For about two months my client has been feeling sciatic-type pain down the back of his left leg. It is Session 6 in his Rolfing Series. I have worked the hamstrings somewhat superficially in previous sessions with no effect on the pain. Session 6 is an appropriate time to go deeper.

My client is face down on the table as I sit beside him, my right elbow sinking into the hamstrings of his left leg about halfway between his hip and knee. With my left arm twisted behind my back, as if in an armlock, my left hand is holding the front of his shin to support his lower left leg about 30 degrees off the table. I am encouraging him to allow my hand to support the weight of his lower leg.

“But it hurts,” he protests, referring to the pressure being applied to his hamstring. His reluctance to relax his lower leg is a way of bracing against the discomfort in his hamstrings.

I adjust the pressure slightly, so that he can relax.

“Take a deep breath and as you breath out let your lower leg drop into my hand.” He allows about 40% of the weight to let go.

“Ok, that’s great,” I say. “Same again. Deep breath… breathe out… let go.”

This time he complies so that the full weight of his lower leg is settling in my hand. Until this point, the knot under my elbow has been like a hard rubber door stopper which bounces my elbow out when pressure was applied. But now this stubborn lump of gristle starts to change.

As my client relaxes further into his breathing I can for the first time feel the outer edges of the knot soften slightly. A kind of dance has started. Minute adjustments of elbow pressure produce subtle responses in the tissue.

The set up is nearly complete.

“Ok, imagine your breath can fill the back of your leg. Imagine your breath can meet my contact point.”

As the knot starts to let go with the client’s more engaged breathing, I increase the pressure to take up the slack. But I feel the client respond by tensing slightly.

Up to this point the quality of my touch has communicated careful respect of my client’s pain boundaries so that he trusts me, even though we are operating on the edge of his pain tolerance level. This trust is vital to the outcome of the intervention. If I were to make any sudden movements without his body being prepared his muscular armoury would be engaged and my elbow would be kicked out without the knot releasing.

This is the crucial moment.

“Ok stay with it. We’re nearly there. Take another nice full breath.”

He relaxes again. As he takes a deep in-breath I check that his lower leg remains relaxed and adjust my weight. Everything is ready. This time as he breathes out I lean into my elbow and increase the pressure by 10-15% and slide my elbow through the knot and up through the hamstrings. As I push through the knot there is a kind of twang as the muscle lets go. My client feels a temporary pain followed by a release.

We both pause to breathe.

“Well done! Please stand up and have a walk.” I watch him as he walks a little gingerly. “Are you ok?” I ask.

“Yes, I think so. This feels weird.”

He walks a little more, looking more secure as he allows his weight to ground through his feet. “Wow, that feels so much better! I can’t feel the pain anymore!”

After the session I reflect how many factors are involved in the success of this hamstring intervention: a knowledge of anatomy and an appreciation of different tissue layers; positioning the client to maximum effect; helping the client relax by supporting his lower leg; encouraging the client to use his imagination to use his breathing to engage in the process; appropriate verbal cues; subtle adjustments of my body position and weight; sensing the correct time to increase the pressure; applying the right pressure in order to get the knot to release.

It is September, 2018 and twenty years have passed since my first Rolfing client appeared in my office on September 23rd, 1998. In my early Rolfing career I lacked the knowledge to carry out something like this hamstring intervention, which makes me realise how far my Rolfing development has come and offers me the opportunity to reflect on that journey.

How I heard about Rolfing

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost.

I first heard about Rolfing in September 1993 while living in Japan. I was working as an English teacher in a town called Iida in Nagano. My friend and employer, Shigeho, saw a Rolfer who was staying with her friend. Shigeho had been depressed for a week having cut her foot by dropping a knife on it while working in the kitchen.

Shigeho called me one day and was very excited about Rolfing. She claimed that one session had made her feel much better. The Rolfer, Mark Caffal, left the area two days later so I was unable to see him. Luckily I was able to borrow Ida Rolf’s book about Rolfing from Shigeho’s friend, Etsuko, with whom Mark had been staying.

I found the book fascinating right from the Preface, entitled ‘Literal thorns in literal flesh.’ Even the opening epigraph suggests a way of looking at a human being which was new to me:

“We are not stuff that abides, but patterns which perpetuate themselves.” — Norman Wiener

On page 16, Rolf states the purpose of the book:

“.. to unveil, for those who wish to see, the pattern underlying the random human body, to help them understand… how it became aberrated, and why more joyous function can result from more appropriate form.”

The connection Rolf describes between emotion and physicality was intriguing to me:

“Emotional response is behavior, is function. All behavior is expressed through the musculoskeletal system. All function is an expression of structure and form and correlates directly with material structure. 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.”

I read the book voraciously over three or four days. It was packed with interesting anatomical drawings and many anatomical terms which I had not heard of at the time, which made it more charming and alluring.

One day I was sitting in the corridor reading the book on a sunny afternoon in September. The glass sliding door was open and my legs were hanging out of the house, my feet touching the gravel below. It seemed as if Ida Rolf’s ideas were swimming in my consciousness.

I looked up from the book and had the strangest feeling. It felt as if a big path had opened up in front of me. It didn’t correspond to an actual path in the visual scene outside my house. It just felt as if something big was opening up. I had never felt anything like this before. I had a choice: follow the path or ignore it. As someone who had been travelling away from my country for six years, since 1987, the choice was an easy one. Follow the path.

The next Monday morning I called the Rolf Institute and the person I talked to convinced me to enrol for the upcoming Foundations of Bodywork course in Boulder in January, 1994. This was the first of the three parts of training to become a Certified Rolfer.

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