Structual integration (SI) – or Rolfing, has been a part of my life on and off for the past 15 years. I recently started having sessions again after a break of nearly 3 years, and I thought now would be a good time to share my thoughts and experiences.
What is Rolfing? That’s actually an interesting question. Wikipedia, that always infallible and reliable resource, defines Rolfing as “a form of alternative medicine originally developed by Ida Rolf (1896–1979) as Structural Integration, …typically delivered as a series of ten hands-on physical manipulation sessions sometimes called “the recipe”, …based on Rolf’s ideas about how the human body’s “energy field” can benefit when aligned with the Earth’s gravitation field.” Now look, I’m not one to knock alternative medicine or anyone who practices it, but the Rolf Institute‘s website has a much more scientific and, in my experience, accurate description: “Rolfing Structural Integration works on [the body’s] web-like complex of connective tissues to release, realign and balance the whole body, thus potentially resolving discomfort, reducing compensations and alleviating pain.” Think of the experience as somewhere between massage and physical therapy. While a good majority of the work done during your ten sessions is done by your practitioner, you are absolutely an active participant during and after.
What does this all mean exactly? While SI is obviously not a cure for structural or skeletal deformities, it can help with muscular with muscular tightness, chronic pain, and physical stress. This relief helps reduce the risk of further physical deterioration, pain, and structural issues.
A little background about me: starting at the age of 6, I wore a scoliosis brace. After about 3 years, my orthopedic surgeon decided I no longer needed to wear one because the S-curve in my spine got better. This is an important thing to remember for later on: IT GOT BETTER. That’s not something that typically happens because scoliosis is an actual skeletal deformity. Scoliosis gets worse, not better. Still my doctors would occasionally mention corrective surgery. It never really made sense to me. Once again, at the age of 11, I was given another scoliosis brace because the curve worsened again. I wore that until I grew out of it (and the curve got better again), around age 13.
I first started having Rolfing sessions around the age of 17. My mom was a postal clerk and she got talking to one of her customers who later became my practitioner. I should note that I have only ever had one Rolfing practitioner in all these years. I saw him once a week for a 90-120 minute session for about a year. As you read above, SI is usually a course of 10 weekly sessions, with occasional “tune-ups” perhaps every month or so. I guess mine went on for so long because my body was so messed up. I really don’t know.
It was AMAZING. One thing that seems to be universally true for anyone doing SI is that it’s incredibly painful. Incredibly. Painful. Like seeing stars kind of pain. The kind of pain you would never imagine actually paying someone to inflict upon you. And it goes on and on and on for the whole session. And then it stops. When it’s done, you feel like you’ve been given a new body, a new life. It’s the most incredible feeling of relief. Suddenly your shoulders are even. Your feet point forward. It doesn’t hurt to sit up straight or walk with your arms swinging or stand evenly on both feet. After every session, he would give me exercises to do at home to maintain the progress until the next session, but being young and stupid, I rarely did them. The only real reason I stopped going so much was because I went to college. I didn’t go very far away, so I still went probably every 2-4 weeks for another year or so.
This is where my memory of my SI schedule gets fuzzy as I had a personal trauma and don’t really remember how often I went. If I had to guess, I’d say that from 2004-2011 I went monthly? Bimonthly? Huge yearlong gaps? Not sure. I do know that I started back pretty regularly in mid to late 2012, I believe once a week, once I had a steady income. This stuff ain’t cheap. One ninety-minute session is $150. My insurance didn’t cover it. It still doesn’t, actually.
I remember the day I casually mentioned something about having scoliosis, and my practitioner said simply, “You don’t have scoliosis.” I was shook. Wait, we didn’t say “shook” then, did we? I was bewildered. He explained that the fact that I was getting better (remember?) was evidence that I don’t have scoliosis. Scoliosis is skeletal; my problem was 100% due to the uneven tightening of my muscles. It was like the clouds parted and the angels sang! I had hope for a normal body! I didn’t have to live like this forever!
One thing that I have noticed when starting up Rolfing after a prolonged absence is the fact that, for the first several sessions, you actually feel waaaaayy worse before you get better. I’m talking hobbling-around-like-a-ninety-year-old worse. I’m talking can’t-stand-for-longer-than-thirty-seconds worse. Add to that a stressful work environment and your back is a ticking time bomb of pain. My bomb went off in early November 2012 when I had to go to the emergency room for back spasms. I was sitting at work and I literally could not stand or even move my legs, so my coworker called an ambulance. Would that have happened if I had been screwing around with my back? I honestly don’t know. I do know that my back was now in such a bad state that SI no longer made me feel better, and became no more than a frustrating waste of time and money. Once I had had a few months to recuperate, I went back to him, but only biweekly as the injury affected my ability to bring in a steady income.
Then I quit my job in March 2014. Then I had another trip to the emergency room. After I rested up from that one, I saw him a couple more times. It was nearly three years until I saw him again.
I started up again in late February. As I’ve mentioned many times here, I’ve made a commitment to self-improvement this year. To be honest, I didn’t feel like I needed sessions. My back rarely, if ever, hurt. I felt like I was functioning in my daily life fine. But when I looked in the mirror, I could see the issues. One shoulder lower than the other. One knee bent. One foot pointed out to the side. I was exercising and building up my muscles, and I didn’t want to build them… crooked. I took matters and my tax return into my hands and got in touch. I had 11 weekly sessions ($1650 cash for those keeping track), which I took the initiative to decrease to biweekly, and eventually to monthly. I wish I could afford to go once a week. Heck, I wish I could go every day. I just can’t.
There has been a difference in this last round of sessions: I feel worse. Like I said, I felt fine before this last round of sessions, but I knew needed help. Now that I’ve exhausted my funds for the time being, I feel like shit. My back hurts, I can’t bend, I can’t lift, I can’t stand for very long at all. It takes about four days to physically and emotionally recover from each weekly session. I paid a lot of money to do this to myself. Now that I’m older and wiser, I do all of the exercises he’s given me (ok, maybe not every day, but almost), and they’re not working. I hurt all of the time. I take ibuprofen as rarely as possible, but it still happens. It depresses me. It makes me not want to exercise which I was genuinely so into! It makes me seek comfort in junk food, my old frenemy. Half of me is relieved to have less recovery time and more productive time between sessions, but the other half of me wishes I could afford to just get the SI over with.
So do I recommend Rolfing? This post has been a long time coming, but I decided to wait until I had a lull in my sessions. Ultimately, I say yes, if for no other reason than to try it out to see that it’s no joke. In practice, in real life, it has nothing to do with energy alignment or gravitational fields. It’s serious, painful, exhilarating, and rewarding. It’s not easy or a quick fix. It has helped me tremendously. I don’t know, maybe it takes so many sessions for me because my body is so messed up. Maybe you can finish in the 10 sessions or possibly even fewer. Read about it, speak to a practitioner, and decide if it’s for you.