Have you started to have these nagging little pains in different parts of your body that seem to come and go for no apparent reason? You know, this nagging knee pain that has been showing up during your weekly run in the park? That cramped feeling in your lower back, which you suspect comes from all the extra work hours and the travel you have had to put in last week to meet the project deadline? Or you just received the photos from your last work presentation and you are shocked to see that your posture has become less than gracious?
It can be very daunting when we realise that with time maybe our bodies are not as supple and responsive as they once were. It is even more frustrating when things like knee or shoulder pain keep us from the more healthy and active lifestyle we know we should lead to stay fit and healthy in the long term. So a big question is, how do we reverse or at least keep this in check? From all the different fitness and health options on offer these days, how do we choose the ‘right’ one? What is worth trying, and what isn’t? The answer to this question I believe very much depends on your desired focus and outcome. Everyone is different, and different things appeal to different people. But here is one option I want to tell you more about today, and that is Rolfing.
Rolfing… what?? Don’t worry, you didn’t miss out on the newest fitness craze like you did when all of a sudden everyone was using the Blackroll in the gym and you had no idea what this foam roller was all about. It is actually not that surprising at all that you’ve never heard the name Rolfing or even ‘Rolfing – Structural Integration’, as the full name would go. Or maybe you have heard of it before, but you have no idea what it is really about. This is probably because, for various reasons, Rolfing has never really entered the mainstream of manual bodywork / physical therapies. Ok, fine, good to know you’re not missing out on the latest trend once again. But what exactly is Rolfing, after all?
Rolfing and the idea of aligning the body’s fascia
Rolfing® Structural Integration is a form of manual bodywork that aims at realigning and balancing the whole body, so it can move freely and without strain. The name is derived from its founder, Dr Ida P. Rolf, who was a biochemist by training and first started developing her method in the 1940s. She found out that, by systematically organising the connective tissue, it was possible to achieve better structural and postural alignment, as well as easier movement. And once the connective tissue, also called fascia, was properly organised, physical tensions and ailments that had built up due to bad postural habits, repetitive motions and/or injuries, could be alleviated or disappear completely.
In many ways, Ida Rolf was ahead of her time with her findings. For a long time, it was not possible to actually scientifically prove any of her hypotheses; there were only the non-scientific accounts of those that had benefited from this new form of bodywork. Nowadays, however, with the advancement in science and technology, it is possible to better understand the role of the body’s connective tissue, or fascia. More specifically, scientific studies have shown that fascia is an extremely important tissue in our body. It envelops and supports all muscles, bones, nerves and organs in a web-like fashion and therefore, in essence, holds the whole body together and connects all the different body parts to each other. Also, scientist found out that fascia is a living tissue that changes according to specific circumstances. For example, if you injure yourself, the tissue might thicken or become more rigid in the injured area. It is an automatic response that is supposed to help stabiles the injured area. However, thickened or shortened fascia can mean that the injured area becomes less mobile, or even continues to be painful, as the muscles, ligaments and/or bones cannot move in the same, unrestricted way as they could before the injury. This is the bad news about fascia. The good news is that, with the right kind of manipulation, there is a good chance of regaining its subtleness and elasticity. And this is where Rolfing comes in.
Knee pain revisited
But why Rolfing?, you might think. After all, you can just go to your physical therapist. He has even been using some myofascial release techniques that greatly help alleviate tight spots. Apart from that, your standard health insurance actually covers the expenses! I completely understand that kind of thinking; I myself had the exact same train of thought for a long time before I finally, out of pure despair, found my way into my first Rolfing session.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t go to physical therapy to alleviate your knee pain, nor am I insinuating that there are no other valid alternative therapies to try. In fact, I see great value in physical therapy as well as other alternative therapies. If there is an inflammation, or worse a proper tear in one of the knee’s ligaments, I would actually strongly advise you to see an orthopedist for a detailed diagnosis, and to follow the prescribed physical therapy. After all, like many of my colleagues, I’m not a medical professional and would never dare to make a diagnosis, nor claim to be able to prescribe the correct form of therapy for that matter. Yet, I have personally experienced that physical therapy and massage do not always suffice on the way to full recovery. And I also understand too well that this can be extremely frustrating, especially when it means you can’t do your beloved weekend run in the park anymore.
Today I know that often this has to do with a very simple, but sometimes hard to fathom fact – the symptom is not always the cause of the pain! Here is why: When we look at the important role fascia plays in our bodies, and specifically how it envelops, supports and connects everything in our bodies, it actually makes sense that the pain in the knee might not necessarily come from the knee itself. If fascia connects all the different body parts, it also means that, if for whatever reason it thickens and/or shortens in one area of the body, it can pull another area out of place. Consequently, the pain in the knee you thought was there because you overdid your training in the park, might actually have its origin in another part of the body altogether. It could be, for example, that you have a rotation in the hip, which turns your femur (the bone of your upper leg) inwards and in turn pulls the knee inwards. This then means that your knee doesn’t track properly over your toes and this consequently leads to an overstretched ligament. Alternatively, you might have a fallen arch in the foot of that same leg, which again puts strain on the knee, especially when you practice high impact sports such as running. So, no matter how much you work on that knee itself, the pain will always come back as long as you don’t do something about that rotated hip, or that fallen arch.
The slouch and the back/neck pain connection
While the above account mostly focused on sports related ailments, the same can be said for something like the slouch. With slouch I mean the rounded upper back that many of us tend to acquire from sitting in front of a computer at work all day and staring at our phones for the rest of the time. In essence, the slouch might just give you what your mother would refer to as bad posture. This might bother you, as it doesn’t look very nice, or you don’t actually really care about it. Either way, over time, it can actually end up in lower back and/or neck pain. When this is the case, the first idea that most often comes to mind is a nice, long back massage. It is very relaxing and even eases discomforts.
But have you noticed that a lot of the time the discomfort comes back after a few days? It is not because you are perpetually stressed (although this could be a reason, and I will talk about this in a different post). In this scenario, the more likely reason is, again, that the origin of the pain probably doesn’t come from the back or neck itself. Rather, it is most likely the result of a shortening in the front of the body that overstretches the muscles in the back. To be pain free for a longer amount of time, it is therefore more useful to loosen the shortened fascia in the front of the body. This way, the body can return to its more natural, upright position. Once the body has found its way back to its more upright position, the muscles in the back are not overstretched anymore and subsequently, the discomfort in the back and/or neck is alleviated.
To make a very long answer short and simple, Rolfing focuses on realigning the body by working on the areas that pull the body out of balance. These might not always be the areas that lead you to the Rolfer’s practice in the first place. It could even be that the Rolfer doesn’t work on your lower back at all in the first session, even though you came in because of your lower back pain. I know this can be a little strange in the beginning; I certainly found it strange when I had my first few sessions. But believe me, the Rolfer is not just ignoring everything you told him or her; it is his/her way of trying to help you find a less strenuous way for your body to hold itself and to move. And by doing so, there is a good chance that this nagging back pain that mysteriously appeared one day, might disappear just as mysteriously. So bare with us and just try to trust the process for a while! There is a good chance you might already feel a greater sense of wellbeing after just a few sessions.