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Rolfing: Transformative Method of Structural Integration

by Jean-Pierre el-Rif(more info)

listed in bodywork, originally published in issue 117 - November 2005

Introduction: What is Rolfing®?

Originally named Postural Integration, and then Structural Integration (which is still part of its official name), Rolfing is a type of body therapy developed over a 50 year period by Biochemist Dr Ida P Rolf. It is a unique, systematic method of bodywork that releases blocked or congested areas in the body, bringing the human form into more graceful and harmonious relationship within itself and with gravity.

Rolfing is a comprehensive system of hands-on, connective tissue manipulation, which skilfully releases both deep and superficial stress patterns in the human organism, freeing its segments from a lifetime of accumulated tensions stored in the connective tissue, joints and visceral area. This results in both restoring the body to good posture as well as conferring numerous positive effects to the person's overall physical and emotional well-being. Some of the most commonly reported benefits are relief from or resolution of neck, back, wrist, shoulder and knee pain, improvements in digestion and circulation, more energy and much greater ease and comfort in the body, improved posture, improved athletic performance, emotional integration, relief of mental stress and a remarkable sense of peace.

An Overview of the Process

The Basic Series of Rolfing is a holistic approach comprised of a course of ten interlinked sessions. Each session (or level) has a specific theme and each addressing specific sets of muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints, as well as the fascia that permeate and enwrap the muscles. It is a thorough 'working through' of the body that results in integration of the system as a whole. In the first session, a thorough history is taken and a postural and movement evaluation is done, which includes a set of photographs to visually track the progress, and for reference, when planning the particulars of forthcoming sessions. Let's look at the first two sessions of the Rolfing Series as examples.

The bodywork in Session One has a meta-theme which is freeing the breathing pattern, addressing primarily muscles, fascia and ligaments associated with inspiration and exhalation. It also begins to remove the outer layers of physical compression and compensation that will make it easier, in subsequent sessions, to reach the areas deeper in the system. This is the foundation of all later work, be it on the back or the knees, arms or the neck: once the outer fascia starts to release and the breath becomes easier, the more fundamental structural issues can be treated with greater ease.

More in the Approach than in the Techniques

The theme of a session is a general context for the treatment, but there are many particulars and specific areas that are worked on, and the length of time spent on a particular area in one person will be different from that spent on another. So while there is a 'Rolfing recipe', so to speak, for each of the basic sessions and specific areas of the body covered, as each person's somatic pattern is unique and, therefore, this recipe is adapted to the individual's requirements while, at the same time, still meeting the structural goals of that session in the treatment series.

A Symptom here often has its Source over there

Session Two's general theme is Support and though anatomically it focuses largely on the components of the lower leg and foot, its intention is not simply to 'work through' the foot and leg, but to also see how the pelvis and knees and the rest of the body above are being affected by foot and ankle. So the Rolfer has an eye on the overall arrangement of the body before him (or her) and works in this session on the ankles and feet and lower legs to free those areas but also, and necessarily, with a mind to align what is above.

This is one of the hallmarks of Rolfing: to release and free local restriction in the connective tissue network with an eye to bringing the entire form into alignment and balance in the ubiquitous influence of gravity. A Rolfer will often have a kind of question in mind when looking at a client-something like: "how might the spine move more freely if the visceral space were better organized"? In cases of treating those who have tried with limited satisfaction traditional medical approaches or Chiropractic treatments to resolving neck, shoulder, back (or whatever) pain with limited success: 'where else can this patient's neck troubles be coming from if not resolved by treatment exclusively in the neck'. Quite often it is discovered that a restriction in one area is causing the symptom or issue in another area. This kind of inquiry is always integral to the approach taken in Rolfing.

Deep tissue work is very often a major component of a Rolfing session. This is not to say that this is all it is. The Rolfer and client also work together to explore new ways of movement and stretching that will help maintain the newfound freedom gained in the sessions.

Does Rolfing Hurt?

Rolfing has sometimes had a reputation for being painful. This is not necessarily true. While it is true that there may be moments of passing discomfort, the work can also be quite gentle and pleasant. In the early days of this treatment it was often painful because some of the work is very deep tissue, and techniques were not very refined then. Now the skilled practitioner is able to work deeply where necessary with a minimum of discomfort, keeping a very close rapport with the client so that they always stay well within acceptable limits.

How the Body keeps Score

People come to Rolfing for a variety of reasons, some to deal with physical pain or discomfort, while many come seeking to improve their posture or to correct imbalances. Others wish for a general yet thorough 'tune-up', a kind of MOT for the body, and some come to enhance their ability in sport or their flexibility in yoga practice. In addition to the resolution of physical pain and discomforts, many people also find that Rolfing treatments open areas of blocked feeling, freeing them from old stored emotions, which they no longer need to carry around. Since one of the main aims of Rolfing is to address itself to alignment of the body and its segments, it would be useful to look into how and why the body gets out of alignment in the first place.

The most obvious way is through physical injury, including overuse of, or repetitive strain to, an area: something happens to the body and it is left with an impression or injury that doesn't get fully released. This unresolved impression in the system is a contraction of the connective tissue, a kind of 'pull' inside the neuro-muscular system. Because we exist with and in gravity, that contracted injured area pulls the biological form out of alignment in many subtle and less than subtle ways. This local misalignment must be compensated for elsewhere in the body for the sake of overall alignment, balance and function. The body, being acted upon by gravitational pull, is constrained to make sacrifices, causing or accepting other compensatory misalignments in order to achieve overall balance of the body as a whole. Therefore, as a rule: 'wherever there is a misalignment, there will be at least one primary compensation elsewhere in the body'. (Usually attended by several minor secondary and tertiary compensations.)

Rolfing addresses itself to removing the compensations as well as treating the areas of original impact, because without attending to the compensations, the actual problem can often not be properly reached or resolved. This is the case psychologically as well: the very compensations we must make in response to injury themselves become fixed. Without resolution they will remain—often when the original cause has long vanished.

However, direct physical injury is the most obvious cause of misalignment. There are other indirect, cumulative, causes of pain and discomfort such as those resulting from repetitive strain injuries or as the result of long-term poor posture. Rolfers very often find that the problem in one area of the body actually has its source in another area that is out of alignment, an area where there may not be any immediate sense of restriction or discomfort; pain in one place results from unnoticed contraction somewhere else.

Emotions Shape our Bodies

Another cause, common to all of us, for alignment becoming compromised is through some kind of emotional incident or long remaining emotion that leaves its impression on (in!) us. This can be anything from the loss of a loved one, to other kinds of long-term feelings that have a residual effect on and get stored in the somatic system. This impression is not just psychological, but leaves its signature on our physical selves. A simple way to put this idea across is 'the body keeps score'.

"Ever since people's responses to overwhelming experiences have been systematically explored, researchers have noted that a trauma is stored in somatic memory and expressed as changes in the biological stress response. Intense emotions at the time of the trauma initiate the long-term conditional responses to reminders of the event".[1]

Freeing up Energy

Emotional upset of one kind or another often results in body armouring (or 'bracing'), a relatively long-lasting kind of unconscious contraction, somewhere in the body, the release of which leaves a person clearer, happier and more aware and more alive. Also, periods of unreleased stress cause muscle groups to tighten and shorten, and then hold in that pattern even after the original stressor is gone. Rolfing acts to lengthen the shortened fascia, muscles and other connective tissue such that the client's bones, ligaments, cartilage, organs and other structures are mobilized and can come into proper vertical alignment again in gravity.

This liberation of contracted connective tissue frees up energy that the nervous and motor systems were previously constrained to use to support and cope with the body's compressions, contractions and compensations. This in turn results in the experience of more energy, clarity and freedom on both a psychological and physical level.

"It was the achievement of Wilhelm Reich to bring the body into psychotherapy-in other words, to make clinicians aware that when feelings and emotions are blocked and repressed, the process of implementation is physical: Breathing is restricted and muscles are contracted. When this happens repeatedly the blocks become part of the body structure – 'the body armour'. What began as the psychological becomes somaticized. When body therapists work to release the breathing and open areas of tight muscular contraction, the person feels more and is more aware. Body work can liberate blocked consciousness. This is true of all the schools of bodywork that have gone beyond Reich to a more advanced understanding of the interactions between psyche and soma. Freeing the body contributes to freeing the mind".[2]

Reciprocity: Mind affects Body and Body affects Mind

Rolfing can be an excellent adjunct to psychotherapy. While it is true that many of the discomforts and ailments we accrue have their beginnings in the realm of the psyche, skillfully acting upon the physical self can very often provide the freedom and relief necessary to becoming receptive to insight and to accelerating the emotional healing process. Intelligent bodywork of any kind can open up psychological and ontological 'windows' through which we can experience life afresh, finding a new ground of being, both physically and otherwise. Many people report that by the liberation of energies that were previously bound up in the contractions of the tissues, their minds are much clearer and calmer, and their peripheral awareness has opened up. The activity of life seems to slow down while one's sense of presence in the world is augmented.

Unlike a majority of available treatments, which seek primarily to alleviate symptoms, Rolfing seeks to identify and address underlying causes. It is not designed to be a 'quick fix', and while rapid results do often happen, the aim of Rolfing is not to chase after symptoms, but to uncover layers of compensation and reach to release deeper core structures. By working with core structures where many symptoms have their ultimate beginnings, the body can re-integrate and align, giving deeper and more permanent relief from the symptoms of posture-related pain and providing among a host of others, the lasting benefits of improved breathing, circulation and mechanical efficiency. The series focuses on long-term benefits through the creation, increase and restoration of harmony through the skilled release and lengthening of connective tissue. More specifically, the Rolfer works on the connective tissue to loosen selected segments so that the structure aligns and allows for free-flow of life-force (in the form of circulation and nerve impulses) and the proper flow of gravity.

Our ever-present Companion

It may seem odd to put such an emphasis on gravity, but it is a force that though invisible, is a major determinant of how a body develops and how it either degrades, or is maintained, over a lifetime. All of us exist in gravity. From the moment of conception, this invisible yet ever-present companion is always acting upon us, for good or for ill. Our nervous system and posture, even as we sleep, are always referring to and orienting in some way with regard to the field of gravity. We live and move in it not only as persons or souls but also as physical beings with moving parts, operating according to the laws of (bio) mechanics.

Just as it makes sense after a period of time to have an automobile's wheels aligned and engine thoroughly 'tuned up;' one of Rolfing's tenets is that your body is going to be with you longer than your car, so it makes sense to tend to one's biological vehicle. Unlike a car, it can't (as of yet, anyway) be traded in for a newer model.



Overview of the Basic Ten Series of Rolfing Session by Session Descriptions

Session One. To Free the breathing: to evoke a more balanced and efficient breathing pattern by working around the torso, ribs, shoulders, neck and head. Begin the process of mobilizing and horizontalizing the pelvis by working around the hip joint and legs. Start working with the clients specific structural issues or problems. This continues throughout the series.

Session Two. Work with feet, lower legs and knees to create a more stable base of support for the upper body. Straighten or enhance the spinal curves, as appropriate, by working in the lower, middle and upper back, and in the neck and head.

Session Three. Enhance front/back balance and continue working with the clients breathing pattern through work from the side surfaces of the legs, arms, torso, neck and head. Lengthen or release the back of the spine.

Session Four. Begin working to establish a core of support in the legs, from the inner arches of the feet up the inside surfaces of the legs. Lengthen and ease the spinal curves.

Session Five. Lengthen and soften the outer abdominal wall. Work in the tissues that line the front of the torso and pelvis to create a more balanced relationship between inner and outer structures. Connect legs to spine through the iliopsoas muscle.

Session Six. Free the back of the legs and pelvis. Establish more freedom of movement and resilience in the whole spine through work around the back of the pelvis, back, neck and head.

Session Seven. Continue work with the upper back, shoulders and neck. Work with neck, cranium and facial structures. Balance the rhythms of cranial movement.

Session Eight. Work with pelvic girdle and limbs to create better lower body integration and support for the upper body. Additional attention to individual problems.

Session Nine. Work with the shoulder girdle and limbs to create better upper body integration and a more balanced relationship to the lower body. Additional attention to individual problems.

Session Ten. Establish horizontal planes of support and movement from the feet up to the head. Additional attention to individual problems.

Other Possibilities

An Intermediate or Advanced Series

If you’ve already had the basic ten sessions of Rolfing, but feel like you need more work, you may choose to do a set of 3-5 sessions of ‘post-ten’ work. This can be a nice way to get back in touch with the freedom and new movement patterns you discovered in the earlier work.

Visceral Manipulation.

This is a MUCH GENTLER approach. I will do visceral work when someone has had major surgeries, injuries or infections, which can create adhesions that impair proper mobility and motility of the organs. Because the body tends to compensate and protect an organ in trouble, serious structural issues are often resolved by freeing the viscera.


Case Studies: A General Context for Understanding the Results

It should be noted that in each case, the overall result in the photographs was brought about by both going through the standard process of the Basic Rolfing Series and the tailoring of specific work with regard to the particular client. Every human body pattern is individual and unique and each requires variations in the particulars of each session. The ideal is to attend to the particular pattern the client presents while at the same time fulfilling the traditional Rolfing goals of each session's level of integration. Only doing specific 'spot-work' will not do it, and neither will simply following a checklist for each session.

In some, but not all cases, the processing of residual emotional material contributes significantly and undeniably to the end results. Usually these results are both seen visually as well as sensed as increased wellbeing. Rolfers' primary function is to do body work. If something is there that is coming up for resolution, and the client is willing, it is addressed through the work; Rolfers do not seek to actively uncover emotional issues. What is ready to be addressed is addressed. This is a natural unfolding.

Case Study One: Client A

In this body, key areas brought into alignment were the head, neck, cervical spine in relation to torso. Also necessary to integration was the easing of the pronounced kyphosis and attendant lordosis (the 's' curve of upper and lower back). This was contributed to especially by work in the visceral space and addressing core structures once they became available in the later sessions. In this instance it was particularly the ventral structures that were exerting influence on the spine and surrounding tissues. This release also changed his centre of gravity so that a more upright posture could emerge.

Case Study Two: Client B

Here what seems most obvious is the change in shoulders and neck, but what allowed the shoulder girdle to settle and integrate with the torso was a combination of upper and lower bodywork. In the lower body, the focus was predominately on freeing tissue around the hip joint and abductors as well as the upper rim of the pelvis (illiacus). In the upper body particular attention was paid to freeing structures in the front of the neck (e.g. sternocleidomastoid) and the shoulder joints, as well as releasing pectoralis minor and major. Also invaluable was work to lengthen teres major and latissimus dorsi.


1. Van der Kolk B. Harvard Rev Psychiatry. 1(5): 253-65. Jan-Feb1994.
2. Branden N). The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. pg 83. 1994.


To qualify as a Rolfer requires a university degree or equivalent, experience in massage or physiotherapy, advanced study of Anatomy and Physiology and from one to two years study at one of the Rolf Institutes located in Munich (Germany), Colorado (USA), Brazil or Australia. There is also a requirement of a 30-page dissertation, entrance examinations and a rigorous selection process for admission to the programme.


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About Jean-Pierre el-Rif

Jean-Pierre el-Rif is a Certified Rolfer trained at the European Rolf Institute in Munich Germany. He holds a university degree in Classics (Latin) with a minor in Biology. Fascinated with form, balance and movement, he also has spent time as a glass artist doing glassblowing and sculpture. He is currently practising in Richmond (South West London) as well as in Central London. For more information on Rolfing you can visit or call Jean-Pierre on Tel: 020-8948 5159.


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