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Massage Today
July, 2005, Vol. 05, Issue 07

Stay in Touch With...Rolfing®

By Harvey Smith and Ritchie Mintz

"Stay in Touch With..." is a periodic column designed to provide an overview of a particular technique or modality. If you would like to contribute to this column, please e-mail .

This installment of "Stay in Touch With..." features two articles on Rolfing®: "Experience Rolfing" by Harvey Smith and "Evolution Revolution in Olympic Performance" by Ritchie Mintz.

Experience Rolfing

What is Rolfing? While massage relieves stress, alleviates soft-tissue pain, and improves circulation, body functions and mental outlook, Rolfing is a specific type of body therapy that re-integrates and realigns the body at a very deep level. It enables conscious control of the body and conceptually allows people to regain the most efficient use of the body by working with gravity rather than against it, thereby improving mental outlook. Serious athletes interested in improving their performance in sports such as golfing and tennis often pursue Rolfing, as do people with chronic orthopedic problems caused by accidents and lifetime poor posture.

Rolfing addresses restrictions modern society imposes on us. We are taught that as we age we lose capabilities. We might actually take on the shape of what we do to earn a living. We learn to accept the pain caused by irregular postural strains on our muscle and skeletal systems. Worse yet, we restrain our breath, and we torture our digestive, nervous, immune and all other circulatory systems, which thrive on natural movement. Rolfing is an approach to remove artificial restrictions, allowing you to recognize the potential within yourself and to grow into who you want to be. Classically, Rolfing entails 10 sessions, each designed for a unique purpose.

The first session in classical Rolfing aims to prepare the body to receive more order. Functional goals are to establish rapport and relationship with the client, to normalize respiration, and begin to order "sleeve," which refers to the external, more superficial parts of our bodies. Structural goals include improving elimination processes and making room for organ expansion, but more importantly, moving the center of gravity of the body backward and into its neutral center, thereby eliminating or reducing the strains placed on the "leaning" structure.

The second Rolfing session aims to improve support from legs to spine, focus on balancing body weight over the arches of the foot, neutralizing spinal curves, and improving erector spinae function. The third session focuses on palintonicity, which is a word created by early Rolfers. Palintonicity is expansion in all directions of the body into maximum potential spatial positions. Palintonicity in the body also assists one's internal sense to expand and let go. Functional goals for the fourth session are establishing the midline - from medial side of legs to visceral core. Structural goals are to free the ischial rami and pubic region; lengthen the adductors; horizontalize the knee; and begin the balancing of inside and out - core and sleeve, intrinsics (deeper muscles) and extrinsics (more superficial muscles).

The fifth session functional goals are balancing relationship of thorax to pelvis; horizontalizing the pelvis; and creating more freedom in lumbars and breathing. The sixth session goals are to free the sacrum, horizontalize the pelvis, and free the spine. Structural goals are organization of the sacrum/coccyx through release of the rotators; release of the sacrum for spinal pumping action; and release of the pelvis from back of legs.

The seventh session goals are horizontalizing the head to go with horizontal pelvis; creating a balanced neck; creating space for highest appropriate mechanical, fascial and spanning relationship of pelvis and cranium; achieving continuity through spine; releasing cervicals for proper positioning; and releasing bones of the skull, especially the sphenoid.

The eighth session goals are to establish the highest level of structural integration possible while encouraging accommodation of the articulary system. The ninth session focuses on assisting the client to realize more order. Key objectives include permitting uninhibited patterned energy flow through the pelvis; balancing and integrating structures through the pelvis; and creating a resilient base for the thorax and shoulder girdle.

The tenth session focuses on setting the client up for "next evolution," counteracting entropy, and understanding "gravity as therapist." Goals are to integrate and balance everything, and horizontalize all hinges (including fascial plane) and dorsal hinge. A goal is to get freedom of the core from the sleeve - a client might understand this as the ability to feel the sacrum swing when the head is held in hands and palpated. Technical details aside, Rolfing makes no judgments, accepts you as you are, and can only bring more appreciation and joy into your life.

Obtainable Results. Obtainable results from Rolfing include more freedom of movement, greater sense of self, and a broader outlook for life. Rolfing can be considered a form of internal and active meditation. People may say that Rolfing hurts, but that can most often be attributed to ineffective communication between the practitioner and client. Rolfing is relaxing in a deep, heartfelt way. Your breathing becomes deeper and more natural. Even the tone of your voice may become more stable and natural with new confidence. Most people who have been Rolfed are measurably taller for an undeterminable time because posture is straightened and allowed to be in a healthier form.

Tension in bodies is similar to tension in other structures. Look at cracks in masonry walls. The blocks became at odds slightly with their footings. When the tension is so great, the wall eventually cracks. Your body resting over your feet is really no different. Our feeling of well-being is encapsulated in our body structures, too. Off-centered and cracked structures are reflected in our perceptions of who we are and how we relate to our world.

My Personal Experiences. One day I observed myself in a storefront glass reflection. I was bent over into a hideous curve, which I grew into not by a disease or accident, but by carrying the misfortunes, lost loves and failures of life on my back. Refusing to appreciate myself had molded me into a disturbingly uncomfortable shape of a man. A short time later, I overcame my doubts and suspicions and called a local Rolfer. As it turns out, I loved the experience so much, I decided to become a Rolfer myself.

There are many holistic and traditional linear therapies, but Rolfing is unique in assisting you in connecting with your true self in a very deep and profound way.

Evolution Revolution in Olympic Performance

For over a year, I have had the pleasure of Rolfing Olympic-level swimmers. They originally came to me for the usual reasons that athletes seek therapeutic bodywork - muscle soreness, flexibility, recovery following competition, etc. I chose to give those reasons a sideways glance and took the rare opportunity to literally create a new form of athletic body structure that rarely occurs in nature. It also presents alternatives to the current paradigm of athletic training.

The current paradigm of athletic training features resistance workouts on the premise that strength translates into more performance (speed, in the case of swimmers). So, these athletes spend almost as much time in the weight room as they do in the pool. This works to the extent that the paradigm is correct. But I was seeking nothing less than a complete paradigm shift.

In the current paradigm, the hip and shoulder girdles are seen to connect to the body trunk at the hip and shoulder joints. Seen this way, the hip and shoulder joints and the attaching musculature are the attach points of the legs and arms into the body trunk. Powerful muscles such as the glutei and deltoids drive the girdles to propel water backward (or whatever athletic task is being performed). Therefore, it makes perfect sense that strengthening these muscles will translate into more speed.

Unfortunately, in my world, the word "strengthen" also means shorten. This operates on every body level - locally, regionally, globally and universally. All that weight lifting tends to stick the girdles to the trunk and shorten the whole body in a way that prevents a deeper system of muscles from working properly or at all. Imagine an egg with a head, arms and legs attached to it. In the current model, this egg-athlete is swimming entirely from its shell, using an external muscle system that wraps around the body but does not work through the body. Furthermore, the legs and arms act from the attach points at the joints. In Rolfing Structural Integration jargon, we say that Eggy is "swimming from his sleeve."

Ah, but another model is possible. Rolfing is about a lot of things, but its primary mission is body alignment with gravity. One of the many ways we align bodies with gravity is to release the sleeve from the deeper underlying musculature we Rolfers call the core. In the hip girdle, these are the iliopsoas and other associated structures. In the shoulder girdle, it's the rhomboids and other associates. Here is the essence of the new paradigm athlete: By releasing the sleeve from the core, you allow the legs and arms to attach not from the hip and shoulder joints but from the spine. Let's look at each girdle.

The sleeve muscles of the hip are the glutei, quadriceps, hamstrings, abductors and adductors. Tightening and shortening these muscles actually restricts the free movement that athletes seek. Individual muscles grab onto one another and act like one big muscle. Muscles and their groups lose the specificity of recruitment required of demanding performance. All the power starts at the hip joint and the moment arm of propulsion is measured from the hip socket to the foot.

In a balanced Structurally Integrated body, the muscle attachments at the hip are released from their fixations in a way that allows the legs to attach to and swing from the lumbar spine all the way up to the respiratory diaphragm. The trick is to free and engage the iliopsoas tract to be part of the power train. Now, the movements begin at the center of the body and the legs hang from and are powered by core muscles, as well as from the sleeve. For the first time, our athlete can swim from the core. Now, the moment arm of propulsion is measured from the diaphragm to the foot - a distance approximately half again longer. This is a huge factor that cannot be overlooked.

The shoulder girdle works exactly the same way. The sleeve muscles of the shoulder are the deltoids, biceps and triceps. Weight training tightens and shortens these muscle groups into one big undifferentiated muscle that resists specific recruitment and prevents core muscles from participating in the movements. The moment arm of propulsion is measured from the shoulder socket to the hand. I strove to release the shoulder sleeve from the core structures and from each other in a way that connected the movement through to the thoracic spine and engaged the rhomboids to be part of the power train. In this model of swimming, there are not two separate arms pumping from the shoulders. Instead, both arms wrap around the back and attach to the spine like a continuous V-belt. Thus, movement runs uninterrupted from fingertip to fingertip and the movement arm of propulsion is increased by over a third. For a swimmer, this is enormous.

These descriptions are super simplistic compared to the complex realities of human movement. For example, we not only connect the girdles to the spine but also to each other. In this model, the arms and legs relate to each other like a fan system you see in some older restaurants where there are multiple ceiling fans run by one motor. The motor and the fans are connected by one long serpentine belt that integrates and relates the movement of all the components. Now expand that vision to include every structure of the body. This paradigm paints the picture of a smooth, fully integrated movement propulsion system instead of individual unrelated parts struggling with each other in their restrictions.

This new paradigm of the Structurally Integrated athlete is completely under the radar of the current athletic training model. There is not one shred of scientific evidence that anything I just wrote is true or correct. In fact, the first page into this new paradigm has yet to be written. The kind of scientific research that needs to be done bears a daunting price tag that few could afford. Until science validates these ideas, the demand for this type of therapeutic bodywork will come not from the universities or teams but from the individual athletes themselves. If they are convinced that this new evolution of body structure betters their performance, they will come for the work even if they pay for it themselves, which many do.

A caveat, if you please. Increased athletic performance itself is not the sole goal of Rolfing Structural Integration and it is hard not to feel congratulated when it happens. The real goal is to accelerate our evolution toward upright carriage. We create a sturdier, more effective human being, which aligns and works with the gravity field of the earth instead of fighting the inevitable losing battle with it. It makes sense that such a human body structure will operate better at the limits of performance.

The funny part of it all is that these competitive, hardworking athletes came to me for the benefits of a good massage - stress relief, soreness, flexibility, recovery from competition and training, etc. Interestingly, all those goals got met by directly addressing none of them. What they really got is something they didn't expect or even know existed: a whole new way of relating to their body, their sport and their expectations of what is now possible in their athletic performance.


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