(This is the second part of my three-part post exploring the differences between Rolfing and massage. Read part 1 and part 3.)

So let’s continue by considering the differences between massage and Rolfing in more detail.

A standard massage aims at releasing muscle tension by applying pressure and rhythmic touch to the skin, but it does not aim to address the underlying reasons why a particular area of the body is prone to tension. The chances are that your chronically tight hamstrings or your lower back pain will not go away on a permanent basis as a result of massage alone.

In part, this is because massage therapists are simply not taught to consider the role of fascia in the body in any detail, and because the three classical massage techniques (effleurage, pétrissage and tapotement) are not designed to bring about structural change in the body: they’re designed to smooth, relax and enliven the muscle fibres and superficial tissues and to create a feeling of well-being that lasts for a few days at most.

Rolfers, by contrast, focus their attention on the role played by fascia (another word for connective tissue) in determining the shape and position of both muscles and bones, and, in the words of dear Ida, we’re taught to ‘go where it ain’t’, which is another way of saying that we’re taught to look at how the presenting symptom (an aching neck, for example) might be compensating for something that isn’t working well elsewhere. In the case of that aching neck, the standard massage approach would be to lengthen and release the muscles fibres of the neck: in effect, to make the neck longer.

A Rolfer, by contrast, might notice that the head was habitually held forward of the torso and conjecture that neck was aching because the neck muscles were continually holding the weight of the head in a forward position. It is suggested that for every one inch that the head is forward of the spine, the neck muscles have to support a further ten pounds of weight. Stretching out the neck muscles, in this example, might feel relaxing, but would tend to consolidate the compensatory pattern and bring the neck even further forward. So what would we do instead? Well, we might look to release the front side of the body at the sternum to create more length at the thorax. Greater length at the front of the body might enable the head to relax back a little.

Very occasionally Rolfers will see clients who are only able or willing to come for a one-off session, and we’ll do what we can for them. There’s no doubt that even a little bit of work can be very helpful. For people who have already experienced the full Rolfing series, additional ‘tune-up’ sessions may be all they need. But Rolfers don’t offer ‘spot treatment’ as a rule. We look at the body as a whole, and we try to address a whole system of compensatory tension and movement patterns that have resulted in one or other presenting symptom.

And that’s why we invite our clients to experience ten sessions rather than one. The ten-session model (or ‘Ten Series’, as it is sometimes known) was developed by Ida Rolf over many decades and finally formalised as a therapeutic and pedagogical tool in the 1970s. Each session takes a particular question and certain areas of the body as its starting point and builds upon the work that has gone before: it doesn’t make sense to do the work that is typical of a fourth session in your first session, for instance, or to try to attempt a fifth session, with it focus on the front body and the psoas, before the work of the third session has been completed. And in the beginning is the breath: from the very first session we aim to give back to our clients the natural and expansive flow of their inhalation, their literal ‘inspiration’, which is the basis of everything else we do.

Two chemicals being combined in a beaker: the Rolfing ten series are designed to allow your body to change in a gradual way

The Rolfing ten series are designed to allow your body to change in a gradual way

Rolfers also work in this way because we recognise that bodies change, for the most part, fairly slowly: in bodywork as in dieting, there are no quick fixes! That’s not to say that there may not be moments of epiphany along the way: moments when restricted tissue yields dramatically to pressure or a movement cue (‘find your heel’) suddenly makes sense. In Rolfing we liken this principle of gradual and cumulative change to the idea of titration: in chemistry, you can combine two substances by throwing them together in a glass (and the result might be: boom!), or drop-by-drop; to titrate means to combine by this second approach: do a little, and then wait. And then do a little bit more.

(Read the final part of this series.)

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