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Health & Beauty
Smooth moves

Rolfing may have an abrasive reputation, but this 50-year-old form of bodywork can help you move with ease and grace. Georgia Jacobs takes a step.

This year, '70s and '80s retro crept from the catwalks to the fitness arena as celebrities like Madonna and Geri Halliwell attributed their svelte physiques to yoga, Pilates and ballet. Another throwback from the macramé era, Rolfing—a unique soft tissue manipulation technique developed by Columbia Professor Ida P. Rolf —is now gaining ground in Japan. Rumored to be a painful form of deep tissue massage, this kissing cousin of chiropractic work with surrounds a quirky name realigns the myofascial (soft tissue) webbing that surround bones, joints and muscles that become out of whack due to aging, gravity, emotional stress, injuries, and poor posture. Imbalanced connective tissue can not only zap your energy but may cause chronic pain, headaches, slouching, decreased athletic performance, superficial breathing, and even the blues. So if you're looking to put the spring back in your step and pep in your spirit, one of Tokyo's Rolfers can lend a hand.

A Rolfer loosens thick fascia

Rolf and roll
Rolfing takes its name from Ida, whose pioneering work spanned 50 years until her death in 1979. A native New Yorker, Rolf graduated from Barnard College in 1916, moving on to Columbia University where she earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry. She became interested in alternative medicine in Geneva, where she studied homeopathy in the late '20s and began to develop what she eventually dubbed structural integration. Rolf's many success stories earned her media acclaim, and in 1967, the first guild was formed in Colorado. Today, the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration in Boulder serves as the official headquarters, where new practitioners are trained and a certified. Although once perceived as experimental, as early as the mid-'90s, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek reported that the technique was covered by some US insurance plans—although not in Japan—and it's currently embraced by physicians, physical therapists and fitness trainers across the globe.

Because the technique involves kneading, it's often confused with other forms of muscle therapy. But Florida chiropractor and fitness trainer Ginger Southall, D.C., says there's a difference. "Rolfing, or structural integration, is often lumped under the category of 'massage,' but is actually a unique entity unto itself. It involves a distinctive technique that stretches tight and thickened fascia: the thin sheath of connective tissue that links the muscular system throughout the body. Often problems with this fascial network manifest as chronic soft tissue injuries, buildup of scar tissue from surgery, injury or intense training and even muscular tightness and inflexibility as commonly seen in the hamstrings," she explains.

The treatment generally involves 10 sessions that reorganize the fascia from head to toe, inside to outside, lending the skeletal and muscular structures more support and allowing sticky fascial sheaths to slide back and forth with ease. The end result is improved posture, flexibility and breathing, as well as the correction of prohibitive patterns of movement.

"Rolfing can accomplish in ten sessions what it takes five years to accomplish with yoga," says Tokyo-based Nobuko Fukada, owner of Life Harmony and certified Rolfer since 2000. Although Rolfing has been endorsed by famous athletes, pianists, guitarists, and other such people who have used it to cure injuries and achieve higher performance, everyone can benefit from it, according to Fukada. The institute in Colorado recommends a 10-session cycle, usually over 10 weeks. However, Fukada says specific problems can perhaps be addressed in two to three sessions. "Since each person is unique, there is really no magic number of sessions," she says. Dedicated to working women, Fukada has even created a special treatment (one to two sessions) tailored to stiff arms and shoulders. In general, she says ten sessions is enough to make significant changes in the body; however, it is not uncommon for a client to return six to twelve months after a cycle for follow-up work or when they feel stiffness settling back in somewhere.

Rolfing has a psychological element as well. Rolfer Yoshitaka Koda, who has been practicing in Japan 10 years, compares patterns of movement to memories stored in the structure of the body. "You hold your body in a certain way because of a past experience. Any posture has an emotional content. Otherwise the body is just a machine," says Koda. For example, slumped shoulders can be a coping mechanism to counteract childhood fears. People who have been Rolfed often report that the treatment has a significant effect on their outlook and self-awareness. But, according to Koda, the feeling of release doesn't mean the problem is fixed, particularly if the client continues with old ways.

Before and After Rolfing

Shape up
Rumors of Rolfers roughing up their patients abound, but speaking to those who have had the therapy dispels myths of severe pain. "It could be very intense. A friend once called it black and blue massage. But it wasn't to a point where I wanted to stop. It was strange because there would be certain places like the forearm, where you wouldn't think there was muscle, but it was obvious I was holding something there," says New Yorker Charles Walters, a 55-year-old personal finance consultant.

Pianist Leon Fleisher, who lost the use of his right hand due to a repetitive stress injury, regained the ability to play concertos with all ten fingers after undergoing Rolfing. He told The New York Times his muscles felt like "petrified rock" before the therapy but stresses to some extent the cure lies in the discomfort. "It requires active participation on the part of the patient because when you feel soreness, your tendency is to contract and protect it. But you have to give in to the pain and relax under it." Both Fukada and Koda insist Rolfing should never entail significant pain. "A sensitive and skillful practitioner can change long-standing physiological patterns without causing great discomfort to the client," Fukada says.

A course begins with an analysis of posture, and many Rolfers take before and after photos of a patient's front, back and sides, pointing out any existing imbalances. The therapist then begins to systematically smooth and loosen tight tissue. Although each of the 10 sessions isdesigned to meet specific goals, the experience can vary depending on an individual's needs.

While Rolfing has not been widely available in Japan, all that is about to change. Lead Instructor Cornelia Rossi from Brazil, and assistant instructor Valerie Berg from the US, have been conducting a seminar here in Tokyo in which 12 of the first Japan-trained Rolfers will be officially certified by the institute and will join the 11 here and 1,200 worldwide.

The cost ranges from ¥12,000-¥15,000 per session, each of which lasts one and a half to two hours, a small investment for the plethora of benefits structural integration can provide. Fukada likes to quote the doctor herself. "Dr Rolf said Rolfing is unnecessary only if you are Fred Astaire. It can help anyone who wants to find and experience an increased sense of balance in his or her body," she says.

More information:

For a list of books on Rolfing see the foreign books section

Photo courtesy of the Rolf Institute

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