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"Rolfing's foundation is simple: Most humans are significantly out of alignment with gravity, although we function better when we are lined up with the gravitation field." [The "Online Boulder Guide"]
Rolfing® seems to be a kind of myofascial massage, but Rolfers prefer to call it "movement education." Whatever you call it, Rolfing involves touching the skin, feeling around for "imbalances" in tissue texture, and separating "fascial layers that adhere and muscles that have been pulled out of position by strain or injury."* It is also a kind of energy medicine.* Rolfers consider their unique contribution to be "to balance the body in gravity." Deep massage or other forms of soft tissue manipulation can't do that, they say. Unlike some forms of energy medicine, however, Rolfing is hands-on and no doubt that contributes to its attractiveness. Many people like to have other people rub them.
Rolfing was developed by Ida P. Rolf (1896-1979), a biochemist turned physical therapist. Her dissertation was on the chemistry of unsaturated phosphatides and was published by The Waverly Press in 1922. She spent a good part of the 1930s studying osteopathy, homeopathy, chiropractic, yoga, the Alexander technique, and Korzybski’s work on states of consciousness. She authored several books on the relationship of form and structure in the human body, including Rolfing: The Integration of Human Structures (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).
Dr. Rolf claimed she found a correlation between muscular tension and pent-up emotions. Rolfing is the name given to Dr. Rolf's method of massage, which transcends chiropractic in that it is based on the notion that physical and emotional health depend on parts of the body being properly "aligned." In Rolfing, unlike some forms of chiropractic, more than just the spine must be aligned. To be healthy, according to Rolfers, you must align your head, ankles, hips, thorax, pelvis, knees, shoulders, ears, etc., in just the right way or else the evils of gravity will be felt. By being properly aligned, gravity enhances personal energy and leads to a healthy body and a positive emotional state. According to Dr. Rolf: "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."* There is no reason to believe, however, that this means that the more than six billion people on the planet who haven't been rolfed and whose bodies are not so related to Earth and its gravity field notice even a slight tug at their "personal energy."
There is a Rolfer in my hometown who advertises that Rolfing brings "a sense of integration and well being." The ad even quotes an M.D. who says: "Rolfing works. Not only can it dramatically change people's bodies. It can transform their lives as well." Rolfing, according to the advertisement, has "evolved into a gentle deep muscle balancing process that structurally aligns your body." (The word 'gentle' is boldfaced in the ad.) He also claims that after ten sessions there are long-term results, which include "Physical and Emotional Flexibility" and "A Sense of Integration and Well Being." It is assumed, of course, that having a sense of integration is intelligible and good, as is having emotional flexibility, whatever that might be.
Has this claim of the muscular/emotional connection been demonstrated by any scientific studies? No, but Rolfers are very proud of the "proof" that it works! There are tons of anecdotes and testimonials verifying Rolfing, they note. [Rolfers and satisfied customers, please do not write me about the scientific studies that you think I have ignored. See my responses to your comrades in the readers comments section. And please note: I nowhere claim in this article that there are no satisfied customers with Rolfing. My objections are to the unprovable and often unintelligible metaphysical claims. Please see my article on "Evaluating Personal Experience" for more details on why satisfied customers can be misleading regarding the efficacy of a treatment.]
Some Rolfers claim that Rolfing is a 'scientifically validated system of body restructuring and movement education.' They claim that there is scientific proof that each of us has life-long patterns of tension and that realigning releases this tension, so that "overall personal functioning tends to improve." The expression 'tends to improve' is a common weaseling expression used by quacks.
It takes one to two years to complete the Rolfing training at a cost of more than $10,000. The Rolfing training can only be taken from the official Rolf Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Although there is another outfit in Boulder called The Guild for Structural Integration, which is dedicated to Ida Rolf and seems to be Rolfing in everything but the name. Another school of structural integration is Hellerwork, which will not only align and integrate your body parts, it will do the same for your mind and soul. Finally, the Institute of Structural Medicine in Washington and on Oahu, will help you recreate "possibilities for your body/mind to function well and support you in your life.”
See also alternative medicine, energy, massage therapy, placebo effect, pragmatic fallacy, subjective validation, vitalism, and "Energy Healing: Looking in All the Wrong Places" by Robert Todd Carroll.
Barrett, Stephen and Kurt Butler (eds.) A Consumer's Guide to Alternative Medicine : A Close Look at Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Faith-Healing, and Other Unconventional Treatments; edited by (Buffalo, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1992).
Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work by Barry L. Beyerstein