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The Five Principles of Rolfing®

by Carole LaRochelle, LMP, NCTMB
Certified Advanced Rolfer® f
Kent, Washington

Rolfing structural integration is a powerful healing modality that seeks to bring the whole body into better balance at every level. This is accomplished by organizing the major segments of the body — head, torso, shoulders, pelvis, legs — so they are balanced with their centers of gravity one above the other, similar to a stack of blocks. This idea of the blocks can be seen in the Rolf Institute's Little Boy Logo® and is based on actual pictures of a young boy both before and after he was Rolfed.

This is the gospel of Rolfing:
When the body gets working appropriately, the force of gravity can flow through. Then, spontaneously, the body heals itself.
— Dr. Ida P. Rolf

One of the key ideas that we work with in Rolfing is that gravity is the strongest force acting on the human body. It is so omnipresent that we are usually quite unaware of it, and respond to it, for the most part, in an equally unaware or automatic fashion. Bodies that are misaligned in gravity tend to feel chronic strain, low levels of energy, and an increasing degree of stiffness and rigidity. It is interesting to note that these symptoms are all commonly associated with growing older and realizing, "I'm not as young as I used to be." However, these really are signs that our body is losing the battle with gravity and unless some intervention is taken we will continue to grow more achy, tired and stiff.

People of all ages and backgrounds come to Rolfing for help with neck pain, back problems and other chronic musculo-skeletal conditions. Some come because of specific injuries or accidents that they just can't seem to get over. Others come because they want to improve their posture, enhance their flexibility and rediscover that hard to define sense of vitality and aliveness they experienced in their youth. Rolfing is frequently used by athletes, dancers, sports enthusiasts and artists to enhance performance and sensitivity. If you have the desire to be more in tune with your body, improve your posture, enhance your energy, or simply relieve chronic aches and pains Rolfing could be for you.

At this point you may be asking yourself, "How does Rolfing work?", or more importantly, "What is so special about Rolfing that it can relieve such a wide variety of symptoms and enhance overall functioning of the human body?" The answer is because Rolfers work with a set of five guiding principles. These principles, unique to Rolfing, are what make it so effective and what sets Rolfing apart from other healing modalities.

The first and primary principle that guides our work as Rolfers is the principle of wholism. That work on the whole body is more effective than work done on just one part. For example, suppose a person decides to be Rolfed because they have a chronically sore elbow. As I work with this person I will not just look at and work on their elbow. I will also look to their shoulder. How has the sore elbow contributed to misalignment and strain in the shoulder, or how has misalignment or strain in the shoulder helped to create the painful condition in the elbow? My work, however, will not just focus on the elbow and shoulder. I will also look to the neck, and more likely than not the head has also become involved or compensated for the ache in the elbow. In fact, in subtle and not so subtle ways the entire body has compensated and adjusted to the sore elbow. How is this possible? The answer is connective tissue. Connective tissue surrounds and is an essential part of muscles, bones, organs, and blood vessels. It is the supportive wrapping of the body, and is the tissue our tendons and ligaments are made of. It gives the human body its shape. It is like an elastic fabric that creates an intricate web throughout our bodies. Any sort of pull on this fabric transmits strain in many directions over a wide area of the body. If my work is focused only on the problem area change will not be as deep or long lasting. Work on the major disorganization, while helpful, will most likely be underooted by compensations that have taken place in more distant locations. Wholism means that you are more than just a sore elbow or back that has walked through my door. You are a whole human being and I need to consider your whole body in the equation for the work we do together to be effective.

Support is another principle that guides our work as Rolfers. For example, before the relationship between the head and torso can be changed so that the head rests more vertically on top of the shoulders and is neither forward, back or to the side, support for the head needs to be created in the legs, feet and pelvis. In other words, support is built from the ground up not unlike the foundation of a house. If the foundation is off by a few inches, by the time we bring our attention to the roof the house could be leaning a few feet. (Think of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.) Support also means that we as Rolfers support our clients in their process of change. By working with the client to evoke a felt sense of, for example, the pelvis supporting the shoulders, we can encourage the changes in their body to be longer lasting.

Adaptability is also a principle that needs to be followed if our work together is going to be successful. Before I can organize the major segments of a person's body so that they are in a more vertical relationship with each other and with the field of gravity, I need to turn my attention to the adaptability or flexibility of their connective tissue. With age, accidents, surgery, or psychological trauma the connective tissue of the body becomes hardened, contracted and adhered to itself. This puts tension on joints and muscles producing compensations, imbalances and less freedom of movement. If adaptability is truly the ability to adjust to new conditions, and new conditions mean we are changing the way your pelvis relates to your legs, then it is essential that length, elasticity and pliability be restored to the connective tissues of the body.

With the principle of dynamic balance I'd like to again bring your attention to the Little Boy Logo. When the major blocks of the body are stacked one on top of the other, as in the picture on the right, dynamic balance is achieved. We have the unity of opposites; the body is equally balanced between earth and sky, left and right, and deep to superficial musculature. Once we are in balance we have more energy to lead an active, vibrant lifestyle. Change inside ourselves leads to change outside ourselves. This principle also means I cannot organize the back of your body without paying attention to the front of it. Our bodies exist in more than one dimension and my work as a Rolfer needs to address this aspect of our existence.

The final principle we work with as Rolfers is the principle of closure. This principle means we are aware this work is a process, and that we share the experience of this process with our clients. Closure implies that every session or series of sessions has a beginning, middle and end, and that it is important to be aware of where we are in this process. Closure also means it is important to know when we are done, when we have reached an optimal stopping point and no further intervention is useful.

Right now, closure means to me I have finished explaining the five principles that guide the work I do a Rolfer. Rolfers feel these principles are what make our work unique and what makes it so effective at relieving chronic neck, shoulder, or low back discomfort, improving posture, and enhancing overall functioning and performance of the human body. At this point it might be useful to briefly discuss what the Rolfer does, how Rolfing feels, and what you can expect to happen in a typical Rolfing session.

Rolfing is usually done in a series of ten sessions. Sessions last from an hour to an hour and a half and are spaced one to two weeks apart. Each session builds on the previous one and has a slightly different focus or goal. During a session the Rolfer works deeply but gently using hands and forearms to manipulate and stretch hardened areas of connective tissue. You may be asked to assist the work by making slow precise movements. Sensation will vary depending on the area of the body being worked and the existence of chronic stress, injury, and other factors. Common sensations range from pleasurable warmth to momentary discomfort, frequently referred to as, "It hurts so good." This is typically followed by an enjoyable feeling of release. Although a series of Rolfing is normally done in ten sessions, no two series are alike. From the beginning the work is tailored to maximize the potential of each individual's body. The results of a Rolfing series are long lasting. Photographic documentation shows the changes created in the basic ten series are still present many years after the series has been completed.

In summary, Rolfing is a technique of connective tissue manipulation which seeks to bring the body into a more vertical alignment. This is accomplished in a series of ten sessions and in accordance with five guiding principles, wholism, support, adaptability, dynamic balance, and closure. People from a wide variety of backgrounds come to Rolfing for help with chronic body pains, to improve performance in a specific physical activity, or to add more ease and comfort to their body and their life. If you are interested in making a long term investment in your health that has an immediate payoff, consider giving Rolfing a try.