…Ida Rolf and the Two Paradigms, cont’d

Research and the Two Paradigms

It is easy to understand how the biomedical revolution came to dismiss wholism. Scientific medicine and the modern scientific method make for a perfect marriage. Both are firmly rooted in Cartesian assumptions…the universe is composed of discrete parts that can be isolated and studied and understood. Relationships between the parts do matter, but the nature of each part can be studied and understood in isolation from the others.

The contributions of the reductionist approach to medicine have been enormous. An obvious example is modern surgery and trauma care. Another example is the area of infectious disease, where countless lives have been saved because of the discoveries made by scientific medicine. The great plagues that killed millions throughout human history are now largely preventable and treatable. (Although as mentioned previously, many of the breakthroughs in fighting the great plagues validated Hippocrates – keeping the water supply clean, washing hands, keeping the environment clean of waste, were some of the early breakthroughs that helped to arrest the deadliest diseases.) The scientific method has provided a model for rigorous inquiry that has been adopted by all the sciences.

However, in many ways, we are witnessing today the biomedical revolution taken to its logical extreme. If humans are biological machines, then biology is the answer for all problems. What we now see are drugs introduced for every conceivable affliction, every aberration from the norm, physical and emotional. The marriage of the scientific method and biological medicine has resulted in an endless parade of pharmaceuticals.

On the other hand, wholism and the scientific method make for a slightly more uneasy relationship. One of the basic assumptions of wholism – the primacy of relationship, the interrelatedness of all aspects of the universe – makes studying the parts to be much more of a challenge. Wholism by its very nature resists the notion of isolating. The act of isolating for the purposes of research, will lead to a result that is incomplete and partial.

So the question arises: can effective research be done within the wholistic paradigm? To use our field as an example (and has their ever been a more thoroughly wholistic discipline? The human being considered as a relationship within gravity – Einstein and Heisenberg would have been proud), what part of structural integration is the key part – the sequence of the series? The relationship between the practitioner and client? The techniques used? The experience and training of the practitioner, or their hands-on skill, or ability to listen, or their intelligence, or capacity for compassion? The client?s willingness to change? Which session makes the most difference? How do you possibly separate out those factors from the whole of the process?

A vivid example of the difference between the two paradigms is the placebo effect (standardly defined as the improvement in health not attributable to treatment). The Cartesian paradigm regards the placebo effect as a factor to isolate out to gauge a treatment’s effectiveness. Wholism embraces the placebo effect – the client’s belief, psychology and expectations about the treatment are a vital part of the treatment itself. The very definition of placebo, useful in reductionism, is meaningless in wholism.

Having said that, there is much that wholism can learn from Descartes. From its beginnings, wholism has had a problem with rigor. It has traditionally been too easy and tempting for wholistic practitioners to write off their failures or missteps without rigorously testing their ideas, and without making sure that their treatments and interventions actually do what they claim they do. There was some truth to Abraham Flexner’s critiques of wholistic schools. They made claims that they never bothered to verify. To this day, wholistic practitioners too often claim benefits for their approach, without a shred of anything other than self-selected “successes” as proof.

This is a challenge for structural integration, even though our field claims not to cure or treat anything. We as a profession have a strong desire for research, to validate our field’s effectiveness. But effectiveness at what? What do we want research to prove about our field? Do we desire proof that it improves overall health and vitality and functioning (defined by what?) To prove our effectiveness, research must start breaking our work, or its effects, down into pieces. Does it improve balance? Does it lessen pain? Does it provide more energy (and proven by what means)? Does it strengthen the immune system? Does it lessen or alleviate the symptoms of a variety of diseases and conditions?

It is a fair question to ask ourselves exactly what we want from research. It is also important to note that research is, to a large degree, a phenomenom of another paradigm. As useful and powerful and insightful it will be to interact with the Cartesian paradigm and the world of scientific research, it may also be useful to remind ourselves that we are not of that paradigm. Our assumptions are fundamentally different from theirs. Descartes may be a wonderful dance partner, worthy of spending time with and learning from, but he goes home to a different bed than ours.

But Ida Rolf was from that world, and she was a scientist long before she created structural integration. So I would throw out a couple of reasons that research is vital to our field, among the many other worthy reasons for us to continue to press for the scientific community to poke and prod us.

First, we need our feet held to the fire, as does every discipline that makes claims about its effects on health and well-being. It is good and healthy and honest to be rigorous, and to have our claims and beliefs examined continually. As children of Hippocrates, that is the greatest lesson we can learn from Descartes – continuing to ask hard questions about our work and what it does, and inviting others to do the same, and paying attention if the answers do not meet our expectations or hopes.

Second, it honors our founder and her spirit of inquiry. Through her, we have our roots in Descartes. The woman who created our field was raised professionally in the world of scientific medicine, and her story is the story of two paradigms, not one. To honor her best, and to honor the spirit of our own beginnings, means honoring the best of both worlds.


By the middle of the 20th century, the Rockefeller Institute’s glory days as the center of American medical research were over for good. In 1955, the Institute began admitting graduate students for the first time. Its vitality could no longer be maintained as purely a research institution, and admitting students was an acknowledgement on the part of its leadership that times had changed. In some ways it had become a victim of its own success. In large part because of the Institute’s influence, a career in teaching and research had become so desirable that graduate schools, with their ongoing dialogue between teacher and student, had become the hotbeds of research. Rockefeller could no longer compete with colleges for the best and brightest scientists. In 1965 it would officially change its name to Rockefeller University. During its prime in the early part of the 20th century, it had been at the center of a revolution in medicine, the place to be for pure scientific research in the biological sciences and the most important scientific institution in America. But its moment in the sun had passed.

At about the same time, in late 1954/early 1955, Ida Rolf taught her first structural integration class west of the Mississippi River, at the Kansas City College of Osteopathy and Surgery. At the time, she called her creation Postural Dynamics, and taught it in roughly the same ten-session series format that she would still be teaching two decades later. In almost every way imaginable it was a world apart from her professional beginnings almost forty years earlier, in the chemistry laboratory at Rockefeller. But…in the class, she and her students conducted two research projects, including a study of the effects of her work on cholesterol levels. As enormous as her professional leap had been, she was still poking and prodding with the spirit of a scientist, straddling two worlds.

So, what next? Ida Rolf courted Descartes and then chose Hippocrates, but that was her story. Now we as a profession have choices to make. We are a young field, already with some self-inflicted wounds, trying to fit the pieces back into a coherent and healthy whole. We get to grapple with how to define ourselves, who we are, how to speak about our work and how to relate to a wider world of medicine and health that often does not share our sensibilities, how to adapt while the sands continue to shift. We face questions in how and when to meet others halfway, when to play on their turf, when to stand our ground, and how to continually stay rigorous with ourselves. Our choices fan out before us, continually. We write our story now.


1 John M Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (New York: Viking Books, 2004), p. 28.
2 George W. Carver, A History of the Rockefeller Institute, 1901-1953;: Origins and Growth (. New York: Rockefeller Institute Press, 1964), preface.
3 Barry, p. 75.
4 The Barnard Bulletin Digital Archive, Vol XX, No. 23, Page 1, 3 April 1916 http://www.barnard.columbia.edu/archives/bulletin.html
5 Ibid Vol XXII, No. 14, Page 1, 17 January 1918
6 Carver, p. 341.
7 Ibid p. 57.
8 Ibid, 341.
9 Simon Flexner, letter to Ida Rolf, 12 January 1926, The Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, NY.
10 Ida Rolf, letter to Simon Flexner, 18 February 1926, The Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, NY.
11 Ida Rolf, Rolfing and Physical Reality, ed. Rosemary Feitis (Rochester, NY: Harper & Row, 1978), p.6.
12 Ida Rolf, Big Sur Lecture/Demo, July 1966, audiofile from Guild for Structural Integration website, http://www.rolfguild.org
13 James C. Whorton, Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America (New York: Oxford University Press), 226-227.
14 Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point (New York: Simon Schuster, 1982.), p. 57.
15 Ibid, 81.
16 Rolf, p.111.

Bibliography and Acknowledgements

1. Ida Rolf Archival Records.The Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, NY.
2. Audiofiles and Transcripts of the Classroom Lectures of Dr. Ida P. Rolf. Available at http://www.rolfguild.org/av/intro.html. 10 May 2006.
3. “History of Genetics.? 30 August 2006. Available at: http://www.modares.ac.ir/elearning/mnaderi/Genetic%20Engineering%20course%20II/Pages/history_of_genetics5.htm
4. Rosenfeld, Louis. Donald Dexter Van Slyke (1883?1971): An Oral Biography. Available at http://www.clinchem.org/cgi/content/full/45/5/703. 20 July 2006
5. The Barnard Bulletin: Digital Archive. http://www.barnard.columbia.edu/archives/bulletin.html. 15 September 2006. 6. The Big View. Available at http://www.thebigview.com. 25 August 2006.

Thanks to Renee Mastrocco at the Rockefeller Archive Center for archival information on Ida Rolf.
Thanks to Marvin Solit for information on Ida Rolf’s Postural Dynamics class in 1954/1955.
Thanks to Jeff Linn for access to audio files of Ida Rolf lectures and talks.
Thanks to Nicholas French, Marilyn Beech and Sandy Collins for encouragement, ideas and editing help.