Dr. Rolf's Discoveries

Ida Rolf, Ph.D.

Rolfing is the product of 75 years of study and practice by Dr. Ida P. Rolf and the many people she trained to carry on her work. Ida Rolf lived from 1896 to 1979. As Rolfer Tom Meyers writes, "She was one of those giants of the 20th century whose life spanned the passage from horses to rocket ships, from the fountain pen to the computer. She was known as 'the face that launched a thousand elbows'.”

"This is the gospel of Rolfing: when the body is working properly, the force of gravity can flow through it. Then, spontaneously, the body heals itself."   

- Dr. Ida P. Rolf

The Importance of Fascia

Ida Rolf earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Columbia University in 1916. Somewhere in her scientific research, she made a fundamental discovery about the body: the same network of connective tissue which contains and links the muscle system when it's healthy can be used to reshape it when it's been pulled out of proper order. Each muscle (and each muscle fiber) is enveloped in a connective tissue called fascia. Toward the end of each muscle, this fascia thickens into straps we call tendons or ligaments, which work to bind muscle to muscle and muscle to bone. In fact, connective tissue is in some ways the fundamental tissue of the body. Some of the connective tissue evolves into bone, and the muscles actually develop as tissue tendrils growing out through the fascial network in the embryo.

Dr. Rolf's discovery of the importance of the fascial system revolutionized thinking about the body. Instead of muscles, her followers emphasize their covering, much as if, when looking at an orange, one emphasized the rind rather than the fleshy part of the fruit. The enwrapping fascia supports the muscles and holds muscle and bone combinations in place. But it has one troublesome property: it can support whatever patterns of movement and posture the body adopts. The fascia can aid normal balanced posture. Or, when muscles are overloaded by the constant strain of off-balance movement, these connective tissues may take over some of the load by shortening and giving up their elasticity. In this way the body actually changes shape to reflect how it's being used. Fortunately, the fascia can be restored to health by returning muscles and bones to their proper alignments and inducing proper movement.

The Role of Gravity

Imbalanced structure

Along with realizing the importance of fascia, Dr. Rolf recognized that gravity is the basic shaper of the body. We have to balance our bodies, somehow, against the pull of gravity. From birth to death, gravity is always working on us. Consequently, deviations in the muscle-bone system are never merely local. Gravity's influence requires adaptions throughout the body. If the natural balance of the body is disturbed, it doesn't follow the best geometry of the skeleton, causing the whole body to gradually change form to adapt to the deviation. For example, a child falls from a bicycle and injures a knee. To avoid pain, he or she tightens the muscles around that knee. Since the body must work against the tug of gravity, the entire muscle and fascial system gradually shifts to compensate for the first change. Movement through the pelvis is influenced, as are the patterns of breathing and the set of the head. Because muscles alone cannot carry the additional tension, the fasciae shorten to support the new movement, and, in time, the shape and function of the whole body alters with them.

The human body is like a house. It's structured so that each part has its proper place, and each piece interlocks to balance the load of the others. As in the well-built house whose every post and beam is in place, the well-used (more than well-built) body functions efficiently. Because gravity pulls down on everything, out-of-place body parts are like beams unsupported by a post, and are pulled into painfully unnatural positions. The Rolfer seeks a return to the original blueprint specifications. 

Body Geometry

Dr. Rolf's view of the role of the fascia in posture led to still another major discovery. It might be called the theory of body geometry.

When an elbow, knee or any other joint is properly balanced, the individual experiences an internal sense of rightness. The body senses that it is aligned along the true planes of movement. The hinges of the legs (hips, knees, ankles, even toes) all work within a single plane. The paths of the legs have parallel courses. The head and spine feel a clear sense of "up." The elbows move naturally through their angle in a smooth course. Compared with this new organization, the previous functioning of the body appears random, even chaotic. In contrast, the new geometry, this new orientation in space, feels much more secure.

This is often compared to hanging from a string emerging from the top of your head, in a perfectly vertical position, and then getting put back down on the ground but keeping that feeling of lightness and length. Putting one piece back into place is usually not enough. Everything should be right before a house can stand or a body can work smoothly.

Straightening the structure

Naturally, each person has his or her own version of this ideal geometry, which depends on height, length of limbs, and other similar factors. But Rolfers consider five basic points when planning individual goals for a client. In order for the human body to function properly and maintain an upright position, these five landmarks must be in alignment: the ear, the shoulder, the hip, the knee and the ankle. The head, neck and shoulders tell the story of the structure below them. The body should glide along, rather than look as if it has to do extremely hard work with every step. The head and neck must be centered over the middle of the body, and the spine that supports the structure must be at the back of the pelvic section. The spine must then curve in conjunction with the natural back curvature until it enters the base of the skull in a central direction. Any damage or constant pressure will disturb the balance of the upper torso.

Holding Pattern

One of the major distinctions made by Rolfers is the difference between holding and supporting. As children, most of us are told to "sit up straight." The well meaning family members who usually make this command are trying to teach us good posture, and by good posture they generally mean some variation of "chest out and shoulders back!" Try this posture right now as you read. Notice that when your shoulders are pulled back: they cannot be supported by the rib cage, that, instead, your trunk is lifted up off the pelvis and held in an uncomfortable imitation of good posture.

While sitting, most of us droop forward and let our bodies hang off our spines in various forms of collapse. When we do remember to "sit up straight," we often reverse everything and hold our chests up and keep the shoulders high and aloft. Some people even become locked in this position. Although they look good to the untrained eye, most trained observers agree that the body structure is not supported from below in this posture; it is uncomfortably held from above. In either case, with the held posture or the collapsed one, energy is being expended, which might be conserved with proper structural support and balance.

An Experiment

To see how much better efficient posture can make you feel, first sit down. Then, let your chest fall so that your spine curves to the front. Now sit up so that your spine arches to the back. Do you feel relaxed, or is it an effort to hold your body in this second position? Return to the collapsed position, and put a hand on each hip bone. Push your hips forward until you feel the bottom of your pelvis (the two "sit bones") touch the chair seat. As you do, notice that your chest floats up as the pelvis roils forward. Now rest on the forward part of your "sit bones." Notice that you can sit and maintain a feeling of support without either collapsing or holding your body up.

Learned body patterns become so much a part of us that, at first, you may not be able to sit in this new, supported fashion for very long. You may also need to "play" with it until you can feel your body learning to support itself. But most people eventually find that they do not feel quite "right" unless they are using this supportive posture in place of the old holding patterns.

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