It wasn’t long ago that I was in the middle of a 22 week long training program where I had the first inkling to do a web search on the very thing I was spending so much time learning how to do. Before I thought to type “Rolfing” into a search engine I was getting my information about the practice directly from Rolfers and the Rolf Institute’s website. I hadn’t thought before to do a more generalized search and see what the greater public understood about this widely unknown system of bodywork. I cringed upon reading its rather dismissive review on Wikipedia. Though Wikipedia has its own notoriety for being a questionable source of information it is often the first site listed when doing a search on anything from carrots to Henry VIII. I use it myself to look up quick facts about things I forgot from school. Immediately I felt both angered and nauseated by fact that if anyone did a general query on Rolfing through the web then the first thing found would include its description as “quackery”.
By this time I was already $20,000 deep in loans and other costs associated with my training. I moved myself across the country in order to attend the only available classes at the Rolf Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Each semester took place over the course of a couple of months with classes being eight hours a day, four to five days a week. No amount of work I could do on my off time would earn me enough to balance out the resources I put into being able to do the training. I brought these burdens on to myself because I believed in Ida Rolf’s method and its effectiveness in creating positive changes. Suddenly, I realized my sentiments about Rolfing weren’t shared and there was, and still is, a great divide between traditionally corrective forms of medicine and more holistic approaches.
I thought of editing the Wikipedia article myself but I figured my efforts would be in vain seeing as though there was already a strong academic bias lumping it into the broad category of a pseudoscience. When I later overheard members of the faculty addressed with this issue their own responses were either just as dismissive or unconcerned. I believe the faculty and staff found other things more important such as maintaining the organization of the Rolf Institute and ensuring would be Rolfers were doing good work. I shrugged my shoulders and went back to having Rolfing validated by the people directly affected by it, including myself. I took it for granted that the results of many sessions I observed were undeniable based on what I saw and what the clients reported. I went on the finish my training and open my own practice near my hometown South Carolina.
Today I find myself in the middle of yet another program. It’s the advanced training program offered by the Rolf Institute. I haven’t had to move but I still have to put 20 extra hours a month just to get to and from weekend classes in Charles Town, West Virginia. Again my debt accumulates since I’m spending over a thousand dollars a month for tuition, gas, room, and board. This doesn’t include the appointments I miss making due to being out of office for so many days. I’m able to make them up because even in as conservative an area as the south I have just as much interest in my practice from people new to Rolfing as there are people who are already familiar with it. Additionally, as I get more skills and experience from trainings, the effectiveness of my sessions improves and being more successful in helping clients with their ailments almost always improves business.
Even during the basic training my massage clients noticed a clear difference between my work before and after I started Rolfing. If clients wanted a relaxing massage they started going to other licensed therapists. If they wanted deep and specific work, then they scheduled a massage with myself. Something was indeed different about my massages because they weren’t massages. They were quasi-Rolf sessions unwittingly sold as “Integrative Massages” by the spas where I was employed. I didn’t say anything about Rolfing and often began and ended the sessions with a little more fluff and charm that gave the sessions a Swedish shine. Oftentimes both the clients and myself saw noticeable differences in form and movement.
I couldn’t really explain in great detail how or why things worked the way that they did. I trusted Ida’s recipe and the principles laid out during my basic training. With an accompanying faith everything worked out well most of the time. My clients were usually happy. They were happier than they were when I did a more traditional massage. Still I had my doubts. The sound of “quackery” still burrowed in the recesses of my brain. I wasn’t sure if the majesty of Rolfing somehow charmed my clients, as well as myself, into thinking that something was actually changing for the better.
I’m the first to admit that I’m not a skeptic at heart. My willingness to be part of something bigger than myself makes me more prone to give most of my energy and resources as an act of devotion without hesitation. The Rolf Institute possessed a similarly religious air. In every room hung a portrait or some visage of Dr. Rolf. The didactic sketches of lines and figures looks like hieroglyphics. I also noted an increasing amount of coincidences. I became a John Denver fan before moving to Boulder and learning that he was Rolfed. Dr. Rolf and I were born on the same day. By pure coincidence I rented a room in house on a street that shared my ex’s last name. Additionally, by coincidence, rooms in the same house were rented by the two other Rolfers from Charleston, South Carolina who introduced me to the work. I felt, and still feel, a certain cosmological connection to it all.
Training at the Rolf Institute helped me break through personal barriers and the chains of past traumas. I attributed a lot of its effectiveness to its potential for having an unpredictably radical class structure. One could find some students and teachers gathered together holding hands, breathing silently, and energetically holding space. One may even walk into a room of adults rolling on the floor on top of each other moaning from their most primal forms of being. I myself was once in a room at the Rolf Institute with eight pairs of fully grown adults. One adult in each pair had their pinky in the other’s nose. I chuckled a little bit to myself because of how the sight of such an event would appear to the uninformed observer. Then again we were in Boulder and the Rolf Institute is one of its most unique and precious gems. A local would probably understand. Of course this all clashed with what experience I had in studying traditional health sciences. In those types of classrooms I felt connected to symptoms and at the institute I felt connected to people.
It’s not all play and “experimentals” at the institute though. There are intelligent reasons for all of the activities in addition to making us better at being human beings seeing, listening, and feeling in the present moment. As Rolfers we highly value detailed knowledge of the territory we cover. With the makeup of that territory being primarily fascia the Rolfer’s journey to know it becomes a lifelong endeavor. I’ve learned more anatomy and physiology in one day with Rolfers than I have in any college course. I think I could safely say that the people who teach Rolfing are ever so intrigued by the human body that they’re almost always operating with a beginner’s mind. In my experience they often seem eager to discover something new in the people they contact.
One of the reasons I believe the wisdom of Rolfing is so profound is how quickly people can adapt it to their own experience. They aren’t having a dialogue with a dogmatic view of health. They are instead encouraged to explore their own relationship with their bodies in relation to gravity. Though gravity may be a limiting concept it is nonetheless a universal physical law which all people experience the moment they begin moving towards their verticality.
In bodywork our labs are a bit different from other health fields. In turn the research is a bit different and the measurements of progress are mostly qualitative. Since the “existence of scientific research” is known to be a factor for distinguishing sciences from pseudosciences it’s challenging to validate Rolfing, along with other holistic modalities, as a sound health practice. The Rolf Institute doesn’t ignore the value of scientific research. It does have a few studies listed on their site in support of the benefits Rolfing has for people suffering chronic low back pain, children affected by cerebral palsy, and females experiencing symptoms of fibromyalgia. This list doesn’t include a growing number of studies conducted by other researchers investigating the beneficial effects structural integration has for other conditions involving fascia.
If the questions are due to lack of a certain form of research then more research should be done with that form in mind. A lot of Rolfers though seem to operate independently and so the challenge to validate an entire system of bodywork through peer reviewed research studies and analyses would appear to be unapproachable. Between getting a business started, meeting the needs of clients, and tending to my personal life there’s little time left to donate strictly to providing additional proof that what I do actually works. It’s also difficult as an independent practitioner to gather enough data about a specific group for a certain amount of interventions when the range of clients that come to Rolfing for help is rather extreme. I’m thankful to read about the findings of others who make time for such endeavors even though conducting research is often required for people in their positions at educational institutions. I still can’t help but wonder what I may do in support of giving Rolfing a better public profile.
It says a lot if Dr. Rolf’s ideas found their way through the unrestrained environment of the human potential movement into being a federally funded institution. Being somewhat green to it, most of what I’ve learned about Rolfing’s gestation has come from the anecdotes of instructors and Dr. Rolf’s sagacious writings. Experience is what validated the information coming from these sources and years of field-research performed by Dr. Rolf and her contemporaries. Data from those sources supported the publication of Dr. Rolf’s body of work which includes the institute itself. It had a good enough public profile to lay a foundation in an environment that was way more hostile towards non-traditional approaches of health improvement. There are a number of different reasons and people to thank for Rolfing’s longevity. I think it receives a more positive public view though because it continues to meet the needs of clients wanting relief in addition to meeting the needs the critics wanting evidence based research. As more people become interested in Rolfing and receiving the work it gets easier to conduct measurable studies that meet the requirements of traditional scientific research.
What that all says to me as a Rolfer wanted to validate Rolfing in the traditional health sector is that I need to consider myself a researcher working with thousands of others. With this mindset I automatically think of the word “data” because collecting data is the bulk of scientific method. It also makes me think of the language in which data is presented. I have to think if the method of collecting the data is repeatable and can be done by others, particularly by those not involved with Rolfing. This inspires me to take more detailed notes in the hopes of sharing them with other Rolfers who may also aspire to make similar conclusions about what benefits Rolfing may have for people with specific needs.
In regards to quackery, people who act like quacks behave in such a way that their words and actions are not genuine nor do they accurately reflect the experiences of their patients and clients. They’ll often assume their methods are faultless and can serve a cures for many illnesses. They pretend to have a knowledge about things of which they know very little. This doesn’t mean that the stigma of being labeled a quack is reserved for people who aren’t backed by scientific studies and meta-analyses. Even professionally trained medical doctors can succumb to such behavior. Anyone with a degree can be quacky if they don’t have the humility to accept their ignorance about things of which they are unfamiliar or uninformed. They can also be quacky if they guarantee their therapies will cure certain illnesses and dysfunctions. It all depends on the individual practitioner, not the practice. Rolfing should not be considered quackery anymore than other health promoting activities such as eating well and exercising. It’s only quackery if the employed practitioner makes illogical claims and false promises.
As a Rolfer I don’t promise people I see anything aside from the that I’m going to do the best I can to help them with what they need based on my professional training, skills, and experience. I haven’t yet met a Rolfer who behaves as if their promises were much different than my own. We do often highlight the benefits Rolfing is thought to have based on what clients reported to us but these claims aren’t false. They’re the testimonies of people who experienced positive changes. The benefits of Rolfing relayed to the public are then informed guesses about what could happen based primarily on field-research. An entire practice aimed at promoting someone’s overall state of physical well being shouldn’t be ruled out due to lack of traditional scientific research that’s also vulnerable to personal bias and interest. Perhaps we should think outside of tradition, broadening our scope, in order to recognize other types of research as acceptable support for this specific type of intervention’s validation. This is not to suggest that traditional research misses the point or is asking the wrong questions. As hinted towards earlier, there are a great number of people doing evidence based research demonstrating parallels between Structural Integration and its positive effects on health.
As data accumulates in support of what Rolfers do they continue to earn praise from clients regardless of the quantity of studies able to survive a gauntlet of demands from skeptics. I myself am finding it easier to ignore the negative labels and associations, as well as the positive ones. Claims and promises on either extreme ironically make me skeptical about the motivations and knowledge of the people behind them. They’re not doing the one thing I first felt as a child, studied as a philosophy student, and am refining as a Rolfer. They’re not assuming their own ignorance. Without that there’s no capacity to see what’s presently in front of them because it’s then painted over in beliefs about what’s right and wrong. In my ignorance I’m less swayed by the histories, secrecies, and exclusivities of different belief systems. In this particular case I’m referring to the exclusivities of different health modalities. With the void of expectations I’m able to maintain my curious fascination of the person in front of me wanting to feel better.
*There will be a side note included with this article highlighting the importance of not attempting to edit any information on Wikipedia concerning Rolfing as more technical backing and data support is needed in order to being to make any changes without receiving negative backlash from its main reviewers.