August 23, 2009

Rolfing 101.

When was the last time you stood in your underwear in front of a full-length mirror?

It’s not something I do often—unless catching myself between layers in the changing room or out of the shower—but that’s exactly how I kicked off my 10-week series of Rolfing massages. Me in my underwear, knees slightly bowed and shoulders slightly hunched, feet turned out 45 degrees.

It was the first time I’d really stopped to notice  the shape and slant of my own body. Jeanie Manchester stood behind me and studied my posture. She gently pointed out that I carried my weight far back in my heels and hyper-extended my knees—suddenly obvious traits that I’d somehow never noticed before, despite constant knee pain.

Funny that with all of our obsessing over image and physical appearance, when it comes to being familiar with our own bodies—how we move and where we carry tension and pain—most of us are completely clueless.

Rolfing is a crash course to getting clued in. A ten-week bodywork series developed by German biochemist Ida Rolf in the 1940s, Rolfing releases tension and actually re-patterns the body’s posture. A combination of massage and physical therapy, with a bit of yoga and chiropractic medicine thrown in, the aim of the series is not relaxation or stress-reduction, but re-alignment and “structural integration.” (Read: At moments it can be painful—a little more intense than your deepest deep-tissue massage—but infinitely more enjoyable that a session of physical therapy. The pain is brief and followed by relief, like a good yoga class.) Ida Rolf’s system is based on the belief that strong core muscles and a straight spine correct hyper-extension and allow the organs, muscles and extremities to function without the extra stress that often results in pain or illness

I felt the effects immediately. Walking to the bus stop after each session, my back suddenly felt long, ankles sturdy and shoulders straight. I felt taller and stronger. This meant that days (or hours) later, when I slumped back into my habitual posture, I’d notice the uncomfortable difference and correct myself. In addition to the benefit of better posture, I was becoming aware of my body on a regular basis, noticing what made it feel uncomfortable and how slight adjustments affected the way that I felt and interacted with the world.

Rolfing is ideal for athletes and those with injuries or physical pain. But it’s not only about the external. It just so happens that on that morning of my first Rolfing appointment, when I stripped down to the bare essentials and faced myself in the mirror, I was smack in the middle of a serious heartbreak and about to make some scary changes in my life. Perhaps because my emotions were so vivid at that time, it soon became obvious that the way I hold myself together on a psychological level is inextricably tied to the connective tissues that support my physical structure. Similar to the way that most people hold stress in tight muscles and rigid postures, every emotion is buried somewhere in the body. (Usually because they’re too overwhelming or because we don’t have the tools to deal with them on our own, so it’s much easier to encounter and release them with the help of a trained, sensitive and experienced someone like Jeanie). The 10-week process of physical release turned out to be just what I needed to help me work through the unraveling and restructuring of my day-to-day life.

As a longtime yoga practitioner and teacher, Jeanie speaks often about the “voice of the body”—which translates not just as how we physically move, but how our body language and posture converses with the world around us. There’s nothing like straight shoulders and spine to jolt the confidence, for example. After going through the Rolfing process, I feel more in control—or at least aware—of this dialogue between the outside world, my inner world and the body in between. (I guess this is what they mean by being “integrated.”)

If you can’t afford the $800, 10-week series (prices vary based on practitioner), many Rolfers offer sliding scales, and the Rolfing Institute in Boulder sometimes offers discounted prices if you’re willing to be Rolfed by a student. And if nothing else, I still highly recommend stripping down and taking a long look in the mirror. Consider your posture, with special attention to the ankles, knees, hips and shoulders. Where do you feel pain? Where do you hold tension? Where do you feel emotion? A few morning stretches that focus on releasing the stress in these areas of the body might have a profound effect.

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