If you know someone who has experienced the cutting-edge bodywork known as, Structural Integration (AKA Rolfing), you probably noticed how their posture changed dramatically. Maybe their head that had been hanging out, way forward of the rest of their body, was now sitting on top of their shoulders, or rounded shoulders have come back, or how they looked taller and seemed to walk with a lot less effort. Of course, they would have told you how many of their old aches and pains had disappeared and how they now had greater flexibility. They would also have said how they had more support from the ground up and a feeling of effortless lift. To understand how Structural Integration bodywork can achieve such dramatic and long lasting results, it would be useful to know some things about the originator, Dr. Ida P. Rolf.
Ida Rolf graduated from Columbia University in 1920 with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and her Ph.D thesis dealt with the biochemistry of the connective tissue (fascia) of the human body. She went on to become a researcher at the Rockefeller Institute for Biological Research, and then in 1926 she took leave of her job and traveled to Zurich where she studied atomic physics and homeopathy. She also had a deep interest in yoga and metaphysics, including the esoteric work of Gurdieff.
Some of Ida Rolf’s friends and family members, including one of her sons, were suffering from muscular-skeletal problems that were not being resolved by the modalities that were available. Drawing on both her scientific background and her metaphysical understanding and a good measure of inspiration, she began to lay her hands on people in a way no one had done before and addressing an aspect of human anatomy that was rarely touched—the body’s connective tissue or fascia, Fascia is the beige or silverfish membrane you find when cutting open raw meat and it wraps around every muscle and muscle group and attaches to the surface of our bones.
Ida Rolf was probably the first researcher to realize how changeable fascia is in response to stresses and demands placed on it: these can include injuries, compensations for injuries, surgery, repetitive patterns from work or working out and survival postures we adopt as kids. Dr. Rolf referred to this quality of fascia as “plasticity”. As fascia responds to these stimuli it tends to lose water content and shorten, which forces the muscles to have a shorter resting length.
In the end, our bodies respond by becoming compressed in certain areas, as well as twisted and torqued and gravity gets a “free pass” to tear us down even further.
Fortunately for us, knowing about the “plasticity” of fascia led Ida Rolf to believe that fascia, if receiving the appropriate positive input, could be returned to its ideal state. At first she worked “experimentally” on friends and family members, applying hands-on pressure to shortened fascial sheets and asking for feedback from her “clients”. She noticed that the folks she was working on were not only “losing” their pain and discomfort but were “losing” their structural and postural distortions.
As her worked evolved, she found herself balancing the front with the back, taking out rotational patterns and most importantly, balancing the surface layers with the deep, or as she put it, “the core and sleeve” and organizing the whole body around a vertical energetic line. She was witnessing the birth of a radically new approach to the structural experience of human beings interacting with the gravitational field of mother earth.
In part two of this three part series, we will look at Ida Rolf’s early days teaching others to become Rolf practitioners and what a Structurally Integrated body has in common with a geodesic dome.
~ Robert Auerbach