I am standing near the esoteric bookshop on Neal Street, close to Covent Garden tube. It is lunchtime on a cold grey day in November and it looks as if it is about to rain. My Rolfing clinic is a three-minute walk away in Neal’s Yard, a charming little alley with organic food cafes, a Chinese herb shop and Neal’s Yard Remedies, a shop which sells natural health products.

The framework for my Rolfing business is in place: my clinic here in Covent Garden, my other office at home in Clapham, a website, business cards, leaflets, an advert running in Time Out. Yet, in spite of the ideal location of my clinic and its obvious suitability as a base for a health therapy, my new business has not really got going. In the whole of October I have only seen five clients and I am concerned about paying the rent.

One problem is that I am new to London, having recently returned from eleven years travelling and living abroad. My only contact in London on arrival was my brother. The second problem is that hardly anybody has heard about Rolfing. It is difficult to just sit back and wait for clients to come. I have to do something.

I watch the people walking past me on Neal Street. Clutching a batch of leaflets in my left hand, I take one in my right hand and hold it up, breathe deeply and try to banish thoughts of my own ridiculousness.

“Rolfing! Rolfing!” I shout to the passing crowd.

There is an Arabic saying: “Throw your heart in front of you and run ahead to catch it.” Sometimes you just have to take a risk and ignore inhibitions or embarrassment in order to make a bold statement about what you believe in. This was one of those moments. I talked enthusiastically about Rolfing to those people who stopped and was hopeful that some of them would contact me later to arrange a Rolfing session. None of them did.

Nevertheless standing outside a bookshop in the cold proclaiming Rolfing to the world required digging deep into inner resources of determination to get out of my comfort zone. It was an existential moment of choice and commitment to becoming something, to becoming a Rolfer. (Today I still smile at my housemate’s suggestion that next time I should carry a sandwich board with before and after pictures on the front and back, shouting “Rolfing! Rolfing!”)

Reverse culture shock

“It’s a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you.” — The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (movie)

Part of the challenge in coming back to England was going through the process of readapting to a Western lifestyle. The experience of living abroad had changed me and Japan, where I lived for four years, had changed me the most.

In Japan I learned to be more consciously respectful in social situations, how to be more modest, talk less loudly and be more aware of interpersonal space. Japan taught me to drop sarcasm as a form of humour because the Japanese people took it literally. The fact that I spoke and could read and write Japanese intensified the change in my way of being.

Someone once said that learning another language is like acquiring a second personality, and I think this is partially true, although fortunately my Japanese was never good enough for me to experience this phenomenon too deeply.

In order to fit back into the English lifestyle some of my mannerisms and ways of thinking and relating to people had to be modified. This ‘unlearning’ of habits and behaviours learned abroad and the adapting of my expectations of the way people around me should behave were both part of the reverse culture shock which I experienced in my first few months in London. Deferential bowing when buying a bento in a convenience store in Kyoto simply doesn’t work in a corner shop in Clapham — it just looks and feels weird.

For the first few months in London I was nostalgic for Japan: the food, the people, my friends, the customs, the language, the ubiquity of Japanese kanji ideograms (walking in the street in Japan was an ongoing study in reading the language). But this nostalgia wore off gradually as I immersed myself in the practicalities of starting a business.

First few weeks

For the first few weeks after returning from my final Rolfing training in Brazil, in August of 1998, I slept on my brother’s living room floor. In early September, needing a place to live and practice in, I responded to a rental accommodation listing in “Loot’, the London classified advertising magazine. I rang the doorbell of a three-story house in Aristotle Road, just around the corner from Clapham North tube station. A stocky man with a large beard and a gravelly voice greeted me gruffly at the door, a rough no-nonsense Irishman called Ben who, to my surprise, happened to have heard about Rolfing and agreed to let me rent the room and treat clients in his flat on the top floor of the house.

Marketing and set-up

At the time I was one of only eight Rolfers in England and Rolfing was almost unheard of. London was new to me and I had no network of contacts, so it was vital to quickly set up a marketing arrangement that would announce who and where I was and what I offered. My first website was attached to an internet cafe called Shoot’n Surf, so the website address was the vaguely dodgy sounding www.rolfing-london/shootnsurf. In 1998 people would use internet cafes to go online and websites were just starting (in that year there were about 2 million websites in the world, as compared to nearly 2 billion today). In those days people would even use the words ‘world wide web’ when saying the website address.

With my newly printed business cards and leaflets, a new Rolfing table for my home practice and my first mobile phone I was ready to go. Holding my new Nokia felt quite entrepreneurial as it was still relatively rare own a mobile phone; only about 25% of people in the UK had one in 1998.

Early doubts and financial worries

“The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.” — Goethe

Clients did not come easily and I initially had doubts that I would be able to make a successful business as a Rolfer. A letter from my dad outlining how he thought I would be bankrupt within six months was discouraging (my brother’s friend jokingly called him the Grim Reaper because of that letter).

Financial worries were temporarily eased by a boost from an unlikely source. I was living opposite a William Hills bookmakers and despite not having seen any soccer for eleven years I decided to follow the 98-99 Premiership season and make a £1 bet every Saturday. In October I correctly predicted that the league’s leading team would lose and also correctly predicted the other seven results so that I won £780 on a £1 stake. That paid for two months of rent. The wad of cash in my pocket was so thick that I was wary of getting robbed as I emerged from William Hills on Monday morning!

Rolfing presentations and first clients

I generated my first few clients by advertising in Time Out, paying for a leaflet drop in health stores around London, and displaying my leaflet in Clapham library. I gave talks about Rolfing, using slides provided by the European Rolf Institute, in Neal’s Yard and the London Brain Club in Imperial College. Thankfully, each talk generated a client and raised awareness of my work. One of the members of the London Brain Club even produced a mind map of my talk, which I still have on the wall in my home office.

I fortified my marketing campaign by offering a couple of Rolfing Movement workshops at Morely College. By February of 1999 I had enough clients to not have to worry about paying my monthly rent. It felt as if the die was cast: no doubts, no looking back; I would become a Rolfer. Over time more clients came although it took a year to have a viable practice.

Looking back after twenty years

“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” — Pele

Looking back now from the present viewpoint of having been a Rolfer for twenty years, I realise what an important period my first year of practice was. Now it is easy in hindsight to appreciate the value of steadily laying the foundations for the business, gritting my teeth and working hard through the emotional lows and feelings of self doubt. It was a fresh start and there were many occasions in the first six months when the task seemed hopeless or overwhelming, and all the more difficult because of the challenge of reacclimatising to my home country after so long away.

Gradually the feeling of alienation on my return to England gave way to a sense of belonging, and this only grew as I put down roots and started a family. As I treated more clients I became more absorbed in the fascinating work of Rolfing instead of the mundane practicalities of business starting. I am pleased that I came to London and took a chance, and also that I stuck to the task rather than running away to travel the world again. And I can remember with amusement and self-respect that grey afternoon in November when I shouted “Rolfing! Rolfing!” to the bemused passers by.

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