For a longer, stronger, more graceful body.
Structural Integration is a system of body education that restores your balanced relationship with gravity. Dr. Ida P. Rolf, a formidable intellect and pioneer in the somatic arts, developed her system during the middle decades of the 20th century, amidst the creativity and radical change of the human potential movement. After years of study in various fields including osteopathy, yoga, somatic movement, philosophy, general semantics, and spirituality, she synthesized her understanding into a system of work she called Structural Integration.
The goals of Structural Integration are many, but generally the work is designed to unwind whole body patterns of restriction and restore the body’s balanced relationship with with gravity. This is accomplished through a ten session cycle of sessions that Dr. Rolf called “the recipe.”
Dr. Rolf wasn’t interested in pathology and chasing symptoms. Rather she was after much bigger fish: She was interested in nothing less than a “more human use of the human being.”* She realized that the approach of focusing on the problems and symptoms is limited by the very symptoms you are trying to address. Dr. Rolf saw that in order to effect a greater change in human wellbeing, one needs to focus on and support the wellbeing itself. Structural Integration does this by uncovering and supporting the body’s balanced relationship with gravity. It doesn’t make sense to say we are naturally twisted and compressed, rather our natural blueprint is open, long, and balanced.
So many therapists are striking at the pattern of disease instead of supporting the pattern of health… Energy would be better spent giving their attention to the better working of peoples’ minds and bodies.”
-Dr. Ida P. Rolf
A common critique of Dr. Rolf’s recipe is that it’s a patterned approach and therefore ineffective, since every body is unique. However this appraisal is mistaken. Indeed each body is unique, but the recipe works at the level of sameness we all share. All bodies have a top and bottom, front and back, two sides, and inner and outer dimensions. Because of this level of sameness, a patterned approach is appropriate.
Furthermore, Dr. Rolf used the analogy of a map to describe how the recipe works with the attributes of sameness and uniqueness in each body. A map is useful to get you to the territory you want to explore. But once you’ve arrived then you put the map away and use your senses to make your journey. The same is true of the recipe. The ten sessions are a patterned approach, but are performed in a unique manner according to the distinctness of each individual.
A basic and important reality of the body is that it exists in the field of gravity. Gravity is powerful and all pervasive, as ubiquitous and essential as the air we breathe. If you think through the logic for just a moment, you’ll see that without gravity our body would gradually come apart.
The field of gravity is exerting an influence on our body, 24 hours a day, for every day we walk on this good planet earth. Dr. Rolf’s saw that it’s important to understand gravity, because it dramatically shapes the way we inhabit our physical body.
For example let’s say you twist your ankle. When you try to walk it feels painful, so you compromise by using your legs, pelvis and back, holding up the weight of that leg when the foot touches the ground. Gradually you develop other problems, as the struggle to hold the weight off the injured ankle makes its imprint in your knees, hips, back, shoulders, and neck. Thus any attempt at rebalancing must take a whole body approach, unwinding systemic compensations, and reestablishing the body’s upright and easy balance.
The recipe works by bringing balance and length to the entire structure, systematically unpacking compressions and unwinding torsions from head to toe. The work is slow, deliberate, and mindful, being careful to work at just the right depth for the tissues to effectively unwind, and resume their natural tonnis, position and function.
The sessions are organically designed and progress with artful intelligence, each session containing an array of structural goals and intentions, rebalancing various structures and relationships in the body. For example the goals of Session One include things like lengthening the front of the ribcage, balancing the relationships between the ribcage, shoulders and neck, and balancing the relationships between the ribcage and pelvis. Session Two proceeds onwards to unwind patterns of compensations in the legs, and then to reestablish a longer, lighter, and stronger spine. Each session continues and adds to the accomplishments of the previous session, while at the same time setting the body up for the following session. The body gradually unwinds and lengthens, area by area, session by session, uncovering a structure that is more at ease in the field of gravity – a longer, stronger, and more graceful structure.
One of the benefits of Structural Integration that is not often talked about, and even less understood, is how it seems to improve people’s state of mind. People who receive the sessions report being more relaxed and confident, more open and available, and generally more present for life. This “personal growth” element of the work comes as a result of having a more balanced and relaxed body, but it also comes about through the process of the tissue work itself.
The hands on techniques involved in Structural Integration are performed very slowly, with tremendous mindfulness and care. During sessions the practitioner and recipient of the work are in high tactile communication, which progresses the client through a transformative journey of new body awareness. The work is like a mirror, helping the client experience their body in an intimate and detailed fashion, and thus awakening the body consciousness as a whole. Also, people will often remember old injuries, traumas, and emotions, helping the consciousness to process through those. All of this can dramatically increase “somatic intelligence,” and partly explains the increased relaxation and confidence people often experience as a result of the sessions.
Because Structural Integration is performed so slowly and carefully, it contacts and works through layers of tension in the body. The practitioner moves into these layers in a gentle but directly fashion, thus providing an opportunity to finally release the long held restrictions. Because of the directness the work is intense, but how people experience the intensity varies widely. For some individuals the sensations during a session are primarily pleasurable, even blissful. At the other end of the spectrum are painful sensations. Unfortunately this aspect of the work sometimes being painful for some people creates a lot of fear and preconceptions about Structural Integration, inhibiting people who might otherwise benefit from the sessions.
Another aspect of the work is that it’s a highly sensitive and cooperative process. The practitioner is continually “listening” with their hands and eyes, to make sure the work is proceeding in a gentle fashion, that the client is not tensing against the pressure. It’s of paramount importance to the practitioner that the work is at “just the right depth” for the tissues to release. Furthermore, the client is always in charge of the pace of the work and the level of intensity, so it’s actually a very empowered process.
When there are painful sensations, the typical experience for the client is that they don’t want the practitioner to stop. Even when it’s painful, there is a recognition that the work is deeply healing so you want the process to follow through and complete. The directness of the practitioner’s hands reveal to you exactly how deep the tensions patterns are, but at the same time you can feel those melting, so you actually feel appreciation for the relief despite the pain.
For most people the sensations of a session are fluid in the spectrum of painful and blissful. But whatever the case, for everyone the primary sensations are of liberation and relief. It’s the feeling that deep tensions have been released, and that a more spacious pattern is opening up.
Since Dr. Rolf first taught her classic ten series, many have innovated on her work. She herself said Structural Integration is not a “closed revelation,” that the work would continue to evolve as people deepen their understanding of the principles she first uncovered. There has been much work done to this end, and various schools are now teaching their unique understandings of Dr. Rolf’s seminal work.
The original two schools of Dr. Rolf Structural Integration are the Guild for Structural Integration and the Rolf Institute. In addition to those, to date there are now 17 more schools recognized by the International Association of Structural Integrators. All of schools teach some version of Dr. Rolf’s recipe, with varying degrees of newness added to what she first taught.
Deciding on a practitioner to receive your sessions from is a very personal process. If you can’t find a referral from someone you know, then look for a combination of good training, a love of the work, and credible testimonials. It’s a good idea to try one session first, to see if you like it. If you do, then discuss your health and wellbeing goals with your practitioner, and decide how you want to proceed.
Structural Integration is about change, balance, and greater awareness. The work changes a compressed and rotated body into a longer and straighter body, it balances your relationship with gravity, and it brings more awareness to body, mind and heart. So if you’re interested to make the journey, in the words of Dr. Ida P. Rolf, “Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work!”
Rolf Structural Integration works by uncovering your body’s inherent balance. Our physical structure was born, nurtured, and developed, in the field of gravity. Gravity has a very simple pattern: It pulls straight down. In response, our physical structure grows up, we grow upwards. Our muscles, bones, and fascia were formed in this straight downward pull of gravity, and they developed in a vertical pattern, a pattern that is designed to best balance in the field of gravity.
However, this simple, natural pattern, becomes distorted by a wide range of factors, including a lack of awareness of the pattern itself. In other words, unless we are raised in a culture and family situation where our natural vertical pattern is recognized and cultivated, we assume other patterns that are determined by the random forces such as habit, poor movement patterns, unresolved physical and emotional trauma, and the like.
Dr. Rolf recognized how this story of gravity plays out in the human structure, and she developed a method to address the situation. Her ten session “recipe” is designed to unwind and decompensate the entire body, while simultaneously restoring the natural, balanced relationship with gravity.
Structural Integration is not designed to treat symptoms, rather it is an education approach that seeks to restructure the entire body, restoring the body’s inherent balance with the field of gravity. And yet, it is for chronic pain relief that a large number of people seek out the services of structural integration. And even though rolf work does not promise to treat your symptoms, ironically it is usually highly successful in doing so.
Biological structure is profound and complex. Even on a mechanical/gravitational level, the situation of the human body is complex beyond the logical mind’s ability to sort it all out. Efforts to treat chronic pain by treating just the symptoms is rarely successful, and rarer still that the success has anything but a limited duration. To make deep and lasting change in the human body, and whole body approach is needed.
Say for example that as a child you fall down and twist your ankle. In the flesh your ankle builds up layers of connective tissue to protect the ankle so you can keep walking. This added tension in the flesh doesn’t to away when the ankle heals, rather the new layers of connective tissue restrict movement, thus causing further tension and restriction in the body elsewhere in the chain, such as up in the knee, eventually it make s its way into the pelvis and spine. And of course we don’t just have a single fall as a child, we have multiple, and thus throughout our life our layers of tension and compensation build and compound. The situation at this stage is near impossible to sort out conceptually, let alone to treat by focusing on any given symptom.
Rather, the entire structure needs to be worked as a whole. In order to bring ease into our body, the whole body needs to be treated, as the single and connected structure that it is. We are not a collection of parts, which is a legacy of scientific reductionist tradition, but rather, we are whole, we are one body. The Structural Integration ten series works at this level of wholeness, systematically decompensating your entire body from head to toe.
Dr. Rolf developed Structural Integration during the 1950’s, and her work became popularized in the 1960’s. She earned her PH.D in biological chemistry from Columbia University’s in 1920. At the same time she was working towards her degree, she also worked as a research fellow at the Rockefeller Institute. Following an accident which left her with acute phenomena, she was unable to find relief from mainstream allopathic medicine. Eventually she found her way to an osteopathic practitioner, who get her back to health. The experience with the osteopath was the catalyst for a life long search into health and the human condition, as she took up the study of osteopathy, various movement systems, philosophy and spiritual practice, and a 12 year study of yoga. Eventually she became well known as a healer who could help people nobody else had been able to help. People were lined outside her apartment in New York, where she practiced, and gradually developer her method.
* Rolf, I.: Structural Integration: Gravity, an Unexplored Factor in a More Human use of Human Beings. Systematics. 1963; 6:67-84