Today – 19 May – is Ida Rolf’s birthday. Born in 1896 in the Bronx, Ida Rolf is the inventor of Rolfing and the founder of two schools, the Rolf Institute (where I trained) and the Guild for Structural Integration. Her work is also the inspiration for a number of other schools which teach variants on structural integration, with different emphases or training requirements. Many of these schools, such as Hellerwork and KMI, can trace their lineage very directly back to Ida through their own founders, or were directly involved in the development of Rolfing itself (eg. Judith Aston’s role in creating Rolf Movement, an additional Rolfing qualification which extends the work we do into movement and function).
I’ve already covered a little of the biographical detail about Ida here, so do take a look if you’d like to know more about Ida’s exceptional career from academic research to healer and pioneer. But it’s worth pointing out here and now that we Rolfers don’t lionise dear Ida: we recognise that she was a character of her time, addressing bodies as she saw them during her own formative years in the early part of the 20th century, and placing a narrower emphasis on structural and tissue work than would the modern Rolfer.
Ida Rolf always knew that Rolfing would be bigger than her – she made provision for the development of more than one training school after her death – and looked to people outside of Rolfing’s immediate circle to address the areas where she was less expert. Her enquiring mind extended to interests that we would now place outside the formal boundaries of Rolfing, and during her time at the Esalen Institute in the 1960s she was a quietly leading light among a diverse and heady array of fashionable thinkers and gurus – people such as the psychotherapist Fritz Perls, psychologist Carl Rogers, psychiatrist R.D. Laing, and movement teacher Moshé Feldenkrais.
By association and timing she was on the margins of the ‘human potential’ movement, a charismatic countercultural group of thinkers and practitioners of the 1960s and 1970s who shared the belief that human beings had deeper, esoteric potential to transcend the constraints of modern life and consciousness.
I think something of this countercultural energy still attaches to modern Rolfing: we position ourselves slightly aslant of our closest forebears, the osteopaths (though our work and roots have a good deal in common) in order to gesture toward the possibility that Rolfing can do more than simply ‘fix’ particular physical aches and pains. Our focus on posture and gesture and pattern are tied in with the view that many of us do not live to our fullest potential, that (say) a tendency to hold one’s breath may be not only a physical pattern but a habitual response to life itself. All of this is profoundly interesting territory to me, but it’s the side of Rolfing that I take greatest care in writing about, and I’m also careful to make clear what Rolfing is not: we are not medical doctors or psychotherapists, and we are certainly not gurus (I would make an especially rubbish guru). Nor was Ida Rolf. She wrote, ‘You are not God or therapist. You sufficiently organize the body so that gravity can move through it better and do its work. Gravity is the therapist.’
All the reports I have read of Ida during this time suggest a woman of formidable character: by turns deeply humorous, exacting, and disarmingly straight-talking. We should also not forget that she was highly educated, with a PhD in biochemistry and an earlier career in research. You didn’t mess with Ida Rolf. I suspect that every Rolfer-in-training asks themselves the question at some point, ‘Would Ida have accepted me on to her original training?’ (I suspect the answer, for almost all of us, might be ‘no’ – though access to the Rolfing training is no less demanding these days – arguably, rather more so, in fact – but a little less adventitious).
So we hold on to her insights – the role of gravity, the role of fascia – and we return again and again to her ten-series ‘recipe’, which has been tried and tested with innumerable clients over the 36 years since her death in 1979. Rolfers don’t follow her prescriptions slavishly – discussion goes back and forth about possible alternatives to the ten series, different ways of delivering the work, adapting the series to particular client needs – but time and again I read statements by the most experienced Rolfers to the effect that they keep doing the ten series, because it works.
I want to finish with a couple of quotes by Ida – by no means her best known, and aimed at Rolfers rather than clients – that I chanced upon today flicking again through her book (edited by Rosemary Feitis), ‘Rolfing and Physical Reality’ – just some things that spoke to me today:
‘Don’t force things. If you’ve done your preparation right you don’t have to force things. There’s a steadiness, a gradual straightening that organizes the body.’
‘In a human body, support is not something solid. Support is relationship.’
‘Different points of view approach the same problem. As Rolfing gets more widespread and more successful, we are going to have to talk to more people with different points of view. What I’m trying to do is make you learn one thing six ways ‘round, keep you coming back and taking a new way, a new direction each time. I hope that time doesn’t run out on us before we get all the way around.’
Ida Rolf died in March 1979, at the age of 82. She had enough time to bequeath to us a legacy of work – techniques, ideas, a vision of the human form and a recipe for delivering the work – that are slowly building in mainstream acceptance and awareness year on year. The last quote above shows that she foresaw the way that the Rolfing community would need to become expert both in listening and communicating, in drawing to itself new ideas and ways of thinking, and remaining open to learning from others. Her legacy is profound. So let’s raise a toast to Dr Rolf on her birthday.