In a word: yes.
But notice that my question was not “Can Rolfing help you lose weight?”, but “Can Rolfing help you look slimmer?” But both questions are valid. In this post I’ll try to address both sides of the equation – the appearance of weight loss, and the reality – and the role that Rolfing can play in these.
Before I go any further, though: a question for you.
Why do you want to lose weight (or look slimmer) anyway? My blog headline was posed deliberately to pique your attention, but you clicked on the link, which suggests that you may have more than an academic interest in the topic at hand.
So far, so mutual in our willingness to collude in a discourse which frames the very condition of our embodiment – our weightedness – almost exclusively (and especially if we are women) in terms of an unending battle against the bulge that casts its moralising shadow over almost everything we do: how we eat, what we like, how we spend our time.
We are not designed to be weightless, we humans; or to be lighter than air. Our adipose tissues are an integral part of what it means to be a human being rather than, say, a whippet, a snake or a ‘fluttering and dancing’ daffodil. If you can handle it (it features dissection), Gill Hedley explores this topic here in remarkable anatomical detail and argues movingly in favour of a more compassionate relationship to our bodies, and our fat, recasting our adipose layer as an ‘organ’ (literally, an organised structure) of our bodies, with specific functions and value.
And the experience of our weightedness is inherent to our lives here on earth: we are subject to the earth’s gravitational forces, and our weight (or more accurately, our mass) is part of our response, even our resistance, to living in a world which literally weighs heavily on the fabric of our bodies. “Gravity is the teacher,” wrote Ida Rolf. Human beings dream of flying because it isn’t a part of our physiological endowment, but maybe birds long to be rooted to the ground, like trees and human beings?
But that’s not why you’re here now, reading this page. I know that. Perhaps you’d like to shift a few pounds or look better in your swimsuit. If I veer from the topic at hand it is because I am nervous to promote Rolfing structural integration as yet another ‘quick-fix’ solution to a problem that is largely a product of the food, advertising and fashion industries, even while I, too, remain caught up in my own desire to be a little slimmer than I ever actually am.
And alongside our culture’s predominant anti-fat fascism there is also a real (and weighty) problem: parts of the world are in the grip of something that is now correctly described as an ‘epidemic’ of excess weight that is a major risk factor in a number of debilitating diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, and which threatens to reverse the trend toward increased life expectancy and quality of life throughout the life cycle.
So here’s the deal. I’ll answer the teaser headline if you’ll promise to go easy on yourself for being (the chances are) a little bit heavier than you’d like to be. If losing weight or looking a little bit slimmer will help you live a healthier and fuller life, then it’s a reasonable goal, among others, to pursue in a life that will finally have been testament to the sum of your directed energies. But fat-free is for skimmed milk, not for humans, and a life without cake is a missed opportunity.
Q: Can Rolfing make you look slimmer?
A: Yes. Posture makes a huge difference to how we look. We know that instinctively, in the way we sit up straight or turn our bodies side-on to the camera lens; we know that slouching accentuates the belly. Not that our intuitions are always correct: I recognise in many of my clients my own former tendency to ‘tuck my tail’ in the hope of keeping from prying eyes the unprecedented vastness of my arse, but my bum did not oblige by appearing even one jot smaller while the frequency and severity of my lower back pain grew, year on year.
My experience of giving sessions is that some clients do look noticeably slimmer after they’ve had a few sessions, for the very simple but profound reason that they are standing differently and standing taller. Take, for instance, the testimonial of my client Fiona, who writes, “Friends have commented on how tall I stand and have asked whether I’ve lost weight. I haven’t, but Naomi helped me carry myself better.” In general, Rolfing has a decompressive effect on the body, which is cosmetically advantageous to people, like me, who stand five-foot-nothing in bare feet.
Or have a look at some of the ‘before and after Rolfing pictures’ that can be found on the Internet. People stand taller and straighter and they just look slimmer quite regardless of whether the weighing scales would register any change. The effect of lengthening the front of the body, in particular (through work around the ribs, the abdomen and the psoas) can have a marked effect on the apparent prominence of the belly. I owe the rediscovery of my waist to Rolfing.
Q: Can Rolfing help you lose weight, for real?
A: Again, yes, but let me again caution against any simplistic notion of Rolfing as a weight-loss solution. What really matters is how you feel in your body, and there’s no question that Rolfing can really help you to feel lighter, looser and more ‘uplifted’ through your torso and your spine.
But there is something else, though it’s harder to explain. Rolfing seems to have an ability to ‘reset’ your nervous system in a way that makes you less likely to put on weight in the first place and easier to lose when it’s there. It’s to do with how the body reacts to the experience of long-term stress, and it’s something I’ve experienced in my own life. In fact, it was the most significant (though unexpected) benefit that I got from my first Rolfing sessions taken prior to my training.
I went through an extremely stressful few years in my late twenties that took in a number of jobs changes, redundancy, house moves and the end of an important relationship. A host of apparently minor – but mysterious, and at times debilitating – health conditions began to emerge, such as dizzy spells, breathlessness, chronic tiredness and dermatitis. I also put on weight and suffered from anxiety.
While I was always assiduous in seeking my doctor’s advice, my various test results – for diabetes, anaemia, or asthma – always came back negative. Though relieved not to be diagnosed with a serious illness, I felt I was fighting a losing battle with symptoms that indicated that all was not well. I strongly suspected that my health problems were stress-related in origin and I began to look for ways to address the underlying problem rather than the symptoms.
After a few sessions of Rolfing, I remember noticing how much calmer I was beginning to feel, how much less stressed, and how I had more energy throughout the day. For me, it took a longer time before I started to see the effects of the Rolfing on my body. But over time, I also began to lose weight, and although I helped matters along with attention to diet and exercise (particularly when I embarked on the training), I also felt that it became easier for the weight to come off and stay off.
A growing body of research suggests a number of ways in which the benefits of touch and structural integration – the task of making the body work better as a whole – begin to re-gear the body’s habitual nervous system responses in a way that nudges the balance in favour of the parasympathetic nervous system (that part of the nervous system that promotes feelings of safety, trust and empathy, and is associated with high vagal tone) over the sympathetic nervous system (our ‘fight or flight’ response, and its attendant hormones, such as adrenalin and cortisol).
When we are stressed, our bodies go into a kind of ‘lockdown’ mode that aims at increasing our chances of surviving impending catastrophe such as physical attack or a shortage of food. Although a short burst of adrenalin fires up our system to burn more calories temporarily, the long-term effect of high levels of sympathetic activation makes it more likely that we’ll convert the energy we consume into fat for long-term storage, and it also impairs our immune and digestive systems.
So, there you have it. Rolfing can help you look slimmer as well as create the best conditions for your body to lose weight naturally. But more importantly than either of these, Rolfing can help you feel better in the body you’re in. While the benefits of Rolfing can be cosmetic, they are also more than skin-deep.