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Remembering Dr Rolf

by Allan Rudolf(more info)

listed in bodywork, originally published in issue 12 - May 1996

May 1996 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr Ida P Rolf, one of the leading contributors to body therapy in the 20th century, who was born in May 1896.

Although Dr Rolf had a European demeanor about her, she was actually born in New York City. In 1920 she received her PhD in biological chemistry from Columbia University, and for the next 12 years she was a researcher at the Rockefeller Institute – no small achievement for a woman in those days. During a leave of absence, she studied mathematics and atomic physics in Zurich and also studied homoeopathic medicine in Geneva.

Much of the 1930s was devoted to seeking answers to personal and family health problems. Allopathic medicine wasn't helpful, so she explored osteopathy, chiropractic, yoga, the Alexander Technique and Korzybski's work on states of consciousness.

By the 1940s, she had intuitively developed her own work, later called Structural Integration or Rolfing, and people were coming from all over to receive her help. Over the next 30 years, she continued to refine her work. It was Dr Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, who persuaded her to begin teaching her work to others; thus eventually, the Guild for Structural Integration (later known as the Rolf Institute) was born.

Dr Rolf died in March 1979, when, as her student and disciple, I myself had the sad privilege of attending her funeral in Turnersville, New Jersey. As the anniversary of her birth, this year will see many celebrations in her honour. For me, it is a time to reflect on the contribution she has made to my life and to renew my commitment to her ideals.

In the early 1970s, I was a university lecturer. Due to chronic back problems, I started to get involved in the world of body therapy. I tried many approaches, but nothing worked until I was Rolfed; as a result, I decided to become a Rolfer. Thank God for my nagging back – through it I eventually met Dr Ida Rolf, the woman who was to influence me more than any other teacher.

I completed my Rolfing Training in 1975 and attended the 1970 Rolfers' Annual Meeting. As a new Rolfer, I felt most intimidated by Dr Rolf, but I plucked up my courage, and asked her if, despite my short tenure as a Rolfer, I might participate in the Advanced Training that she was teaching later that year. To my surprise, she not only agreed, but more or less insisted.

There were ten of us in the Advanced Training. For many of us, not only was it a sublime learning experience, but at the same time it was an advanced form of psychological torture. Dr Rolf, with no let-up, demanded more than the best from us all the time. For each of us, depending on our skills and experience, she had her criteria of what we should be doing, and these criteria always seemed to be just beyond what we felt we could do.

This Advanced Training was particularly arduous for me, because in addition to Dr Rolf's zen-like method of teaching, I was also battling with an insane work and travel schedule – for those ten weeks, I studied with Dr Rolf four days a week in Boulder, Colorado, and then flew to New York where I worked as a Rolfer the other three days. This took its toll on me, and after finishing the Training and returning to New York, I was depressed and more unsure of my abilities as a Rolfer than I had been before the Training. I had serious doubts that I was cut out to be a Rolfer. The fact that Dr Rolf picked on everyone according to their individual psychological weaknesses did not console me. I created about two weeks of this self-induced torture, and then I received a postcard from Dr Rolf. It said, "Allan, come out of the doghouse, the sun is shining". And with that card, it all turned around for me.

It suddenly became crystal clear to me that Dr Rolf's intense method of teaching, with its unrelenting pressure, was a tactic, like slice and spin, speed and angle put on a ball to bring about a certain necessary effect. At the foundation of it all, was a sincere and passionate desire to make her students tough and bring out the best in them, in the hope that they might make a difference in the world that we live in. She wanted to instill in us a sense of determination and commitment such as she herself clearly exuded.

Dr Rolf could also be very warm and gentle when she felt that it was appropriate. The question, "How can such a hard person also be so gentle?" is asked of Philip Marlowe in his last adventure. His reply: "If I wasn't hard, I wouldn't be alive. If I couldn't even be gentle, I wouldn't deserve to be alive." One can say of Dr Rolf, "If she wasn't so hard, she could never have brought Structural Integration (Rolfing) to the world and if she couldn't even be gentle . . ."

There is an old Hebrew saying: "It's a pity that we lose those who cannot be forgotten." That is the way that I feel about Dr Rolf.


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About Allan Rudolf

Allan is a Rolfer and Feldenkrais practitioner and trained with both Dr Rolf and Dr Feldenkrais. He now lives in China and is not contactable.


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