2016 has been a dumbfounding year. In these painful weeks (and for the UK, months now) of aftermath, many of us are still trying to make sense of a new and regressive political landscape. At a time when the neologism ‘post-truth’ won the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word Of The Year, I’d like to make a few comments about words, about information, and about the ways in which the urgent cultural and political question of this year connects with the work I do as a Rolfer.
I write my blog posts and maintain my website with an eye to the search engines and an awareness of the importance of tailoring what I write – and how I write it – for a digital audience. There are some very sound and practical reasons why I do this. And at the same time – and here we go! – I partially ignore many of the received guidelines on how best to write for an online audience. I do not simplify my sentences. My blogs are too long. I sometimes write knowingly ‘clickbaity’ titles, but try to offer a measure of thoughtful content sufficient to redeem the reader’s diversion. And I’m very careful with the claims I make for Rolfing, tacking broader claims back to anatomy, back to research, and back to the specific people – the wonderful minds both within and outside of the Rolfing community – whose ideas I borrow. Amid my possibly British ‘reserve’, I hope nevertheless to hint quietly at something of the real passion I feel for the work that I do. Rolfing can change someone’s life. After all, it changed mine.
Two ideas in particular have emerged in the last few weeks and months. The idea of ‘post-factual’ or ‘post-truth’ politics is one; more recently, we’ve been talking about the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ that may even have influenced the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. In both cases, there’s the idea that we’ve become less attuned to our reality, that our preconceptions (for or against this or that candidate, for example) shape and narrow the spectrum of information that we receive from the environment. In a post-election special in the New Yorker last week, Hilary Mantel wrote: ‘We are oblivious of information until we are ready for it. One day, we feel a resonance, from the soles of the feet to the cranium.’
It’s a remarkable, startling sentence. For me it also rather perfectly expresses something about what we are trying to achieve in Rolfing. In the second session, we work with the feet and with the legs to encourage a pathway – both mechanically through the bones and muscles, and through the nervous system – of more and better information going from the soles of the feet, into the legs, the pelvis and the spine, and indeed right on up through to the head. Our bodies – as our minds – respond to and learn from the information that they receive, be that information in the form of food, or air quality, or from movement. Gael Ohlgren Rosewood, a Rolfer originally trained by Ida Rolf, has asked, ‘How would our culture be different if the goal of exercise was to increase the flow of information and refresh neurology rather than to fatigue muscles?’**
In Lumen, where I work in London, I have the luxury of a wonderful long corridor right outside my clinic room that serves as an ideal ‘catwalk’ for my clients. At the beginning of the second session, I usually ask them to walk up and down the corridor several times so that I can observe how they are using their body in walking, and then we take some time to do a few exercises to see whether a new idea or a new observation can unlock new possibilities for an easier, less effortful gait. Walking, like breathing, is one of those things that we can do both quite unconsciously but over which we can also exert some control, though if those two poles appear to be opposites I might go further and say that many of us walk and breathe with unconscious control: in walking especially we frequently constrain elements of movement (e.g. certain movements at the hips) in order to avoid notice, censure, or indeed, too much self-knowledge.
Our ability to move fluidly is also shaped by the shoes we wear, restricting or requiring certain habitual postures (the shortened calf with the high heel, the clawing of toes with toe-post flip-flops). For those of us living in urban environments, we also spend most of our lives walking on hard, paved surfaces where the quality of information that the ground can give us is both minimal and monotonous. As a result, most of have tuned out much of the information that we can receive through our feet, and with less and lower quality information coming in through our feet, our bodies become less adaptive and – insisting that our minds are not only in our brains – less mindful.
One of the exercises I sometimes give to my clients is to imagine that they are an animal prowling through the forest floor, or to imagine their feet as sensitive antennae seeking to extract as much information about their environment as possible. I also ask them to roll through the foot – from heel to big toe – in order to give time to each phase of their gait. Within a minute or two, clients begin to pick up on more information from their environment than they had before: the temperature, the cracks between the slate tiles, their slightly uneven surface. With greater attention and new movement patterns we begin to sense new information.
The word we use in Rolfing to describe this of information-rich, sensing touch is haptic. The body that is more keenly aware of its environment has more information available to it as a basis for adaptation (to obstacles in the path or a change of terrain) and the more adaptive body (resilient medial arches, supple metatarsals, ankles that glide) in turns delivers more and better information to the rest of the body and the nervous system: it is a virtuous circle. Research has shown that fascia is a deeply innervated, sensing organ that is continually sending information – about movement and the body’s position in space – to the brain.
As Rolfers, we are trying to nudge bodies and minds to become better information bodies: where there is more sensing, more information, and greater observation of self and environment. I like the image of the fibre optic, the pure and undistorted transmission of light from end to end. One day, we feel a resonance, from the soles of the feet to the cranium.
** Ohlgren, G. ‘A Fifty-Year Perspective of Rolfing’, Structural Integration. 37: 2; pp 12-15. June 2009.