For those of us who have passed the half century mark, the word “Rolfing™” conjures up some strange amalgam of hippie happiness and sacrificial torture.
No wonder, because this form of bodywork was christened at Esalen, the legendary consciousness-expanding center in Big Sur. And in the early years, people who got Rolfed™ talked a lot about how much it hurt.
Biochemist Ida Rolf developed the technique of Rolfing™, and named it after herself. Some say it all started with a horse. Ida had been kicked by a horse and afterwards suffered symptoms of acute pneumonia. Her symptoms were relieved not by drugs but by bodywork. She figured out how to heal herself and others.
The first person I met who had been “Rolfed™” told me it “hurt like hell” but he loved it. I always suspected that he was more than a little bent, so this didn’t make Rolfing™ any more attractive to me. I had no need for it, no interest in it and no desire to experience it. That was back in the 80s.
Fast forward twenty years, when serious back problems started keeping me out of the saddle. My body didn’t work the way it used to. I was crooked and stiff and slow and every jarring motion sent a small shock wave up my spine. I got a sheepskin seat saver. But I had lost my seat.
My body felt stuck, as if the parts that used to move had been welded together. All the lubrication felt gummed up or frozen in place. After months of physical therapy, I regained a full range of motion, and some of my strength but my body felt like a seized engine.
I tried to change it with yoga and with work on the farm and with positive thinking but I started to fantasize about having someone dig their hands and fingers deep into my body and actually separate things in there.
I knew that massage wouldn’t do it. I had to get Rolfed™. I didn’t care if it hurt. I just wanted my body back and I wanted to feel like a good rider again.
I found certified Rolfer™ Mary Staggs, who was close to one of my students. In my first session, before working on me, she had me take off my clothes and she looked at my body and told me where I was crooked. And then she went to work. First on my chest, where she worked her fingers in between my ribs and around my clavicle. I felt my lungs and diaphragm expand and I told Mary that I felt as if I was able to breathe better. She told me that’s the idea.
The next nine sessions, which took place over months, had similar dramatic effect and I became straighter and more flexible. It felt good to feel the ice melting away between my bones and muscles and tendons and ligaments. Mary’s magic hands weren’t always pleasant but only once, during the last session, did I count the seconds until the pain stopped. Mary got all the way to my iliopsoas.
Aftter I completed the series of ten, it all came together. I guess that’s why Ida Rolf named her school “The Rolf Institute of Structural Integration.” The benefits of Rolfing™ have stayed with me. Not only that, and I know it’s curious, but I think they’ve deepened, without me doing anything but living my life again. It’s been a full year. I finally feel like I have the rider’s body I used to have and I can flow with my horse again.
When I mention Rolfing™ to people with injuries or back problems or who feel “stuck,” people often say something along the lines of “Oh, that’s myofacial release. My massage therapist does that.” She might. But she’s not Rolfing™. As I understand it from Mary and from my reading, every patient’s tolerance might be different, and a skilled practitioner might have to alter how far they go in the work. But it’s not a technique; it’s a therapy.
Rolfing™ for riders? Recommended.