Rolfing works with the connective tissue. Connective tissue wraps the body entirely, much as a wet suit does a swimmer. It wraps each muscle and muscle fiber in a continuous network, even supplying the internal membranes that wrap our bones and support our internal organs.
We all hold tension and stress in our bodies. You may feel it in your head, neck, shoulders and back most often. The stress may come from physical trauma like an auto collision, a fall or maybe surgery. It may be generated by life situations such as divorce, moving, abuse or a death in the family.
So what is ROLFING? To say that ROLFING is a technique for physically aligning and standing the body upright in gravity in 10 sessions somehow misses the point. For me, ROLFING is Dorothy, aged 67, a polio victim at three and surgery at 12, free of back pain and able to walk up and down stairs in a normal manner for the first time in 30 years.
ROLFING is Joyce, a 35 year-old attorney who says, “my shoulder and neck pain are gone, and the greatest surprise is my new attitude and positive outlook on life.” ROLFING is an Olympic medalist in gymnastics who had lived with the pain of working out and performing with bones broken and muscles torn in childhood, saying, “my back is better, the pain is gone and I feel better.”
The body responds to stress by tightening and shortening. Most people can identify the muscular body tightening associated with momentary stress. We say we “hold ourselves together.” What most of us miss is how the yearly accumulations of day by day tightening and tension are locked into the body and affect our overall health. A distortion in one part of the dynamic system affects the total system. A hurt back, knee or neck might cause us to favor that area. Since we live in the field of gravity and are constantly struggling to hold ourselves upright our initial favoring can become a chronic imbalance and a limited movement pattern.
Physical approaches to dealing with stress and imbalance in the body have been around for a while. ROLFING is one of the earliest and most profound of the manipulation techniques; it is the most structured and developed system of “deep tissue work”. Rolfing’s premise is that the body’s organ of structure is the fascia; and that life is an ongoing encounter with gravity, the force that is always with us.
Dr. Ida Rolf (she called it Structural Integration, her followers called it ROLFING), said: “One individual may experience his losing fight with gravity as a sharp pain in the back, another as the unflattering contour of his body, another as constant fatigue, and yet another as an unrelentingly threatening environment. Those over 40 may call it old age, yet all these signals may be pointing to a single problem so prominent in their own structure and the structure of others, that it has been ignored; they are off balance. They are all at war with gravity.”
Rolfing is also my 72 year old Uncle — who at 72 was still teaching tennis and golf despite chronic pain in his neck, shoulder and heels — standing upright in the kitchen telling my wife he still thought ROLFING was strange, but somehow it worked, he was no longer in pain.
What is “soft tissue,” and why are soft tissue injuries so damaging?
Soft tissue refers to the non-bony parts of the body, and usually means connective tissue or fascia. Fascia forms the membrane between bones as well as the sheath or wrapping of bone. Fascia forms the tissue that wraps and protects the spinal cord and brain. The membranes that wrap, support, organize and separate the muscles and the organs are also fascia. All of these facial wrappings interact with each other and in some way with your musculature and your skeletal structure. Connective Tissue is the tissue most often-injured in accidents and called “soft tissue injury.”
Connective tissue is a colloid, a “plastic” tissue with distinct properties and characteristics. Depending on conditions, it can be thin, soft and pliable or thick, hard and rigid. When subjected to strain and stress it reacts by becoming shorter, thicker, and tighter. This shortening and tightening is what usually happens as a result of accident, injury or surgery, and emotional stress.
The plastic quality of the fascia is also what makes Rolfing so effective.
Most people attribute the pain or difficulty they experience to old age. Yet, as one 73 year old man said to his doctor after getting a diagnosis of arthritis in his right knee:
“Well Doc, why does that knee have arthritis?”
“Because, Jim, it’s getting old.”
“That’s nice Doc, but the other knee is just as old and it’s fine.”
This man had an intuitive understanding that something had created the difficulty in his knee. From a structural point of view it could have been a lifetime of imbalance and unequal pressure through his legs caused by an out-of-balance body structure. The direct manipulation of therapeutic bodywork could have relieved much of the pressure on his knee.
Whiplash refers to the contraction of the connective tissue when subjected to the mechanical “whipping” of the body as in an auto accident. Contraction of the fascia following this whip-like strain is the actual soft tissue injury. Following an accident, the tissue contraction continues for years, slowly shortening the wrapping and support membranes of the body, pulling the skeleton out of balance. Imagine a building with a crooked foundation. The crooked foundation eventually leads to problems with the whole structure or framework of the house. In your body the uneven strains on the skeletal structure and supporting tissues can lead to joint pain, limited range of motion in joints, slipped or injured discs, back and neck pain, headache and muscle pain. Often the deeper effects of whiplash do not become apparent until five to eight years following the trauma. It may take that long for the contracting fascia to unbalance the skeleton and spine and affect the rest of the body.
Surgery may create scarring and/or tightening in the connective tissue, leading to imbalance in the body. The connective tissues are cut during surgery. As they heal they shorten and contract (scarring). The internal scar continues over time to shorten and thicken, inhibiting movement and balance. The scarring effects from surgery are not limited to the surface of the body.
One woman reported an auto accident in which her abdomen was ripped open and her intestines displaced. Surgery replaced and contained her organs in her abdominal cavity. Six weeks after surgery she began to develop a severe scoliosis in her spine. She asked her surgeon what had happened. He replied that when he had re-suspended her internal organs he had to use membrane (fascia on the inside of the abdominal cavity) peeled from the inside of her back. That tissue then tightened and pulled her spine out of place. Tightening of the internal fascia affected her skeleton and posture: she developed a severe scoliosis, which continued to worsen. Before having metal rods surgically placed to stabilize her spine she decided to try Rolfing.
Ten sessions of Rolfing improved this woman’s condition by 80% (her assessment). Hands on myofascial manipulation stretched and balanced her internal supporting membranes enabling her joints to align properly. With less pressure pulling on her spine it straightened dramatically.