The Rolfing Series
The basic Rolfing® structural integration Series consists of ten or eleven one-hour sessions. It is advisable to try three sessions before deciding to take the whole series; after all how can you know Rolfing is for you, without experiencing it?
Each Rolfing session builds upon the results of the previous one so that the results are cumulative. The first seven sessions remove strain from specific areas such as the knees, lower back, shoulders, neck and arms.
The remaining sessions organize and align the body as a whole, resulting in better balance, freedom of movement and a higher energy level.
Note: my description of each session below, along with a short Youtube clip of the session, is of the usual procedure I follow throughout the Series, based on the ‘recipe’ taught by Dr. Rolf and subsequent trained teachers of the Rolf Institute. Other Rolfers may differ in their approach and ’style’, although the bodily territory treated in each session should be broadly similar (e.g. Session 3 side of the body, Session 5 front of the body, Session 6 back of the body).
Clients who receive Rolfing are naturally interested in the process and often ask questions about what is being done in a session and why it is being done. It is a fascinating process to experience and in my opinion it is a work of genius on the part of Dr. Rolf to have devised it. The description below is an attempt to answer some of the common questions my clients have asked me. It is meant to be informative in order to prepare you for what will be covered in each session and explain the rationale for the session. If you decide to do Rolfing I am happy to answer any questions you have about it as you go through the process.
For brief overview of Rolfing Series click here http://www.rolfing-london.co.uk/rolfing-series-introduction/
The first session has several purposes:
1. It enables you and your Rolfer to get to know each other and establishes whether you can work together
2. It identifies your expectations of the treatment and whether those expectations can realistically be met
3. It prepares your body to receive the Series
ROLFING SERIES SESSION 1 IN FULL
What to expect in your first Session
Note: what I describe in this Session and all subsequent sessions of the Series is the usual procedure I follow, based on the ‘recipe’ taught by Dr. Rolf and subsequent trained teachers of the Rolf Institute. Other Rolfers may differ in their approach, although the bodily territory treated in each session should be broadly similar (e.g. Session 3, side of the body, Session 5, front of the body).
You will fill in an initial questionnaire to record basic details about you such as old injuries, current pain, any medical treatments e.g.medication or physiotherapy, your reasons for doing Rolfing, etc. We will then look over the questionnaire together and discuss, adding any relevant information. Throughout the Series I will add any information which may not have been mentioned at this initial interview. It is important to know about old traumas or recurring injuries so that I can be careful treating vulnerable areas and help them as well as possible. Nevertheless clients do sometimes forget to tell me important information at the start – sometimes recalling quite serious injuries as if they were of minor importance.
Next I will observe you standing from four angles: front, back and two sides. This is to assess your body structure and the key areas needing attention. It is normal in Rolfing to view the client in this way before and after each session. This is so that the Rolfer can get an ongoing impression of your body at the start and get useful visual feedback about how it changes over the Series. During each session men wear underwear or sports shorts and women wear underwear, bikini or sports shorts and bra (sports bras are inappropriate as their wide back impedes key areas of the back which need to be accessed in the treatment). It is natural for some clients to feel embarrassed as they are viewed for the first time in this way, but most clients quickly get used to this as the treatment progresses and they understand that the clothing requirements are to enable access to key structural areas in order to get maximum effectiveness from the treatment (upper legs, lower back, upper back, rib cage). Incidentally, I remember feeling embarrassed having to stand in my underwear for the first time in front of the whole group during my Rolfing training in 1994. But quite quickly we students were joking that we were so used to standing around in our underwear that we might forget to put the rest of our clothes on when we left the classroom! The most important thing is that you are comfortable and a blanket is available for you during the treatment if you require one.
In this first Session I will advise you to let me take pictures of you on your own phone of the four angles – front, back and two sides – and again at the end of the whole Series. This is so that you will have a visual comparison of yourself before and after The Rolfing Series. It is a good idea to do this for your own record. I have had several clients over the years who have regretted not taking pictures at the start because they felt such positive change in their body and wished they had a visual record of that. The other advantage of taking pictures on your phone in this first Session is that we can look at the pictures and I can point out to you what I am seeing in your structure which might be improved in the Rolfing, so that you can get a good clear idea what we are aiming at over the Series.
The initial interview, viewing and pictures usually takes 10-15 minutes, which is included in the hour duration of the session (every session lasts for one hour). Then you will lie down on the table and be covered by a blanket if you wish. Before I make contact in the first session I always invite you to let me know if anything I do makes you uncomfortable. This is very important. Rolfing does not have to be painful in order to be effective. Nevertheless, when we are contacting old injuries or areas of chronic tightness this understandably may cause a certain level of discomfort. This may be tolerable for you; it often helps to breathe in order to relax and control fear associated with the discomfort. No force or pressure will be used without your permission, not least because a good release will not occur if your bodily defences are bracing against it. Rolfing works best as a cooperative effort. As regards discomfort/pain in treatment, many clients report that they do feel discomfort sometimes but it usually feels as if it is releasing something important. In this way the discomfort is perceived as a benefit and as such is much easier to tolerate. Again: Rolfing is a cooperative process.
In this first Session certain key points are touched. These key points will be contacted again in the Series, and this initial contact in Session 1 enables me to get a good idea of their relative importance in your structure. For example, while you are lying on your back I will contact your rib cage, which will again feature in Sessions 3 and 5. Others points of contact while you are in the supine position are the arms (Session 9), front of the shoulder (Sessions 5 and 9) and the quadriceps (Session 5).
After working on these points on the front of your body you will lie face down and I will work on the calves and hamstrings (Sessions 4, 6, 8 and maybe 10 and 11 – hamstrings are structurally important and commonly areas of longstanding tension, and are often treated on multiple occasions accordingly).
Then you will lie on your side and I will work on the side of the upper legs from the hip to the knee on a structure called the Iliotibial band or ITB (Sessions 3 and 8). Some work will also be done on the muscle that connects the last rib to the rib cage (Quadratus Lumborum) and the rib cage itself (both treated again in Session 3).
Then you will lie on your back and your neck will be treated. This will happen in many sessions as the neck is an area of tension in most people.
The last intervention will be the back roll. For this you will sit on a chair and roll down – i.e. your shoulders will move towards your knees as I release the long erector spinae muscles either side of the spine. The closure of the session us when I view you from the four angles again and check in with you as to how you are feeling after the session. We may then look at diaries to arrange or confirm further sessions.
The introductory first session is important for getting to know the key issues in your body. Many areas are touched relatively superficially and these areas will receive slower and more precise treatment as you progress through the Series.
Session 2 starts this more targeted approach by focusing on the feet and lower legs.
ROLFING SERIES SESSION 2 IN FULL
It is similar to Session 7 in that the focus is locally specific (Session 7 is about the neck and cranium), whereas the other sessions cover broader areas (e.g. the side line for Session 3, the back line for Session 6). In simple terms there is a logical progression in the Series from the ground upwards. It makes sense to start with the feet as they are the only contact point with the ground in standing or locomotion. If the feet are out of balance this can reverberate up through the body, affecting knees and hips and even the neck and jaw. One of the benefits of doing the Rolfing Series is that your body becomes more adaptable and responsive as the fascia is rehydrated by the skilled pressure of the Rolfing, so that by the latter sessions the improved interconnectivity of the various body parts is noticeable. Over my years of Rolfing practice there have been numerous occasions when my clients have felt a release in the upper back, arm, neck or jaw as I worked on a foot in Session 8 or Session 10 – a good sign that the body has become well integrated.
The foot contains 26 bones, 31 joints, 20 muscles which are wholly contained in the foot (intrinsic muscles) and several muscles which connect to the lower leg (extrinsic muscles). There are three arches in the foot: a lateral arch from the heal bone to the little toe, a medial arch from the heal bone to the big toe, and a transverse arch across the front of the foot. The role of the arches is to transmit and distribute weight, so their integrity is crucial (basically the inner arch is more weight bearing and the outer arch more for lifting and balancing). Flat feet are an example of arches which have lost their integrity. Rolfing can restore integrity to the arches by correcting imbalances in the bones and muscles of the feet and lower legs. Many of my clients over the years have reported that their flat feet have developed arches over the course of the Series. Our modern life of shoes and hard concrete surfaces challenges the healthy functioning of feet and can even cause malformation. Additionally, unless we are involved in practices like yoga, meditation or movement activities which encourage body awareness, we tend to pay little attention to them. I remember the feeling after my feet had been worked in my Rolfing Series in 1994. My feet seemed to come alive. Before the Rolfing the action of walking barefoot on slightly rough gravelly or concrete surfaces had been really painful. Injuries such as ankle sprains, strains from football and rugby, had taken their toll over the years. The muscles of my feet and lower legs had become stringy, shortened, spatially displaced and consequently the healthy pumping action of the muscles and metabolic exchange had been compromised. But after my Rolfer worked on my feet I was able to walk over such surfaces with ease. My feet were able to adapt to the surface instead of rigidly clashing with it. Actually this feeling of satisfying connection with the ground came later in the Series (after Session 8) where the legs were reworked.
In Rolfing key areas such as the feet or hamstrings need more than one working in order to achieve effective integration – such double/triple interventions are built into the Series. In fact the feet receive further attention in Sessions 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 and sometimes 10 and 11 depending on each client’s situation.
What to expect in Session 2
As in Session 1 and all subsequent sessions I will observe you standing from four angles: front back and each side. You will also be observed walking so as to get an idea of how your feet behave and respond to the ground in movement. It is worth mentioning here that I normally ask a client to stand up and walk after working on one side of the body; this is in most sessions, not just Session 2. The reason for this is to invite you to compare the worked side with the unworked side. There is no pressure for you to notice anything or comment on anything. It is fine if you actually can consciously notice differences in the two sides, but the value of this comparison is for your brain and nervous system to process information about new options of movement and spacial orientation (proprioception) produced by the work on the feet.
The effectiveness of the Rolfing is basically a result of two things: first, the skilfulness and appropriateness of the Rolfer’s interventions, and second the response of your brain and nervous system to the treatment. It is your brain and nervous system which modify the body over time – even for several months after the last session in the Series – as they process the good information from the Rolfing and modify the body accordingly.
The work of Session 2 is mostly on the feet. At the start you will be lying on your back with your feet slightly over the foot of the table. I will touch into the plantar fascia and muscles on the bottom surface of the foot and identify restrictions of movement, excessive muscle thickenings, stringy muscles, muscle knots and imbalances. In order to correct such restrictions various techniques will be used. The most common technique I use is hooking into the restricted tissue, applying sustained pressure and waiting for a release. This is patient work as the more restricted an area is the longer it takes to get a release. Sometimes it can take several minutes on an area before the tissue starts to respond, usually by softening. In addition to applying sustained pressure I may move your foot or ask you to make movements with the purpose of aiding the release of the restricted tissue. Sometimes this work can be uncomfortable, especially if tissue has been held in a chronically contracted or dehydrated state. However, this work is cooperative and the level of contact is a negotiated level, meaning that I will not apply pressure or cause discomfort without your permission. I always encourage my clients to communicate how they are feeling, especially if they are finding the work challenging. But there is nothing to be gained from overwhelming a client’s protective response, so this is naturally avoided.
In this second session some work will also be done on the lower legs and hamstrings. There also may be some neck work. Most people benefit from neck work owing to many hours working at a computer or hunched over a smart phone or iPad, so I will endeavour to do some neck work in most sessions. But if you especially want to receive work on your neck – or indeed any other area – I encourage you to let me know at the start of each session. There is some slack time built in to my Session plans in order to deal with specific requests. At the end of the session we may finish with a back roll, which is where I work along the muscles of your back as you roll down in a seated position.
The Lateral Line
After the localised focus on the feet and lower legs in Session 2, the territory is much broader in Session 3, covering the lateral line along the whole length of the body from the side of the foot to the top of the rib cage. Session 3 starts to create length in the body.
ROLFING SERIES SESSION 3 IN FULL
There is a muscular and fascial continuum from the foot all the way up to the neck (this continuum, the muscle attachment points and how they follow a continuous chain is described clearly in Tom Myers’ excellent book Anatomy Chains in the chapter “Lateral Line”). Releasing tension along this line contributes generally to the lengthening of the body. However, the primary way in which length is created in the body in Session 3 is by decompressing the rib cage from the hips. The Quadratus Lumborum muscles connect the lowest ribs to the crest of the hips. In many people these muscles can be quite tight, which has the effect of pulling the whole rib cage down towards the hips. This can be a major cause of lower back pain which can be further exacerbated by unilateral tightness, i.e. where one side is tighter than the other. Unilateral tightness causes the rib cage and therefore the spine itself to sidebend and rotate to one side, which can cause disc compression and sacroiliac pain.
What to expect in Session 3
For most of the session you will be lying on your side, with a pillow to support your head and another pillow between your knees. Starting from the feet and working up, the following areas are worked: outside of the ankle, Iliotibial band, Greater Trochanter (the bony protuberance at the top of the side of the leg), the Quadratus Lumborum and it’s connected lumbar fascia, the ribs and occasionally the neck. One goal of this session is to make sure that the legs and arms can move freely, without being structurally or functionally ‘stuck’ in the lower back. Accordingly, in order to encourage such freedom of limb movement, you may be asked to do certain slow movements while the Quadratus Lumborum and lumbar fascia are worked: rotating your leg in and out and then reaching your arm forwards and pulling it slowly back in towards your body. These kinds of slow movements can be helpful to increase your awareness of key areas in your body, and are also helpful to me as I modulate my touch to get the required release with the minimal discomfort.
A word about the Iliotibial Band (ITB)
The ITB (sometimes called the Iliotibial Tract) is a long tendon which extends all the way from the outside of the hip (Iliac Crest), along the side of the upper leg to just below the outside of the knee on the tibia. Traditionally the ITB is regarded as a stabiliser of the hip in walking and running, but a recent study by Carolyn Eng, a former Ph.D. student in Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, suggests that the ITB stores and releases elastic energy to make walking and running more efficient (“The capacity of the human iliotibial band to store elastic energy during running.” Journal of Biomechanics DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jbiomech.2015.06.017).
Within the context of the Rolfing Series, the ITB is important because it connects to the Quadriceps on the front of the thigh and the Hamstrings on the back of the thigh. The organising and balancing of the front and back of the body are crucial to the postural realignment which occurs over the course of the Series and working on the interface between the ITB and these significant muscle groups is a key way to influence posture. This work in Session 3 also prepares the way for the more detailed work directly on the Hamstrings in Sessions 4 and 6, and on the Quadriceps in Session 5. The ITB is quite tense in many people, especially those who do a lot of cycling or running (in fact ITB Syndrome is a common problem for runners). Accordingly the work on this area is done with great care not to cause undue discomfort. Rolfing is always done with consideration of the client’s pain tolerance limits.
After working on one side I will ask you to stand up and walk a little to invite you to notice any new sensations. In Session 3 clients commonly report feeling longer through the side that has been worked. The ‘lift’ is normally achieved in Session 3 will be reinforced in Sessions 4 and 5 (the inside legs and the front of the body).
Session 3 is the end of the first group of sessions and thus forms a natural break in the treatment.
This does not mean that a break is recommended after Session 3 (the spacing between sessions is normally weekly or fortnightly) but that this is a good time to break if you are planning to take a holiday or for some other practical reason. The next group of sessions (Sessions 4-7) are referred to as the ‘core’ group, meaning that we start the process of integrating the visceral core of the body from the pelvis up to the neck.
ROLFING SERIES SESSION 4 IN FULL
There are two main reasons for the common structural problem of the jamming of the rib cage onto the hips. The first reason is chronic tightness in the Quadratus Lumborum muscle which connects the last rib (12th rib) to the crest of the hip on both sides of the body, which is usually accompanied by tightness in the fascia of the lower back. Session 3 deals with this problem by freeing up the Quadratus Lumborum and its fascia; Dr. Rolf referred to this as ‘excavating the 12th rib’. The second reason the rib cage is too close to the hips is because of tightness in a continuous chain of myofascia (muscle and fascia) from the inside of the thigh (Adductor muscle group) to the inside of the hip (Iliacus muscle) and the front of the spine up to the level of the 12th thoracic vertebra (Psoas muscle). Tightness in one part of the chain will affect the whole chain, i.e. tightness in the Adductors can exert forward pressure on the lumbar spine, causing the curve to increase and thus bringing the rib cage closer to the hips.
The body as an interconnected whole
An important concept is relevant here, namely the body as an interconnected whole. Anatomy books show the muscles of the body by labelling and depicting each muscle as clearly as possible. It is indeed important to be able to identify and name individual muscles, and some anatomy books have beautiful illustrations of the muscles of the human body, clearly showing their points of origin and insertion. But this way of depiction gives the impression of muscles being discrete units which only relate to other muscles by incidental proximity. The reality, however, is that muscles are not isolated units, but connect to each other in continuous chains and affect and are affected by their surrounding fascia. The strength of the Rolfing approach to treating the body is that it seeks to deal with the body by reinforcing the integrity of these lines of connections, such as the Lateral Line which is treated in Session 3.
Session 4 is another good example of this interconnectivity, namely the connection between the inside of the legs and the front of the spine. Tightness in the inner thighs is relatively common and it is important to release this as much as possible in Session 4. If this release is successful the results can be quite powerful in that it will create space in the whole chain of myofascia from the inner thighs to the front of the spine. Pressure on the lower back is thus reduced without even working on the lower back, and the effect can often be felt and seen as a further lifting of the rib cage from the hips, and sometimes a reduction of both anterior pelvic tilt and lumbar lordosis.
What to expect in Session 4
You will be lying on your side again as you were in Session 3. The difference is that in Session 3 a pillow was placed between your knees and thighs in order support the work on the outside of your leg. In Session 4 your upper leg (i.e. the the leg not contacting the table) is bent at the knee and flexed towards your stomach and is resting on a doubled up pillow. The reason for this is to create clear access to the inside of your lower leg (the one touching the table).
Session 4 consists mostly of work on the inside of the leg. The inner arch of the foot receives more attention, consolidating the work in Session 2. The lower leg is also worked, as well as the upper leg. Some people have very tight Adductors (inner thigh muscles) and this work can be uncomfortable. However, it is important to remember that I will always be respectful of your boundaries and pain tolerance level. Rolfing is a cooperative enterprise, a negotiation, and great care will be taken to work within your limits, without forcing anything. It is worth mentioning here that it is quite common to feel much better after receiving Rolfing work which felt a bit uncomfortable. When tension and trauma have been held for a long time in your body, sometimes for many years, it is not surprising that releasing this tension may be intense. But equally, once the work is done, the feeling of release, space and lightness and the new possibilities of movement are ample compensation for any discomfort felt.
After working the inside of one leg you will be asked to stand up and walk, and invited to notice any difference between the two legs. It is common for clients to feel somewhat lopsided at this point. This is normal after working on only one side. The process of standing up and walking halfway through a session is to highlight any new options of posture and movement to you and your brain and nervous system (please see below: Why you are asked to stand and walk during a Rolfing Session). Then you will lie on your other side so that the other leg can be treated. After this some work will be done on the back of the legs (calves and hamstrings) and we may finish with neck work and a back roll (work along the muscles of the back as you roll down while seated on a chair).
Why you are asked to stand and walk during a Rolfing Session
The part your brain and nervous system plays in the effectiveness of the Rolfing treatment cannot be underestimated. The Rolfer’s job – my job – is to provide skilled physical interventions to your structure, tried and tested by years of experience. But the next step is done by you, or more precisely your brain and nervous system. Yes, you can make a conscious effort to be more efficient and careful in how you position yourself in certain habits such as how you sit at your computer. In fact almost all of my clients feel more aware about their habits at the end of the Series compared to how they were in Session 1. Clients frequently report being aware of how uncomfortable a long term habit suddenly feels, where before they were unaware of this – this is an extremely important insight because it enables them to self correct and adopt a more efficient habit. An example of this is slouching at the computer, a habit which a client did normally and without conscious awareness before the Rolfing, a habit which results in neck pain which the client did not necessarily associate with the slouching habit. However at some point, often towards the end of the Series, the client starts to notice how uncomfortable the slouching feels. This is because the body has started to change and the overall structure has become more balanced as a result of the Rolfing treatment, and the person is more likely to notice and less likely to tolerate habits which put her body at risk of pain. So this conscious new awareness is part of the process of integration which happens in a Rolfing Series. The other part of it is more complex and occurs on an unconscious level. This is when your brain and nervous system recognise the new options created by the Rolfing work, and re-set muscle dynamics based on this new information. This is more complex because it involves many muscles, and the reevaluation of habitual patterns which had become normal. It is a process which starts while the work is being received (during a session), continues between sessions, and lasts for several months after the Series is finished. The space between the sessions is where much of the integration happens, and this is why we do weekly or fortnightly sessions (occasionally two sessions a week in special circumstances
Rolfing Series Session 5 in Full
The first four sessions do the groundwork of setting up the support in your legs in order to facilitate a positive change in the structural relatiionship between the front (Session 5) and back (Session 6). Once this happens the visible improvement in posture can be quite striking, depending on what your starting configuration was.
The territory covered in Session 5 has a superficial myofascial train and a deep myofascial train. The superficial train extends from the front of the feet to the front of the shoulders. The myofascial deep chain is more complex, including the deep Tibialis Posterior muscle at the back of the lower leg (because of a myofascial crossover at the knee this structure can be considered as part of the front chain), the inner thigh muscles which were treated in Session 4, the front of the hip joint (Iliacus muscle), the lumbar spine (Psoas), diaphragm and the deep front muscles of the neck.
The deep myofascial train of Session 5 is an important continuation of the work in Session 4, to the extent that these two sessions can be viewed as one big session split into two parts. The relevant territory here is the myofascial chain which joins the inside of the thighs to the front of the spine up to the level of the 12th Thoracic vertebra. Session 4 dealt with the inner thighs; Session 5 deals with the top of the chain, namely the front of the lower spine. Releasing excess muscle contraction and myofascial restrictions in this chain can significantly improve integration in the pelvis and lower back by reducing excessive anterior pelvic tilt and lumbar lordosis. Because Sessions 4 and 5 are effectively one big session it is advisable not to have a large gap between these two sessions.
A note on the spacing between sessions in the Rolfing Series
The normal spacing between sessions is weekly or fortnightly. The spacing does not have to be exactly regular, i.e the spacing between any two sessions is ideally anything from one to two weeks. The Series will stand a couple of longer breaks if practicality demands it, so a couple of breaks of up to 4 weeks would not compromise the treatment. The maximum regular spacing I advise for my clients is 3 weeks; anything longer than this spreads out the Series over too long a period and momentum is lost. It is particularly important not to lose momentum in the core sessions, 4, 5, 6 and 7. In the unusual case where you have to take a break of 5 weeks or more between two sessions I would assess and probably advise you to do a catch up session. For example if you took a 6 week break between sessions 6 and 7, the catch up session would be done before Session 7, with the purpose of treating the key areas dealt with in the first 6 sessions and making sure you are ready for Session 7.
What to expect in Session 5
In Session 5 you will be lying on your back. The work will progress from the feet up towards the front of the shoulders. The main structures worked are the front of the feet/ankles (Retinaculum), front of the thighs (Quadriceps), abdominals, Psoas, diaphragm under the front of the rib cage and the front of the shoulders. Normally I ask you to make two movements during Session 5.
The first movement is to raise your knee towards the ceiling by dragging your foot along the table. This move is first used to facilitate relaxation of the Quadriceps. The Quadriceps are strong bulky muscles and some people tend to over-recruit this muscle group, i.e. the whole muscle group is unnecessarily engaged in the slightest movement. The purpose of the knee bending, foot dragging movement is to encourage the Quadriceps to function more efficiently by engaging smaller parts of the muscles sequentially instead of firing up the whole bulk of the muscle. The movement works best on a subtle level, as this is the best way to give information about the new movement option to your brain and nervous system. Imagery can facilitate this process and you may be asked to imagine lying on a beach and dragging your foot lightly through sand (this sand image is to encourage not to fire up the Quadriceps by holding your foot off the surface of the Rolfing table). This same knee bending movement is used again to access and give you awareness of the Psoas connection in the front of the spine.
The second movement called for in Session 5 is a simple rotating of your arm outwards while I work on the front of your shoulder just below the collar bone (specifically on the Attachments of the Corocobrachialis and Pectoralis Minor on the Corocoid process). As with the knee movement, the purpose of this arm movement is to be able to do it in a relaxed way without over recruiting the muscles. As with other sessions we may end Session 5 with some work on your neck while you are lying down, followed by a back roll in sitting. After session 5 clients sometimes report feeling quite long through the front of the body. Some clients also feel more open in the shoulders.
Rolfing Series Session 6 in Full
Session 6 counterbalances the work done in Session 5. While Session 5 organises the front of your body, Session 6 deals with the back. This is a very important stage to get to in the Rolfing process. The balance between front and back is crucial to postural alignment and the sometimes striking visual changes that can be seen in Before and After pictures of people who complete the Rolfing Series usually start to manifest after Session 6.
But we are able to get to this point as a result of the careful preparatory work in the previous sessions. Session 2 ensures that there are no significant aberrations in the feet which migrate up the body and negatively affect key structures such as the knees, hips, back and neck. Session 3 initiates the lengthening of the spine by freeing the myofascial restrictions which were compressing the ribcage towards the hips. Session 4 continues this creation of span and length by organising the line from the inner thighs to the lower back. And Session 5 creates length through the front of the body both by freeing often considerable tension in the front of the thighs which may have been causing the pelvis to tip forward excessively; and also by freeing tension in the ribcage, chest and the front of the shoulders which may have caused the shoulders to hunch forward. At the end of Session 5 clients typically feel more open in the front, and visually appear longer in the front of the body compared to the back. Accordingly it is the goal of Session 6 to bring the back of the body into balance with the front by working key structures in order to create greater length through the back line.
What to expect in Session 6
The next area to be worked is the gluteal muscles, again frequently an area which holds excess tension. One of the muscles in this group is the Piriformis, which in turn can affect the sciatic nerve, so sometimes working the gluteal muscles (normally with the slow and careful application of elbow pressure) can significantly relieve lumbar pain and sciatica.
After the gluteals have been addressed, the back is worked progressively from lower to upper back. Normally the whole session takes place with you prone (face down), but sometimes I may ask you to lie on your side in order to better access your back muscles. You may also be placed in a semi prone position with your knees bent and one arm behind your back; this is in order to get deeper access to the one-joint muscles alongside your spine. Also a supportive pillow may be placed under your stomach or chest, depending on which technique is being used.
At the end of the session you may do a seated back roll and then, as normal, you will be viewed standing – front, back and both sides – in order to assess the effects of the session. At this stage it is quite common for clients to look better balanced between the front and back of the body.
Rolfing Series Session 7 in Full
By this stage in the Rolfing Series we are ready to devote an entire session to the neck. Clearly this is an important session for many people, especially if you spend many hours a day straining your neck forward to read a computer screen.
Session 7 is a natural continuation of the work done in previous sessions. At this stage of the Rolfing Series we are aiming for an unforced, comfortable balance of your head on top of your shoulders, as opposed to the common ‘forward head posture’, where some muscles are over-working and therefore tight and uncomfortable. The balance of the head on the shoulders is not only dependent on the dynamic equilibrium of the neck muscles themselves, but is best understood as the manifestation of more global myofascial strains throughout the whole body even from as far away as the feet.
Session 7 works on the neck and is the culmination of the preparatory work in previous sessions and therefore is important within the context of the broad myofascial chains. So Session 3 prepares the side line of your body and Session 7 continues this by releasing the neck myofascia from the side line: especially the Splenius Capitis and Sternocleidomastoid muscles. Sessions 4 and 5 deal with the deep and superficial front line of your body, which is further treated in Session 7 by working on the Infrahyoid and sometimes the jaw muscles. Session 6 prepares the back line which then continues into the Session 7 work on the Erector Spinae and Upper Trapezius muscles and includes more detailed work on the very important Suboccipital muscles.
The Suboccipital muscles are four muscles which attach from the base of the back of the head to the highest two vertebrae with the function of stabilising the head on the top vertebra (Atlas), fine movement control of the head on the Atlas and also tilting back the head into extension. The Suboccipitals are often extremely tight as they are overused in this tilting the head back action frequently for many hours a day owing to the current overuse of computers, iPads and smartphones — in the head forward posture it is necessary to tilt back the head in order to bring up the eyes to be able to read a computer screen.
The additional reason the work on the Suboccipitals is so important in the Rolfing Series is that they have a crucial role in the overall tone and balance of the whole back line of the body. They (especially the Rectus Capitus Posterior) contain a high proportion of stretch receptors in comparison to other muscles of the back line of the body: 36 muscle spindles per gram of muscle tissue compared to only seven spindles per gram in the Gluteus Maximus. Because muscle spindles/stretch receptors are part of the sensory/motor feedback loop with the nervous system, the Subocciptals have a crucial role in the coordination of the whole of the back musculature. The Subocciptals have also been shown to affect hamstring tightness i.e.they affect overall posture significantly (Aparicio EQ, Quirante LB, Blanco CR, Sendin FA. Immediate effects of the suboccipital muscle inhibition technique in subjects with short hamstring syndrome. J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2009;32(4):262-269).
What to expect in Session 7
After the normal visual assessment you will be asked to lie on your back. In Session 7 you can choose to keep lower clothing on, as the whole session will be on the neck — unless there is a specific reason to work on the legs. Detailed work will be done in this position on the back of your neck. If specific muscle knots are located they will be released if possible by slow and careful sustained finger pressure — no high velocity thrust techniques are used in Rolfing.
It is important to treat the Subocciptals, and an effective release technique will be performed; this involves your head being held up from the table with my fingers and waiting for the weight of your head to soften any excess tension in these muscles. Your head may also be held to one side and then the other as a gentle technique is performed to release the scalene myofascia between the base of your neck and first rib. Then you will lie on your side in order to facilitate work on the muscles and fascia on the side of your neck, including the Upper Trapezius, which often holds excess tension. If time permits, further work will be done in this side position on your upper back muscles, although this may also be done in any of the last three sessions (Sessions 9-11) as it is often important enough to warrant several attempts to release the accumulated tension in this commonly tense area.
At the end of the session you will be viewed standing as normal. It is common for clients to feel a bit ‘spacey’ at this point. The work on the head and neck is influential in proprioception, which is your sense of yourself in space, so it may feel a little strange as your brain and nervous system are getting accustomed to the new options created in the Session 7.
A note on nose and mouth work
Ida Rolf’s original ‘recipe’ includes intra-oral and intra-nasal work with hygienic gloves in Session 7. It is not compulsory to do or receive this work and in fact I now do not perform this by default. This work can sometimes be useful in treating jaw tension (by working on the Pterygoid muscle inside the mouth) and also for sinus problems. The work will be recommended by me if appropriate and you may also ask me to do it if you wish.
Rolfing Series Session 8 in Full
In Session 8 we revisit the legs. Session 8 is an important stage in the Series in that it is the first of the last group of sessions, traditionally called the ‘integrating sessions’. The first group of Sessions 1-3 prepares your body for deeper work into the core space around the spine and torso. The second group of Sessions 4-7, known as the ‘core sessions’, goes deeper into the myoskeletal system and starts to organise your upper body more directly. The last group of Sessions 8-11 goes into the deeper layers of myofascia which have been made accessible by the previous sessions.
Session 8 is also an effective counterbalance and continuation of the work in Session 7. Based on my viewing of clients over many years, and on their feedback, it seems that the body needs to be ‘grounded’ after the work on the neck (clients sometimes feel a little ‘spacey’ after Session 7), and the leg work of Session 8 tends to achieve this. It also seems that the repeating of work on key parts of the legs in Session 8 brings the legs to a deeper level of integration than was available in the initial leg work in Sessions 1-6.
The first attempt in Sessions 1-6 to release key structures in the legs, such as the Iliotibial Band, Hamstrings, Quadriceps and Adductors is usually only partially successful because most of the energy of the Rolfing is spent on releasing superficial to intermediate layers of myofascial tension. By Session 8 the deeper layers in the legs have become available and it is possible to get a more robust level of organisation to the structures, without it necessarily being experienced as more uncomfortable.
The role of Session 8 can also be appreciated by understanding its position in the Series between the neck work in Session 7 and the arm work in Session 9. Both Sessions 7 and 9 deal with the upper body; they come late in the Series but are extremely important sessions in that these areas are frequent sites of chronic tension in a person’s body, especially in the light of our modern sedentary lifestyle and overuse of computers and smart phones etc. So Session 8 is sandwiched between these two upper body sessions, performing the dual role of grounding your body after the work on the neck (Session 7) and preparing your body for another upper body session, this time on your arms (session 9).
What to expect in Session 8
This session covers territory already addressed in previous sessions, especially Sessions 3 and 4, but at a deeper level. Normally the inside thigh muscles (Adductors) are done first, so you will be in the same position as Session 4, lying on your side with the upper leg bent and resting on a high pillow, while the work is done on the inside of the leg that rests on the table. The first time these muscles are addressed in the Series is in Session 4, and because this is commonly a sensitive area care is taken not to push too far in Session 4 in order not to overwhelm your nervous system and cause defensive muscle guarding. By Session 8 your body will have had several weeks to assimilate the work on the Adductors so that by the time you do Session 8 the work can go deeper without causing too much undue discomfort. If you are able to accept this careful and deep work it is normally extremely beneficial to the integration of your body.
After working the Adductors we will work on the outside of your legs — the Iliotibial Band, or IT band, which was initially done briefly in Sessions 1 and then given more attention in Session 3. You will still be in the side-lying position, with both legs bent and a pillow between them while the work is done on the outside of the top leg. Again, normally it is possible to go deeper into the outside of the leg compared to the work done in Session 3.
Sometimes in Session 8 more work will be done on your Quadriceps, as in Session 5, but this is not necessarily so as the priority is usually a repeat of Sessions 3 and 4, and there will be time in Sessions 10 and 11 to do more detailed work on the front and back of your legs if it is needed.
After Session 8 clients often feel more grounded and visually it appears that they are embodying the Rolfing work at a deeper level. The stage is set for the arm work.
Rolfing Series Session 9 in Full
Session 9 is dedicated to the arms and shoulder girdle. Arms and shoulders are an important element in the structural integration of your body. In fact some clients come to Rolfing with the primary aim of resolving pain in these areas. Such clients may wonder why the arms and shoulders are treated so late in the Series.
This reminds me of a client who did the Series with me in 1999, in my first year as a Rolfer. In those days I was quite purist about doing the Rolfing Series without any deviation from the order and territory that had been prescribed for each session in my Rolfing training. Anyway, this particular client, called Lucy, had pain in her right shoulder and kept asking me throughout the Series when I was going to touch the shoulder and deal with the pain. I kept saying: “We will get to that in Session 9.” The Rolfing Series was going well but she kept asking me about her shoulder — and I would repeat “Wait until Session 9.”
It must have been infuriating for her: rookie Rolfer not addressing the key area she wanted help with and being precious about his beloved system to boot. Looking back at this I am surprised that Lucy stuck with the treatment — but stick with the treatment she did, coming once a week for sessions..
Eventually Session 9 came along. Finally we got to do detailed work on the arms and shoulders. In the session itself we did not talk about its importance to her. I remember it being just a normal session: at that stage in my Rolfing development, i.e. the first year, I was very focused on diligently doing each session according to the script I had been handed in my excellent Rolfing training (in Boulder 1994, and Brazil 1996 and 1998). This was just another Session 9. I was very much a beginner learning my craft, trying to grasp, perform and master each individual session of the Series without focusing much on each client’s individual and unique situation.
I was about to get my second big wake-up call (my first big wake-up call incidentally had come a couple of months earlier when I told a client he should not be cycling as it was causing his thigh and back pain; he did not come back to see me and later told me that it was because because he wanted to continue cycling!).
When Lucy came along for Session 10 I asked her how she was. Her reaction surprised me. “I feel great. My shoulder doesn’t hurt anymore.” After I acknowledged that this was good news Lucy seemed exasperated and said: “Why on earth didn’t you touch my shoulder before?” This moment was an epiphany for me.
Lucy’s reaction — a mixture of gratitude for being pain free and frustration for having to wait until so late in the Series — caused me to explain to her the rationale behind the Series. Namely, the Series is extremely well put together and follows a logical sequence designed to balance your whole body.
In the case of Lucy’s shoulder it was necessary to get support for her shoulder by aligning the key body blocks below it. If the feet, knees, hips and spine are out of line, then some muscles of the shoulder will overcompensate for the imbalance by working much too hard, almost constantly in some cases, and ultimately causing pain. This was the case with Lucy. Just treating her shoulder right from the start would not have achieved as good a result. It was only after the global myofascia of the rest of her body had been organised sufficiently in Sessions 1-8 that the muscles of Lucy’s shoulder were then able to let go their hitherto excess tension and relax into the secure support that had been created by the Rolfing in her body below her shoulders.
This was an important event not only for Lucy, in finally getting the pain resolution she had sought from the beginning of the Series, but also for me in my development as a Rolfer. The experience with Lucy was important by influencing my practice in two ways.
First, from that moment I determined not to be so pedantic in following a set method — no more ‘My way or the highway’ for me! Subsequently if a client has a particular problem I will give it earlier attention in the Series — so in Lucy’s case I perhaps would have done some preparation work directly on the shoulder in several of the sessions leading up to Session 9.
Second, the resolution of Lucy’s pain was also a strong validation of the Series. Without even directly trying to ‘cure’ Lucy’s shoulder problem I had just followed the methodology of the Rolfing Series and the shoulder pain had disappeared — as if on cue, at the allotted time, Session 9. And the reason the pain had cleared up is because of the effectiveness of the collective interventions in all previous sessions up to that point.
The effect on my practice of the learning experience provided by Lucy’s shoulder pain is that, although I still mostly follow the order of intervention of the Rolfing Series (i.e. feet in Session 2, neck in Session 7, arms in Session 9 etc.), I also am more attentive to a client’s individual needs and will try to make time in each session to directly contact a painful area in order to reduce the pain, even if that area is not part of the territory of a session.
What to expect in Session 9
The work on the arms and shoulders tends to be specific to the individual. There are certain keys areas that always get done, other areas that sometimes get done, and the emphasis depends on each client. The goal is to release excess tension which is contributing to imbalance in your arms and shoulders. Tension in the arms frequently feeds up into the neck and can be a major contributor to neck pain.
Keys areas that may be treated in Session 9 are:
Hands, with consideration to myofascia and bone balance; interosseous membrane between the two bones of the forearm (Radius and Ulna).
Flexor compartment of the forearm (medial epicondyle of humerus, i.e. on the little finger side the front of your elbow when your palm is facing up; this can be felt when you grip).
Extensor compartment of the forearm (lateral epicondyle of humerus, i.e.on thumb side of back of the elbow when your palm is face up; this can be felt when you extend your hand). Muscle tension can be high at this place owing to extending the hand for many hours at the computer keyboard.
Biceps and Triceps.
Muscles of the shoulder: Rotator Cuff muscles, Deltoid, Trapezius, Pectoralis Major and Minor.
You will start your session on your back and the work will proceed from your hand up to your shoulder on one arm. You may be asked to do certain movements, such as rotating your arm out and in as pressure is applied under your collar bone next to your shoulder (Corocoid process). Then your other arm will be treated similarly. Next you may be asked to lie on your side in order to work on your upper arm and shoulder (Deltoid and Upper Trapezius) and your upper back muscles. You may also be treated in the face-down position in order to access the muscles around your shoulder blade.
As usual at the end of the Session you will be viewed standing. It is surprising how often the work on the arms and shoulders in Session 9 results in visibly better structural integration in the rest of the body, especially the thorax and lower back (this can partly be a result of the big muscular connection from the lower back to the arms through the Latissimus Dorsi muscle).
SESSIONS 10 and 11
Rolfing Series Session 10 and 11 in Full
Both Sessions 10 and 11 are unplanned in terms of the territory and content. Their purpose is twofold: first, to consolidate the gains of the previous nine sessions in order to maximise the structural integration of your body; and second, to tie up any loose ends or remaining niggles and close off the Series. In the service of both these ends there is normally a gap of around a month between Sessions 10 and 11.
What to expect in Sessions 10 and 11
A plan for each session will be made, based on key issues that have been identified in your body throughout the Series so far. There is no set formula for these sessions and a plan of treatment will be made based upon my observations of your structure and your own sense of where your body needs the work.
Why is there a one month gap between Sessions 10 and 11?
This is to give your body time to settle down after the (usually) weekly Sessions 1-10. Sometimes an area of imbalance in the body is not so obvious during the main part of the Series, but becomes more apparent after some time has elapsed. Therefore it is more efficient to close off the Series after allowing more time between the last two sessions.
The role of your brain and nervous system in the Rolfing process
The Rolfing Series is a profound process of reorganisation of your body so that it is better able to function in the gravitational field. The effects of the numerous skilled interventions throughout the Series are to:
- Free adhesions in your connective tissues
- Rehydrate dry connective tissue
- Align key body blocks (knees, hips, thorax, neck)
- Create better support throughout your body
- Enable your body to be more adaptable
- Improve functionality
Clearly the interventions of the Rolfer are the main driver of the change that occurs in your body in the Rolfing Series. But they are only part of the story. The other crucial factor in the reorganisation of your body in Rolfing is the intelligent response of your body, specifically your brain and nervous system. The strength of the Rolfing Series is that it involves substantial mechanical interventions into key areas of your body — areas which have an influential effect on your whole structure. For example, releasing and balancing the Quadratus Lumborum muscles which connect your 12th ribs to your hips has a powerful organising effect on your whole thorax.
However, the other equally important organiser of your body is yourself. Here I am not referring to your conscious participation in the Rolfing process by being aware of and improving postural habits such as computer ergonomics or sleeping position, or doing yoga and pilates, managing stress levels etc. — although all that surely helps. What I am referring to is how your brain and nervous system respond to the sensory input of the Rolfing interventions and how motor and tonal adaptation to the new options is thus created.
As you walk out of each Rolfing session your brain and nervous system are already responding to new sensory information from the session, feeling and absorbing new movement and balance options into your overall body integration. Obviously a lot of this reorganisation occurs during the Series. But a surprising amount of change happens over the course of months after the last session of the Series even without having any Post Series work.
Post Series work
The Rolfing Series is a comprehensive overhaul of your body via its myofascial system helped along significantly by the intelligent response of your nervous system. After this point more Rolfing work can still be beneficial and many clients choose to do more sessions with a gap of one to two months between each session. The benefits of this are both ongoing maintenance and deeper integration of your body.
The sessions in the original Series break new ground and organise your myofascial system. When the Series is complete the potential impact of additional individual sessions is higher because we are working within the medium of of a better integrated and connected myofascial system and a nervous system that is used to the work. This means that any local Rolfing intervention after the Series is more likely to have a global effect on your body and any adjustment has a high chance of being well integrated into your overall body balance.
For an overview of the Rolfing Series and the goals of each session please see my blog entry on 27/2/2014 entitled Rolfing Series Introduction.
The difference between Rolfing and Myofascial Release is this cumulative process over ten sessions. Although Myofascial Release uses techniques derived from the work of Ida Rolf, it does not have the same strategic impact as Rolfing.
The various parts of the human body relate synergistically to each other. Only in exceptional circumstances, such as first aid, will Rolfers touch a part of the body without paying importance to the body as a whole. The origin of a lower back pain, for example, may be from hitting the heels too hard on the ground in walking.
To touch the lower back without also addressing the feet may give only short-term relief. Rolfing systematically treats the body from the feet to the head over the ten sessions so that the body is taken to a higher level of integration. This increases the chance of changes being long term.
I also give clients an option to do an an eleven-session format, leaving a longer gap of at least four weeks between sessions ten and eleven. The reason for this is to incorporate deeper work on the thorax, especially the ribs and viscera and also to have the benefit of more time to track how the client’s body is integrating the final sessions (the body continues to change for at least several months after the last session). Many clients wish to have further Rolfing after the Series and choose to do a session every six to eight weeks. This not only has the benefit of effectively managing tension and stress that naturally builds over the course of everyday life, but also of further integrating the various elements of the body. Once the whole Series has been done and the body has been well aligned and organised, the impact of a tune-up session can be extremely effective.