Rolfing: The Anti-Gravity Device
by Mike Papciak
This article first appeared in the September 1998 issue of CLIMBING Magazine.
Climbers battle gravity. We fight to stay attached to the crimpers on a cliff; we drag ourselves up ice flows and snowy peaks. But gravity doesn’t stop when the day’s climbing is done. Over time, it takes advantage of the body’s plasticity, changing the way we stand, sit, and move. Like water dripping on block of granite, gravity grinds us down.
Rolfing® Structural Integration aims to undo the harm. The idea is that gravity combined with a lifetime of natural activity — flinching while daddy spanked you, slouching in chairs, craning your neck while belaying, working at a computer, sleeping with a crooked spine, cramming your feet into rock shoes three sizes too small, and just about everything else — throws your body out of whack. The result? You have poor posture, and, in an attempt to support your body and maintain alignment, your muscles stiffen, shorten, and harden, restricting full motion and comfort.
What is Rolfing? The technique was invented and developed by Dr. Ida Rolf (1896 – 1979), a biochemist. Rolfing uses connective tissue manipulation to put your body into better vertical alignment. Rolfing targets the body’s fasciae, the sleeves of connective tissue that envelop muscles and give the body shape. By reorganizing the web of connective tissue, the body’s biomechanics are improved. You move more easily, with less pain and restricted motion.
Contrary to popular belief, Rolfing isn’t just vigorous “deep-tissue” massage. A massage therapist is concerned primarily with the relief of tension. A Rolfer wants to change the structure of your body to correct the sources of tension, so that the tension is unnecessary. Over the course of a series of sessions (usually 10, each a week or more apart) the Rolfer remolds your musculature with what the literature ominously calls “applied force.”
Currently 948 Certified Rolfers practice the technique in 26 countries worldwide. The International Headquarters of the Rolf Institute (800-530-8875, www.rolf.org) is located not far from the granite of Boulder Canyon in Boulder, CO. The Institute was founded in 1971, making Rolfing widely available to the public at the same time. Rolfers take their practice seriously: at the Rolf Institute (or its satellites in Brazil and Germany), students undergo a two-year education, with post-certification training and continuing education obligations as well. Only those certified by the Rolf Institute may legally use the Rolfing term.
Bodywork and other “alternative” healing methods have long attracted suspicion from some people, especially those weaned on or with a vested interest in the practice of so-called “Western” medicine. Rolfing is no exception. But like acupuncture, which is mainstream enough now to be offered by some HMO plans, Rolfing is gaining credibility. Thanks to a small but growing number of officially-sanctioned research studies, a liberalization of the public’s attitude toward alternative healing, and much favorable word-of-mouth testimony, Rolfing is acquiring mainstream acceptance. “I think we’re getting out the hippy-trippy phase,” says Karna Handy of the Rolf Institute. “We’re now getting lots of old retired folks, for example, inquiring about Rolfing and getting Rolfed. That’s a sign. You don’t get that with a fringe alternative medicine.”
Will your insurance pay for it? Possibly, but don’t count on it. Less than ten states require licensing for Rolfing, which is one of the major criteria many insurance companies look for to determine eligibility. Still, says Handy, “it’s really individual from company to company. If you can get your Rolfing prescribed by a licensed individual, like an M.D. or your chiropractor, then your chances [of billing it to your insurance company] increase.”
Why me? Rushing up on age 30, with 15 years of rock climbing under my fingers, these were my complaints:
I had a bum left knee. Patellar tendinitis from high-school running had caused me to subtly favor my right leg for close to a decade. As a result, my left leg was weaker and less stable, tormented by approach hikes, drop-knees, and jumping off boulders. The leg wasn’t getting strengthened properly, so the tendinitis was worsening.
Complaint number two: while standing, I tended to bear heavily on the outsides of my feet instead of spreading my body weight evenly across the soles. As silly as it may sound, I’m convinced that this had to do with 15 years of standing around below boulders, resting on my heels and the outside of my feet to keep the precious big-toe areas of my rock shoes clean. I was more uncomfortable on my feet than I knew a healthy person should be.
Third, my forearms were extremely “ropey,” a term bodyworkers apply to muscles that get worked hard and often, never flush their metabolic waste completely, and grow stiff. Rigid forearm flexors transmitted high-shock loads to my elbow tendons when I’d stick dynos, like static rope holding a leader fall. Climbers’ elbow was lurking behind my next deadpoint on a cold day.
To top it all off, I hunch over a computer 9 to 5.
In a sense, my complaints were pretty minor. To the average couch potato, I probably looked like I was in damn good shape. But I felt that my foundations were developing a few cracks. Rolfing, I hoped, would help me feel better at a deeper level. I might even scam a few letter grades out of the process.
What was it like? I got a list of Rolfers in my area from the online directory published by the Rolf Institute. After a few phone calls, I booked an appointment with Russell Stolzoff.
Most Rolfers will either schedule a consultation visit or spend most of the first session getting acquainted with you and discussing your interests and concerns. After I rattled off my list, I stripped down to gym shorts and Russell had a look at me, using what he calls his “Rolfer’s gaze.” Then up onto the table I went.
I was expecting what I usually get from massage therapists: immediate attention to the obviously overdeveloped regions of my body, like shoulders and calves. Instead, Russell went right to work on the thin sheet of muscle overlaying the shin bones on my left leg. Using short strokes along the grain of the fibers, he dug in with his knuckles and thumbs — though not too hard — then backed off to eyeball my legs, then dug some more. There was none of the rubbing motion that I associate with a traditional massage. Russell was simply prodding my muscles, as if to remind them that they weren’t behaving. A hundred bucks were at stake, and I wasn’t levitating yet. I was skeptical.
Later that night, I got my payback. I was walking funny. My feet had been “leveled” and wanted to hit the pavement squarely with each stride, but the soles of my running shoes had been ground down on the outside because that’s where I usually placed my weight. The imbalance — my feet trying to be level, my old shoes keeping them canted to the outside — was the source of the strangeness in my stride. I went home, put on a pair of new shoes and let the amazement soak in. Twenty minutes on the Rolfer’s table, and my weight was resting comfortably across my feet. I didn’t know what I’d been missing until it changed.
Each Rolfing session began with a brief chat about my concerns or suggestions, then Russell’s inspection of my posture. I almost always laid on my back, sandwiched between Russell’s hands, so that my body weight would assist his upward pressure. With his upper hand, Russell would knead the ilio-tibial band on the outside of my legs and poke the serratus over my ribs. Wordlessly, he’d suggest the release of tension to my pectoralis and plumb deep into my abdominals. Occasionally I’d lie on my side while Russell wailed away at my back, using the heels of his hands and a helluva lot of body weight to push that stuff around. We’d usually wrap up with a few minutes of squeezing and stretching on my neck and scalp.
Rolfing felt like the smartest massage I’ve ever had. Russell would go right to muscles that I didn’t know were tense. At his touch, their tension would become immediately apparent. At the risk of sounding somewhat mystical, the touch itself seemed like an actual communication between the Rolfer and the muscle.
Throughout my sessions, the work was rarely where I thought I needed it. Often it was dispersed asymmetrically throughout my body. “Ida Rolf used to say, ‘Go where it ain’t!'” Russell explained. “Rolfers can discern patterns of tension across the whole body. The entire musculature can be involved in accommodating one localized spot of great tension. If the rest of the body is released, it will decrease that tension.”
The scary bits. What about the legendary pain? I can’t say — my Rolfing wasn’t painful. That’s right, nada. As a climber, chances are your pain threshold is pretty high. Compared to flaying my tips on sharp volcanic rock or offwidthing in slippers, Rolfing is downright pleasant. Which isn’t to say that it’s a mild experience. This is deep bodywork. The Rolfer is working on soft tissue stuffed with nerve fibers and stiffened with chronic tension. For me, though, Rolfing felt so good I never wanted to get up off the table.”
Over time, I think Rolfers have learned that we don’t need to use as much force to create lasting structural change,” Russell explained. “Force can be negative. When the sensation of Rolfing gets too intense your body starts to protect itself. More energy goes toward enduring the pain than toward being receptive to change. I think of Rolfing as a process of nicely asking the tension if the support it thinks it is providing can be provided in a better way.”
Then there’s the cost. The going rate for Rolfing is around $100 a session (my sessions were 80 minutes long). That’s a grand over three months for the whole enchilada — certainly not affordable if you’re living out of your truck and stealing saltines from the local salad bar. In fact, even employed folks rolled their eyes when I told them what my Rolfing cost. But how much would you pay to feel great?
Do I feel great? Ten sessions and a thousand bucks later, am I flashing 5.14? Nope. So what did I get? I feel several tangible benefits:
One, I stand, walk, and run with my body weight much more evenly distributed over my feet. Before Rolfing, I naively hoped to feel the most improvement in my climbing muscles — shoulders and forearms. Now, however, I’m in love with my body weight’s new balance.
Two, my shoulders are dropped and my torso sits more squarely over my pelvis. Not only does this create the classic “better posture” look, but the reduction in overall tension in my upper body, which I started to feel just three sessions into the series, is remarkable.
Add looser forearms that absorb shock better, take away the tendinitis in my left knee — it’s gone because I’m wobbling less on the leg now — and I’m a satisfied customer.
Let me emphasize that it’s all pretty subtle. Getting Rolfed wasn’t a magical rebirth. I still catch myself hunching over my computer. But after a long day at work or a hard bouldering session, and thanks in part to a heightened awareness of my alignment and frequent breaks to move around and stretch, I don’t hurt.
Contributing Editor Mike Papciak is stealing saltines from his local salad bar in Berkeley, California, saving money for another round of Rolfing.