The Rolf Method of Structural Integration
Structural Integration is about establishing balance and appropriate relationship within the body so it can move with greater efficiency and ease. A central vertical line, which serves as the organizing reference point, and the concept of balance through the body’s layers of tissue are at the core of the work.
“In Rolfing, our idea of balance comes out of the interaction of movement in three planes: the knee moving forward, the elbows moving sideward, and the head moving upward. All three planes must be appropriately related before I can accept the result as balance.”
-Dr. Ida P. Rolf
The Rolf Method of Structural Integration is the life’s work of Dr. Ida Pauline Rolf, Ph.D. (1896-1979). It was born out of her frustration with Western medicine’s failure to help her and those close to her find relief from chronic pain and physical disabilities. Concurrent with her early work in the physical sciences at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Rolf looked further afield, and realized that a body organized and balanced in the earth’s gravitational field could be a key component of health and wellness. Her explorations into osteopathy, chiropractic medicine, yoga, the Alexander Technique and Alfred Korzybski’s work on states of consciousness were the seeds from which her work would grow.
Dr Rolf’s commanding presence and her willingness to be at the forefront, pushing the envelope on accepted practices, were paramount in the early days, and integral to SI’s achieving mainstream acceptance and recognition for its powerful potential in the 1960s and ‘70s. Throughout her life Dr. Rolf taught and traveled in service to her work; in her late years she wrote the treatise on Structural Integration entitled Rolfing: The Integration of Human Structures. Today her work, and derivatives thereof, is taught by various groups in the US and abroad. The Guild for Structural Integration and The Rolf Institute are the two main schools; though unaffiliated, these two co-exist in Boulder, CO.
Dr. Rolf’s work is built around the principles of segmented bodies, changeable connective tissue, and the inescapable force of gravity.
“Appropriate stacking of body segments one above the other (allows the fascia) to accept responsibility for ‘lifting’ weight rather than supporting it…Though we do not expect to attain this degree of perfection, all change in this direction leads to greater well-being.”
-IPR, on the concept of an “alive” body
The segments can be thought of as blocks: the foot block, the calf block, etc. all the way up to the head block. An organized, aligned body will see these blocks stacked one atop the other.
Dr. Rolf believed it was through the chemistry of the myofascial system (which creates and maintains structure) that lasting change could be achieved. She was on the right track, though there now appears to be a significant neural component to fascia’s changeability.
A disorganized, unbalanced structure will be made worse by the force of gravity. Dr. Rolf believed gravity flowing unimpeded through a properly aligned body would support it, rather than hasten its collapse.
The Work Itself
Structural Integration works with the body’s connective tissue called fascia (see FAQs) to effect change and bring the body into optimal alignment.
The wear-and-tear of daily living compounded by the pull of gravity, and any injuries, accidents, or traumas all put strain on the body. Bands of tissue within the fascia tend to thicken, shorten, and adhere where patterns of strain develop. This change in the tissue quality pulls the body out of alignment. Muscles and joints compensate to keep the body going, but these compensations have structure-wide consequences.
The client and practitioner work together during the SI process: appropriate pressure and touch, focused movements, and breath all come together to differentiate “stuck” tissue and coax length and space into the fascia. Muscles regain the space and opportunity to work as designed; joints, the freedom to move. The body gains the resiliency and responsiveness it needs to come into alignment.
As a rule, people don’t think about gravity – it just is. Much to her credit, Dr. Rolf did. Try balancing a broomstick upright on the palm of your hand. The stick wobbling in search of stability is the body out of alignment. When the stick is vertical, there is a sense of weightless ease. This is the relationship Structural Integration seeks between the body and gravity: when the body’s segments are vertically aligned, it finds ease and support in the gravitational field. Ida often reminded practitioners not to take too much credit: “Gravity’s the tool – the therapist!”