There are two factors that are unavoidable and wreak havoc on our bodies: stress and gravity. Gravity, of course, is not something we can change; but we can manage our lives to account for it. Stress is something that comes in physical, mental and emotional forms and also needs to be managed. Over time, stress changes our musculature and our physical form. And when the force of gravity encounters those rounded shoulders and hunched backs caused by stress, pain and discomfort are hard to avoid.
Working The Body
I’m a big fan of bodywork, especially when combined with mind/body practices. Having suffered chronic and debilitating body pain for most of my life, I make it a point to try as many bodywork methods as I can, both old and new. I even made the study of tui-na (from China), Thai yoga massage and hilot (from the Philippines) part of my formal education training. I also use muscle-energy technique, neuromuscular technique, positional release and many others to help myself and my clients.
There is a bodywork method developed in the 1930s that is less popular today, but should be revisited by pain sufferers. Originally known as “structural integration,” this method was developed by a woman named Ida Rolf. Now known as Rolfing®, this was among the first Western bodywork methods to address pain through posture and the quality of fascia (connective tissue) in relationship to the Earth’s gravitational pull.
What make Rolfing special? Well, by the age of 25, Rolf had earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, then traveled to Geneva to study homeopathic medicine. She derived a theory about pain and discomfort that led her to look at the body’s connective tissue, or fascia.
Fascia is the web-like tissue that encapsulates individual muscles, groups of muscles, blood vessels and nerves. Characteristically, fascia is designed to protect parts of the body but also to allow certain internal structures (like muscles) to slide or glide over others.
Connective tissue protects, but sometimes it is too protective. In many instances, for example, an injury causes more fascia to be made to shield the damaged area. When this new growth overcompensates and when the original injury is healed, the fascia remains like a fortress, not allowing free range of motion. But there doesn’t have to be an injury to make this happen.
Use It Or Lose It
When you don’t use your limbs in all the directions in which they are designed to be manipulated (think of the ball-and-socket nature of your shoulders), the fascia eventually adheres or sticks together.
In normal circumstances, the fascia should allow the musculature of the shoulder, neck and back to slide. But because of limited use of the arms by most people (by holding them fixed in place while typing, etc.), the fascia grows sticky and prevents the natural slide. This causes range of motion issues, stiffness, soreness and pain. This also happens with our hips and lower backs from prolonged sitting and a lack of walking and other exercise.
While this understanding is now common knowledge, back in the 1930s it was revolutionary in the West to think of pain in these terms. But Rolf had a eureka moment and made this argument: Every person has an optimal alignment of the body, an optimal range of motion for his body type, and, thus, an easier way for the body to interact with gravity. When this natural and optimal relationship is distorted with stressful actions, thoughts and behaviors and unnatural use of the body, the connective tissue adheres and causes internal stress and discomfort. It changes the way the body stands, sits, rests and lies. It causes pain. And this happens in relationship to the way gravity works to hold us down and pulls on us.
When we are hunched, tilted or crooked, gravity pulls us further out of shape.
Here is a description from the Rolfing website that says it better than I can: “Preventing discomfort is one of the objectives of Rolfing. By engaging with the self and the earth’s gravity and establishing the optimal individual alignment, the client has a greater capacity to function to the best of his or her individual ability. This is in line with Dr. Rolf’s belief that there is something of an inherent best individual alignment, realized through Rolfing.”
Rolfers (Rolfing practitioners) seek to correct the misalignment of the body during 10 sessions that realign the connective tissue to return it to normal function. This is done, sometimes with painful and sometimes gentle massage techniques, to eliminate or limit the body’s internal stress, to return the normal range of motion and realign the body so it can relate to gravity optimally.
When Rolf said “fascia is the organ of form,” she was spot on. And when she suggested that “deliberate, accurate and targeted movement of this tissue” could lead to instant relief of physical pain and increase well-being and quality of life, she began a bodywork revolution that continues to this day. In my estimation, the late Rolf was one of the originators of Western-based mind/body medicine, taking into consideration the combined role of stress, mind, body and gravity in health and well-being.
And while Rolfing is no longer called “structural integration,” that is its aim. All of you who have poor posture, visit chiropractors and massage therapists, and are looking for relief for chronic body pain should give Rolfing a try. Better yet, don’t try it, commit to a 10-session program and see how it can make you feel freer and happier.
For more information on Rolfing and to find a practitioner: http://www.rolfing.org/