Your first experience with Rolfing is likely to be within a ten-session format. Rolfing is different from most forms of bodywork because it focuses on improving the organization of the entire structure (often visible as better posture), rather than solely tending to the place that hurts or feels stiff. Although massage may be relaxing, you may find the same area bothering you again shortly after you leave your treatment. This is because the area that hurts is often a compensatory or secondary issue.
For example, you may have neck pain because you’re not getting the proper support from your feet, or because your pelvis is askew, or because your shoulders are rounding forward (or all of these). Until the whole structure is in balance, that neck is going to stay strained trying to keep your head upright. Focusing on the place that hurts usually addresses the symptom rather than the problem.
Designed by Dr. Ida Rolf, the ten Rolfing sessions are intended as a tune up for your body. This is a systematic approach to aligning your structure; each session builds upon the last and prepares the body for the next. In a sense, after the ten sessions, the fascial matrix within the body has been reset.
The first three sessions work on the more superficial layers of connective tissue. Sessions four through seven remove strain from deeper layers of the body. The remaining sessions organize and align the body as a whole, providing better balance, enhanced range of motion, and a higher energy level.
The ten-series provides Rolfers with a map, but as anyone who travels knows, the map is not the territory. Although structural goals may be similar, the same session may look very different for different clients based on their structure, learned behaviors, and movement patterns. Each session is as unique as the person receiving it. For most people, the series progresses as follows:
Sessions 1-3: Focus on superficial layers
This session focuses on freeing the lungs to allow for a fuller breath, and begins to free the shoulder and pelvic girdles from the rib cage and surrounding structures. This is accomplished by working superficial tissue around the rib cage, shoulders, arms, and hips. Neck and back work is included at the end of almost every session to balance and integrate the work into the body. Most people report feeling immediately relaxed after this session and the relaxation lasts for a couple of days. This session is excellent for addressing shoulder, rib, and neck pain.
Next we address the foundation. Feet and lower legs are opened and aligned to better support the body in gravity. Often clients feel a greater sense of support and balance from their feet, as well as better contact between their feet and the ground. Conditions such as high or fallen arches, plantar fasciitis, neuromas, knee pain and scar tissue are addressed in this session. Many clients report better balance and feeling more grounded after this work.
Now we move to the sides and establish a lateral line. The goal here is to ease strain patterns in the front-back dimension. You might think of it as giving the body depth by opening the “seams” along your sides. The sides of your torso, neck, and hips are organized to allow these major segments to better support each other; improving the relationship between your upper and lower body.
Sessions 4-7: Focus on deeper layers
We move back to the legs in this session, focusing on the inside of the leg from the ankle to the pelvis, at a slightly deeper layer. The relationship of the foot to the pelvis is aligned; torsions at the knee and hip are addressed. Manipulating adductor attachments allows increased range of movement of the pelvis, which starts the pelvis on its way to becoming more horizontal. This session provides the feeling that the legs are supporting the abdominal space and providing lift for the upper body, a new experience for many back pain sufferers. This session can be effective for hip and knee pain.
“When I put my foot down it no longer goes where it used to” is a familiar response after session four. Furthermore, clients occasionally report emotional extremes following this session; many people don’t realize how much physical and/or emotional tension they hold in the pelvis until this session disturbs that holding pattern. Although these physically and emotionally unsettled states are usually mild when they occur, it’s best to schedule sessions four and five about a week apart. Session five continues the work started in four, and brings the body to greater balance.
Work continues up the front of the abdomen, quadriceps, and psoas, lengthening the front of the body and providing lift up the center of the structure. By freeing deeper pelvic and abdominal restrictions, which can inhibit pelvic movement, the pelvis can continue its shift to a more supportive and balanced horizontal position. Clients frequently report a longer front feeling; quite the opposite of all the hip flexion we experience working in front of computers, commuting, sitting in meetings, bending over to pick up children, etc.
This session lengthens the deep muscles of the back and hips, matching the change achieved in the front in session five. Starting in the legs, if necessary, we address the calves, hamstrings, back of the pelvis, and up both sides of the spine to the head. This work can be extremely beneficial to back pain (including soreness due to scoliosis), sciatica, and tight hamstrings.
All the work we’ve done so far has been necessary before we could organize the head and neck. This session focuses on the upper shoulders, head, neck, and sometimes the arms. After this session, clients often feel that their head is more “on.” By this time in the series, flexibility, athletic performance and body symmetry are usually noticeably improved.
Sessions 8-10: Focus on integration & overall function
The final three sessions are about integrating all we’ve done. The human pelvis is an amazing structure that links the upper and lower segments of the body, supports the spine in a vertical position, and allows rotation of the spine. To improve these functions, our work has emphasized freeing and horizontalizing the pelvis. Sessions eight and nine revisit the upper and lower segments of the body and work to integrate them with the pelvis and each other to work as a fluid whole. Session eight is often a lower body session, integrating the legs with higher structures, but many clients will benefit more from upper work at this stage.
This is the other half of session eight. If we worked the lower body in the previous session, this one will target upper structures. The ribcage, shoulders, arms, and sometimes the neck and head are the focus, with the goal always being integration.
The final integration: This session is usually customized to each individual’s body and needs. This is our opportunity to complete, for now, all we’ve been able to free. We will smooth the fascial wrappers over the structural changes that you have gained, and make peace with anything that remains. This session usually involves the whole body at a somewhat more superficial layer.
Movement education is sprinkled throughout the ten-series, in order to help you encourage long- term structural change. Although structural shifts attained continue to integrate and affect your body long after the sessions are completed, there are other things you can do to nurture structural balance. With this in mind, we’ll discuss ergonomic considerations, relaxation and body awareness techniques, and stretching/toning exercises, that are directly affecting your alignment.
The ten-series is designed to leave your structure at a balanced place. Many clients complete a ten-series, get good results, and never feel the need for another session. Others view Rolfing as an important way of maintaining their bodies and come in for regular “tune ups” (anywhere from bimonthly to quarterly). This is particularly common among athletes, heavy computer users, people who have had severe injury, chronic illness or invasive surgery, and people with scoliosis.
Some clients find so much more ease and relaxation in their bodies after Rolfing sessions, that they prefer it to massage. Other clients take a break for several months after the ten-series and then request a post ten series, generally three to five sessions in length, which may focus on the client’s specific goals. Lastly, some clients only call when they fall off their bike, and “something feels amiss.” These are all good ways to use Rolfing after you’ve completed the initial work. Do what makes sense to you.