“In a human body, support is not something solid. Support is relationship.”
Dr. Ida P. Rolf
When looking at the history of fascia research in the western world, we find an important paradox: the people remembered for pioneering the field did not set out to explore fascia directly. The importance of the fascial network naturally emerged from their findings about intrinsic health and the human body. Holistic treatments, or modalities of healthcare that take account of the body’s entirety, highlight the qualities of fascia because fascia interweaves throughout every anatomical structure and communicates with every system.
In the United States, the launch of a treatment method that views the body through a holistic lens began most notably through Andrew Taylor Still (1828-1917). He set out to improve upon the treatments he received in medical school, and after many years of intense study and working with patients, he created the first school dedicated to teaching his new approach to medicine in 1892, The American School of Osteopathy. As Osteopathy became a more widely recognized field of medicine in the early 1900s, derivative therapies that also aim to ignite the inherent health in the human body started to develop. The field of chiropractic care, in which the founder utilized Dr. Still’s literature as a foundation, created the first Chiropractic school in the 1920s. Craniosacral therapy, which is intricately related to osteopathy, started to become a field of its own in the 1930s. The opportunity to compile information from these holistic treatments; osteopathy, chiropractic, and craniosacral, surfaced throughout the 1940s because enough of the doctors and practitioners practicing these treatments published information about the methods by this time. This is where the field of Structural Integration began taking root, as a compilation of different aspects of holistic viewpoints gathered through various classes, collaboration between practitioners, and thousands of hours reading. Structural Integration, at the time known as Rolfing, became popular by the mid 1960s and has been growing as its own field of inquiry into the body ever since.
Rolfing describes a therapy centered around movement education and manual manipulation. People utilize the work for myriad reasons, as part of a healing process with a specific injury, for neurological support, maintenance, for pure enjoyment, as well as, psychological and spiritual exploration. This word Rolfing comes from the one-and-only woman who conjured it together, Dr. Ida P. Rolf. Her therapy directly employs the properties of the fascial network, its adaptability and its resilience. Her work entrains different states from the tissue to support alignment and health for the client, bringing a body from structural disarray into whole-body layered balance.
Ida Rolf observed that the connective tissue network is a body-wide organ that determines the form of an individual. More importantly, she figured out how to transform this body-wide organ so that it becomes a self-organizing system that can be supported by the field of gravity. The work often takes clients beyond any level of organization they have previously experienced, even during childhood development. Gravity, to most, is an immaterial yet constant force that creates collapse, asymmetry, and disorder through layers of tissue in the body over the course of time. Gravity, according to Ida Rolf, is the all-inclusive support for the body. She recognized that once born, we’re always nested within the force of gravity. When a body becomes structurally balanced, tension does not interfere with the flow of gravity happening through it. She suspected that the amazing and seemingly unpredictable nature of fascia could be harnessed to allow for easeful support, and then she went on to prove it through her clients and students.
The roots of Structural Integration stem most notably from elements of osteopathy, tantric yoga, biochemistry, and physics. Ida Rolf studied other forms of healthcare and science that informed her perception, such as asanas from other forms of yoga, chiropractic, homeopathy, and a movement therapy popular in the 1960s called Physio-synthesis. As a child she received osteopathy regularly to treat an injury she suffered from being kicked in the chest by a horse. She continued to explore other forms of bodywork throughout her life, from doctors, colleagues, and students alike. Prior to establishing her own field of Structural Integration, the College of Physician and Surgeons of Columbia University awarded her a PhD in Biochemistry in 1920. For many years after earning her doctorate, she studied human tissue through a microscope and researched chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Later, her studies took her elsewhere, to pursue the issue of structural distortion in the human body. This is when she could more specifically explore her questions about fascia in living bodies.
In many respects, Ida Rolf’s contributions to the field of fascia research will always be expanding as the research grows. The field of study thus far has validated the application of her work perfectly, even though at the time, she had little scientific information about fascia. Within her teaching, she exemplified how to work with the body as an open system within the larger field of gravity. She leveraged the unifying factor that fascia has throughout the body to bring about balance in a predictable sequence. Many of her students and followers have since discovered more and more about this process, and some have skillfully added to her original work. Other schools of movement and manual therapy fold her ideas and techniques into their method brilliantly, just as she borrowed from osteopathy and yogic thought.
Many fields of manual therapy and movement education utilize the properties of fascia in various ways to bring about amazing results with clients. To name a few of these widely recognized fields: personal training, pilates, massage therapy, osteopathy, craniosacral therapy, physical therapy, chiropractic, some schools of yoga, and of course, structural integration. Working with fascia feels as if the practitioner is doing alchemy. We can witness the change in real time, and clients often report an embodied sense of presence and newfound relief. Ida Rolf’s distinct contribution remains that she observed that through the properties of fascia, a practitioner could balance a client’s body within the field of gravity, and then the work done would continue without efforting or other outside influence.
She distilled her discoveries so that her process could be taught and applied to others indiscriminately. Ultimately, she created a predetermined method to remedy postural distortions that is easily catered to the uniqueness of the individual. The work systematically achieves the same results many times over. She brought fascia research to life in her clients and students, and her legacy continues to do so, not in labs and dissections; in living and breathing people.
"A man crying the blues is in reality bewailing his structural limitations and failures. He is, of course, unconscious of this. To him, his emotional response is a primary, independent condition." - Dr. Rolf
Lingering in an assumption
Barely ever leads to progress
We know the wrong way is endless
Perhaps, a different point of view
Like a lighthouse, escorting sight
Manifests where sea becomes shore
Revealing waves with its bright light
A different point of view, perhaps
So resistance slithers away
Gives a challenge context, makes sense
Of the pattern that's underway
Patterns perpetuate with time
Shame's frozen in held gestures
Energy, motions that are we
Engage living architectures
We cure our ailments, medicine
Complete to live life free from pain
Did anyone pause to question,
What lurked before in the terrain?
Lurking finds a new festering
Sick, unsure of what may come
Now we must heed the message
The body’s ultimatum
The lighthouse, unemotional
A fixed monumental moment
Captains choose land or become the
Turbulent water's proponent
What we sequester tends to fester.
Our bodies exhibit a shape that explains to a trained eye how we navigate space, as well as how our minds map space around us. Our form and the movement capacities of it determines our behavior, our functioning. Remember, function follows form. Our behavior could be deduced to the manner in which we explore space and time. Among all the notions and movements that make up our aggregate behavior, we also have places in our system that don't go anywhere. These layers of cells and clusters of neurons associated do not mingle with the movement in the rest of our body. They fixate relationally in space, going along for the ride as we walk and move around, and these places never actually experience flow of movement through them.
Some parts become fixed in reaction to a monumental moment that captured the innate ability to move. This could include emotional trauma, injuries, illness, and absorption of material that the immune system deems toxic. If that make-up of cells stays in the past moment long enough, while simultaneously we are here and now; rot, infection, toxins, and parasites arrive to sequester the lack of movement from the rest of us that has maintained motility. The body as a whole functions as a membrane that absorbs some material and filters other material out. In this sense, the process of illness can be viewed as a protective mechanism. Our bodies have a symbiotic relationship with the outside material that causes us harm on a purely physical plane.
Health challenges can be seen as alarm bells for something that began long ago in that first cell that stopped moving- in pathogens that find their way into our body, toxins we eat and breathe in, and in our inexperiencable experiences, or the trauma that we have survived. Perhaps the ailment started before us within our mother, perhaps with our grandmother, or maybe it's something ancient that lurks in our cells and now has the bandwidth to rear its ugly head. The person living out the ailment knows the most about their own predicament. The answer to an outsider doesn't matter all that much. Interdigitation with the whole in present time is of the utmost importance because it brings a solution into fruition. Presence and kind awareness restores the movement that stopped. Presence in this light is vast enough to gently carry the issue to the help it seeks.
Our cells forge the tissue layers that weave our experiences into the tapestry of our anatomy. We have all the right "stuff," perfectly orchestrated, already self-actualized. Injuries and illness establish their own agenda in our system and incrementally integrate within our natural alignment. Sometimes, we also collect moments like shame, misery, and fear in our dream catching physiology. They swirl around inside of us, mixing into our other ingredients. Just like the rest of us exploring space and time, these desperate particles have every right to form up, to behave in their own expression, too. Allowing the body to find its natural alignment examines the terrain, and it is often a comprehensive process of reeducation.
Form and function
In nonorganic material, form follows function. We create a building because we need the shelter. Designers determine the shape of the building and the interior structures from the inputs of what the building is needed for. We create a mug from clay because we need something to drink out of. We have fancy mattresses because we need a pallet that can receive the force distribution of our bodyweight through the night, and then we can fully relax while we sleep. Tools, vehicles, furniture, appliances for daily living, etc demonstrate their shape as a function of the act that it supports.
Organic matter inverts this principle. In living beings; plants, animals, people, function reveals the form underneath. The behavior of living things is determined by its shape. A blade of grass grows with a wide surface area, thus it can take in the sun's energy more fully than it could without this broadness. The tentacles of an octopus determine the mesmerizing movements we observe. They can walk on the ocean floor, they can blend in with the coral, they can propel themselves through the water very quickly, and they can float along, riding the currents in the ocean. The composition of their body allows for their amazing fluidity. Purpose and potentiality give rise to how organic material organizes itself in space.
As organic material forms itself to express internal workings, the material simultaneously interacts with outer surroundings. Organic matter utilizes all the forces and energy available in its vicinity. The shape of a living creature provides the layout for all the qualities necessary for the substrate to continue on in time - to live! Cells embed themselves in a soup of their clones as they divide and expand the space they take up, all the while, storing the information of the outer environment at the time of the first cell's beginning.
Gravity = The primary therapist
Organizing the components of the body removes the limitations that keystoned themselves into the structure. Our equipoise in space determines the efficacy of how the components of our body are working in their own systems, as well as, how they're working in relationship to the whole body. Natural alignment, or the ideal arrangement for our structure, shows up when each part is coherently working with other parts and tissue layers stay within the end range of their maximum adaptive capacity in all directions. Natural alignment serves as a moving target. Once our cells no longer hold themselves together in a random arrangement, they can use energy to expel what has been stored into the extracellular matrix. Sequestered material can be transported for elimination. We can remove the toxins, the infections, and other particles that have accumulated in our cells out into our extracellular matrix, which is the interstitial fluid that our fascial network harbors. Then these particles can leave our body via elimination pathways; mainly the skin, lungs, kidneys, and large intestine. In natural alignment, gravity moves freely through our form, and as a result of the newfound more reliable organization, we notice much sooner, or it's more obvious, if a problem has started.
Gestures describe the holding pattern that our connective matrix contracts and relaxes into. Our bodies morph into and out of gestures, sometimes they easily fall away and sometimes they become frozen in time limiting our movement capabilities. Frozen gestures accumulate into the form of our bodies over time. They can be difficult to release out of. If the gesture is felt and evident only in the upper body, the whole body especially the base of support in the lower pole, needs attention. Sometimes a frozen gesture has an emotional quality, like the person who's head hangs. They experience depression. Not only does their head hang, their ribcage sags, their pelvis narrows, and their feet function more like blocks rather than having the natural mobility that feet usually offer. Breath becomes shallow and the tissue becomes rigid in the thorax and stretched out through the lower torso. Organs have less space to do their vital functions, and the pressure differentials in the body's cavities become imbalanced. This all may occur below any level of awareness slowly over the course of years, except for the depression. Later, their knee starts talking about the disproportional force it's been bearing.
In this example, gravity has been streaming through some tissue layers with no friction and with great resistance in others. Bringing the knee joint into balance and restoring appropriate motion relieves the symptom for a time, and simultaneously, a next step of a reeducation process could consider how the pattern came into being. If we overlook the whole-body orientation, the frozenness of the gesture remains and another component of the body, usually in a deeper system, falls out of balance.
Lingering gestures overlay natural alignment, and they can be due to so many events like repeated movements, accidents, illness, acute injuries, and problems that started in utero. We can also take on other's gestures by mimicking the movement patterns of our parents as children and those we love to spend time with into adulthood. Over time, the layers of these gestures can encapsulate someone's structure so much so that the present moment cannot be faced without great effort. Over time, it becomes very difficult to aptly explore the space around, to move without pain and frustration.
Global gravitational resonance can thaw a frozen gesture that has formed up, however long ago it began. We can also find our way to an integrative state that is closer to our natural alignment. Form and function are two sides of the same coin. It's the form that determines how things behave in our body, holistically and down to the cellular level, even the components inside the cells. The shapes of our enzymes decide the efficacy of the proteins they change. Gravity moves through the body and the all-encompassing force can uptake the past gestures into the livingness of the present moment. We integrate what's stuck in time and space when we're in a coherent relationship with the electromagnetic field of the earth.
"[The man] can experience to his own satisfaction that his psychological hang-ups are literal thorns hooked in literal flesh. They can disappear as the flesh changes, as the barriers within the flesh are disengaged, and as the free flow of body energy and fluids is established."
- Dr. Ida Rolf
“Go around the problem; get the system sufficiently resilient so that it is able to change, and it will change. It doesn't have to be forced. It's that forcing that you have to avoid at all costs.” - Dr. Ida Rolf
Through the lens of Structural Integration (SI), discrete structures like bones, blood vessels, nerves, and organs float while tethered in our intermixing layers of connective tissue. The work of SI teaches the connective tissue to once again relate to the invisible vertical axis that goes through the center of our body, and as a byproduct, this process organizes the discrete structures into their appropriate orientation and alignment. In utero, this line forms many times over along the phases of development. Each organ has its own midline from which it develops outwards as our cells organize in the womb. Each bony segment forms along its center line, and our central nervous system wraps around itself as it grows around the empty tube in the middle of it. Most of our discrete structures, except for blood vessels, develop in relationship to their central axis. Blood vessels develop differently, and they adapt to change in the body more easily than other structures. The lining of blood vessels form in response to the centripetal force of blood consistently marking the same pathway as it migrates into different areas of the body. This occurs in utero and life on land.
The mesoderm, which is the precursor to our fascial network in the embryo, forms by growing symmetrically outwards along two sides of the midline of the embryonic disc. It becomes a vertical line of cells separating two other layers of cells, the endoderm and ectoderm. At the fourth week of growth, the three layers begin to expand at different rates creating ridges and hollows inside the shape of the disc. The mesoderm wraps around both layers and fills in all the spaces where the ectoderm and endoderm have grown away from it. The embryo folds in on itself in many directions simultaneously, and the thicker layer of mesoderm between the ecto and endoderm forms the fulcrums around which the cells fold together. Later, the mesoderm gives rise to the tissue types that have the capacity to contract and relax. This layer, seemingly separate parts in adulthood, still knows how to morph into the space provided, and pull away from that space when needed. The mesoderm eventually becomes muscle, blood, connective tissue, and some organs such as the heart and kidneys.
In adulthood, the whole-body organ of fascia, once the mesoderm, still knows about this central axis and continuously balances around it. You can see this balancing act happen when someone loses their footing and regains it. An unconscious whole-body orchestration occurs for the person to remain vertical. Empirical evidence from Structural Integration suggests that when people reestablish this line, all the systems in the body begin to function better.
In the philosophy of SI, when the collagen matrix of fascia remembers its plumb line, the pressure differentials between the chest, abdomen, and pelvis balance. The rhythm of joints move with freedom and dynamic stability. Overall energy production increases. The usage of energy changes as well. People report feeling more creative and their body returning to a normal weight without paying attention to diet and exercise. The cardiovascular and nervous system meet less resistance. Many people report depression lifting, inner conflicts resolved, and waves of relief from long term psychological problems. When re-oriented around this vertical line, the length potential that the body achieves allows for increased expansion in the lungs and uninhibited motility of the diaphragms and organs beneath the diaphragm. The work literally allows people more breathing room. Cells have more access to the nutrients that appropriate motion provides for them in a natural alignment, hence people become better nourished from within. The process on how to reach vertical organization differs for each person, and it always starts with increasing elasticity in inhalation.
Looking at how SI is akin to different forms of therapy, people uncover unconscious patterns at work that started at a particular trauma or experience, often as early as childhood. These experiences land in someone's life and set up a new context that may reroute other parts of the person's personality in seemingly random directions. Bringing a present day understanding to the earlier experiences in a therapeutic relationship can restore order and perhaps bring relief. In Structural Integration, a similar phenomena happens. People uncover a felt sense and a gesture that accompanies clusters of past experiences. The meaning behind malalignment and tension patterns starts to emerge as the gestures unwind. Once the global organization of someone's fascial network has enough order to it, the work is fine tuning it to relate to the central axis again.
A quote by Dr. Rolf sums up the patterns the body holds succinctly,
"As people come to Rolfers with their aches and their pains, we can see where their bodies are literally offering blocks to the gravitational forces. The gravitational force is immense, and their resistance isn’t much good except to close the body down, compress it. Sometimes the block has been put into the physical picture by a physical traumatic episode — a fall down the cellar steps, out of a tree, out of a high chair, off a tricycle or bicycle, out of a speeding automobile, etc., etc. This block is in the actual structure, in the flesh of the body. Then there is the kind of block that is basically emotional. Little Jimmy loves Papa. Papa goes along bent over, so Jimmy goes along like that because this allows him to be Papa in his mind. And by and by Jimmy gets a set into his muscular body which he cannot let go of. To get it out, he has to have help.”
The work in SI does not directly aim to shift anything psychologically. It happens as a byproduct. As the fascial network reorients towards an original central axis, people have more freedom from the frozen gestures that had previously encapsulated them. The felt sense of insecurity or inadequacy that people suffer from can be seen as accurate conclusions of the physical situation that bears witness to the disruptive feelings. Ida Rolf’s process worked through the body to create a felt sense of inherent gravitational support. Built-in support from the gravitational field allows for a more positive synchronicity between each person’s physical situation and emotional climate.
“I work on the body because it's the only thing that I can get my hands on.”
- Dr. Ida Rolf
There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.
We lose this center line, our "I," when enough structural deterioration has occurred through shortening and global tensioning, and other situations like repetitive strain injuries, impacts, illness, scars and surgeries. These events disorganize the fascial network in random directions, and sometimes our body cannot return to a normal arrangement because competing injured areas create force vectors that collectively pull our fascial network away from this invisible unifying line.
Dr. Rolf differentiated between the words random and normal in her terminology. Normal, to her, meant balanced, aligned, and organized. Normal set the body onto a trajectory in which all parts placed themselves coherently in relationship to the central axis of the body. Unfortunately, as she looked at people through her lens at the time, she saw that normal was not the usual. She called it her "uncomfortable reality." Random, to her, meant disorganized and continuing on the pathway set in motion by the slings and arrows of life; that is tissue damage, aggregate tension, impact injuries, disease, emotional distress, and other events that create structural distortions.
In a Q&A session, someone asked her, "Is Rolfing natural?" She replied, "No. What's natural is to keep on going in the way that life has knocked you about." Structural Integration aims to restore the "I" and return the body to a normal arrangement. In this way, a new trajectory of coherence throughout the structure of a body can begin to establish itself normally. The random relationship among parts can begin to coalesce in organizing around the central line. This line develops before birth, before we're on our own in gravity. Using the line to anchor the organization of the fascial network brings resilience to the body as a biological system in relationship to gravity.
Back to Normal
A lot of wonderful phenomena starts to happen when a body can once again find its "I." When the fascial matrix remembers its blueprint, it brings the structures that float in it back to a normal alignment. Many practitioners decide they wanted to become Structural Integrators when they first have a felt sense of this line. Rolfers call this "being on your line," and many schools refer to it as "The Line." Many describe the sensation of "being on your line" as effortless balance, floating and simultaneously rooted, aligned and free. When someone has this plumb line established, or reestablished, the body as a system can use energy more efficiently.
The theory behind the line comes from Dr. Rolf's understanding of how gravity flows through the body. Ida Rolf studied biochemistry, metaphysics, yoga, acupuncture, osteopathy, religion, and philosophy to create her work. The biological model of tensegrity that would better ground her work in a modern understanding came about from Steven Levine in 1980, less than a year after she died. Steven Levine published his conception of biotensegrity, and he focused on all mammals. He discovered the new model from the necks of dinosaurs and called it Biotensegrity to give credit to Buckminster Fuller and Kenneth Nelson who first created a 3D model of this concept in architecture. The long necks of dinosaurs, that soared high above their body and could move like a snake in the air, had similarly shaped vertebrae as primates only much larger. Dinosaur bodies, however, needed different laws of physics than the current model provided to explain how the neck and head could sail through the air like they did. The new model to describe physical movement in all animals became biotensegrity. Dr. Levin and others have since built upon the model of biotensegrity to expand to all organic material. It has become clear that people abide by soft matter physical laws in this model, just as dinosaurs did. With this in mind, Dr. Rolf's view has become more tangible as well. She saw that people have an invisible central axis that unifies the liquidness of the fascial network.
Dr. Rolf must have seen through her microscope that different tissue types resist gravity at varying degrees. Through her work with clients and students, she perceived that when gravity can flow through the body without extra resistance, the body exudes an optimal state of energetic resonance. She proposed that the body works like an electromagnetic battery. When the feet and head, or the lower and upper poles, have the maximum distance between them, the voltage of the body increases. In other words, she offered the idea, and the foundation of a therapeutic process, to bring the upper and lower poles of the body into a structural balance along a central vertical line in order to alleviate many somatic issues.