Rolfing® Structural Integration: The Ultimate Guide

September 29, 2020

Rolfing Structural Integration

If you’ve ever experienced a physical condition such as sciatic pain, back pain or posture issues, it’s likely you’ve searched for a treatment to help you relieve the pain.

We typically think of visiting a doctor, chiropractor, or masseuse in an attempt to relieve the discomfort that these types of conditions bring.

But one lesser-known option that has been steadily growing in popularity is Rolfing® Structural Integration.

So what is Rolfing?

Here’s everything you need to know.

What Is Rolfing® Structural Integration?

Rolfing SI is a form of bodywork, and mind–bodywork. Through a series of physical touches, the Rolfer addresses the body to affect change.

The view of Rolfing SI is that the body knows how to heal itself. It’s not the Rolfer’s job to put things in the right place but rather, it’s the Rolfers job to help the body’s innate wisdom express itself.

The body’s intuitive intelligence expresses itself in the mind, and it expresses itself in the body. So, what one experiences at the end of a Rolfing SI session, is an overall sense of well-being. Rolfing SI is an intervention that helps to bring about a sense of overall good health, both physical and mental.

Rolfing SI involves a practitioner, a client and trust. It’s a co-creative process in which the Rolfer listens to the cues of the client’s body.

It can involve such activity as gently pressing on the client’s knee or the Rolfer holding the client’s head in her hands, or pressing on the client’s shoulder.

The appropriate intervention is based on information that the practitioner receives from the client’s body. The client is always in control.

Rolfing SI Involves:

  • treatments that include physical touch, palpation, contact and pressing 
  • treatments where the Rolfer may use her hands, elbow or thumbs
  • treatments that last for forty-five minutes to one hour long
  • treatments where clients wear comfortable clothes
  • treatments with clients lying down

  • treatments may be more active and can involve sitting, standing, or walking

The original approach to Rolfing SI is the Rolfing Ten-Series. However, now Rolfers can achieve results outside of the 10-session framework and the number of sessions may be fewer than 10 sessions, depending on the client’s goals.  

Who Created Rolfing SI?

Rolfing was created by Ida Pauline Rolf, a 20th-century American scientist who worked as a medical researcher throughout the polio epidemic and the 1918 flu pandemic, and a notable contributor to the field of alternative medicine. 

She revolutionized the way healers and physicians understand the body and is recognized as a pioneer and leader in soft tissue manipulation and movement education. 

Dr. Rolf received her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University in 1920. She continued her study in organic chemistry at the Rockefeller Institute. 

Born and educated in New York, Ida Rolf continued to live in New York for her adult life and traveled throughout the US, and Europe to teach Rolfing SI.  

How Rolfing SI Developed

Rolfing Structural Integration, originally called “Postural Integration”, was created by Dr. Rolf in the 1930s. As a scientist, innovator, and intellectual with genuine curiosity, she was propelled to find innovative solutions to help her family.

Both her son who suffered from chronic illness and her husband who experienced persistent pain caused by being thrown off a horse, inspired Dr. Rolf to explore alternative paths to healing. 

She studied widely in the emerging fields of homeopathy, osteopathy, chiropractic, yoga, Alexander Technique, and Alfred Korzbksi’s Awareness Studies.

Yoga and osteopathy were the two most influential forms of both body alignment and philosophy on her work. 

Dr. Rolf taught Rolfing SI and treated patients for more than 20 years before she met and treated Fritz Perls, the co-founder of Gestalt Therapy, in the 1960s.

Rolf’s professional relationship with Perls, and their teaching association at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur on the coast of California,  helped Ida Rolf gain wider notoriety for her work.

This alliance helped to put Rolfing SI “on the map”—especially for Rolfing’s ability to help people process suppressed emotions—as she worked within the Human Potential Movement (HPM), a precursor of the New-Age-Movement, and Humanistic Psychology.

The Influence of Rolfing SI 

Since Ida Rolf’s death in 1979, Rolfing SI as a field has continued to grow in popularity and gain broader acceptance in mainstream medical practice for pain management, postural alignment, and everyday/athletic performance.

The Rolf Institute of Structural Integration has continued her work by certifying Rolfers SI and Rolf SI movement Practitioners with more than 1950 Rolfers and Rolf SI movement practitioners currently practicing worldwide.

Ida Rolf created her bodywork in the 1930s with both a personal development aspect and a physical, functional sports aspect. 

Developed as a treatment for pain relief, performance and postural alignment, it was also intended to be a powerful vehicle for self-actualization and helping to advance one’s human potential. 

Over the years Rolfers have distanced the practice from the less practical, less recognized, and less marketable spiritual aspects of Rolfing SI, and kept the attention on its physical features. 

Because of its many potential therapeutic benefits, Rolfing SI has become synonymous with physical therapy and is known mainly as an alternative approach to pain relief, for which it may be effective. 

The mind-body relationship is such that Rolfing SI can be both a physical event and also aid in personal development, or it can be just physical. 

As a holistic modality, Rolfing SI has shown great success — clients give countless reports that their knee pain, back pain, headaches, anxiety have gone away. 

Rolfing SI is a form of bodywork that many have found to be highly effective for physical pain and everyday athletic performance as well as personal, psychological, and spiritual development.

How Does Rolfing SI Work?

Rolfing SI works by addressing the body’s relationship with gravity.

And on a subtle level, Rolfing works to address the client’s connection with their life essence or Prana as it is called in the Yogic tradition or Chi as it is called in Traditional Chinese Medicine. 

“Chi is the energy current that runs through our bodies, providing us with circulation, nutrients, and minerals that we need to be whole”  
—Taz Bhatia, MD,  founder of CentreSpring MD

A good Rolfer helps bring a client’s life essence into a physical expression by removing blockages that keep it, the life force, from flowing and working in the body.

The removal of obstacles that block the client’s life force can, in many cases, allow the body to heal, align, and correct itself, often without surgery or heavy-duty—sometimes harmful—drugs. 

The Body in Gravity

The body’s organization in gravity is a fundamental notion of Ida Rolf’s work. 

“Practitioners of [Rolfing] SI do not feel ourselves to be therapists. The gravitational field is the therapist. What we do is prepare the body to receive the support from the gravitational field which gives a greater sense of well being.”  — Dr. Ida  P. Rolf

Rolfing SI aims to remove collagen restrictions in the fascia, so joints, muscles, nerves, and organs function better and benefit from a more efficient relationship to gravity. 

Rolfers may work to separate the layers of fascia that stick to the muscles or that have been pulled out of alignment so the body can integrate and move more freely in relation to the gravitational field. 

And when you are stacked better or lined up on top of your bones, it takes less effort to hold yourself up in gravity. 

Many Rolfers work with Dr. Rolf’s understanding of gravity as a kind of metaphor for a total field of universal energy.

Her notion of support was that when you are reconnected with yourself, you are also reconnected with this larger field of life that supports, guides, and informs you as a kind of intuition.  In accessing this connection, you can develop a sense of groundedness, clarity, self-compassion, and trust in yourself and your feelings. 

To reestablish the body’s relationship with gravity, the Rolfer will touch the body to find your areas of imbalance. 

The objective of a Rolfing touch is to stimulate the sensory neurons of the muscles that let your brain know where your body is in space. This also helps to calm and reset the nervous system, and reduce the tension of the related—often spasmed—muscles and their surrounding fascia. 

Potentially such treatment helps the brain and nervous system to restore awareness to areas of the body that have been forgotten, “left in the dark,” or exhausted due to overuse (as in the case of chronically tight or sore muscles).

When a healthy level of muscle tone is established, your body is free from related pains, often caused by pulling, tightness, and soft-tissue adhesions and inflammation.

Rolfing SI may assist the body so that it can regain its integrity in the gravitational field and feel more confident as an expression of something larger than an isolated, physical being under constant threat from its environment.

The Body’s Fascia

Rolfing, Structural Integration addresses the body’s fascia, the weblike support that runs throughout the body. The aim is to remove blockages to bring out the body’s innate wisdom and make significant changes in the client.

Sometimes fascia is called a “myofascial system”, however, it isn’t a system. Fascia is one piece of webbing that begins as soon as the first cells divide at the embryological level. 

Fascia can be thought of as a big stocking that, in a sense, that twists and folds in upon itself, around every structure in the body – around organs, around nerves, around muscles, around the brain, around the spinal cord. Everything. 

The easiest way to imagine fascia is as a stocking with pipe cleaners running through it. Fascia is made up of two elements: collagen and elastin. The elastin is the stocking and the collagen are the pipe cleaners that run through it to hold the body up.

Fascia will change according to the way we interact with our environment over time, or the way our environment interacts with us over time. 

For example, if you get in a car crash and experienced whiplash, your body will adapt and shape itself to that trauma. For example, the body might generate collagen to stabilize and support the neck’s healing. The trauma can also affect the body psychologically, energetically, and functionally. 

Rolfing SI helps by restoring the natural alignment and the body’s optimal relationship to its environment. 

Another example is if you sit at a computer eight hours a day, five days a week, your body is biased towards one activity and your body will start to form and organize around that bias. 

You’ll start experiencing hip pain. Your chest will cave in and collapse. You’ll lose a kind of vitality and awareness of the world around you. You will also build up collagen fibers that support that posture and lock your range of motion into a more hunched position. 

Rolfing SI can break up those collagen fibers and restore the full range of motion to the body and the spine so that your posture is elegant and noble again.

What Are the Main Benefits of Rolfing SI? 

There’s no singular main benefit to Rolfing Structural Integration.

Whether you are looking to improve athletic performance, perform daily tasks with more energy, relieve stress or just find more comfort and ease in your body, Rolfing SI can potentially help.

When the body is brought into alignment you may experience the sense of being in balance with gravity and one’s energetic field, and this allows the body to become naturally more comfortable and less stressed. This alignment may help knee pain, joint pain, plantar fasciitis and even weird pains you don’t quite understand.

Rolfing SI aims to address most issues related to soft tissue pain. People usually are not aware of the many aches and pains related to soft tissue, like a sense of pulling, feeling off-balance or out of alignment, having bad posture/hunching, feeling heavy and weighed down, or feeling cramped and compressed and having a restricted range of motion. 

Rolfing SI has helped people suffering from scoliosis, making it more bearable. Rolfing doesn’t fix scoliosis but may make it more comfortable and functional.

People come to Rolfing SI for treating TMJ, tight hips, shoulder pain, jaw pain, tendonitis, knee pain, carpal tunnel, back pain, lower back pain, slipped disc, headaches, burning pains. 

Rolfing SI may help with Chronic Fatigue and different autoimmune issues, as well as pre-surgery and post-surgery and many kinds of injury and traumas like sports accidents.  

Rolfing SI might also help support many kinds of performance-oriented activity: athletics like rowing, long-distance running or workouts at the gym. 

According to the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute: 

Research has demonstrated that Rolfing SI creates a more efficient use of the muscles, allows the body to conserve energy, and creates more economical and refined patterns of movement. Research also shows that Rolfing SI significantly reduces chronic stress and changes in the body structure. For example, a study showed that Rolfing SI significantly reduced the spinal curvature of subjects with lordosis (sway back); it also showed that Rolfing SI enhances neurological functioning.”

Is Rolfing Painful? 

A number of people online seem to believe that Rolfing is painful, but that’s not typically the way we’d think of it.

Rolfing can be “painful” in the same way that getting a deep tissue massage might be considered “painful”.

Sometimes it can hurt, but most people consider it to be a ‘good’ pain — like the feeling you get when you scratch an itch.

How Often Should You Do Rolfing? 

There are different categories of people getting Rolfed.  Some people come in weekly or bi-weekly and use Rolfing like a spiritual path. Some highly functioning people come in weekly to keep their body in excellent shape and condition so that they can achieve new goals.

Others have very acute issues, like a muscle spasm that threw out their hip and is causing back pain.  Or acute sciatic pain or headaches. This can often be dealt with in anywhere from one to five sessions. 

Some people go through a series of six or seven sessions spread out over a week or two between them and then come in for maintenance after every month or two or three thereafter.

Whatever you decide to do, encourage yourself to stick with your plan and make sure it fits your life. 

You need to figure out something that works with your life. So, if doing sessions once a week is financially stressful, don’t do that.

If you’re in the hands of a good Rolfer, they will respond in a way that works for you and works for your life, within reason, of course.

The number of sessions you do and the frequency with which you do them will be different for every Rolfer and will depend on how they work. You should talk about it with your Rolfer.

Is Rolfing Permanent? 

Often what is fixed with Rolfing stays fixed. 

Sometimes once a condition is addressed it requires maintenance, depending on your activity. Scoliosis, for example, might require maintenance sessions, but usually with longer and longer intervals between sessions. 

The permanence of results also depends on a client’s workload, stress levels, and unique life situation. 

Again, the important issue is to find a Rolfer you can trust, and who understands your body, your needs, and your lifestyle. They should be a resource for you, so that you can live the best life possible for yourself.

Is Rolfing Different From Massage?  

Massage is a beneficial modality, but it is different from Rolfing SI. 

The body benefits greatly from well-intentioned human touch and massage especially helps muscles relax. 

However, massage often aims to move the body into a pre-determined result and has a mechanical view of the body. 

For example, a massage treatment may focus on getting shoulders and knees and hips to bend better with more flexibility.  A Rolfing SI session, on the other hand, removes blockages in the body, allowing the body to find its natural resting place. 

As with massage, Rolfing SI aims to loosen tight tissue, reduce stress, detox the body, and evoke an increased feeling of relaxation and well-being — but these potential benefits—though they’ll arise as by-products of a session—are not the goals.

Rolfing SI’s fundamental view is to bring out the body’s wisdom so that the body expresses its intelligence and potential and this often manifests as a pleasant experience.

When the body expresses its full potential, it works without pain and with fluidity, feeling light, buoyant, joyful and mobile. Rolfing is a deeper view of life and the mind-body relationship – a more three-or-four-dimensional approach than massage, which tends to be two-dimensional.

The Bottom Line

If you’re interested in whether or not Rolfing could work for you, it’s worth finding a really good Rolfer and asking specific questions. 

Be very clear about what your situation is, what your ailments are, and any past surgeries or injuries you have had. Rolfing SI with a good Rolfer could be beneficial and safe for people in many different situations, including pregnant women.

There are obviously certain ailments that Rolfing SI cannot address, and certain situations and conditions that require proper medical care. For example, if you have hypermobility in your sacrum, or if you have really loose joints, a less skilled Rolfer could cause damage.  

You clearly wouldn’t want to come in with a broken leg. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Rolfing, you can send us a message and we’ll do our best to answer your questions.