About Rolfing structural integration

What is Rolfing structural integration?

Rolfing structural integration is hands-on bodywork that focuses on aligning the body. Those who are certified to practice this type of bodywork are known as Rolfers™.

Structural imbalances of the body, can lead to chronic pain and disability or inhibit performance. An example is poor posture manifesting itself as back pain. Rolfers address the root causes of these imbalances through manipulation of connective tissue and movement education. Their aim is to realign and balance the body’s structure and to optimize movement.

Rolfing structural integration differs from other types of bodywork in that the entire body structure is assessed on how it interrelates. In this way, a Rolfer will focus on the primary causes of problems, and not on secondary symptomatic relief, so the results tend to be long lasting.

Rolfers often see far reaching results in their clients, beyond standing straighter, or reducing pain. According to Dr. Ida Rolf, the originator of this practice, the effects are more wide reaching:
"Personality is not a mental thing, to me personality expresses a two sided coin, one side is the physical and one side is the mental. A serious change in either one will most certainly result in a serious change in the other."

How does it work?

The idea behind the Rolfing approach is that everything (muscles, ligaments, tendons, organs, bones) in the body is lined with a thin layer called fascia. This lining allows body parts to move and slide relative to each other, which is extremely important to any movement. Fascia also has a hand in defining the length of muscles, tendons and ligaments. Cumulatively it helps define our body shape or posture. Fascia will compensate for injury, aging, or poor movement patterns by hardening, adhering, reducing length and elasticity, to help support the body. With even mild trauma, fascia can harden, reshape itself and stay in that new state. This binding creates misalignment which permeates the body, restricting movement, creating inefficiencies, pain, and poor posture.

However, bound fascia will respond to pressure and manipulation to become softer, longer, and able to slide again. The Rolfer applies this concept in balancing and aligning the entire body structure to reduce stress and make for more efficient movement.

The experience of pianist Leon Fleisher provides a dramatic example of the benefits of undergoing Rolfing structural integration in order to treat trauma to his hands.

For more information ask one of our practitioners or visit The Rolf Institute® Web site on the theory and principles of Rolfing structural integration.

History and Dr. Ida Rolf

Rolfing designates the Rolf Institute's brand of structural integration, the discipline developed by the late Ida P. Rolf, Ph.D. While the Rolf Institute is Dr. Rolf's original school of structural integration, it is now one of many schools of structural integration; and Rolfing structural integration designates the practice of structural integration by graduate members of the Rolf Institute, who are licensed to use its service marks. More information on the history of Rolfing practice is available on the Rolf Institute Web site.

Dr. Rolf's legacy

Dr. Rolf has had a major influence on the field of massage therapy and bodywork, although this has not always been recognised or acknowledged. Prior to the 1977 publication of "Rolfing: The Integration of Human Structures" 1, there are virtually no references to the structure or behaviour of fascia in any writing on massage or manual therapy.2 Such references are now commonplace3, and fascia has become the focus of entire conferences.4 She introduced the idea of a series of sessions that is designed to change the body's structure in an ordered, comprehensive way. The "10-series" has been cloned so often that there now exists the generic field of Structural Integration which includes Rolfing and its descendent schools.5 Technical innovations that can almost surely be traced to Dr. Rolf include using the elbow, forearm, and fist as contact surfaces6, and combining manipulation with active movement on the part of the client.7 These innovations have been widely adopted and are now an accepted part of the technique of many manual therapists.8
Many of Dr. Rolf's ideas were subtle and radical, and have not been so readily embraced. She conceived of Structural Integration as an educational process -- not a therapeutic one9 -- in which the parts of the body are progressively brought into a more appropriate relationship to horizontal and vertical as defined by the gravity field. "Rolfers make a life study of relating bodies and their fields to the earth and its gravity field, and we so organize the body that the gravity field can reinforce the body's energy field. It is gravity that is the tool, it is gravity that is the therapist. When the body gets working appropriately, the force of gravity can flow through. Then, spontaneously, the body heals itself."10
Paul Clifford BSc RMT Certified Rolfer
Co-author of Outcome-Based Massage
Professor, School of Education Health and Wellness
Fleming College, Peterborough, Ontario
  1. Rolf I. Rolfing: the Integration of Human Structures. New York: Harper and Row; 1977.
  2. For example there is no mention of fascial or connective tissue work in well-known massage texts published prior to 1980 (eg. Wood EC, Becker PD. Beard's Massage 3rd ed. Philadelphia: WB Saunders; 1981. Mennell JB. Physical Treatment by Movement, Manipulation and Massage. London: J & A Churchill; 1945.)
  3. See for example: Fritz S. Fundamentals of Therapeutic massage 3rd ed. St. Louis: Mosby; 2004.
  4. http://www.fasciacongress.org/2012/
  5. The term originally coined by Dr. Rolf for her work was "Structural Integration". Some of the related disciplines are listed at http://www.theiasi.org/about.php#join
  6. Use of the fist and forearm is not illustrated in any massage text that I know of published before 1980. Their use is probably first shown in Myofascial Manipulation (Cantu RI, Grodin AJ. Myofascial Manipulation. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen; 1992.) This book clearly sites Dr. Rolf as an influence, if not the originator, of much of the technique that is shown.
  7. I am not aware of any description of movement combined with massage published before 1990. For a recent example see: Lowe W. Orthopedic Massage. Edinburgh: Mosby Elsevier; 2009: 49-54.
  8. For example, "Active Release Techniques®" is an elaborate system taught to many health professionals, that uses deep pressure and active and passive movements to address clinical conditions. http://www.activerelease.com/
  9. Rolf I. Rolfing and Physical Reality. Rochester, Vermont; Healing Arts Press; 1978: 40.
  10. Ibid: pp 86, 87, 31.

The Rolfing approach in popular media

Oprah has helped raise awareness of the work of Dr. Rolf through her show when Dr Oz tried Rolfing structural integration.

Regularly in the media Rolfing structural integration is portrayed as very helpful, but painful. A recent example is this N.Y. Times article, Rolfing, Excruciatingly Helpful. This is an unfortunate description because most clients find the sessions to be positive and enjoyable.

The reality is better depicted in this instructional video using a Rolfing structural integration technique called the Log Roll, with Erik Dalton. Note how discomfort is managed.