One of the many and varied tribulations in the life of a Rolfer is trying to explain what it is exactly that you do. Since the word, ‘Rolfing’, refers finally to the work and principles of a person, Ida Rolf, rather than naming a specific movement or technique, the task of explaining what we do begins again with almost everyone we meet: you try shouting over loud music at a party, “I’m a Rolfer!” and see where that gets you. No, not a golfer. A Rolfer.

The desire to explain Rolfing inevitably throws up certain words and ideas, which, taken in isolation or taken out of context, risk generating more heat than light. I work with a massage table, but Rolfing isn’t massage. There can be a rehabilitative aspect to Rolfing, but we’re not physiotherapists. And then there’s the P-word: posture. There’s no question that Rolfers are very concerned with posture. But for a certain generation, the P-word gives way to the D-word: deportment. And that leads us into murkier waters.

18th century drawing of a lady and gentleman in the street

The idea of deportment goes back to the 17th and 18th centuries

I’ll let you in on a secret: my mum is a great purveyor of the D-word, despite my best efforts to dissuade her from using it (hi, mum!), and I know that, in our family, the idea of deportment comes from an earlier generation, that of my maternal grandmother, and with whom I lived throughout my childhood. My nan went to a convent school in India, and took deportment classes; even as late on as my childhood, in the 1980s, I can remember my nan seriously suggesting (unaffordably, thank goodness) that my education would ideally culminate in a stay in a Swiss finishing school for a term or two of minding my Ps and Qs, balancing books on my head and, presumably, acquiring the female art of listening with winning, if practised, enthusiasm to the patronising conversation of older men.

In my family, how you sat and how you walked mattered a great deal, and being ‘unladylike’ was the very worst thing in the world, a frankly moral failing: I still remember how disappointed I felt when my end-of-term performance in a school chorus was met with the disapproving comment that I had not sat on the wooden bench with my knees firmly together. I was about ten years old, and could make nothing of my crime.

The word, ‘deportment’, is a slippery one. On the face of it it does mean something very close to posture, though it casts an associative penumbra across a wider terrain. It evokes ideas of etiquette, correct behaviour, ‘class’, that are themselves modulated through the lenses of gender and culture. I was taught to ‘sit up straight’, but not to make friends with my sitting bones, the ischial tuberosities. ‘Good’ posture while seated equalled knees pressed together or better still, legs demurely crossed. And while my somewhat old-fashioned family were relatively forgiving (even celebratory, 1950s-style) of my emerging rondeurs, I grew up at a cultural moment when less was still more in the posterior department, and gym culture prescribed a flat back and ‘tucked’ pelvis to safeguard my spine while working out.

In the first part of my Rolfing training we received a number of memorable and entertaining lectures about the way in which culture came to bear in the very mould and sway of our bodies. Reflecting on the movements that are possible at the pelvis, our teacher noted that European men, in particular, typically limit the front-back movement of the pelvis when they walk. Loose hips, in the European imaginary, are sexually coded and morally freighted. Our strictures on posture and movement (and the amount of fat we carry) run in close parallel with a number of deeply pernicious cultural messages about gender, sexuality, moral restraint, and power. As bodywork therapists, it’s important that we work to disentangle the genuinely useful messages about body use from the morass of residual postural fascism.

Time and again, I encounter men and women who are unwilling to ‘untuck their tail’ or ‘float their coccyx’ because they are concerned that they will look overtly ‘sexy’ or draw more attention to their rear (the actual effect is very subtle). I’ll go on about this not because I have some ideal body in mind but because I know (from personal experience) that a flat-backed, ‘tucked-tail’ posture is a major component in lower back pain and tight hamstrings. Something similar happens when I try to encourage my clients to lift and project their breastbone. For men, the gesture is powerful, possibly confrontational; for women, the gesture has an additional, sexual component, potentially drawing attention to their breasts.

So where does this leave us as Rolfers? Many of Ida Rolf’s early formulations are responses to the fashionable postures of the 1930s and 40s: a world quite different from ours, in which both men and women were as likely to be held in an overly erect, ribs-forward posture as our modern-day slouch. Anatomically, it’s clear that neither end of the spectrum is a likely place of pain-free living, but as Rolfers we do not work with a notion of ‘correct’ posture, narrowly understood.

For us, the guiding principle is adaptability: can our clients move through a healthy range of motion; can they recognise, and adapt, their habitual movement patterns? As Rolfers we look not only to ‘change’ our clients in the direction of more healthful movement, but to acknowledge what is powerful, resourceful and just plain useful about the habits and patterns that have served the client up until now.

If hiding your breasts as a young woman helped you to avoid negative sexual attention, or if walking a certain way stopped you from being beaten up by the lads, your postural responses served you very well, and they can remain a part of your repertoire and your history, at the ready to serve you again whenever you need them. It’s a question of ‘range’ as much as ‘change’: a concept of change that is here closer to a ‘notice of variation’ rather than the wholesale replacement of one pattern (the one you picked up in the course of your life) with another (someone else’s postural ‘ideal’).

And for me, that’s at the heart of what Rolfing is about: it’s about extending your choices rather than insisting on a narrow ideal of ‘correct posture’ or ‘good deportment’. So while you will hear Rolfers talking about posture (and we may even get you trying to balance something on your head), we’re not about the D-word. We want you to be a better (happier! pain-free!) version of yourself, rather than a closer approximation to an outdated cultural ideal.

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