Everything I thought I knew about Rolfing can be summed up in three words: "very painful massage."
I figured it must have benefits - I know a few people who have been Rolfed and they rave about it - but I was never curious enough to find out more until I was given this assignment.
As it turns out, there's one certified Rolfer in New London county, Mary Staggs of East Lyme, and it just so happens that she was the very first Rolfer in Connecticut and one of only three in New England when she started her practice in 1975.
So I called Staggs and made an appointment for what I thought would be one session and an interview. First, she corrected my summation of what Rolfing is with three different words: "horizontalize the pelvis."
"A horizontal pelvis means that the entire body is in balance," Staggs says. She adds that most people do not have a horizontal pelvis, whether it's from an old injury like a sprained ankle, a congenital defect like having one leg longer than the other, or from just plain old wear and tear.
I told her that I'd been dealing with a number of aches and pains, some of which I attribute to being 48 years old, some to recent workout injuries, and some to the fact that I slouch, slump, hunch, and otherwise sit improperly in front of my computer (for too long).
"What chiropractic is to bones, Rolfing is to soft tissues," Staggs explains. "Rolfing involves working with connective tissue, or the fascia, at both superficial and deep levels. A Rolfer is able to reorganize and restructure the body, not just loosen the muscles as in traditional massage. Once this happens, the muscles, tendons, ligaments, other connective tissues - and subsequently the bones - move back to a more normal position and the body realigns itself."
I also found out that, unlike massage, Rolfing involves 10 standardized sessions (called the Ten Series), and each session builds on the previous session and focuses on a specific area of the body. Once you've gone through the Ten Series, you're good to go, although clients will sometimes come back for a one-session "tune-up."
I decided to go ahead and commit to having all 10 sessions, although at press time, I'd had only the first two (stay tuned for a follow-up article in a future issue of Grace).
A Rolfing table is lower, wider and more padded than a typical massage table and there are no sheets or blankets. Rolfers work on clients who are minimally dressed (bra and panties or two-piece bathing suit for women, and just briefs for men). Staggs keeps her office warm with a wood burning stove and extra space heater in the colder months so it's quite cozy, even without a blanket.
As for the Rolfing itself, it was no worse than a deep tissue massage. There are some uncomfortable "ouchy" moments, but as far as I'm concerned, it was a "hurts so good" kind of uncomfortable and it didn't linger. Staggs says Rolfing's reputation as being painful is based in fact, but that over the years the methods and techniques have been refined to make it less so.
After the first session, which focused on my arms, ribcage and diaphragm I noticed several things immediately: my chest felt more "open," the front of my shoulders felt "turned back" and not rounded forward, I had better range of motion (I could easily reach my back, something I'd been struggling with), and the backs of my shoulders and upper back felt warm and tingly, as if the blood was flowing more freely. Staggs said Rolfing greatly increases circulation throughout the entire body.
And now, two weeks later, I still feel these affects. The second session focused on my feet and legs. The most dramatic change I noticed after she worked on my right leg, but before she started on my left. My left foot felt numb and lifeless in comparison to my right foot. Again, it had to do with circulation. Staggs asked me to stand up and take a couple of steps before she started on my left foot and leg. I felt off balance, as if I would walk around in circles.
In Part II, I'll share the results of the remaining eight sessions and go more in depth about the benefits and history of Rolfing.
For more information…
Rolf Institute of Structural Integration