People who have heard of Rolfing divide neatly, more or less, into two distinct groups: on the one hand, those who’ve tried Rolfing (and liked it); on the other, those who haven’t tried Rolfing but are too scared to try it because they heard that it’s, like, the most painful thing ever.

Group Two: this one’s for you. We need to talk about Rolfing. But to do that we also need to talk about Pelfing, because Pelfing (I’m about to explain), epitomises – and perpetuates – the enduring misconception that Rolfing is painful.

Pelfing – undoubtedly a Rolfing parody – features in a short scene in the 1977 film comedy, Semi-Tough, starring Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, and Lotte Lenya. Here it is (I urge you to watch it). Come back to me straight after, though, because your tl;dr précis is that Rolfing is definitely not like Pelfing.

Every Rolfer stumbles across this scene, sooner or later in their Rolfing career, and watches with commingled bemusement and horror at something that’s clearly intended as a Rolfing spoof. Not unlike Pelfing itself, the scene is painfully funny: funny because it’s a recognisable parody of Rolfing (complete with a few details taken squarely from the Rolfing ten series), but also painful because it misrepresents the way we work – to undoubted comic effect – in ways that perpetuate the ‘Rolfing is painful’ myth. I’ve had a number of clients over the years who took years mustering the courage to try Rolfing (and even went as far as dosing themselves up on painkillers before their first session…), only to tell me afterwards that they were pleasantly surprised to find that they didn’t find Rolfing painful at all.

To understand how Pelfing could be passed off as Rolfing, we need to understand the broader landscape of health and fitness in the 1960s and 1970s. While Rolfing wasn’t well known among the general public, it was a part of the intellectual and cultural ferment of ideas and therapies associated with the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, which was then home to a number of writers and producers associated with Hollywood. The mantra of ‘no pain, no gain’ additionally held across many domains of fitness and physical therapy, and one thing was clear: Rolfing wasn’t a straightforwardly ‘relaxing’ therapy like a beauty salon massage. Then, as now, Rolfers focused on releasing fascial strain, which could mean getting into tough and adhered tissue such as the iliotibial band (down the outside of the thighs), or between and around the ribs to make it easier to breath.

Dr Ida Rolf treating a baby in the 1970s.

Even still, Ida Rolf – reconceived in Semi-Tough as Clara Pelf – was never the teutonic ball-breaker straight out of 1970s Central Casting that Lotte Lenya’s depiction implies. While certainly formidable, Dr Rolf (a native New Yorker, as it happens) spent her senior years wearing flowers in her hair, and working with the notoriously pain-shy constituency of children and small babies. She did (and we do) use elbows and knuckles where necessary to work on tough or adhered fascial tissue, but as many of my clients have noted, it’s a surprising fact that strong work done with precision and care is not necessarily painful. Strong and sometimes intense, yes, but painful? No. (And if it gets a bit too much for you, you tell us, and we stop.)

Rolfers nowadays incorporate the insights of contemporary scientific research that has deepened our understanding of the mechanisms by which we can affect fascial and muscular tone. What we know is that strong touch is not always necessary to achieve good results. Fascial research teaches us that chronically ‘tight’ or ‘short’ muscles may be better thought of as chronically active or ‘switched on’: this is where movement work (now a part of every Rolfer’s training) comes into its own, as does an understanding of the nervous system, and the way that fascial mechanoreceptors send information back to the central nervous system.

Pelfing is to Rolfing as the Swedish Chef in the Muppets is to Larousse Gastronomique: funnier (I’ll grant you that), but rightly understood as absurd.

While Clara Pelf seems intent on causing as much pain as possible for the hapless character played by Burt Reynolds, Rolfers are taught not only to respect our clients’ boundaries, but to respect the findings of modern pain science in relation to the way that the perception of pain is mediated by the nervous system (put more simply: anxiety makes things feel more painful). In a first session of Rolfing, I always begin by asking my client to let me know if I am doing anything that is too much for them, recognising that pain is often a function of this ‘too muchness’: using too much pressure, going too fast, or simply not spending enough time to put the client at ease. Ida Rolf was very clear on this:

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 organises the body.

Before I finish, here are a few other ways in which Rolfing is not like Pelfing (I’m hoping these are obvious, but they are noted here for the avoidance of doubt):

Rolfers generally do ask clients to undress to their underwear, though we can, with some limitations, work with clients fully clothed, using gentler movement work instead of the more traditional fascial manipulation techniques. Rolfers will always do what they can to help clients feel comfortable.

Rolfers are sensitive to the way that our emotional histories are written in the body: in our posture, body use, gesture, and habitual ways of responding to stress. But we do not presume to comment on our clients’ sexual difficulties or family relationships..! Rolfing grew up alongside a number of radical thinkers and therapies, such as Fritz Perls (who knew Ida Rolf personally, and championed her work), and Reichian body psychotherapy (such as Bionenergetics), that equated emotional expression with therapeutic success. These theories do not form a part of Rolfing as it is taught and practised nowadays. Our job as Rolfers (in Ida’s words) is ‘the evocation and the installation of a certain sense of health’.

We do traditionally offer work inside the mouth and nose, usually in session seven. It’s gentle, finger-tip work that helps to release restrictions in the jaw and the facial bones. If a client really doesn’t like the sound of it, we can leave it out. And we always use gloves for hygiene!

Finally, we don’t accept bribes or inducements in kind, even from the delightful Burt Reynolds (may he rest in peace).

So there you have it. I definitely don’t recommend you try Pelfing any time soon, but if you’re looking for a therapy that can have profound and long-lasting positive effects on your posture, on back and shoulder pain, knee and foot problems, and many other chronic conditions, be brave and try Rolfing.

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