You may have seen the Guardian’s recent article which looked at the way in which Rolfing can help people with running injuries. Though it’s not the most expansive article, it was nevertheless a great fillip for the UK’s Rolfing community, and drew many people’s attention to something that they hadn’t heard of previously.
The fact that we are still relatively unknown is one of our greatest challenges, and a positive article in a national newspaper is very good news indeed. The dictum that any press is good press must surely hold true of press that was positive in the first place, right?
Well… whoever said that didn’t reckon on the below-the-line comments that are a feature of the Internet era. I know, I know: never read below the line. But oh, dear reader, I did cast an eye to the comments that followed, and what I encountered there was the Internet foaming full at the mouth to decry the value of Rolfing and to castigate the Guardian newspaper particularly for having the temerity to publish an article on such ‘quackery’.
The sheer level of knee-jerk wrongheadedness was stunning, infuriating, and finally, quite funny: ‘Rolling on the floor laughing’, said the first wag to enter the fray. ‘Pseudo-science,’ intoned another; ‘the proliferation of crap’, ‘utter crap’, just a ‘placebo’ and (my favourite) ‘a cult’.
So, in the interests of defending my profession and answering our critics, I’d like to take a moment to meet and address some of these comments. For the sake of clarification, I’ve assembled these under handy paragraphs broadly covering the main lines of argument.
But first off, a little about me: I hold a first degree from Cambridge, two Masters degrees (from Sussex and UCL) and am due to complete my PhD next year. I’m not saying that to toot my own horn especially but to suggest that my own capacity for critical reflection is likely of a reasonable standard, possibly comparable to your own. I spent three years training to be a Rolfer, and I like to think I know my ischial tuberosities from my olecranon.
Brickbat #1: It’s called what?!
I prefer rofling in a roflcopter.
Yes, we know the name is funny, but it will take more than a certain children’s entertainer with a penchant for the misuse of his didgeridoo to scare us off from using the popular name that grew up around the work of Ida Rolf in the 1960s. It wasn’t her idea to name it after herself, and she’s certainly no cult leader: until late in her life she referred to Rolfing as ‘structural integration’, and indeed our official name remains: Rolfing Structural Integration.
Brickbat #2: This Talk of Fascia Has No Scientific Validity!
Guardian, to what depth of woo are you sinking?
One of the big Rolfing ideas is around the role of connective tissue, or fascia, in the human body. The existence of fascia is not in dispute: it’s a real category of tissue (though it takes different forms) that is pervasive throughout the body. Your Achilles tendon? That’s fascia. The shiny, ‘chicken-breast’ wrapping that’s around your muscles? That’s fascia too. The stuff around your organs, and the thick, fibrous cartilage that substitutes for bone around your breastbone? You guessed it: fascia.
Let me be absolutely clear: Rolfers use a medical model of the body. Some of us might be yoga teachers (I am, for instance), but as far as I’m a Rolfer, I don’t invoke chi or prana or any kind of idea that would not be acceptable to the Western medical establishment. You don’t need to have faith in Rolfing for it to work.
But let me also qualify the above by saying that I am willing to consider coherent alternatives to the standard Western medical narratives. I find some of these ideas interesting, and powerful, as descriptors of the human experience, and I’d consider it arrogant to assume that I have nothing to learn from different traditions.
Don’t get me wrong: if I have a heart attack, I want a defibrillator, not a sun salutation. But can a regular physical yoga practice help me to manage my stress better and develop a stronger, more flexible body less likely to develop heart disease? Yes. That’s called looking after yourself and remaining curious and flexible to all the world has to offer.
Anyway, back to fascia: it’s not a new idea any more, but the current rise of ‘myofascial release’ and similar kinds of ideas are building on ideas that Ida Rolf was instrumental in bringing to a wider audience. Though in turn Ida could look back to bodywork pioneers such as Andrew Taylor Still, the founder of osteopathy, who included a chapter on connective tissue in his ‘Philosophy of Osteopathy’.
Within the history of medical science, fascia was until fairly recently substantially neglected, seen as so much ‘packing tissue’ within the body rather than a system or even ‘organ’ in its own right. To explain this oversight, we need to consider the role that dissection played in advancing medical knowledge. Under the knife, bones, muscles and organs look more interesting than the ‘white stuff’ that surrounds it, and in historical diagrams the layer of superficial fascia is usually ‘peeled away’ to focus attention on bones and muscles.
Ida Rolf’s genius was to see the fascia as a whole-body system of tension and support that created the spaces within the body. The analogy of honeycomb is helpful here. We lay down more fascia in places where we are under strain, or where there has been trauma or injury, and the fascia can be thick and adhered to neighbouring muscles or tissues. That’s what Rolfers are aiming to influence through the effects of heat and pressure delivered through touch.
That’s not woo at all. Moreover, more recent research is beginning to reveal that fascia is much more than the largely inert tissue that people have taken it to be: connective tissue is a rich site of all kinds of neuroreceptors that convey information about pressure, pain and position to and from the central nervous system.
Brickbat #3: Gravity Chat: That Notorious Pseudo-Scientific Idea
Oh we have to make sure our energy is aligned with the Earth’s gravitational field! No wonder I feel so poorly at high tide, the moon’s gravitational field is obviously messing with my…ah haha haha hahaha… The Guardian fails at science yet again!
It was some chancer called Isaac Newton who first described the effects of living within a gravitational field. I’ve written about this elsewhere on my website, but the basic Rolfing gravity chat goes like this: from the moment we are born, we are subject to the compressive effect of gravity, and it is a fundamental condition of how our bodies grow from babyhood upwards.
We are weight-bearing, not weightless, and it has an impact on everything we do, from the cellular level (bone density), the circulation system (the heart and the calf muscles drive the pumping and return of blood through the system), and the nervous system (holding ourselves up in gravity, as opposed to, say, lying down all day, requires activation of the sympathetic nervous system).
Ida’s point about gravity was an architectural, or an engineering one: if we consider the human body as a building, or a vehicle, how can we stand and move so that we don’t wear ourselves out fighting the effects of gravity? Ask any ham actor to play the part of an ‘elderly person’, and they’ll immediately assume a stoop as a conventional indicator of ageing.
Rolfers invoke gravity to explain why your neck muscles will ache more if you hold your head permanently forward, or why you feel lighter and more supported if your pelvis sits directly underneath your spine. This isn’t pseudo-science: it’s intelligent thinking about posture:
Is it really that bad though? I mean, I think rolfing has a large element of quackery, but translated into English, she mostly seems to be saying that if you have bad posture, gravity will make your body hurt and you will be more prone to injuries.
Brickbat #4: Ida Rolf, Dear Leader
I’ve been criticizing the knee jerk responses here, but now that there´s finally a positive post, I want to point out that by choosing to call it Rolfing, it does in fact become a sort of a cult. Hard not to imagine their schools full of pictures and statues of the Great Leader Rolf.
The notion that we Rolfers are secretly doing puja to Dear Ida and adhere slavishly to her every pronouncement is as daft as it’s amusing. I don’t yet have a framed portrait of La Rolf in either my London or my Luton clinics, though maybe I should.
Given the analytical and improvisational quality of each and every Rolfing session, there are moments when we Rolfers wish we could invoke the spirit of Ida to guide our work, combining as it does extensive anatomical knowledge, manual technique, and listening, observation and empathetic skills in order to orchestrate a session uniquely adapted to the person standing in front of you in their pants.
A pioneering woman research scientist, with a PhD in biochemistry and a penchant for wearing fresh flowers in her hair into her eighties, she famously encapsulated Rolfing in the dictum, ‘Put it where it belongs and ask for movement’. What not to like?
Ida remains a source of inspiration, but modern Rolfing has built on her work to incorporate insights from other disciplines and more recent research, especially in respect of our understanding of the autonomic nervous system, the impact of stress and trauma and the neuroscience that describes how postural patterns are neurologically and functionally patterned (your shoulder is stiff because you always reach a certain way, not just because the tissue is tight). Or, to put it more simply:
‘Massage works by basically beating the tension out of you, but if the tension has become a habit of your nervous system, it’ll just come back when you start using your body badly again.’
Brickbat #5: Why No Peer-Reviewed Double-Blind Studies?
What they need is a proper scientific study, in which the results of rolfing are measured against the results of other forms of massage.
If that hasn’t happened, one has to ask if this is due to reluctance on the part of the practitioners. And if the practitioners are reluctant to be studied, one has to ask why.
On double-blind: I may occasionally do a little ‘secret Rolfing’ here and there (eg. when I use Rolfing techniques during a more conventional massage), but I fail to see how I can keep it both secret from the client and myself. The thing about Rolfing, as with any relationship-oriented therapy, is that it emerges from the interaction between two people who are both focused on solving a problem.
I respond to what my clients tell me, and with each person I try to find a way of making helpful and resonant suggestions. The way I speak to a yoga practitioner might be different to the words I use with a body-builder, or a dancer. The pressure I use will vary from person to person, depending on the way the tissue feels, or the response of my client.
And whatever I do, I can’t know the outcome for certain. My client might go out and immediately throw him- or herself into four hours of weight-training, fall down the stairs, or have a row with the boss. There may be underlying factors that make certain outcomes more or less likely (genetics, other health conditions, diet).
So the notion that Rolfing can look to the ‘gold standard’ model of the double-blind experiment is problematic from the outset.
But we can seek to deliver the Rolfing ten series to a large population and draw conclusions from the outcomes both immediately after and in longer-term follow-ups, and submit our findings for peer review. And there’s a willingness in the Rolfing community to be involved in this kind of research: take, for the instance, the recent study by Dr Eric Jacobson based at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (an affiliate of Harvard Medical School), and the fascial research being done by Rolfer Robert Schleip at the University of Ulm.
Why aren’t we doing more? Well, research of this kind takes time, effort and – above all – money. Who pays for big medical trials?
We’d all hope that the major illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease and genetic abnormalities, get a lion’s share of a limited government funding pie, and they do. The big pharmaceutical companies that have a vested interest in sponsoring large-scale medical research are not desperately motivated to fund major research into the effects of Rolfing, Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, Pilates, yoga or indeed any of the other thoughtful and worthwhile approaches to managing physical pain and movement restrictions.
The innate (and broadly sensible) conservatism of the national health service means that it errs on the side of caution in respect of commissioning new treatments; for example, funding short-term cognitive behavioural therapy over open-ended talking therapies such as psychoanalysis. But the NHS has become more open to fund therapies that would have been considered outré 20-30 years ago, such as acupuncture, and there’s a strong case to be made for seeking better answers to our modern epidemic of back pain. Instinctively, we know that our slouchy, office-based lifestyles aren’t doing us any favours, and the interaction of lifestyle, genetic factors and stress is a complex one, and lots of things can help.
Following the first UK training, we now have 12 more Rolfers to swell our ranks to a little over 30 people.
We are a mighty few, but it’s hardly surprising that we haven’t made substantial inroads into popular consciousness or national research funding. But if you care to build the research programme, we will come.
Rolfing: A Rich Intellectual Tradition
I recently listened to a podcast featuring an interview with Steve Haines, a craniosacral therapist who specialises in trauma release techniques. Though not a Rolfer himself, he described Rolfing as a ‘rich intellectual tradition’ which has both assimilated ideas from the worlds of science and philosophy and produced a number of pioneering thinkers. I couldn’t agree more.
As a trainee Rolfer, I was encouraged to think about ideas drawn from the French phenomenological philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the U.S. architect Buckminster Fuller, whose idea of ‘tensegrity’ resonates strongly with the way Rolfers think about fascia. I read work by the philosopher, Professor Eugene Gendlin; Stanford neuroscientist Professor Robert Sapolsky, and Dr Stephen Porges, whose development of the ‘polyvagal theory’ to describe the role of the vagus nerve in activating the parasympathetic nervous system (the physical processes associated with feelings of safety, empathy and social bonding) has been introduced into the Rolfing training.
In addition, we were introduced not only to the work of Ida Rolf, but to those Rolfers who have developed her work in the years since her death in 1979. Herewith a (very partial) roll-call of some amazing, game-changing Rolfers:
Peter Levine: Peter’s work into the effects of unprocessed trauma and injury have become influential in our understanding of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)and stress conditions. Ida didn’t speak the language of PTSD, but told a meeting in the late 1970s that the future of Rolfing lay in Peter’s work.
Tom Myers: Tom, who also studied with Ida, is best known for creating Anatomy Trains, a ground-breaking book that made the case for understanding the body in terms of functional myofascial chains that route tension and movement throughout the whole body. I was delighted to see that Tom even got involved in the below-the-line commentary under the Guardian’s article and he recently featured in another great podcast here.
Hubert Godard: As a dancer and movement educator, Hubert Godard has developed a number of ideas that are important into modern Rolfing, such as the role of perception and context in building the way we see and approach the world. It’s this kind of thinking which explains why a child growing up on the prairie has a different embodied perception of the horizon to someone growing up in Manhattan. In interview in 2009, he said, ‘If I have spent my life surrounded by mountains and then suddenly I am in flatland with people around, it will feel strange. If I have been with people in a city, my walk will be different; or if I am used to going up and down a mountain, my stride is affected. My perception of space is organized through the habits of our sociology and by the geography.’
I had the privilege to meet Hubert during a mentoring session in Paris last year, and encountered someone who was not only thoughtful and engaged, but gifted with the uncanny body-reading and touch skills of the most experienced Rolfers.
So there you have it: a warm invitation to all the sceptics to go and find out a little bit more before they presume to rubbish a whole field of human endeavour. In its entry on Rolfing, the Skeptic’s Dictionary writes snarkily, ‘Many people like to have other people rub them’ to underscore their belief that the theories and claims of Rolfing are uniformly unsound, mere bait for the ‘gullible’. I’ll finish with a final comment left by one of the readers of the Guardian. It rather gets to the heart of the matter:
Frankly, anyone who claims that manual therapy is quackery must have never touched another human being in their life. Quite sad.