‘One discovers by breathing that one had stopped breathing. One only discovers one’s stopped breath when one takes the next breath.’
Hélène Cixous, Hyperdream.
In the beginning was the breath. Life begins on an inhalation, and breathing remains our constant companion for the duration of our lives.
Breathing is also our habitual movement par excellence. We breathe some 20,000 times a day: that’s 20,000 contractions of the diaphragm and movements of the intercostal muscles, ribcage and spine; 20,000 tiny messages registered by the upper fibres of the psoas, in turn communicating with the pelvis and the femurs; 20,000 gentle nudges on the collarbone transmitting pressure and movement to the shoulder girdle and arms through muscle and fascia and blood flow.
Indulge me for a movement, and take a slow, deep breath in while noticing what you feel. Do your shoulders rise? Does the belly move or stay still? Do you prefer breathing in, or breathing out?
If there are restrictions around the ribcage, perhaps from a previous injury or from the cast of our usual postures, the quality and ease of our breath will be affected. Since breathing is essential to life, we should try to do it as well as we can, no?
The Rolfing ten series underscores the importance of breathing by making it our theme of enquiry during the first hour of work. Rolfers are trained to observe how well our clients breathe: can they breathe easily, and without physical restriction? Do they tighten the ribcage or seem to haul the air in through the muscular effort of their shoulders? Does the movement of the breath seem to circulate evenly between the front and back of the body, and between the chest and the belly? Does the breath flow easily, or is it held?
The way we breathe is also related to our emotional state. I love the quotation above, by Hélène Cixous, because it reminds me of the times in my own life when I have held my breath, out of anxiety and fear; braced myself against calamity, as if holding on to at least this breath might sustain me in the event of a fault in the air-supply. How many of us live in the brace position, never quite letting go of held tension?
A classic first hour of Rolfing includes work around the ribcage, spending time around the diaphragm, the breastbone and the collarbones. But the first session, in particular, is a real game of ‘two halves’ as we continue with exploration and work around the hips and the thighs. What is the relationship between the ribcage and the pelvis? Can the ribcage ‘float’ and rise on the inhalation, or does it seem compressed, rigid, or somehow ‘jammed’ into the hips?
We also begin to differentiate the quads and hamstrings from the iliotibial band, the strong band of connective tissue which runs down the outside of the thigh and which works to stabilise the hips and the knees.
The first hour is also important for setting the tone and pace of the work that is to come, the first of ten encounters in which you and I work collaboratively to try to articulate, understand and address the concerns that brought you to try Rolfing in the first place: maybe you are looking to ease certain physical symptoms, or to improve your performance in sports or other activities.
Sometimes, however, the motivating force will be simply: to feel better in your body – lighter, stronger, more grounded and better able to meet the challenges of your everyday life.
For more information and to book your first hour, please see ‘How to Book’.