What is Rolfing? I Give it a Try

what is rolfing

credit: Flickr

Rolfing is a type of muscle release that has been likened to torture. Deep kneading of muscles, the classic image of an elbow digging hard into a back with a guy on a massage table flailing underneath. It hurts so good, however, that it's estimated that 1.5 million people have tried Rolfing.

Rolfers -- descendants of the original teachings of Ida Rolf -- do not see themselves as massage therapists. They focus on finding inconsistencies in the muscle and fascia (read more about what is fascia here), and then integrating these back into the body to provide relief from a body's aches and pains.

Does Rolfing Hurt?

Honestly, yes ... although theĀ Rolf Institute website has this to say ...
Several factors determine the level of comfort or discomfort during a Rolfing session. One is the degree of trauma in the system; another is how long fascial distortions have been in the client's body. Long-term distortions create more tenacious and widespread compensatory patterns, which may require more sustained pressure to release. Another factor is the degree of emotional charge associated with an area of injury or strain.
(The Institute also says there is a big range for how "hard" practitioners work into the body, so you might want to check a few different practitioners before you decide who's best for you.) Did the statement about "emotional charge" surprise you? Yes, Rolfers believe that we can hold emotion in our bodies and when we release a knot, we can also release the emotion associated with it. I have to say that when I went I didn't feel any particular need to cry, whoop with joy, or hug someone ... I was just curious about the whole process. But I have friends who say they experienced release. When it comes to muscle release, there is a big range of what people like. From the gentle Swedish massage to the potentially quite rough sports massage and, of course, Rolfing. Me? I'm a wuss ... a big ol' baby when it comes to this stuff. And while I want more than Swedish (because it feels great, but I don't think it does much), I definitely don't want to leave in tears and with bruises. As has happened to one of my friends who has doneĀ several Rolfing sessions. I decided to finally try Rolfing because my hip has been bugging me since I went to a personal training weekend last November. I was doing HIIT training after a kettlebell segment and somewhere along the way I tweaked my hip. It was fine generally, except that whenever I tried to sit pretzel legs, it hurt a bit. That, plus I've been researching fascia like crazy and that's what Rolfers do ... release fascia. So I signed up with Diana Phillips, a "gentle rolfer" near me, and rushed in late and apologetic to her treatment room.

Experiencing Rolfing

Diana was great! Warm, funny, and effective. She released my hip and my shoulders and I feel a whole lot better even three weeks later. She was not cheap though ... $160 for 90 minutes! But since I feel better, it was money well spent. Rolfers take their time. Diana worked primarily on my neck and shoulders, especially around my shoulder blades (which are frequently tight) and a bit on my hip. Rolfers prefer you take a 10-session package and work on a different area of your body each time you come in. When I left, I felt calm, restored, and a lot looser where she had worked. I went home happy and definitely plan on going again (as soon as I save up some money!) If you'd like to try Rolfing, I suggest you start at Rolfing.org and poke around to see practitioners in your area. If you have friends who have tried it, ask for a referral and for what their experience was like. What about you? Have you tried Rolfing? Are you curious about it? I'd love to hear your stories. Cheers, Lisa  

About Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson here. I've been a personal trainer since 1997, a Pilates instructor since 1998 and the owner of Modern Pilates since 1999. I'm hoping to give you some good ideas to get or stay in shape with a healthy dose of humor and reality. Thanks for joining me.


14 Responses to What is Rolfing? I Give it a Try

  1. Lisa June 11, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    A massage therapist suggested I try rolfing but I haven’t found someone yet who does it. And I’m also a bit nervous. I don’t want to be in pain!!!

  2. Lisa Johnson June 11, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

    Lisa I had that friend I mentioned and I met her for drinks once right after her session and she was describing it as pure agony that she just loved … I couldn’t wrap my brain around it and literally stalled for years … lol. So I hear ya … just ask them if they’ll ease off if you think it’s too much and if they say no then don’t book an appointment.

  3. Ellie June 11, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

    I went through the full series of 10 sessions of Rolfing back in 1986 maybe? – many years before becoming a massage therapist myself. It was painful, well parts of it were. There were some areas that were worse than others, such as nose work and… well, I wouldn’t want to ruin it for anyone! The biggest change for me at that time was with my feet. The work he did helped so much I didn’t need orthotics anymore and didn’t have trouble with my troublesome feet for another 10 years!

  4. Lisa Johnson June 11, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

    Feet! Ellie, I have the very beginning of a bunion and she looked at it and said … that’s easy to fix … I was a bit blown away as both my grandmother and mother had bunion surgery

  5. Lu MK June 14, 2013 at 11:48 am #

    I’m a Rolfer! You can find certified people here: http://www.rolf.org/find

    When I get new clients (I offer a cheap consultation & tryout session) I always tell them to let me know when anything hurts, is uncomfortable, or feels “not right” somehow.
    Unfortunately, as in any profession, there are colleagues who think they know best what the client needs.

    What I usually say when a client tells me “You’re the expert, you just do what you need to do.” is: “Well, I might be the bodywork expert here… but you are the expert on your body.”

    Often clients tell me “well, this does hurt a bit… but don’t stop, it feels good!”. As long as it feels good, it is good. It’s similar to how a stretch can hurt a bit… bit still feel good.
    People know their bodies better than they think, and as long as they have the “good” feeling, it is good.

    In the old days of Rolfing there was the idea that the clients should just scream and cry, but the way it was explained to us at the institute was that it was just the trend of the times–in the 60s and 70s all therapies had to be drastic. Nowadays we think that people shouldn’t be traumatized.

    I sometimes get clients who had bad experiences before… some who just got hurt, other who had been to Rolfers who are so gentle that the clients “didn’t feel anything.”.

    The best way to find somebody who is good for you is to ask whether they give consultations, or some you can just ask on the phone how they deal with pain. Usually you can tell soon whether a practitioner is compassionate or just full of ego.

  6. Lisa Johnson June 14, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

    Good point Lu and thanks for pointing me to those videos earlier today. Greatly appreciated. L–

  7. TraceyJoy June 14, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

    I’ll try it if I find a practitioner my relatives still call me Cry Baby Duck. Yes that releasing of emotions…a friend of mine had deep tissue massage and she said when the therapist hit something around her shoulder blade, she told she started to bawl, quiver, heaving, screaming think Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give, flowing out her so much she fell asleep on the table. They let her rest she woke up on her own, the therapist was right there with her the whole time. It was an amazing experience for her a good release. We don’t know what she was releasing as far as the type of pain/trauma/fear/anxiety but it was released. A few sessions later still releasing in different spots on her body not as powerful as the first time. The human body is amazing.

  8. Lisa Johnson June 14, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

    That’s a cool story about your friend Tracey Joy … let me know if you ever try it. L–

  9. Mo July 1, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    I am very intrigued by this rolfing treatment, although I’ve never heard of any practitioners of this technique in my area, but I’m sure Ill find one, the fascia underneath my feet have been very bad for a while now, I tried orthotics but did not find them to work, so Ive been searching for something like this to help fix things…thank you so much for bring this to my awareness…Pain is temporary.

  10. Lisa Johnson July 1, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    Good luck Mo, try googling and see what you come up with. :)

  11. petra August 29, 2013 at 3:01 pm #

    I’m not sure your article is of any help to Rolfers in general. It does not have to hurt!!! And in fact if your Rolfer is hurting you they are doing something wrong. Accepting pain as a way to gain is endemic in the “fitness” industry and if pain is both what you expact and what you value then pain is what you will receive. I suggest you find another Rolfer – perhaps one with greater sophistication in their touch and live in your own body more fully so that you don’t believe that someone else causing you pain is the way to improve yourself.

  12. Lisa Johnson September 8, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

    Petra, I absolutely don’t agree with the no pain, no gain mentality … in fact I’m frequently railing against it. This particular Rolfer did actually fix a small problem I had in my hip and I would also say there is a big range of what some people think is light and others heavy. I’m a “delicate flower” in that regard. I didn’t feel overworked when I left and I wasn’t sore the next day … the Rolfer that I went to is actually an instructor trainer for Rolfers and advertises herself as a “gentle Rolfer.” I’m rather picky about who I work with. :-)

  13. Home Service Massage Manila November 29, 2013 at 3:28 am #

    There are many ways to get massage therapy. Massage has numerous benefits for the mind, body and spirit and is now considered one of the most popularly practiced complementary therapies.

  14. Karin Wagner August 6, 2015 at 9:16 pm #

    Great article! I’m a Rolfer in Portland Oregon, and I graduated in the same class as the Rolfer mentioned in this article. Pretty cool.
    I wanted to mention that the link in the article is actually to find European Rolfers. http://www.rolf.org is the correct link for the U.S.

    I think it’s funny that most of your article talks about how incredibly painful it is, but it sounds like your experience was good, and only slightly painful :P. Most of my clients really like it, and are surprised at how comfortable it is (most of the time – there likely will be a few tender spots!) and the dramatic, lasting results.

    Rolfing was the first type of bodywork to sculpt the fascia to make permanent changes in posture and movement. Back then, they believed that you had to use a lot of force to physically melt the fascia (but we now know that’s not true). As understanding deepens, our work has quite a bit more finesse. Rolfers have learned that if you are listening to the body, you can work at just the right pace and depth so the body doesn’t have to guard. We accomplish more change, with more comfort for the client and less effort for the practitioner.

    So, for those of you who are scared of pain, don’t let that hold you back. Rolfing is awesome. Just take a look at local Rolfer’s websites, or call them, to find someone who is a good fit. And if you can’t find a local Certified Rolfer, look for our sister schools by googling for “structural integration” or searching at http://www.theiasi.net.

Leave a Reply