It may sound seemly, but don’t discount this form of bodywork to bring you back into balance
Kelly O’Rourke Johns
Rolfing® may sound like a term you used in your drinking days to describe the results of a hardy binge. The nickname actually denotes something far more constructive—a form of bodywork that reorganizes the connective tissue, called fascia, within the body, formally termed structural integration. Rolfing designates the Rolf Institute’s brand of structural integration, named after its founder and the developer of Rolfing structural integration, Ida P. Rolf.
It’s been more than 50 years since Rolf recognized that the body is essentially a series of connective tissues that surround, support and penetrate all of the muscles, bones, nerves and organs within. Through concentrated manipulation on this weblike connective tissue, a Certified Rolfer™ works to release, realign and balance the body. The result? Enhanced postural efficiency, freedom of movement, and some studies suggest, more efficient use of muscles and enhanced neurological functioning.
How Can Rolfing Help Me?
The Rolf Institute of Structural Integration®, a school in Colorado that trains and certifies Rolfers, promotes Rolfing structural integration as a way to ease pain, chronic stress, restore flexibility and “revitalize your energy and leave you feeling more comfortable in your body.” Indeed, research seems to demonstrate that this form of fascia manipulation creates a more efficient use of muscles. Intriguingly, studies also suggest that this widely ignored connective system plays a pivotal role in our neurology.
An article by Robert Schleip of the European Rolfing Association in the January 2003 issue of Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies explored the neural dynamics behind fascial plasticity. Schleip writes that our enteric nervous system, or “belly brain,” constitutes more than 100 million neurons and works largely independent of the cortical brain.
“Many of the sensory neurons of the enteric brain are mechanoreceptors, which—if activated—trigger among other responses, important neuroendocrine changes. These include a change in the production of serotonin—an important cortical neurotransmitter, 90 percent of which is created in the belly—as well as other neuropeptides, such as histamine (which increases inflammatory processes),” Schleip states. Given the negative influences substance use disorders impose on serotonin and other neurotransmitters, could structural integration be helpful to restore their production in recovering individuals?
No focused studies on this issue have been documented; however, Rolfer Kristin Harlander says, “any type of bodywork can produce those feel-good hormones.” Harlander, who practices Rolfing structural integration in Minnesota, found out about this school of thought through word of mouth and has been Rolfing for more than 10 years. “It’s all about affecting change, reaching a higher level,” she says.
Harlander has found that the primary reason clients seek structural integration is pain relief, and the average age of people she serves is around 40. “We start thinking, ‘I’ve got to start taking care of my body,’” she says. “I also get teenagers and young women who want to look their best and plenty of elderly. Some people just want to come in and be as free as possible.”
Psychologists also take advantage of structural integration, according to Harlander. “They come in for the self-awareness piece,” she says. “That’s a big part of it. We’re not in tune with our bodies.”
That piece may be the most helpful for those in early recovery from substance addiction—individuals who may simply be out of touch with their bodies and with what’s working and what’s not. Structural integration incorporates bodywork as well as patient attention so that both the practitioner and the client recognize pain and progress.
A Typical Session
In the initial structural integration session, the practitioner takes a thorough patient history and interviews the client to determine their needs and the goals they’d like to reach as a result of their sessions. After this intake, the practitioner will assess the current state of the client’s body, looking at their posture, how they stand and move, to determine where to work and to monitor changes.
Then comes the bodywork. Unlike massage, which Harlander states is a “separate school of thought,” structural integration requires participation from the client, incorporating directed movement, visualization, breathing and focused internal awareness while the practitioner uses her fingers, hands and elbows to lengthen, soften and release adhesions in the body.
It’s a mind-body approach that recognizes the client’s ability to direct her own wellness. The structural integration practioner helps the client become aware of habitual postures, breathing and how she walks, stands, runs, sits and moves to educate her on how to make healthier choices. Clients usually wear underwear during the bodywork process, which takes place on a massage table and lasts about an hour.
Because structural integration approaches the body as fluid, achieving balance is considered an ongoing process and, much like massage, structural integration should be practiced whenever a client feels it’s needed. For acute symptoms, experts recommend weekly sessions in 10-session series. Those without chronic symptoms may wait up to four weeks between sessions. A session can run upwards of $120 and is rarely covered by insurance. Harlander believes that those who incorporate Rolfing structural integration into their wellness program are those that become her devoted customers.
“Once you’ve experienced it,” she says, “you learn awareness and how your body can feel. You learn what you’ve been missing.”
For more information on Rolfing structural integration and certification, visit the Rolfing Institute of Structural Integrations at rolf.org. Find out more about Kristin Harlander’s practice at rolfingmn.com.