This Body Therapy Has Gotten Gentler, More Subtle
Reprinted from The Whole Life Times, 1993.
Clay is just platelets of silica and alumina. Bodies are infinitely complex. But when Garret Whitney Rolfs a client, his fingers move through certain connective body tissue in a fashion that's somewhat similar to how his hands once worked at a potter's wheel.
Certified Advanced Rolfer
You don't poke. You move slowly and steadily through a substance, which opens up and responds to the steady pressure," he says. Bodies are different than clay, there's no exact correspondence.
Garret Whitney, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design in ceramics, stopped shaping pots and statues 12 years ago, and eventually took up re-sculpting human bodies. He practices Rolfing, also called Structural Integration. It's a form of deep-tissue manipulation that seeks to realign the body within the field of gravity.
As he compares his past career with his current profession, Whitney's voice is soothing, yet compelling-vocal qualities he has acquired through practicing hypnosis. However, he subverts any air of pomposity with frequent, infectious and joyous laughter. His merriment also shines in his striking hazel eyes crested with brambly brows that look as if they belong to a much older man. His vigor and youthfulness are apparent from his trim build, the result of massaging clients and swimming.
There would be no flutter-kicking for Whitney had he put his faith in conventional medicine. About seven years ago, intense knee pains drove him to seek the assistance of doctors. The orthopedic department of Massachusetts General Hospital diagnosed the hyperextensibility he was experiencing in his joints as an early sign of some progressive degenerative disease of the connective tissue. For years, a clinic at Johns Hopkins conducted tests to determine whether he had pseudoxanthoma elasticum or one of the varieties of Ehler-Danlos Syndrome. The distinction became academic to him when the doctors began to predict that Whitney had only six to twelve months to walk.
"One night in a flash of frustration, anger, and insight, I realized that I had bought into the prognosis. I flew down to John Hopkins the next morning on the first flight. I told the doctors, 'I don't want your disease. I don't think it's mine. I hereby am not going to have it anymore.'"
After this forthright disclaimer, tests were re-run on Whitney and proved inconclusive instead of positive. But he still had those crippling knee pains. Friends recommended Rolfing, and Whitney found considerable relief after just one session. Since completing the basic Rolfing series, Whitney has felt no significant pain in his knees.
This dramatic cure, plus his study and practice of body-centered psychotherapy, led Whitney to investigate the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration, in Boulder, Colorado-the only full-time training facility in the world. The Institute receives over 1500 applications each year, but accepts only 40 or 50 trainees. Like other trainees, Whitney fulfilled a long list of stringent criteria and attended rigorous classes over a two-year period.
The Institute started training Rolfers in earnest in the late 1960s, and there are only 400 certified Rolfers worldwide. The 14 Rolfers working in New England represent a very high concentration. About half practice in the greater Boston area, and there is at least one Rolfer in each New England state.
The Rolf Institute, a nonprofit cooperative of Rolfers, continues to refine the pioneering work of founder Ida P. Rolf. Impatient with scientific medicine's inability to alleviate the arthritis that plagued her and her son, Rolf set aside her Ph.D. in biochemistry and re-examined the premises of orthopedic medicine.
Most body manipulation therapies, such as chiropractic, see the spine as the pole that holds up the "tent" of the body. Rolf realized that the fascia (sheaths of translucent connective tissue that surround and interpenetrate the muscles) really shape and support the body.
Whitney's metaphor of a radio tower illustrates the importance of the fascia. "The steel structure is analogous to the bones, and the fascia and the muscles are analogous to the guy wires. Either one could be said to be the one that holds up the tower."
The fascial tissue tends to shorten, thicken or stick to itself in response to either physical or emotional trauma. A sprained ankle may cause someone to favor a certain leg for a while. The changed pattern of weight bearing adds new stress onto neighboring muscle groups, and the fascia hardens around these muscles to help them cope with the added strain. Distortion in the lower part of the body sets off a compensating distortion in the torso and neck. By the time the ankle is stronger, the connective tissue has become so rigid that it has frozen the rest of the body into this out-of-whack posture.
Emotional distress also can become locked up in the musculature. Chronic feelings of hopelessness and bearing a heavy burden, for instance, often are reflected in a bowed head and hunched shoulders.
Rolf began experimenting with ways of freeing the fascia, so the body could return to a natural, efficient posture in which the ears, shoulders, hips, pelvis, and ankles fall into one clean vertical line. She discovered that pressure from the fingers, palms, even the elbows helped bring about the release of the connective tissue.
Eventually, her system evolved into the basic series of ten sessions. Each one takes between sixty and ninety minutes. Sessions can be as often as every week or as far apart as a couple of months.
Rolf learned a natural order to this process of freeing up a whole body; some parts had to be released before others would let go. The first three sessions unwrap the outer envelope of the body, freeing the chest, pelvis, seat, and shoulders. Sessions four through seven lengthen the deep layers of the myofascial webwork which Rolfers call the "core." The last three sessions balance and reintegrate the segments.
Though each session focuses on loosening a specific area, the body parts manipulated in that session vary, according to the client's unique structural holding patterns. For example, the eighth session concentrates on the pelvis. Besides working in the groin, the Rolfer may also have to work on one client's neck and another's thigh to effect a complete release in the pelvis.
Once the basic series is over, Ida Rolf maintained that gravity becomes the therapist. Photographs taken right after a Rolfing series and then a year later seem to confirm her contention that the body uses momentum built in the ten sessions to continue to straighten posture and provide greater ease and efficiency of movement.
Some people with severe problems may need regular year-round Rolfing as maintenance, but most people may require only a tune-up session or two every couple of years. An "advanced" Rolfing series deals specifically with the body in motion and with the client taking full responsibility for that movement.
Whitney reports that about two-thirds of his clients come to him for physical reasons. Some have chronic aches and pains, particularly in the joints and back, that have not responded to other treatments. Others come because they have heard that Rolfing is a good way to optimize one's well-being. Athletes and dancers will undertake a Rolfing series to gain greater range of motion, a lighter, more erect carriage, more balanced posture and a hard-to-define ease of movement.
However, the remaining third of his clients are seeking to unencumber themselves of emotional traumas that are embedded in their bodies. Often when a psychologically significant area is worked on, memories of a sad or shattering event flood back-either while the client is on the table or a night or two later during a dream. Even those who don't come for stress-relief may be surprised by emotionally-charged flashbacks. Thus a very intimate rapport often develops between Rolfer and client. To accommodate those clients who want to go beyond the small-talk level of interaction, some Rolfers have a background in psychology and counseling as well as anatomy.
While retaining its reputation as a very effective kind of bodywork, Rolfing is finally outgrowing its notoriety as a rather painful one. There's no question that in its early days, Ida was more interested in results than in mollycoddling patients. "Get in there!" she urged fledgling Rolfers, ad clients yelped. Since Rolf's death in 1979, the Rolf Institute has continued her search for gentler, subtler, and even more effective techniques for realigning the body.
Out of an hour-and-a-half session there may be a minute or two of pressure that is uncomfortable, even painful, but the situation is always in control. The client is never wrenched or manhandled. The situation is more likely to be that the Rolfer holds a foot a certain way, then asks the client to arch that foot. The more she bends it, the more she aches-and releases.
The Rolfer doesn't inflict pain, but finds, unlocks, and dispels pain that has been lodged in the body for a long time. The greater the blockage, the more intensely the release may be felt. Any momentary discomfort, though, is far outweighed by the subsequent relief, new-found grace and ease of movement. Cramps and tension give way to a rediscovered suppleness of body and soul.
Most Rolfers have brought about a few "They-said-I'd-never-walk-again" cures, but they prefer to concentrate on the kinds of changes that the typical client can expect. Many Rolfees report a sense of wholeness and lightness. Almost everyone expansion of the chest means greater breathing capacity, and that extended range of motion translates into improved athletic performance.
The possibilities for transformation are as varied as the bodies that need help. As Whitney, the former ceramist puts it, "Once a pot has set up and dried, you can't change its shape, but fortunately for human beings, no one is too old or rigid to be remodeled or revitalized by Rolfing.