Overall, A Decent Article
Rolfing® Structural Integration was again in the news a few days ago, this time USA Today. You can read the article here. It's a decent overview of the work and another example of the resurgence of interest Rolfing has seen lately, following on a New York Times article and a brief appearance by two Rolfers™ on the final minutes of a Today show segment.
I'm always appreciative of media coverage that educates the public about our work and its benefits, and this USA Today article does have a basically accurate overview of our work as well as some good quotes. However, as with many articles about Rolfing work, it has two major errors or misconceptions that I want to address here and in another post tomorrow. Today, I'd like to discuss whether "Rolfing" Structural Integration is "massage" as the USA Today article implies with it's title "'Rolfing' massages make a return."
Rolfing Misconstrued as "Massage"
Rolfers will almost universally tell you that Rolfing work is not massage. My colleague Michael Vilain in Palo Alto sometimes does chair work outside a Whole Foods store, and he says "I ask new people seeing me [there] if they felt that what I did was massage; 9 out 10 people say it's not massage by any means." By many definitions and most imagery in our culture, "massage" means kneading-type work focused on the muscles and either moving blood and lymph through them and lactic acid out of them, or loosening them up. The typical example of this would be Swedish massage. Despite this, the word "massage" tends to be used as an umbrella for all sorts of techniques from Shiatsu to Rolfing SI, even when their methodology and goals are quite different. For example, the methodology of Shiatsu (which I studied in Japan in the 1980s, so I know whereof I speak) is pressure to the acupuncture points and meridians, traditionally to treat illness as well as tension. The methodology of Rolfing work is to organize the fascial or connective-tissue web to align the body in gravity (which along the way helps immensely with tension and pain issues). The methodology of craniosacral work (which I practice too) is to gently release and harmoniously support the complex craniosacral system that includes fluid flows, bones, and membranes. These are completely outside the usual scope of the word "massage." The USA Today article accurately says that Rolfing "practitioners stretch and apply pressure to the connective tissue to restore alignment in the body" but it wrongly says that Rolfing work is "deep massage of the connective tissue."
What Is Rolfing SI If Not Massage?
To illustrate this, the connective tissue is like vacuum packing around every muscle. Think of the connective tissue as a ziplock bag, and the muscle as the contents of that bag. In "massage" you are mushing the contents (the muscle), softening it up and the like. It feels great and helps support healthy muscle function and metabolism, but you are not necessarily affecting the "ziplock bag" of connective tissue – it's size and shape will remain the same. This is why massage typically does not change posture and does not provide more than temporary relief for a structural issue (such as hunched shoulders, tight hamstrings, or other postural issues and the pain they can cause). In contrast, in a Rolfing session the practitioner is working on the connective tissue – changing the shape and size of the ziplock bag –allowing the muscle to reorganize within it and allowing better posture and often a big reduction in pain as the structure comes into better balance and alignment. Change on a connective-tissue level tends to hold well in the body, provided you stretch to keep the "ziplock bags" flexible.
That's how I see it as a practitioner. From another perspective, what one client had to say about Rolfing work versus massage is memorable: "Rolfing is to massage as the Navy Seals are to boy scouts." I discuss that, and how it makes sense in more than a humorous way, in this earlier post.
"Bodywork" Is a Better Umbrella Term
So if Rolfing SI is not "massage," what is it? In the broad field of people who do hands-on work with the body's soft-tissue, we like to use the term "bodywork" as our umbrella term, not "massage." Thus, the bodywork field includes massage, Shiatsu, and Rolfing SI, as well as Polarity Therapy, Tui Na, Breema Bodywork®, craniosacral work, and many others, and also movement disciplines like Feldenkrais and Aston Patterning and others.
However, the media has generally not caught on, and neither have state legislatures. I live in Washington state, and rather than have separate licensing for the handful of Rolfers who live here, it's most convenient for us to be licensed as Licensed Massage Practitioners. In a perfect world, that would be "Licensed Bodywork Practitioners."
Please read the next post tomorrow, to learn about the importance of service marks to guarantee that clients are getting the work they pay for.