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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Tailoring’ the muscles

Rolfing - a technique of manipulating connective tissue - is a growing practice

Jill Coyne, a certified Rolfer, sits in her studio Jan. 7. Coyne recommends trying the first three sessions of the Rolfing Ten Series to get a sense of how it can affect the body as a whole. McClatchy (McClatchy)
Lauren Viera Chicago Tribune

The effects of Rolfing didn’t really sink in until the day after my second session.

It was late afternoon, and I was walking between lunch errands. I’d been walking for about five minutes at a steady clip before it hit me: I was walking better. Better than the prior afternoon, better than ever. More of my foot was hitting the ground with each step, offering a stability I’d never felt before. I was carrying myself with better posture than before, and there was an easy swing in my arms.

What is Rolfing?

Rolfing allows your body the structural freedom to do what it wants to do naturally – move.

The practice is named after Ida P. Rolf, a pioneering biochemist who earned her doctorate from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1920, when women had just earned the right to vote.

After years of studying osteopathic and homeopathic medicine, as well as yoga, Rolf began experimenting in the 1940s, at first on friends and family, with the massaging and manipulation of fascia – the layer of soft, connective tissue that covers the muscles and holds in place everything around them.

Her theory was that after years of daily stress, “bound up” fascia restricts the muscles, in turn restricting movement. The solution? Manipulate the fascia enough, and gravity – yes, gravity – will take care of the rest.

Put simply, the “gospel of Rolfing,” as its founder has been quoted as preaching, is this: “When the body gets working appropriately, the force of gravity can flow through. Then, spontaneously, the body heals itself.”

Rolfing practitioners

There’s a growing community of practicing, certified Rolfers. The Rolf Institute of Structural Integration in Boulder, Colo., is the only educational facility in the country that offers Rolfing certification. Many other schools offer similar structural integration coursework, most of them founded by early Rolf disciples, but only the Rolf Institute certifies Rolfers. Earn your certification elsewhere, and you can’t legally practice as a Rolfer.

Practitioners make strict distinctions among Rolfing, chiropractic work and deep-tissue massage. They’re not the same, says Heidi Massa, 52, of Chicago, who’s been practicing since 1994.

“It’s not like bodywork; it’s not like massage,” Massa says. “Being a Rolfer is more like being a tailor than being a masseuse. You have to look at (the body) and say, ‘What’s too long? What’s too short? What’s too bunchy? What’s too tight?’ Rolfing is not a form of alternative medicine; Rolfing is more about education.”

Dr. Rosemary Feitis is an advanced certified Rolfing practitioner who works out of New York City. A Rolfer for the last 40 years, Feitis was one of Ida Rolf’s first trainees, but even she agrees that it isn’t the be-all, end-all for physical treatment.

“I think there are times when you need to be cautious,” Feitis said. “Its place is not necessarily in medicine, except in the sense that it helps certain problems that are brought to doctors and really belong in the realm of physical therapy.”

Rolfing for chronic issues

Occasionally, Rolfing reveals simple solutions to chronic issues. In one of my sessions, practitioner Jill Coyne, of Chicago, observed that when walking, I was bringing my neck too far down to my chest. I explained to her that I had to do so to see under my bangs, which were desperately in need of a trim. “People’s head postures are sometimes affected by their hairstyles,” says Coyne.

As I’m nearing the end of my own Rolfing experience, I’ve learned to do a lot more than keep my bangs in check. I’m walking and running more, simply because it feels good to do so in a body that moves well. A few colleagues have commented that I appear noticeably taller, either because I’m standing up straighter, or because my fascia has stretched to allow my limbs more breathing room. The best side effect is the hardest to explain: the feeling of moving in a new body, one that moves more freely than before.

Finding a certified Rolfer

There are just over 1,000 nationally., the official Web site of the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration, lists certified Rolfers geographically.

Budget yourself: Individual Rolfing sessions tend to last an hour to 90 minutes. Single sessions can address some issues, but for the curious, certified Rolfer Coyne recommends trying the first three sessions of the Rolfing Ten Series to get a sense of how it can affect the body as a whole. A single session typically costs about $120, and some Rolfers offer a lower price, about $1,000, for the full Ten Series.

Don’t be shy: Your Rolfer will mostly likely begin your first session by asking you to disrobe and take a walk around his or her studio. This protocol is simply so that your Rolfer can accurately observe your body’s alignment and gait. (If you’re especially modest, discuss clothing alternatives with your Rolfer.)

It’s not painful: Rolfing used to have a bad reputation for being painful. It’s not. Yes, it involves applying pressure to the body, but you’re not expected to endure pain. Speak up if the pressure is too strong.

After your session: After and in between sessions, try walking. Try running. Try cardiovascular exercise of any kind, really. You might be surprised how differently your body moves once it’s been Rolfed.