This week, Rolfing has been in the media again with the publication of a great article promoting the benefits of Rolfing for the over-50s, and featuring fabulous pictures of my ever glamorous colleague and classmate, Sybil Darrington.
So in today’s post I want to explore the role that Rolfing can play in slowing down the effects of ageing on the body. I also want to disentangle ‘ageing’ from something that we might better call ‘maturation’. A simpler way of putting this might be: ageing is not only a ‘bad thing’, because it’s also the process by which we grow into and become our fullest, best selves. But the kind of ageing that brings painful joints and shuffling feet? We need not go gentle into that less good night, and Rolfing can be a superb tool to resist and unwind the ravages of time.
One of the most interesting things about my work is that I see a wide range of clients in my London and Luton practices: different ages, different body types, and very different personalities.
What this allows me to see very clearly is the way that age is a process and not a number. And while wrinkles may be a sign of advancing years, their significance fades in comparison with ‘feeling’ (and indeed acting) old.
I’ve seen clients in their twenties who already have the tell-tale signs of what the U.S. Rolfer, Valerie Berg, calls ‘structural ageing’, such as a stooped back, decreased spinal mobility, sagging knees, and feet that are no longer supple and adaptive. And I have clients in their 70s and 80s who are both formidable and spry. The majority of my clients fall somewhere in between, often coming to Rolfing as they become aware that they need to think about the long-term sustainability of a frenetic lifestyle.
Structurally young bodies move with confidence, and are just a little bit risk-taking: yes, I can run for this bus, or reach on my tip-toes; a little dancing won’t hurt me; why don’t we go for a walk today? It’s not that each and all of these activities remain necessarily feasible at every moment of our lives, and with ageing also comes the wisdom to discern when, really, the risks of falling out of a tree do outweigh the pleasures of tree-climbing.
As the prospect of my own middle age starts to loom on the horizon, questions about ageing surface with every new niggle and twinge. But I also have far less back pain that I had in my twenties. I distinctly remember a Christmas church service years ago and how much my lower back hurt each time we stood to sing carols. This is not on, I thought: I’m only 25.
Indeed, it was this sense that I was ‘ageing before my time’ that first put me onto Rolfing. I went through the wringer in the closing years of my twenties, facing redundancy, financial problems, and a relationship break-up all in the same year. With hindsight, I can now see that these difficult years cleared the path for a more positive future and a new career. But everything hurt: my back, my shoulders, my hips, and my feet. I hobbled down stairs, afraid of slipping (which happened frequently), and sessions at the gym left me exhausted rather than replenished. When I went to a friend’s wedding but felt too stiff to enjoy dancing, I realised that I felt old in a way that was vastly at odds with my unlined face and birth certificate.
I had the pleasure of taking Valerie Berg’s course on structural ageing this summer. Valerie’s a doyenne of the Rolfing teaching community, with nearly thirty years of experience behind her. She described how she kept seeing a particular postural pattern (especially in women) combining overpronation of the feet (the feet rolling inwards), rigid big toes, weak knees, and balance issues, and began to see it as a pattern of ageing that was not necessarily related to biological age. She also identified ageing with flexion, of the body being caught increasingly in a stooped, hunched attitude, or (as Rolfers describe it) of a shortening of the front of the body, a gesture also related to states of stress and fear.
More than any of these specifics, Valerie reminded us that addressing the signs of structural ageing goes to the heart of the Rolfing project, because life lies in movement and adaptability. When we start to move less, and when we physically begin to struggle to adapt to new demands placed on the body, we start to age.
I’ll let Valerie speak for herself in this short video which was produced by the Rolf Institute, because she expresses it much better than I can. And like everything in Rolfing, it’s slowly but definitely compelling:
Ageing is also characterised, she suggested, by a loss of horizon, which can be understood both in physical terms and metaphorically. When our bodies take in less information about the world (through inflexible feet, for example), we offer less stimulation to the vestibular (balance) system and are more likely to feel disoriented and unstable.
A foot that is less adaptive to the terrain is less shock-absorbing that one where the bones glide and roll like the chassis of an expensive sports car: it sends more of the impact of walking through to the back and the neck. Ribs that move less create less space for breathing. In every area and tissue of the body (and not forgetting the mind), movement and adaptability are the true vital signs that help us resist the effects of ageing. And everything a Rolfer does is geared to these aims: encouraging greater range of motion, improved posture, increased suppleness in the fascia, and a more adaptive nervous system.
After ten sessions of Rolfing, most of my clients stand taller and report that they have less pain and improved mobility. The biological clock keeps ticking, of course, but it’s the life in your years that counts.