“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.