynamics of the psyche and the body meet and influence each other. Stone?s contribution of Embodied Voice Dialogue made the Hellerwork Movement model more than just a functional movement system, as it broadened the scope to include the personality (which is what Rolf believed the body to be), and the spirit.

There are many more influences on our Movement Work from Alexander Technique to Yoga principles. It is wonderful to be able to participate in the evolutionary stages of this work and be a part if it?s history. Those of us who are practitioners at this time are still its pioneers.

In Hellerwork SI we want to help the body manifest its natural alignment, openness and motion. Movement Integration helps the client focus on body use patterns in the course of daily life. The focus is on the movements of daily life?sitting, standing, walking, lifting, reaching, etc. Clients explore and identify their movement patterns, learn how to release them, and how to develop new, efficient, and graceful patterns? those that make it a pleasure to move and flow.

Self-Awareness Dialogue

Self-Awareness Dialogue involves awareness, release and integration of old and habitual emotions, beliefs, body image issues and energy patterns that have become stuck in the body and in the mind. This work also involves an inquiry into one?s general self-awareness. The SI process is aimed toward personal evolution?becoming a more evolved being in your newly evolving body. Heller found that without this type of personal work, results of the series are not as long lasting, and that with the inclusion of Self-Awareness Dialogue, SI can become personally evolutionary and revolutionary. Using a rough analogy to computers, we could say that SI bodywork changes the hardware?the body?while the movement and personal process work change the software?the mind?from which our bodies receive many of their instructions.

What’s in a Theme?

Self-Awareness Dialogue is also known by some as the Themes, Dialogue, or Personal Processing Work. It is important to understand that this element of Hellerwork SI is an exploration and not a procedure. It is a study of mindfulness and used to assist individuals in improving the interaction between their bodies, minds and personalities.

Rolf was known to make statements like, ?there is no such thing as psychology, just perverted physiology.” When asked what she thought about psychology, she was quoted as saying, ?Psychology is alright, but I prefer something I can sink my elbow into?(according to Peter Melchoir). Some of Rolf?s chief supporters were major figures in the modern psychology movement of her day, and I believe that she wanted to make it clear that we work with the body. She did believe that by working with the body there was the potential to free the psyche and the individual of past trauma.

Most practitioners of SI come to understand how the beliefs, stored emotions, held trauma, un-expressed emotions and communications, etc, can affect the body and its integration. Heller understood that while we are not in the psychology business, we still have a capacity to profoundly help our clients free themselves of the past in order to create freedom and full self expression. To successfully address these elements of the healing process, it is necessary to create a safe space for our clients do this kind of work. What Joseph Heller learned to bring into his session space was the space of unconditional love. Ida Rolf and Joseph were exposed to this context by Brough Joy in the early 1970?s.

What the Practitioner brings to the SI Office

In the case of this author, I would not have been ready to do this work without addressing my scoliosis and anger, from the safe space of unconditional love created by Joseph Heller in my work with him. I am convinced that my scoliosis would not have cleared up had Heller himself not helped me explore my relationship with my anger and fear of expressing it. It was from that exploration of my body?s response to my anger state that allowed me to heal so much of my past traumas, create an amazing life for myself, and become ready to do this work.

Rolf pointed out that we begin our life infolded and curled. Once we are born and begin to develop we unfold and evolve. There are situations, environments and traumas that cause this natural evolutionary process to halt or divert, causing incomplete development and interruption to the flow of our bodies and our lives. It is the job of the SI practitioner to release these blockages and allow the flow of gravity and energy to come through ? first in themselves, and then with their clients.

It is our personal evolution that allows us to take our place and be the best of who we are. As practitioners, we use our hands to help open and restore this flow of gravity. We use our movement facilitation skills to assist our clients in moving through life?s challenges in a graceful and expanding way?and we use the Dialogue process to help facilitate the freedom of the being within the body.(1)

“Become the change you want to see”: What the Client brings to the SI Office

The Self-Awareness Dialogue process requires that the client help create the context in which transformative change can happen. Just like the laws of inertia (an object in motion remains in motion or an object at rest remains at rest, until it is influenced by an outside force), the client must do something to affect their status quo. In order to change something that has been operating in a particular way, we need to add or subtract influences or energies that affect its status. Desire or need will work, but to change the habitual ways we live in our bodies, this desire or need must include a deliberate willingness to invest in the changes we wish and need to make Gandhi was quoted as saying, “Become the change you want to see.” That injunction includes that requirement that we put energy into that change if we are to create a shift in the energy that is already there.

Cultivating fluidity

A chronic emotional response, an activation of an old trauma, a habitual tightening, or a repetitive strain from a job or hobby?these kinds of influences can gradually degrade the benefits of SI and cause the body to return towards old patterns. Beginning to notice how we compress, distort, and tighten up in life?s most simple and complex situations?that kind of awareness is our entrée into continuously releasing those negative patterns and living with fluidity and grace. Ida Rolf was quoted as saying, “True grace cannot be purchased; it can only be obtained through the systematic removal of the barriers which prevent it.” Here she is affirming that grace is inherent, and can and must be secured through awareness and the release of prevailing old patterns. She had very specific designs to place SI in the category of an educational model, not a medical or treatment model. The more we learn about ourselves and how to release old, worn out patterns?and to replace them with new positive patterns that optimally fit our lives?the more we will evolve to our highest potentials. Knowing ourselves in all aspects of who we are including our bodies, is essential for personal evolution.

The Hellerwork Self-Awareness Dialogue process is used to help clients clear old programs, scripts and tension patterns that are no longer useful. In a relatively short period of time, our bodies will collect all of the expressions of life. Love and joy, and feelings such as this will usually not get stuck in the body, for they are generally able to be experienced fully at the time of the event, and released as complete. This idea is predicated on the postulate that when we experience something fully it disappears. There is nothing left to do with it, no energy on it, no leftovers, no emotional charge.

It is the emotions that are more difficult and often more painful to fully experience (feel) that tend to get stuck within. Our bodies contain a lifetime of stuck, unprocessed, incomplete experiences. Rolf was quoted as calling this old debris, ?one?s Garbage.? There is an energy that is created during an event or experience that is generated out of the individual?s reaction and/or from the event or experience itself. This energy will naturally produce a reaction in emotion, behavior and movement that is spontaneous and authentic. The energy of such emotion, when left unexpressed will become tomorrow?s tension and stored baggage. Releasing this old baggage is what this work is all about.

Releasing old debris can be instantaneous if there is no longer an attachment to it. If this debris is still in active status (unprocessed and in need of healing), then the process usually requires more focus. The three main components of releasing old material involve breath, sound, and movement. These are all energetic tools to move our process along, and are even more powerful when accompanied by the healing touch of the practitioner.


Making or opening up space is the first step in releasing the past. Consciously focusing the breath on any part of the body is an important skill that brings awareness to every part of the body. As the conscious breath enters an area it allows expansion, and this allows space for change and shift. This expansion is both perceived and actual. When the breath opens up an area, or the area opens and allows breath, presence occurs. It may involve using your imagination, as many people will not feel the breath expand into the target area on the first try. In the early stages clients may need to ?fake it till they make it,? in order to feel the breath targeting areas of the body. The power of pretend can be of great value here.


Sound is the second essential tool. We ask clients to use their voice in different ways such as: releasing the voice from or into an area of the body; creating involuntary sounds such as screaming, swear words, crying, laughter, moaning etc; or speaking from a part of the body. These methods allow the psyche?s messages to be heard. The body is living a story, and this story needs to be told in order for the body to free itself. Clients may be asked to release their thoughts in the form of sounds or words. The resonance of one?s voice from that speaking or sounding part of the body allows that area to clear itself.


Movement is the third essential. This can involve gross or subtle movement of an area. Sometimes the client moves themselves, other times the practitioner moves the client. The movement may also be involuntary and may look like tremors moving through the body, as the energy moves through. This movement ranges from shaking it, to allowing it to move without conscious controls. Non-linear movement is a way of letting the body break free of its ordinary, sanctioned, willed and habituated movements and directions. We are all robots in that our movement patterns are wired for continuity of function. To break free of these old forms, we encourage clients to make healing movements may be gross or subtle, fast or slow, or any combination that naturally and spontaneously occurs during the process. Breaking up the neuro-motor associations that occur with the patterns is essential for freeing- up old patterns.

Breath, sound and movement assist the body/mind to release an old pattern from which new possibilities can emerge. New messages can be added into the new spaces to create amazing healing.


Hellerwork SI is often known for its themes. The idea of “themes” came about when Heller was still a Rolfer. He found that as he worked on different parts of the body his clients would often talk about the same kind of themes – themes that are a general concern for most people. After closely noticing and cataloguing these concerns for many years, Heller created session themes as a springboard for self-awareness.

As an example let’s look at session one. In this session we are working on freeing up respiration and balancing the rib cage over the pelvis. In opening up the facility for breathing we explore issues around inspiration, both literally and figuratively, and we develop a verbal dialogue with the client. Without the client’s conscious awareness of their issues around inspiration all of our good work to open up the chest will probably not last.

We might explore how this particular client allows inspiration in their life. Are they inspired about their job? If not, we ask them how they might get to a state of inspiration, or find a job that allows them to live in a state of inspiration. The Latin root of the term inspiration is “spirit.” We might suggest to the client that they could create inspiration in their life if they were connected to spirit, and ask how they might make that connection. These are the kind of things we might explore during that first session. We have a great deal of flexibility in this inquiry. Often the dialogue will simply emerge from the body as this is not about putting a message in, but about letting the old and tired messages come out and transform.

Other themes from the Hellerwork SI series are:

Session – Theme

Two – Standing on your own two feet
Three – Reaching out
Four – Control and surrender
Five – The guts
Six – Holding back
Seven – Losing your head
Eight – The feminine
Nine – The masculine
Ten – Integration
Eleven – Coming out: empowerment, completion, full self-expression

It is important to note that although Hellerwork Practitioners may use the themes as a springboard to help connect a client to their body and begin the healing of the issues that the themes draw out, it is never assumed or required that these themes be explored. The client?s needs always come first, and sometimes there is little or no dialogue. For a practitioner to dialogue successfully, he or she must be careful to avoid placing an agenda on the client, or taking the client out of the experience of being in their body and sending them into their head. This art is one that requires great sensitivity and training on the part of the practitioner.


The more masterful a Hellerwork practitioner becomes, the more inseparable are the movement work, the bodywork, and the dialogue process. Movement is energy. It is the psyche and the spirit, and it is what the body is made of. Movement seems to be the interpreter of the mind and the body?s different dialects. It speaks the language of the soul. What else is the body there for but to move itself, express ourselves through it, and feel all of life. As we learn to live in our bodies, to feel our world more intimately, more sensationally, we experience our ecstatic nature. This includes feeling all of life. As the body returns to its fully experiential nature, we become more and more able to let go of the past, to experience more of the here and now, and to be present in and to our lives. This is what our work is really all about.

I am honored to have this opportunity to write about and inform the SI community of Hellerwork which I continue to love, teach, and practice.


1.A fuller understanding of the creation of this part of the work may be established by reading Joseph Heller?s book, Bodywise, Co-written by William Henkin and published by North Atlantic Books.

Dan Bienenfeld is a Certified Hellerwork Practitioner and senior faculty member of the Hellerwork International school. He lives and practices in the Los Angeles area. Some of this article contains excerpts from his new book, “Align for Life, Journey to Structural Integration”. His website is www.journeytostructuralintegration.com.

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