Rolfing Structural Integration, is a method of soft tissue manipulation that restores your natural physical balance. Balance in this case means your body can be more uplifted and easy, your centre of gravity or core can become stronger, and your movements can become more efficient, graceful, and relaxed. This is accomplished through gentle yet deep hands-on manipulation of your body’s soft tissues.
Created by Dr. Ida P. Rolf, Structural Integration has been scientifically validated, and is widely respected in both the mainstream and alternative medical communities as a highly effective modality.
Structural Integration Works with Connective Tissue
As a practitioner of Structural Integration, I am trained to recognize balance in your body, and also to recognize how that balance has been compromised. But more importantly, I am trained to help you restore your body’s natural balanced pattern. Working together, we do this through manipulation and re-education of your body’s connective tissue system.
Your Body’s Balanced Pattern
Dr. Rolf referred to the connective tissue system as the ‘organ of structure.’ This is an extensive web-like matrix that weaves throughout the body, and includes tendons, ligaments and a thin translucent layer of connective tissue that envelops every bone, muscle, nerve and visceral organ. Connective tissue works similar to how the pulp of an orange separates the cells of juice. The connective tissues taken together form a unified system or network, whose functions include giving us our shape and lifting us up against the downward pull of gravity.
The characteristics of healthy connective tissues are flexibility, elasticity, length and hydration. However, the tissues are highly responsive, and factors like trauma, illness, gravitational imbalances, and everyday stress cause the tissues to become dense, thicker, and dehydrated. This is felt in the body as chronic pain, stiffness, and impaired movement.
Connective Tissue is Changeable
One of the remarkable qualities of connective tissue is its tremendous capacity for change – its plasticity. Fascia is very responsive to stress demands in the body, quickly adding more tissue when stress in an area increases. Fortunately for us however the reverse is also true, in that connective tissue will loosen up and melt when stress in an area decreases. And it is this process which is at the basis of how Structural Integration achieves its results.
Rolfing Structural Integration works through connective tissue manipulation and education, which systematically releases chronic tension and habitual holding patterns. The work also re-organizes your body as a whole with respect to it’s natural architecture. Structural Integration practitioners achieve this by balancing the body’s connective tissue system. Using his or her hands and sometimes the flat of the elbow, the practitioner applies pressure to the connective tissues, encouraging them to gradually let go of restrictions.
The client is sometimes asked to work with breathing and movement while the process is taking place. The connective tissues release long held tensions and twists, and the structure is reorganized around anatomically efficient lines that are determined by the supportive potential of gravity. This reorganization is possible because of the responsiveness of connective tissues; remember they are extremely plastic or changeable. Just as they respond to negative factors such as trauma, they will also respond the more balanced lines of freedom introduced by the practitioners hands.
How Do the Tissues Actually Change?
There has been a great deal of discussion in recent years about how Structural Integration affects change. How does it actually work? Does the work change the fascia, or is it the muscles? Or is the nervous system the primary system affected? These are some of the questions both researchers and practitioners have been asking.
Conclusive answers are not coming, at least not yet. My own opinion, or theory, is that it’s really all of the soft tissues that are affected, and each changes in relationship with the changes in the others. For example when you focus the intention of the work on the fascia, it affects the fascia, but the fascia is completely interconnected and intertwined with the muscles, and the nerves. The same holds true if you specifically work the muscles, it affects the fascia and nerves. There are other systems that can be focused on such as lymphatic, cranio-sacral, energy, and others. Work on one of the systems affects all of the systems.
The Awareness System
An aspect of the work that it not studied or talked about very much is the aspect of consciousness. Materialistic science, the form of science most widely accepted in the mainstream of western civilization, doesn’t accept the notion of consciousness, but instead pushes it to the side and labels it “esoteric,” and “magical thinking,” and the like. This I believe, is why the researchers have yet to come up with satisfactory explanations for how myofascial manipulation achieves its results. Because every bodily system, every tissue, every cell, and every atom, is completely conscious.
This may be seen as a radical statement by some. But the fact is that you cannot separate any aspect of the body from consciousness.
Structural Integration achieves the depth of change that it does, because the work is performed very slowly, and with a great deal of conscious communication between the hands of the practitioner and the client’s tissues. As the practitioner melts their elbow into the client’s hip, the tissues melt and receive the elbow, there is a “conscious allowing” that happens. As the elbow moves along the planes of fascia, the level of sensation is vivid and wakeful. The presence of the elbow is communicating with the tissues, and that conversation wakes up the natural intelligence of the tissues, the consciousness of the tissues. This in turn facilitates change in the tissues by restoring their natural balance and length.
By nature, the body is long, open, and balanced. We become unbalanced and compressed due to a wide range of causes and conditions. But the natural length and balance are always there as potentials. To activate that potential, we need to engage with the conscious aspect of the tissues, we need to engage with the natural inclination to lengthen and be aware. Rolfing does this through the slow, highly conscious contact with the tissues.
What Happens During a Session?
During a session of Rolfing Structural Integration, you are on a massage table while we work together to bring balance back to your body. We use a combination of tissue work, breathing, and movement to gently release tension patterns from head to toe, while at the same time re-educating your body as to its natural balanced pattern. The work proceeds in a systematic way and as balance returns, your body lifts up with the support of gravity and becomes relaxed, fluid and light.
The Ten Sessions
People often ask; “Why does Structural Integration use the same ten sessions for each person, since after all, everyone is different?” The way I explain it is that yes, everyone is different, and yet in another very fundamental way, everyone is the same. We are all the same in that most people have two legs, a pelvis, rib cage, neck and head, etc. The ten sessions reflects this level of sameness we all share. And yet the way the ten sessions are performed is different according to the uniqueness of each individual. One analogy is that the ten sessions are a map, a basic guide for balancing the human structure. Like any map, you use it to get to the general area you want to visit. But once you get there, you put the map away, and you start exploring what you see around you.
Structural Integration straightens and untwists a body, restoring its natural balanced relationship with gravity. It does this in a very systematic manner. Part of the reason for the effectiveness of Structural Integration is because of this systematic approach. It is somewhat like the process of tuning the drum skin on the frame of a drum. The way to tune a drum is very symmetrically, a little on one side, a little on the opposite side, then a little at right angles, and then opposite to that, and so on, all around the drum. Then you start over and tune a little more, very carefully, symmetrically all the way around again. The reason for this approach is that to do a good job, you want to make sure the skin fits the frame properly, and in a balanced manner. It is similar with Structural Integration. There is an artful intelligence to how SI gradually opens and restores a body it to its naturally balanced pattern.
Following is a very general description – a rough sketch – of the ten-session map of Structural Integration:
The first goal of the ten-session process is to free the rib cage so that breathing capacity can increase. This sets the tone for the rest of the ten sessions, as the SI process uses breathing as a central aspect of the process. The connective tissues on the front of the rib cage are lengthened which allows the neck to come back and up into a more natural and relaxed position. The remainder of the first session deals with the relationships of the pelvis to the rib cage, and the legs to the pelvis. The session concludes with a final integration process, which introduces the client to the vertical gravity line. This line is the guiding principle of the Structural Integration process, and offers an educational tool that helps people remember their balanced relationship with gravity. Overall the first session creates a general whole body opening, which establishes a context for the work to come in the rest of the sessions.
Session two deals primarily with the relationships of the lower leg and feet with the ground. The connective tissues and muscles of the entire lower leg are reorganized to achieve better functioning of the feet, ankles, lower legs, and knees. Then the relationship of the lower legs, upper legs, and pelvis, is further balanced, so that by the end of the first half of the session the client has new legs, and a more stable base for the pelvis. The remainder of the session is devoted to educating the spinal column. Now that the pelvis is in a more natural and balanced position, work is performed to bring the upper body into a higher level of balance in accordance with the new balance in the legs and pelvis. The spinal erector muscles and connective tissues are brought to a more vertical and extended pattern. This is accomplished through the Rolf ‘back work’ which clients love so much for the deep sense of relief and length it creates in the spine. The back work in this session is a beginning, and the process of lengthening the spine and its associated soft tissues continues throughout the ten sessions. Also, the back work in this session balances the work of the first session, which was more focused on lengthening the front of the body.
The third session is the completion of a cycle. It brings together the work of the first and second sessions. Session three balances the sides of the body, with respect to each other, and also with respect to the front and back of the body. The session also works to balance the bottom of the body with the top. Work in the third session is largely on the sides of the body, bringing more depth and mobility to the lateral structures, including the arms, shoulders, rib cage, lower back, hips, and legs. By the end of this session, the superficial layers of the entire body have been worked with and brought to some degree of balance.
Sessions 4, 5, and 6 bring balance to the relationships of the pelvis with the legs, rib cage and spinal column. The pelvis is a keystone in the Structural Integration process, since the balance of the rest of the body is dependent on balance in the pelvis. As such it demands a great deal of attention. In order to balance the pelvis, these three sessions include work on the legs, abdomen, rib cage, arms, shoulders, back, and of course the pelvis itself. The pelvis has been worked in sessions 1 and 3, specifically from the sides. In Session 4 works to balance the pelvis from the bottom, by lengthening and balancing the adductor tissues. The session concludes with back work that is designed to further stabilize the relationship of the legs, pelvis, and upper body.
Sessions 5 works to balance the front of the pelvis. This includes the bones of the pelvis, as well as all the associated soft tissues, including the front of the thighs, the abdomen, the ribcage. The heart of the session is work to bring balance to the psoas muscle and fascia. The work with the psoas is significant, as Dr. Rolf’s approach to the psoas structures is widely recognized as being pioneering, and introduces new levels of awareness and balance into the body. Session five is the half way moment of the ten session recipe.
Just as session 5 worked to balance the front of the pelvis, session 6 balances the back of the pelvis. This includes work on the backs of the legs, the pelvis, and the back. Multiple layers of fascia and muscle are worked, at progressively deeper layers. The back of the hips and buttocks are released and lengthened, which neutralizes chronic tension patterns and unbalanced forces pulling on the pelvis. Towards the end of session 6, the pelvis has been balanced from the sides, bottom, front, back, and is more able to settle into a relaxed and natural position and tone. The session concludes with further work on the back. Now that the pelvis is at a high level of balance, the spinal column and entire rib cage are rebalanced with a segment of deep “sitting back work.” Previous sessions have also worked the back, and balance has increased each stage along the way. Now at the end of session 6, the balancing work on the back is at a higher order, and as a result the entire back and rib cage can settle into a natural easeful grace.
Now that the pelvis and spine have been balanced, the neck and head are the next area of focus. This session deals with the relationship of the neck with the rib cage and shoulders, the neck with the head, and within the head itself, the bones of the cranium are released to achieve maximum balance and ease. This session is a turning point in the ten-session process, as it completes the focused work on what are called the “core” structures of the pelvis, spine, neck and head.
Sessions 8, 9, & 10
The objective of the entire ten session process can be found in the definition of the word ‘yoga’ which is “to bring together, to unify.” This ‘bringing together’, or causing the body to ‘unify’ is particularly emphasized in the last three sessions, and there is a shift in emphasis from the specific to the more general.