2-minute video showing what Rolfing looks like
Structural Integration (S.I.) is a system of treating the body’s entire structure, over a series of (up to) 10 sessions of 90 minutes each. You don’t have to commit to ten — many people just try the 1st session, or sessions #1-3. This “recipe” for treating the entire body was first developed almost 70 years ago by a biochemist named Ida Rolf, and has been refined continually by subsequent practitioners and researchers. Rather than making it up on a case-by-case basis, like with many kinds of massage where I’m treating one particular symptom (e.g. “my shoulders hurt today”), what the client receives is a time-tested scientific approach following prescribed choreography and specific long-term goals.
While no RMT can guarantee any results, in my experience almost all clients experience lasting, positive change within 3 sessions. Why 3? Three reasons. Firstly and most simply, it can take more than one visit before I understand what style of bodywork feels best for you, and before you can know the range of what I have to offer. Session #1 is “meet-and-greet” for the therapeutic relationship, and sometimes a bit of trial-and-error. By Session #2 you know how you felt after the 1st, and what to ask me for, and can more readily relax into receiving the process. By #3 we’re old friends and will have begun to establish a routine. Secondly, 3 sessions allows me to approach your body in a graduated multi-level fashion, often starting with indirect myofascial, then diving into deep-tissue massage, and finally arriving at the depth of Rolf’s direct myofascial. Thirdly, if you’ve requested the standard S.I. protocol, then 3 sessions is necessary to treat the whole body’s “superficial” fascia, following which we begin addressing the “core” layers.
See descriptions of the 10 Rolfing sessions at the following websites:
What it feels like, and what you might feel after
It is different from massage in many ways — different style of contact, different intent, different mood… Many practitioners don’t even come from a massage background, but rather physiotherapy and osteopathy.
Unlike spa massage, most of the time you’ll be lying face-up, on your side, or sitting up. You keep your underwear on, though you’ll be draped with a sheet and blanket for warmth and comfort. Because the touch must be so slow — I have to concentrate more than in massage, and the receiver needs to focus her awareness to best internalize the sensations — the sessions can be meditative and quiet.
Techniques can include manually stretching tendons and entire muscles; contracting and relaxing muscles during stretches; pinning or moving muscles during lengthening; and sliding the superficial fascia between the muscles and the skin. There are two very different styles of myofascial release, referred to as direct vs. indirect techniques; see more, below.
Movements are slow and deliberate. There is no pain — at least, not the way I do it! The key is taking it slow, warming everything up first. My sessions are “about” 90 minutes because my hands follow the needs of the body, not the dictates of the clock. As Rolf would say, “it’s not how deep you go; it’s how you go deep.”
Unlike regular massage, the rhythm can seem choppy. In relaxation massage, there’s continuous contact and a soothing flow; in S.I. the practitioner might spend 10 minutes on one part of your body and then pause, giving you a chance to breathe into the new sensations, before moving on to another part. It also includes some movement therapy; you will be standing up and walking around the room a couple times, to feel the changes in your limbs and joints, and some of the work will be done with you sitting on a stool.
One word best describes this style: intense. Nothing will hurt, but the way muscles and other layers are gently compressed and lengthened can feel “deep.” It is only uncomfortable to the extent that you are holding stress in your body. The key to avoid pain is taking it slow. I’ll check with you regularly to make sure it’s not too much pressure. It’s not the same kind of pressure used in standard deep-tissue massage or trigger-point therapy, but your body will feel more “worked-over.”
Most people feel interesting sensations after a treatment. Personally, after receiving one I’m energized and just want to move; after 90 minutes of having my muscles squeezed and slid around, my body just wants to walk, run, stretch. When I’m in bed that night, my body feels restless and alive, as my nervous system processes the new input. Sometimes people are a little tender the next day, but it’s a loose soreness, not a tight constricting one.
“One discovers by breathing that one had stopped breathing. One only discovers one’s stopped breath when one takes the next breath.” — Hélène Cixous, Hyperdream
If you’re thinking of taking a few sessions (3, 7, or all 10), I advise keeping a journal to chart your feelings and realizations before, during, and after. How does it feel to reside in your body? Where is your spirit at? What’s your emotional balance? You might find the changes to be as profound as I did; see My story: how I came to Rolfing.
“Indirect” vs. “direct” myofascial release
The term “myofascial release” has no standardized meaning, and different techniques can look and feel completely different.
The indirect release style popularized by John Barnes, similar to the later style of Walt Fritz, uses very slow pressure called “unwinding” which feels like it’s working in the tissue’s natural direction. The therapist’s hands might remain in one spot for 5 minutes or more, maintaining a sustained but often light pressure with minimal movement, and often applying pressure at a shallower angle. See for example a short video of Fritz demonstrating his “start by doing nothing” approach, in which his hands seem to barely move or apply any pressure, but which can still feel very effective or even deep. Indirect approaches are intuitive, allowing the body’s awareness to guide the touch.
By contrast, Rolf’s style of direct fascial work involves much more movement, working into the direction of greater tissue resistance, and sometimes uses a steeper angle of force. While it doesn’t hurt if applied slowly and considerately (again: “it’s not how deep you go, it’s how you go deep”), it can still feel more intense and often calls for the client to do movements too. Unlike the more communicative/interactive client-guided indirect style, with direct release it’s the practitioner who decides where things should go, and then puts them there.
Some modalities can feel like myofascial release even if the therapist doesn’t use, or even disagrees with, the term. For example, Diane Jacobs’ Dermo-Neuro Modulation (DNM) looks similar to Barnes’ style, and Michael Leahy’s Active Release Technique (ART) can be quite similar to Rolf bodywork, but neither practitioner calls their work myofascial.
Most of my work uses Rolf’s direct approach only because I personally find that it feels more effective. But many people, e.g. those with fibromyalgia or pain sensitivity or delicate skin, prefer something even slower and more gentle feeling. I can tailor my style to each person’s preference.
See a further discussion of these two terms in the article Myofascial Release (p. 156), which has this helpful summary: “Often, direct-release techniques will offer immediate change at a faster pace, so clients experience more noticeable benefits in a shorter period of time. In contrast, some people release more quickly if encouraged to follow their own patterns. If too much pressure is applied and the work is overly intense or painful, the tissue will resist and less will be accomplished.”
How my work differs from formal “Rolfing”
First, the amount of training. Certified Rolfers take an intense, multi-month program, in what is probably the most detailed and thorough massage education there is. It’s only offered at a few cities around the world, and at limited times. (I can’t wait to take this program in a few years!) While I’ve collected a number of bodywork certifications and learned Rolfing-style massage from many teachers, I’m but a newbie at true S.I.
Finally, Rolfing™ and Rolfer® are trademarked names which can refer only to graduates of one specific program — but I am allowed to use the term “Rolf Structural Integration” because “Structural Integration” is not trademarked, and names (“Rolf”) can not be registered. Similarly, I can say that my S.I. is a form of physiotherapy, because only “physiotherapist” is a protected title. This is different from the RMT laws, in which “massage therapy” and “massage therapist” are both protected titles.
Having said that, I do adhere closely to the method taught by Dr. Rolf herself. What I’ve learned is only slightly modified from her 10-session protocol, but through my teachers’ own perspectives. While the workshops led by Craig Mollins and Barry Jenings (among my other teachers) were a reflection partly of their own personal approaches, I’ve also received personal mentorship from and studied the books by Dr. Edward Maupin, one of Rolf’s very first students. In fact, Ed is the last remaining first-generation Rolfer, has been formally named Emeritus of the Rolf Institute and informally known as “Grandfather Rolfer,” and founded the International Professional School of Bodywork. He is the only one to write a Rolfing textbook and has been kind enough to host me for private study sessions at his home in San Diego — this is as close to the source of original Rolfing as I can get!
History of Rolfing
Myofascial release was first described by the founder of osteopathy, Andrew Still, in the early 1900s when it was called “fascial twist.” Physiotherapist Elizabeth Dicke later taught this technique as “Connective Tissue Massage,” which aimed to stretch the superficial fascia. The most focused study of myofascial techniques was by Dr. Ida Rolf in the mid-1900s, who applied her doctoral study of biochemistry to understand the structures of the body and learn how to help Westerners achieve the fluid grace of yoga poses. Rolf theorized that restrictions in fascia prevent muscles from functioning in concert with one another and affect movement and posture. The system she termed Structural Integration, which later become known simply as Rolfing, freed these fascial layers by manually separating and lengthening the fibers, softening the ground substance, and activating a release in the Central Nervous System. “Myofascial” was coined by physician Janet Travell in the 1940s in reference to myofascial trigger points, or muscle knots. The term “myofascial release” is credited to Rolfer Robert Ward in the 1960s and popularized by physiotherapist John Barnes in 1970s.
During these years myofascial therapy was only taught privately by osteopaths, physiotherapists, and Rolfers — who insisted on it remaining an oral tradition, only taught in person. It wasn’t until the 200ss that these theories were introduced to the public via books and videos, first by Art Riggs (Deep Tissue Massage, 2002), Michael Stanborough (Direct Release Myofascial Technique, 2004), and Edward Maupin (Dynamic Relation to Gravity, 2005), with an earlier theoretical overview by Tom Myers (Anatomy Trains, 2001). The field is now emerging as an independent field of inquiry — the world’s first International Fascia Research Conference was only held in 2007. S.I. is now taught in Canada by a small handful of second- and third-generation Rolfers (of whom my preferred style is Craig Mollins’ “MIPA” work). Sadly, there aren’t any Rolfers in Niagara Falls or St. Catharines, the closest being Toronto and Buffalo.
Structural Integration is easily the most scientifically-methodical form of massage. It was developed by a researcher with a PhD, with conceptual input from a nuclear physicist with a PhD (Moshe Feldenkrais), and refined over many decades by later practitioners. The end result of this extensive research was a 10-session “protocol” carefully designed to be the most effective means of restoring balance and lightness to the body.
About Myofascial Integration Posture Alignment (MIPA)
My first formal certification in Structural Integration comes by way of a method called “Myofascial Integration — Posture Alignment” (see background, below) by Craig Mollins. Myofascial just means, your body’s muscles and the things that hold them in place. MIPA integrates these structures to align your posture, which helps free you from the various pulls of gravity that affect you as you move and work throughout your day. While I’ve taken mentorship sessions with Dr. Ed Maupin, the last remaining practitioner from Rolf’s original cohort and the author of its only textbook, my style is still closer to Craig’s than Ed’s.
S.I. bodywork is a uniquely effective way of healing chronic pain, or bringing you a more natural posture, or just making your body feel taller, lighter, and looser. The touch is done very slow, without oil, and at a deep-but-comfortable pressure, to gently lengthen areas of tightness. This can give you a significant sense of “release,” both in your physical body and in your emotional/mental state of relaxation.
Background of MIPA
Craig Mollins’ MIPA is a descendant of the S.I. founded by Rolf many decades ago, which has been refined over the years. As our understanding of fascial science evolves and our experimental tools improve, each new generation of Rolfers has built upon her insights with contemporary research — creating what I think is the single most effective form of bodywork. Rolf was unique in many ways: she was the first manual therapist to really treat the body as a single holistic system, she applied scientific methodology to create a logically-ordered “recipe” to treat that system, and she refined a form of manual contact which most effectively lengthens and re-educates the body’s soft-tissue structures.
RMT students are often taught to treat symptoms. If you find a trigger point, press on it until it goes away – problem solved! A more holistic approach sees local problems as but indicators of another issue, one which might not even be discernible in orthopedic assessment. Symptoms merely point to something larger. After working the body as a unified organism, treating the entire structure, local issues usually go away on their own. Nothing makes one feel looser and lighter, in body and spirit, than a series of Rolfing-style treatments.
Craig has modified and refined this approach over his own 3 decades of practice and through his unique perspective: Buddhist mindfulness. Fascial work requires quiet intuition. The therapist calms her mind and opens her heart. She meditates on, “what does it feel like to inhabit this other’s body?” When we focus our awareness, when we disengage the brain and engage the senses, we can tune in to a client in a way that we can’t when we’re thinking, diagnosing, assessing.
Fellow RMTs, take a class from Craig when you can. His teaching methods are excellent: he keeps everyone focused, the class environment attentive, and idle chat to a minimum. His explanations are precise, the demonstrations clear, and his hand-out manuals are thorough. Most important, he participates and engages with all students during sessions, attentive to how they are practicing and quick to offer helpful feedback. While all instructors should do this, surprisingly few really do. No time is wasted in his courses, and at the end of the day you know you’ve learned as much as you can.
Clients comment on how “present” I seem and how effective it then feels. This is a credit both to the Rolfing style of bodywork, but also to Craig: cultivating awareness and empathy in his students is one of his most valuable contributions. See Craig’s mipawork.com, or read more about my own philosophy of treating fascia.