Another day, another article about Rolfing, and a renewed round of interest and incredulity in everyone’s new favourite bodywork modality with the funny-sounding name. But it’s come this time from a couple of frankly unexpected sources: actor and lifestyle ‘guru’ Gwyneth Paltrow, for starters, and Sense About Science, the ‘charitable trust that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion’, who’ve asked us, the UK Rolfing community, to make good on a series of comments that appeared in yesterday’s edition of The Guardian.
Firstly, the background story, which I’m going to go through in slightly tedious detail. A couple of weeks ago, a story appeared on Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle blog, entitled ‘Fascia: The Secret Organ (And How To Make Your Legs Longer And Leaner)’.
It featured an interview with Lauren Roxburgh, described as a structural integration specialist from the U.S., and described the experience of the journalist who left feeling (and measuring) taller. At the end of a session with Lauren, the article breathlessly continues, ‘Lauren has in fact made you taller—and as a result of the heightened alignment, leaner.’
(It’s worth noting in passing that Lauren Roxburgh, as far as I can tell, isn’t a certified Rolfer, and indeed the word ‘Rolfing’ doesn’t appear in the original article. But that’s ok. I mention it for completeness. I don’t know about Lauren’s particular training, as there are other forms of bodywork which share elements of, or which have been derived from, the work of Ida Rolf.)
Let’s go back to the article, and go through the statements one by one. At the end of a session that featured fascial manipulation, the journalist felt taller (marvellous) and actually measured taller against a grid (excellent): ‘Lauren has in fact made you taller.’
But then, the first of two journalistic sleights of hand that muddy the waters: ‘—and as a result of the heightened alignment, leaner.’ Hang on a minute: leaner? I think not. She may well feel (even look) slimmer as a result of standing taller, but it’s deeply unlikely that she’s actually lost body fat as a result of one session – unless it’s been a very long session, that is.
And that ‘longer, leaner’ line, combined with the subsequent foam-rolling exercises for the legs, seems to be what gives rise to the more questionable subtitle, ‘(How To Make Your Legs Longer And Leaner)’. You can readily see what happened there: fascial manipulation, standing taller, longer, leaner, exercises for the legs… and hey presto! longer legs. It’s probably not precisely what anyone had in mind, but it makes for a great subtitle that’s sure to prompt readers to click through.
Cue The Guardian, who have been feeling the Rolfing goodness ever since their recent article which discussed the benefits of Rolfing on the prevention and resolution of running injuries. That article featured my colleague, Alan Richardson, and so it was to Alan that they turned for a quick response to the question: can Rolfing make your legs longer?
Alan replied, reasonably enough, that Rolfing can reverse the compressive and dehydrating effect of injury and ageing on connective tissue. He isn’t keen, however (in the journalist’s words) ‘to suggest you can actually elongate your legs’, but that it’s ‘not an unreasonable claim’ given the role that Rolfing does play in releasing fascial and muscular restrictions at the hips.
He went on, however, to say that he prefers not to draw too much attention to the ‘Hollywood cosmetic side of things’, but would rather focus on the way that Rolfing helps people feel better in their bodies and better about themselves: an argument, in effect, for the traditional concerns of compassionate bodywork – stronger and more resilient bodies, and the psychological effects of touch – over the faintly frivolous tone of the Goop article, which winds up placing undue emphasis on appearance.
Enter Sense About Science scientific liaison officer, Chris Peters, with the following email to Alan:
I was interested to read in a recent Guardian article some more information about Rolfing – which is something I had not heard about. The article said that “Rolfing is known to give patients a sense of grounding; they stand up for themselves when previously they may have been pushed around, they deal with stress better. Some even describe the Rolfing experience as catalysing a major life change or decision.”
Could you send me the evidence to support these claims?
I’m contacting you as part of the Ask for Evidence campaign and I will be making this request, and the response, publicly available.
This is the kind of question that is reasonable enough in principle, but which can be a little frustrating in practice. It’s frustrating because Alan hadn’t really intended his words in a short conversation with a cold-calling journalist to be quoted verbatim in the pages of a national newspaper (though we’re not complaining), and frustrating when the context of the comments (an evocation of Rolfing as something that might have more important benefits than the narrowly cosmetic) has been occluded in the high-minded but possibly overweening pursuit of scientific precision.
Unlike Sense About Science, for instance, Rolfing UK doesn’t have an administrative staff, or a PR officer, and we are primarily therapists, not research scientists.
Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to ask us to defend the value of our work, and so I will try to address Chris Peter’s email in the spirit of our community’s genuine willingness and desire to place Rolfing on a clearer footing in terms that are acceptable to a scientifically literate public, and to bring the benefits to Rolfing to a wider audience.
I invite you, the reader, to determine whether you believe that I succeed in that aim.
Here again are Alan’s comments, elaborated a little in the form of a series of handy haiku (well, why not?):
Quoth Alan: Rolfing
Is known to give our patients
A sense of grounding;
Our clients find that
they deal with stress better and
stand up for themselves
they may have been pushed around
moreover: they even
describe the Rolfing
in terms of catalysing
a major life change
Let’s take a look at the two key elements of Alan’s gnomic discourse: firstly, this idea of ‘grounding’; secondly, the capacity to deal more adaptively to stress; and relatedly, the notion that Rolfing can support life change, behavioural change and just maybe, in carefully qualified terms, a shift in personality.
I can understand why talk of ‘grounding’ has set off the Woo Klaxon back at Sense About Science HQ. It’s one of those ideas that slides between a straightforward, physical definition (feeling steady on one’s feet) and a psychological one (feeling calm, in control, having ‘both feet on the ground’, having a realistic assessment of things).
The implied emotional resonances of our relationship to the ground are everywhere in our language: we ‘land on our feet’ (if we’re lucky); we aim to ‘stand on our two feet’ or to have a ‘firm footing’; we are liable to be ‘swept off our feet’ in the case of love, or to wish the ‘ground would swallow us up’ when things don’t work out the way we hoped.
Rolfers, and others, are interested in the body’s ability to distribute its weight evenly and effectively across the feet. Looked at in static, architectural terms, the structure of the human body (a broad body over a narrow base) seems improbably designed for maximum stability in standing. But humans don’t stand still, and in movement the design features of the feet (the arches and the suppleness given by the many articulations of the foot’s 26 bones) enable us to transmit and transfer weight and to respond minutely to a changing terrain.
At the beginning of second session (which focuses on precisely this theme), I typically ask my clients to describe how they feel the distribution of their weight in their feet, and there are many different possible answers to this question. Some people say: it feels like my weight is all on my heels, or all on the ball of my foot; or: I feel that the weight is coming mainly through the outside of my legs, or (and less frequently) all through the middle; or: I feel like there is more weight in my left foot, or my right foot. And at the end of a session, they often say that they feel more ‘grounded’.
Rolfers are deeply interested in how our clients connect with the ground, because adaptive, well-functioning feet provide a stable and resilient platform for the transmission of weight which might otherwise be carried in the back, the shoulders, or the knees. We are physical therapists, and we approach these questions in physical terms.
But it is not therefore bogus or woolly-headed to invoke the emotional resonances of a client’s ‘relationship to the ground’. Because, oh, we do have a relationship to the ground, and a personal one at that. Our early experiences – of learning to walk, of hauling ourselves up time and again only to stumble and fall, and try again – of childhood trips, and slips, and running-too-fast and taking-a-tumble – were and remain emotional and embodied experiences that go to make up a personal history of traits such as self-confidence, determination, and fear.
Stress and behavioural change
Rolfing – a tricky thing to talk about at the best of times – is perhaps most easily described in terms of fascial manipulation, alignment, and postural change.
That’s all immensely good stuff. But in some sense it’s no longer quite at the heart of what we do. Over the last twenty years, Rolfers have become increasingly sensitive to the role that the nervous system plays in the pattern of our responses to the everyday stressors that are a feature of our frenetic lives.
While we usually explain our habitual ways of responding to stress – shall I run for that bus or not? – in personality terms (‘So-and-so is always rushing somewhere’; ‘He is just too laidback’, etc.), there is evidence to suggest that the typical behaviours that we attribute to personality, psychology, personal history, and so on, are as much a function of our habitual – that is, historically patterned – nervous system responses, and that the totality of response which we describe as ‘psychological’ can be explained in terms of the relative levels of activation of our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and the neurological and endocrinological changes that are associated with these.
A great deal of human behaviour can be described in terms of our attempts to maintain or attenuate our habitual nervous system responses: whether it’s declaring against running for public transport, or avoiding a confrontation with your boss (in both cases avoiding the activation of the sympathetic nervous system), or a desire to go bungee-jumping at the weekend (conversely powering up the sympathetic nervous system), our personalities reflect in some measure the embodied states of our nervous system to which we have become accustomed.
We become used to a certain range of our nervous system, and both consciously and unconsciously we sometimes direct our behaviours to generate or avoid particular states of arousal. This is entirely normal in itself, but we can get stuck in one state or another setting that feels like ‘home’, and that’s not so healthy: the hallmark of a well-functioning nervous system is the ability to adapt to circumstance as required (to get off to sleep at bedtime or to get the heck up and RUN from that tiger, NOW!) and to able to regulate and switch between those responses, as necessary.
As Rolfers, we are very attuned to the nervous system: we learn to recognise the fidgeters, the non-stop-talkers, the instant snoozers, the super-alert and the deep- and shallow-breathers, and we use our touch and our gestures to engender feelings of calm and safety, or to nudge a client to greater alertness. There is a growing body of work by neuroscientists such as Stephen Porges that describes the gestures and movements that promote greater activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, and vagal tone.
It is therefore not outlandish for Alan, an advanced Rolfer of some 16 years’ experience, to evoke improved adaptation to stress or to describe the way that sustained attention to the nervous system through touch and movement education can seem to go hand-in-hand with the major life shifts which we naturally avoid. New behaviours and responses take us out of our ‘comfort zone’: for Rolfers (and others), the experience of comfort is not only a psychological shorthand but a material, embodied reality.
I have already described elsewhere the practical difficulties of developing a body of evidence that would meet the ‘gold standard’ of double-blind, peer-reviewed studies into the efficacy of Rolfing. There are currently only 37 Rolfers in the UK, and we are not, unlike Sense About Science, supported financially by the likes of the Wellcome Trust.
Nor are we, in the ordinary way of things, research scientists, or connected with the kinds of research institutions with the capacity and means to carry out randomised trials into the effects of the Rolfing ten series or to pursue longitudinal studies of the effects of Rolfing over the longer term.
We can point, however, to specific writers and specific strands of interdisciplinary theory (in the fields of neuroscience, osteopathy, trauma and psychotherapy – see the earlier links) and to a few instances of specific research into fascia and the effects of Rolfing compared to physical therapies. We can certainly provide coherent and intelligent theoretical explanations for the work that we do, and its effects.
But does this provide the kind of evidence that Sense About Science are looking for? I believe that we do have evidence, but it’s not readily accessible ‘to hand over’ in the form that would be recognised by Chris Peters and his colleagues. The kind of evidence that we do have will, of necessity, be comprised mainly of qualitative, subjective and phenomenological accounts of experiences and changes that may not be as readily measurable as the length of one’s leg or range of movement at a joint.
Each one of us has the evidence of our own experience. We choose to become Rolfers – requiring some 2-3 years of training in the British modular system – as a direct result of our own experience of receiving the Rolfing ten series.
And then there are our clients. If we’re not slick at handling our PR, you should see what we’re like at marketing! Despite Rolfing’s still relatively low profile, clients seek us out through word-of-mouth recommendation and often after conventional medical interventions have not worked.
As far as I know, none of us places any obligation on our clients to return for a further nine sessions. But return, they do, and they tell us over and again that they feel different, better, that they are more alert to their postural bad habits, are experiencing less pain, and that they’re noticing that they’ve been less anxious of late, more confident, or finally plucked up the courage to hand in their notice on an unsatisfying job. They believe that Rolfing has enabled them to change in ways that go far beyond the purely physical benefits of reduced pain and improved posture.
And in this way we arrive at a kind of ethnographic distillate of our own experiences, the experiences of others, a confidence in our own ways of working and a desire to continue to learn from the senior and innovative practitioners in our field, and others.
Dear Chris of Sense About Science, we’d like you to understand that the difficulty we have in providing the screeds of longitudinal, randomised, double-blind, peer-reviewed research of the kind that would straightforwardly meet your request stems not from unwillingness or charlatanry on our part, but from the inherent difficulties in marrying the painstaking and necessarily subjective, interpersonal, work of a small community to the requirements and interests of major funding bodies and research institutions.
We’d be very happy for people like you, the people who champion the public dissemination of new knowledge and scientific enquiry, to work with the UK Rolfing community to bring the benefits of our work to a wider audience.
It’s a serious proposition. Does the Rolfing ten series offer a safe, short-term, non-invasive and effective treatment that brings lasting relief to people suffering from back pain and stress? Is that something worth opening up to a wider audience? We believe it is, and we have the testimony of our clients to support our claims.
In the interests of ‘standing up for scientific enquiry’, organisations like yours have a counterweight responsibility to help people like us to access and develop the more rigorous (and sometimes, narrower) indicators of scientific credibility that are currently heavily skewed in favour of the often commercial organisations associated with conventional treatment routes.
So in turn I have a question for you: can you send us the support [that would enable us] to evidence our claims?