The Rolfer "hooked in" to the pain in my left shoulder and held it in a tight cramp until somehow, I mysteriously let it go — or he...

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FORT WORTH, Texas — The Rolfer “hooked in” to the pain in my left shoulder and held it in a tight cramp until somehow, I mysteriously let it go — or he mashed it out of the way, or something. All I know is, it’s gone.

My first Rolfing session centered on my lower legs — opening up the space between the tibia and the fibula to give me a more balanced landing when I take a step.

But it was the shoulder work that hooked me. Rolfing, named for the woman who developed it in the ’40s, was never popularized until the Rolf Institute was established in 1972. It’s only now hitting its stride.

Most simply, Rolfing is a way of reorganizing the structure of the human body so that body segments are balanced along a vertical line and you feel your entire body as an integrated whole.

It has a reputation for being painful, because the Rolfer applies enough pressure with fingertips, forearm and elbow to free up adhesions that are constricting muscles, joints and even bones that have been pushed, pulled and knocked out of kilter by trauma, stress or bad habits.

Hands-on therapy


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Rolfing involves manipulation of the body’s connective tissue and stretching of muscles to accommodate the new positioning.

“The point is to re-establish order in the structure of the body so that all the major segments are in vertical alignment where they can function properly,” says Rey Allen, a certified Rolfer in private practice in Fort Worth. “The downward pull of gravity can be an uplifting force if body parts are properly organized for biomechanical efficiency.”

Allen pulls the bottom of my T-shirt down and out of shape to demonstrate how gravity can affect the fascia, the envelope of connective tissue that wraps around muscles, joints and other body components like an endless spider web of elastic bands. When a component gets out of place, even a little bit — jumbled inside the envelope — it can cause crowding, strain, twisting and binding, which force the body to work against gravity.

I wondered what I was letting myself in for when I agreed to return for more sessions.

Though Rolfing has gotten a reputation over the years as “New Age physical therapy,” Rolfers say it is actually an outgrowth of yoga and more closely related to osteopathic manipulation in that it changes the way the bones of the body relate to one another but is not involved with stretching soft tissue and lengthening muscles.

Dr. Jennifer Alexander, an internal-medicine specialist, started 10 weekly Rolfing sessions last April and now schedules a session about every three months.

“I was having some back pain, not resolving with osteopathic manipulation, and my doctor recommended it,” says Alexander, an osteopathic physician.

“Almost immediately, I was able to breathe more deeply. My posture improved significantly. My overall energy increased, my flexibility. Everything got better.”

The improvements were not without pain.

“For me, it was a painful process — mostly a little muscle soreness — but I’m pain-free now,” she says. “It’s an interactive treatment, not like a massage. … You incorporate a lot of breathing. You breathe into his hands, working along with him.”

The idea of breathing into your kneecap or the outer arch of your foot may seem strange, but concentrate and think it through, and you can almost feel the breath rush out of your lungs and into the space indicated.

Terry Dybala, who works for Mental Health Mental Retardation of Tarrant County (Texas), started a series of 10 Rolfing sessions after her foot became tangled in an auger last summer.

Painful but hopeful

“I had been Rolfed before, years ago, and I thought, ‘This is going to be painful,’ but I knew pain — foot pain, and hip pain from trying to compensate for the foot pain, and I was open to the whole idea that Rolfing was going to help me feel better,” says Dybala, who considered physical therapy. “I was just twisted. My body was out of balance,” she says. “My goal was to be comfortable in my own skin, to stand taller, to get grounded, become a little more spiritual. It makes me feel more content with myself, more connected physically and spiritually.”

Dybala believes Rolfing’s reputation for pain, along with the cost — in the Seattle area, it runs $100 to $150 per session, and sessions are 60 to 90 minutes — has kept it from being more popular. But, she says, “Most people don’t hesitate to pay $120 for a nice pair of shoes, and this makes you feel a lot better than new shoes.”

There’s a lot of positive reinforcement involved in Rolfing.

“That’s right. … That’s what you want to do. Easy now. That’s good. Are you still with me? … Breathe into my hand. You can do this. It’s going to start easing off. … That’s it. You’ve got it,” Allen says as he works strong fingertips and sometimes his forearm deep into long-constricted muscles.

I walked out of my third Rolfing session feeling lighter and longer and looking up so that the tilt of my forehead was no longer putting extra gravitational force on my neck. I untucked my pelvis, which had the effect of flattening my belly without me consciously holding it in. I was more aware of my feet and their connection with the rest of me.

I felt good — inside and out.