Is Rolfing Painful?
The Early Days of Rolfing
There is a popular misunderstanding regarding Rolfing being painful. This is possibly because Rolfing Structural Integration started in the 1960s and cathartic releases were in vogue in therapies at the time. Some practitioners may have applied pressure too deeply into their clients’ fascia and thereby caused pain. A humorous anecdote sheds light on the early years of Rolfing. A shared clinic with a Primal Scream Therapist led to a peculiar situation where clients waiting for Rolfing sessions mistakenly attributed scream-like releases to the Rolfing process, contributing to the rumour of Rolfing being painful.
So is Rolfing painful? The short answer is ‘No’.
The Evolution of Rolfing
Since those early days Rolfing has evolved to incorporate new scientific research and knowledge. Many Rolfing practitioners have benefited from the expertise of Peter Levine, a psychotherapist who trained as a Rolfer with Ida Rolf. Levine emphasised the role of the autonomic nervous system in trauma and went on to develop Somatic Experiencing. Although Rolfing is not explicitly a treatment for trauma, Levine’s ideas were influential within the Rolfing faculty, and the risk of retraumatization through pain became recognised. The autonomic state of clients during Rolfing was given more attention in the curriculum and Rolfers were encouraged to develop a quality of touch that would foster a feeling of safety for the client.
The importance of the nervous system and how it responds to fascial manipulation was further emphasised by the work of Robert Schleip, a Rolfing faculty member and research scientist, who enlightened the Rolfing community about the physiology of fascia and how it is enervated. Other Rolfing teachers, such as Jim Asher and Jan Sultan, studied craniosacral therapy extensively and shared their appreciation of the role of the nervous system in their teaching of Rolfing.
Since the late 1990s the work of Hubert Godard has influenced the Rolfing Movement curriculum. Godard, a Chemistry scientist, Rolfer and retired dancer, developed the tonic function model which regards perception and orientation to the environment as playing a vital role in how a person integrates the work received in the Rolfing Series. There have been many fascinating articles about tonic function in the Journal of the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute by Kevin Frank, Aline Newton, Monica Caspari, Rebeca Carli Mills et al.
The most common question clients ask me during the initial interview is: “Is it going to be painful?” From my personal encounters with Rolfing, and observing the responses of my clients, I’ve found that while there may be occasional discomfort, it translates into a positive sensation of addressing deep-seated tension points in a beneficial way.
The Difference between Pain and Intensity
The distinction between pain and intensity is key. Pain is unhelpful in a Rolfing session because the experience of pain causes a client to contract the tissues and withdraw from touch. Rolfing is not a mechanical manipulation imposed on the client regardless of their reaction. A client’s feedback is highly valued and the pressure of touch is something that is an ongoing agreement between practitioner and client.
Most people have areas in their body which have harboured tension for extended periods. The tissue from a years-old injury can be dry and gristly and the area can feel sensitive to the touch. Rolfing practitioners do not shy away from such areas because we know that we can help in many cases. A Rolfing session is an excellent opportunity to rehydrate the tissues of an old injury and release the chronic tension and discomfort.
The pacing of the touch affects the client’s experience. Rolfers are trained to prepare the superficial fascial layers before going into the deeper muscle groups. ligaments and membranes. In Rolfing parlance we organise the superficial ‘sleeve’ before the ‘core’ as the Series progresses. Each intervention should be carefully calibrated in accordance with the type of tissue being contacted.
Sometimes the feeling of the area being touched may be intense but there are ways for the Rolfing practitioner to help you to relax so that you are able to meet the touch instead of withdrawing from it. One of the ways I help my clients to relax is by inviting them to breathe into the area in order to meet my touch as if from the inside. It is also helpful to have an ongoing dialogue with the client as the intervention is happening. I may say: “Let me know if this feels too much and I will reduce the pressure to make it more manageable for you.” I will ask questions such as, “Is that ok?”, “Is that too much?”, “How is that now?” In this way the process of accessing sensitive musculoskeletal areas becomes a cooperative process between practitioner and client. Each client’s sensitivity level is unique and the client’s limits are always respected.
How can Rolfing help pain?
Rolfing can help with the three broad categories of pain: acute pain, pain from overuse and chronic pain.
Acute pain arises from a recent, clearly identifiable injury to the body. In cases of acute injury, it is generally cautioned against direct touching of the affected area unless done with very light pressure to avoid potential further harm to the injured tissues. Respecting the body’s inherent mechanisms for rest and repair becomes paramount. However, Rolfing can play a beneficial role in enhancing the body’s adjustment to the asymmetries and imbalances resulting from the injury. Focusing on the muscles surrounding the injured area can contribute significantly to the healing process.
As a personal example, in the winter of 1994 I attended the second session of my original Rolfing Series in Vermont after sustaining a severe sprain in my right ankle from a skiing accident. During this session, my Rolfer, Thomas Walker, approached it as a typical second session but employed an exceedingly gentle touch on my injured right ankle. His touch exuded a comforting and embracing quality, as if channeling warm energy into my ankle. The impact of the session was reassuring and empowering, leaving me with a heightened sense of secure grounding on my feet and a feeling of lightness, as if the healing process for my ankle had received a significant boost.
Pain from Overuse
Rolfing also proves beneficial in alleviating discomfort, pain, and stiffness resulting from the overuse of muscles and tendons (tendinitis, myalgia). This type of pain frequently manifests in areas such as the front of the thigh, lower or upper back, top of the shoulders or the neck, though it can occur in various body regions.
The effectiveness of Rolfing in addressing such pain is a result of the thorough training of Rolfers to comprehend the intricate relationship between local muscles and their role in the broader dynamic of tension and myofascial chains across the entire body (tensegrity). In these instances, it is often crucial to directly treat the overused muscle to alleviate excessive tension. However, focusing solely on the affected muscle may prove insufficient without considering the ripple effect of the therapeutic intervention.
To illustrate, if a client is experiencing pain in the front of the right thigh, a more favourable outcome is likely when the Rolfing practitioner evaluates and treats not only the thigh but also the feet and hips of both legs. This comprehensive approach, characteristic of Rolfing treatment, aims to establish balance around the injury, facilitating the muscle’s reintegration within the dynamic equilibrium of the entire body.
Chronic Musculoskeletal Pain
Persistent pain, known as chronic pain, extends beyond a typical duration and is generally defined as lasting more than 3-6 months. Chronic musculoskeletal pain may affect the same areas as discomfort resulting from overuse, such as the lower back and neck, but it tends to be more enduring and challenging to address. Despite these challenges, Rolfing demonstrates a remarkable success rate in alleviating chronic musculoskeletal pain. Numerous individuals, amongst my own clients and those of other Rolfers, have previously explored various other therapeutic approaches with limited or no relief, yet Rolfing achieves substantial, long-term reduction or complete resolution of their persistent pain.
In my view, this high success rate can be attributed to the inherent thoroughness of the Rolfing Series. This approach not only targets the specific affected area but also considers the broader context of overall body integration, coordination, and function, all within the context of being optimally aligned in the gravitational field. By addressing the root causes within this comprehensive framework, Rolfing proves exceptionally effective in bringing about sustained relief for individuals suffering with chronic pain.
Complex Chronic Pain
A different category of persistent pain encompasses inflammation and neurological conditions such as fibromyalgia, inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), osteoarthritis, migraines, neuropathy, and repetitive strain injury (RSI). Resolving these conditions can pose particular challenges, although some individuals have reported significant relief.
In my professional experience, stress often emerges as a crucial factor in such conditions. In some cases the training of the Rolfing practitioner to take a holistic approach to the treatment can be helpful, which involves gaining a comprehensive understanding of a client’s lifestyle and their coping mechanisms for stress. Providing support to enhance their situation becomes integral to the treatment. Exploring psychological and emotional aspects related to chronic pain conditions is also beneficial, and engaging in a straightforward conversation about these factors can be particularly helpful.
As an illustration, I worked with a client dealing with persistent RSI who experienced relief from pain whenever she visited her home country, Germany, during holidays, deliberately refraining from computer use. Upon returning to her office in London, however, RSI symptoms resurfaced almost immediately, even before she resumed computer work. This phenomenon highlighted the impact of the mere expectation of computer use triggering a biological stress response—a nocebo effect.
In order to get the best health outcome in such cases clients may need to make adjustments in specific areas of their lives, such as nutrition, exercise, and sedentary habits, all of which contribute to the successful resolution of pain. In my practice I sometimes recommend other therapists qualified in specialist areas, such as nutrition or yoga and pilates. Additionally, I share personal experiences with mindfulness, meditation, or breathwork as effective methods for stress reduction, fostering a comprehensive and tailored path toward healing. Each Rolfer will have their own approach to supporting their client holstically.
The UK Rolfing community is a diverse group of people, many of whom have supplementary skills in addition to the basic Rolfing training in order to be able to inform their clients throughout their health journey. Some are also yoga, pilates or tai chi teachers, Somatic Experiencing practitioners, trained dancers, and many have done additional training such as craniosacral therapy, scar work, spinal mechanics and other treatments.
In conclusion, Rolfing need not be a painful experience, and it often yields remarkable outcomes in alleviating discomfort, enhancing the client’s bodily experience for a more pleasurable and sensory-rich life.
For many individuals, Rolfing bestows the gift of newfound curiosity about their bodies and an improved self-image. Ultimately, the effectiveness of Rolfing is optimized when it becomes a collaborative experience between the Rolfer and the client. If you find yourself frequently uneasy during Rolfing sessions, don’t hesitate to engage in open communication with your Rolfer. This dialogue ensures the exploration of more comfortable and effective ways to collaborate towards your well-being.
After practicing for 25 years in London, Alan has been living in Brazil and running a practice for a year. He is returning to continue his practice in London in March 2024.