What is Rolfing® anyway?

Rolfing Structural Integration is in an identity crisis: We don’t know what the term means. Even Rolfers argue about the correct definition.


In Unit I of my Rolfing training we went over anatomy, physiology and kinesiology, and we learned the typical myofascial mobilization technique used in Rolfing treatments. Unit II is all about the famous Ten Series, the classic application of Rolfing.

In the fall of 2006, on the first day of my Unit II, we were asked what we hoped to accomplish during the 8-week course.

The sensible answers regarded the expected curriculum, treatments of specific cases, and the desire to break out of the spa industry.

Since I was at the end of the circle, everything I could think of was already said. So my answer was “I hope that two months from now I’ll be able to say what Rolfing is.”

Now, after Unit I, II, III, the Rolf Movement certification, loads of continuing education classes and multiple discussions with colleagues,  and with five years of practicing, I still can’t fully explain what it means.

Usually my attempts go like this:

“What I do on the body feels like deep tissue massage in long strokes, in slow motion. My aim is to work between different muscles, I don’t try to loosen up knots in the muscle like most massage therapists. Releasing the areas where different layers of muscle and connective tissue get stuck together is what makes the results permanent, because as long as you keep moving and stretching, you can maintain the results yourself. So in addition to loosening up the tight areas that keep you from having good, easy posture and effortless movement, I teach you how to use your body. The best thing is that right after the deep work on the body you have a different sensation of your body, you know better where you are in space, you get more awareness, and you feel different already. It’s much easier to learn new patterns of movement when your whole body feels new.”

Of course, while I’m explaining this, I add gestures and demonstrate what I say with my own body, and I show clients on their body what I mean.

I think it’s a good explanation of what I do.

But it’s not a definition of what Rolfing is.

Here’s the official definition: ” Rolfing Structural Integration is the theory and practice of organizing the human being in the field of gravity. Its goal is to enhance the person’s structural integrity, which is manifest in the person’s ability to function economically in relation to the environment. Rolfing accomplishes this by addressing imbalances in the body’s connective tissue matrix, as well as by helping the client find more functional options regarding patterns of movement, perception and cognition.”

Clear? Yeah, I didn’t think so, either.

It would not be a problem, since every practitioner has to find their own style anyway. Clients don’t expect two massage therapists to work the same way.

The problem lies in the trademark. Any product that’s trademarked should fulfill certain standards that customers can depend on. In my opinion, somebody who mixes a lot of different styles of treatment and starts sessions with scanning the energetic field of the client should not call it a Rolfing session. They can still be a Rolfer, of course…  just like a carpenter can be the one who paints my fence. But the carpenter would not call the process of painting the fence carpentry.

A client should be able to expect from a Rolfing® session:

1. Evaluation of posture and movement

2. Slow deep tissue work, utilizing the Rolfer’s hands, forearms, and elbows to mobilize, lengthen, and separate connective tissue and muscle layers.

3. Help and advice in finding efficient posture and movement patterns.

Readers, what do you think? Do you have experience with Rolfing? What did you hear about Rolfing?

6 thoughts on “What is Rolfing® anyway?

  1. I love K.Frank’s phrase : “reviving native movement intelligence. Did you read his article in June issue? From tone of hour article I assume yes, also check out somasimple.com. lots of good stuff there!! Just hard to navigate.

    • Actually I did not read Kevin’s article… but I wrote out of the frustration I feel whenever I read the Rolf Journal.
      It’s all written at a level that maybe 1% of our clients would understand… and our clients are ALREADY much more aware, educated and sophisticated than the average American.

      • Ray McCall used a phrase that integration is transmission across one or more joints. What I see is a fluidity and grace in movement that allows freedom, ease in the client. I hadn’t looked to the Journal for articles to share with clients. I use the Journal almost as a CE tool–feeling it in my body, and trying out new tools, evocative phrases with clients. Kevin’s is the first article i’ve read that i felt i could directly translate information to clients (even though “reviving your native movement intelligence” might not say a lot to people, but it sounds good 🙂 ).

        • Dear Anonymous, thanks for your comment. I tend to agree with Ray. I also look for effortless function, ease and grace. I never wanted to imply that I want to use the Journal as an client-education tool. I just referred to it as one of the most obvious signs that most of what’s written about Rolfing just goes over people’s heads. I think that’s a shame.
          And now I’ll look for Kevin’s article.

  2. I have experienced the work of 2 Rolfers and 1 Rolfing student and they all have VERY different techniques and therefore I had VERY different results

    The most effective Rolfer was NOT the one with the advanced Rolfing education but rather the one with a variety education in all different aspects of healing and bodywork. To my understanding, all that education enhanced the Rolfer’s initial evaluation, over all approach to the sessions, and the actual physical work.

    But to what you’re saying… Is it actually Rolfing? That, I don’t know. But I do know it’s great work and I feel amazing because of it.

  3. Pingback: Spontaneous myofascial release « Ann Stanley

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