Deep Impact
by Linda Knittel
from Yoga Journal July/August 2002

Seven years ago, as a yoga instructor  Sianna Sherman was practicing a blend of yoga styles, the nagging case of sciatica  she had endured since 1990 became too much to bear. Without knowing quite  what to expect, she began a 10-session Rolfing series. “After each session I  would go right home to my yoga mat and try different poses,” says Sherman, who  lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. “I was amazed to find that my body was literally unwinding.  Each session would open up so many new layers for me to explore.”

Through  her yoga practice and the three months of Rolfing work, Sherman  was able to eliminate her sciatica and keep it from returning. These days she teaches  Anusara Yoga full time to the burgeoning yoga community in Cincinnati, and  also nationwide. She also recommends Rolfing to her students whenever she gets  the opportunity. “The effect Rolfing has had on my yoga practice is so remarkable  I would make something up just to get on the table,” she says.

Rolfing  has the reputation of being the Ashtanga Yoga of bodywork – sometimes  intense, other times painful, and not for everyone. But many yogis are discovering  it can help correct the various physical imbalances that keep them from reaching  a more stable state of body and mind. It is easy to imagine how the structural  integration brought on by Rolfing might drastically effect an advanced yogi  like Sherman, but what about those whose practice is still in its your? Can  it transform their practices too? That was what I hoped to find out when I recently  signed up for several sessions with certified Rolfer Karen Lackritz of Eugene,  Oregon.

Rolfing and yoga appear to be variations on a single theme:  both working toward the physical and emotional evolution of an individual  through the lengthening and integration of the body – not a surprising parallel  considering that the technique of Rolfing has its roots firmly planted in the  principles of yoga. The simultaneous study of yoga and biochemistry was certainly  an unusual pursuit for Rolfing creator Ida P. Rolf in the 1920s, but it is what’s  thought to have given her a foot in both worlds. Early in her academic career,  in a quest to better address her own health issues, Rolf began supplementing  her science education with classes in osteopathy, homeopathy, and other progressive  modalities. She began to formulate ideas about how the body’s structural  alignment affected one’s behavior and emotional well-being. Rolf suspected that  is imbalances in the body’s composition could be corrected manually; an improvement  in mental state would naturally follow. To test her theory, Rolf began  using bodywork techniques to literally reorganize the structure of her patients’  bodies.

Over the next 30 years, Rolf worked on perfecting her technique  and formulating a means through which it could be taught. Finally in the  mid-1960s, after spending a good deal of time immersed in the alternative community  of Esalen in Big Sur, California, Rolf developed the sequence of 10 one-hour  bodywork sessions that now serve as the foundation for the conventional Rolfing  process. “[Rolf] created a technique that uses the reorganization of human  anatomy not only to better health but also to reach higher states of consciousness,”  says Lackritz, who has been practicing the technique for 18 years.

Given  that Rolfing can bring about such lofty outcomes, it seems almost ironic  that my first session with Lackritz included standing in front of a mirror  in my underwear. After filling out a questionnaire about my current and past  health, I described the various physical problems I thought might be limiting my  yoga practice. For example, I complained that stiffness in my hips had made sitting  in lotus uncomfortable, while years of running had given me tight Achilles  tendons and flat feet, making certain poses almost impossible.

After  she listened to these concerns, Lackritz and I took a long look at my reflection.  Almost at once she could see that there was a restriction plaguing the entire  right side of my body – a tightness that was causing my right arm to hang  low, my right hip to flare, and my torso to constrict. I was surprised I had never  before noticed these misalignments, because they were clearly present.

For  the most part, Rolfing is performed atop a large, flat table that can  be raised and lowered to provide the optimum position for each technique. Each  of the 10 sessions focuses on a specific area of the body. For instance, the  first session might work the rib cage while the seventh addresses the head and  neck. Each session build upon the changes make in those that preceded it, creating  complete integration and a feeling of overall balance at the end of each session.

In  my particular case, given that I was only scheduled for three  introductory session rather than the full 10, Lackritz decided to side-step  the established series and get right into addressing my specific restrictions.  As I lay back on her table, she began by working her fingers deep into the ligaments  and membranes in my torso and rib area. Her touch was gentle yet penetrating.  Lackritz spoke to me softly, telling me what she felt as she explored the  various restrictions in my body. “There it goes,” or, “That’s what it wants to  do,” she would say as areas of my body responded to her work.

I wouldn’t  describe Rolfing as “relaxing,” although I did experience a heightened sense  of calm as Lackritz moved, molded, and manipulated different areas of my body.  The work was definitely deeper and more focused than any bodywork. I had experienced  before, and the results were more immediate.

At the end of that  first session, she had succeeded in expanding my rib cage. Not only did it look  visibly lengthened, but I was also capable of holding a good deal more breath.  In addition, the time she spent working her palms and knuckles deep into my right  arm and sholder realigned my uneven arms. As I once again stood in front of  the mirror at the end of that hour, I was amazed to see that my arms hung evenly.  What’s more, when I left, I felt as though I was lighter and more expansive.

Over the course of my next two sessions, I felt that my body was  virtually transformed. In one session, Lackritz worked my inner thigh, releasing  the tightness in my pelvic floor, which she promised would make a noticeable  difference in almost all my yoga postures. At our third meeting, using leverage  and her body weight, Lackritz slowly pulled her elbow over and over again along  the muscles and fascia that line my hips. Since I found this spot particularly  tender, she had me breathe into the area, lessening the work’s intensity. After  only a few minutes, she had eliminated the restriction that had shown itself  on my first day.

As I emerged from her office that third day, I stood much  straighter, my rib cage was lifted, the fallen arches of my feet were more lifted,  and there was a definite look of symmetry to my body. And while the process  was a tad uncomfortable at times, in general Rolfing was certainly not the  intimidating and painful experience it is sometimes reputed to be.

“Over  time the method has become a good deal more gentle, thanks to the advances  in technique and a better understanding of what we generally call structural  typology,” says Michael Salveson, a prominent Berkeley, California Rolfer who also  teaches at the Boulder, Colorado-based Rolf Institute.

Adds Lackritz:  “Students learn that unlike massage, Rolfing is not about doing something  to someone. It is about listening tactilely to what is going on in the body and  then encouraging movement so that the body can regain its natural balance.”

Yoga of Rolfing

In many cases, this process of helping the body return to a state of  balance includes fixing common muscular-skeletal problems, such as lower back pain  or muscle strains. Rolfing has been successfully used to ease ailments ranging  from migraines to fibromyalgia. As impressive as these anecdotes may be, the  relief of ordinary physical problems had not been Rolf’s objective when she created  the technique. “She saw her work as a means to cultivate the evolution of  the individual,” says Salveson. “In that way, I believe Rolfing is very much  like yoga.”

“The reason so many people who practice yoga are attracted  to Rolfing is that both address the integrity of the body,” says Lackritz, who  has worked on many of her fellow yoga students as well as some of her teachers.  “In many ways Rolfing is an expression of the principles of yoga set in a form  of bodywork.”

The similarities between the two disciplines show themselves  from the beginning. Just as breath is the foundation of any yoga practice,  it is also the focal point of the traditional Rolfing series. “In the first hour  we work directly on the rib cage, manipulating the intercostals muscles and  the membranes that envelop the lungs,” says Lackritz.

The aims of subsequent  Rolfing sessions also align themselves with the goals of specific yoga  poses. For example, when Lackritz worked on releasing restrictions in my pelvic  floor, she was allowing the sitting bones to extend much like they do in Adho  Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Likewise, the third hour of Rolfing  traditionally focuses on balancing the side of the body, a process that Lackritz  likens to Trikonasana (Triangle Pose).

When my sessions ended, I  definitely felt more grounded and confident, both in my daily life and in my yoga  practice. My sister recognized this as a shift, while my boyfriend described  the change as a greater sense of calm. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but there  is now a feeling of ease to my poses and a greater rhythm to my breath. I have  noticed that my hips have opened, my balance has steadied, and my mind has cleared  – not to mention the fact that, for the first time since sixth grade gym class,  I can do a full split. And although no good Rolfer would guarantee such results,  they would certainly tell you this: Flexibility comes when alignment happens.