Consider your body. Good. Now consider it without bones or organs. Whoa! You're just a pile of skin, muscle, tendon, and ligament. Welcome to the world of the Rolfer. Rolfing, also known as Structural Integration, deals with your body's fascia, the connective tissue that holds your bones and organs in place.
Rolfing is named for its pioneer, Dr. Ida Rolf, who received her PhD in biochemistry from Columbia University in 1920 and dedicated her career to the pursuit of alternative forms of healing including homeopathy, osteopathy, chiropractics, and yoga. The principles central to each of those fields instilled in Rolf the belief that proper alignment, physiological function, and anatomical structure are all related and are the basis of many forms of healing. She then posed a question: "What conditions must be met in order for the human body structure to be organized and integrated in gravity so that the whole person can function in the most optimal and economical way?" and developed a system of soft-tissue manipulation that sought to answer the question by organizing the whole body by its interaction with gravity. She promoted and developed her system until her death in 1979. Since then, the Rolf Institute of Stuctural Integration has carried on her legacy by continuing research and certifying Rolfers.
So what's in it for you? "Rolfing encourages proper postural alignments to help athletes move more freely and it corrects the misalignments that can lead to chronic back or neck pain," says certified New York area Rolfer Eric Steibl. Proper alignment can improve everything from your balance to your breathing. This means better runs as a result of a more streamlined gait and an enhanced aerobic system or more effective weight workouts, thanks to a more structurally sound platform for your muscles. And should that structure break down with an injury, restoring your alignment to its proper state can result in faster healing.
Rolfing begins with ten sessions that seek to put the body in alignment. "Think of the body like a series of building blocks," says Steibl of New York City. "Each of the first 10 sessions builds on the one before it. It's sort of like stacking building blocks and making sure they're all aligned on the way up." The steps can be defined into three sets:
The first three sessions, called the "sleeve sessions," are dedicated to loosening and balancing the layers of connective tissue on our surface. The three sleeve sessions consist of one "breath session" dedicated to the relationship between the ribs and pelvis and also to the interaction between the connective tissue in the upper legs and hamstrings up through the head, neck, and spine. The second session focuses on balancing the feet and the muscles of the lower leg. The third session addresses the body from the side view and attempts to organize its parts along a theoretical lateral line from the earlobe to the bump of bone on the outside of our ankles.
The next four sessions are called the "core sessions." For Rolfers, the core refers to the area inside the skeleton that extends from the base of the pelvis up through the rib cage, underside of the jaw, and into the top of our cranium. Core sessions seek to align this space. The first core session focuses on the inner leg, more specifically the theoretical line of connective tissue that runs from the inner arch of the foot to the pelvic floor. The next session emphasizes the balance of the deep and surface abdominal muscles. The final two core sessions, the sixth and seventh overall, address the surface and deep structures of the hips and spine and then work upwards from there.
The final three sessions, called the "integrative hours," tie the previous sessions together and educate clients on how to maintain their integration going forward, reviewing small movements in major joints and educating them on ideal sitting and standing positions. After the first ten sessions, Rolfers and their clients work to address specific needs.
OK, but what exactly does balancing the deep and surface muscles of the abdominal muscles entail? Steibl advises prospective clients to expect to be active participants in the process: "Some people expect a feel-good massage and don't anticipate being actively involved, but you're moving around 30 percent of the time," he says. "It's not a soothing process." Generally, Steibl will hold a client's body in a certain position and ask the client to push back. In some cases, this can involve mild discomfort, and that's given Rolfing a bad rap, according to Steibl. "It had a reputation twenty years ago as being painful, but since then we've discovered that we don't need to hurt people to help them. It's not as painful or invasive as it's made out to be."
Steibl has worked with clients from a variety of athletic backgrounds—dancers, bodybuilders, even an Olympic skater—and those who lead sedentary lives, too. People who benefit from Rolfing often feel lighter on their feet, able to expand their chest farther when breathing, and more balanced on their legs.
You can find a Rolfer near you at Rolf.org. If you're interesting in becoming a certified Rolfer, the Rolfing Institute of Structural Integration offers a Rolfing Certificate Program at Rolfing Centers around the world (the original American center is located in Boulder, Colorado). Certification courses generally take two years; tuition costs are between $14,650 and $16,665. Learn more at The Rolf Institute.
Topher Bordeau is a correspondent for the Rowing News and has written for Men's Edge, N'East, and other magazines. He also makes his living as a collegiate rowing coach and currently works at Dartmouth College.
Photos courtesy of The Rolf Institute of Structural Integration.