Rolfing has been in the news a lot recently. You can’t move these days for new articles extolling the virtues of our little known, but highly effective way to release tension, improve running form, and unwind (some of) the effects of ageing. Here in the UK, we now number 44 certified Rolfing practitioners, a small but mighty pain-busting squad of fascial freedom fighters (as the U.S. Rolfer Brooke Thomas describes our work).
We are highly trained. We are very effective. And we are professionals.
And this is why I write today. One of my excellent colleagues, Nico Thoemmes, was featured in last week’s Sunday Times supplement, having completed a ten series with wellness writer Louise Chunn over a period of three months. A huge congratulations to Nico, whose success is well-deserved.
While I’m delighted that Louise had a very positive experience that addressed both her physical aches and pains and brought her into greater awareness with her body, I’m not so sure about the way in which both she (and the sub-editor at the Sunday Times) seem hell-bent on sensationalising – and frankly sexualising – the whole experience. She describes ‘stripping’ for a ‘handsome young man’; elsewhere she is in her ‘bra and knickers in broad daylight while a good-looking man kneaded, poked and pulled at me’. This is kinda sexist, no? Put it this way: if Louise were Louis, and Nico were Nicola, we’d all feel distinctly uncomfortable with the following description of a pelvic lift:
He slid his hands between my legs, up past my buttocks and onto the small of my back, where we would cradle me.
I mean, seriously? It’s called a pelvic lift. And what’s a pelvic lift? Well:
A pelvic lift is a standard osteopathic and Rolfing technique with a long and esteemed history. Here’s how I describe it: with the client lying on his or her back, the Rolfer places one hand beneath the client’s sacrum and the other hand under the lumbar spine.
Typically given at the end of a session, it complements cranial work (if you’ve heard of the term ‘craniosacral’, this is the other end of that system, the sacrum); it helps to relax the spine and the pelvis, and it soothes and settles the nervous system after receiving an hour of strong and sometimes challenging work. It is a quiet, gentle, lovely technique to receive and to give: we Rolfers never fail to make use of pelvic lifts when we do our own trainings and are feeling frazzled. There is an intimacy to the pelvic lift, but it is absolutely not the salacious experience that Louise Chunn describes, and it’s sad to see it described in that way.
I want to make a few comments about why it’s important to call this kind of thing out. Firstly there’s a reputational – and safety – issue. As a female practitioner, I’d be appalled if a male journalist (or anyone) described my work in this way, not least as it would misrepresent the way in which I (and all Rolfers) work, but also potentially expose me to inappropriate client enquiries. For women, this is a real and everyday issue, and an unfortunate by-product of promoting oneself as a physical therapist.
I worry, too, that Louise’s insistent focus on bodily exposure could be off-putting to anyone who’s less than confident about their body image. She mentions the part of the session that we call the ‘body reading’, which is when we look at the client standing in his or her underwear. The traditional body reading in standing is helpful because we take an analytical approach to assessing a client’s posture that is not dissimilar to the way an osteopath would work.
I’ve talked previously about my own, lifelong, issues with body dysmorphia, and I know just how hard it is for some of my clients to allow themselves to be seen in their underwear. Issues around body image are pervasive and debilitating. One of Rolfing’s strengths is that it can help people to be more ‘in their body’, and to have a new experience of their body as a ‘safe place’ rather than a place of judgement and physical and emotional pain. For many of my clients, choosing to embark on a Rolfing ten series is a courageous step on a long journey of trying to improve their relationship to their body. I try to ensure that all my clients know exactly what to expect when they come for a first session, and to work with them in a sensitive way that respects and acknowledges their discomfort. I should also add that Rolfers assess structure and function in a number of different ways, and that the traditional body reading in standing is only one way in which we can do this. Rolfers have a particular way of looking at the human body: we are not looking for perfection or sexual allure.
Relatedly, Louise’s sensational ‘Fifty Shades’ approach to her Rolfing write-up puts at risk another important aspect to the work we do. I work with a number of clients who have experienced sexual abuse, for whom a safe and non-sexualised space is the sine qua non for entering physical therapy. I have great confidence in the professionalism and ability of my fellow Rolfing practitioners around the world, not least because the admissions requirements to enter the Rolfing training remain very high. The relational aspect of Rolfing is extremely important, and we are trained in small and intensive groups where we all need to place considerable trust in each other.
Towards the end of her piece, she reflects on how her relationship with her practitioner was an important part of the work. This, at least, rings true. I’ll end with some other words by Louise: ‘For me, Rolfing was much more than the escapism of a massage; I felt I had come closer to myself, not further away.’ The sub-editors neglected to emphasise this excellent comment on Nico’s work and Rolfing, so I’ve done it for them.