Does Rolfing Structural Integration Hurt?

I get this question about Rolfing almost every time a new client comes in, or I tell someone what I do for a living. For some reason the assumption that Rolfing Structural Integration is painful just lives out there in the world. It’s a holdover from the 70s, the era of catharsis-inducing, confrontational therapies (I bet that was an interesting time to be involved in the healing arts!).Does Rolfing Structural Integration Hurt?

The short answer is:  No, it shouldn’t. At least not in the way you’re thinking. And when most people think Rolfing, they think this:

But there’s a REALLY important longer answer. And it starts with the fact that there is absolutely no objective measurement for pain. Not a single one. If I ask you “On a scale of 1 to 10, what level is the pain?” every single person will have a different set of definitions for what those numbers represent. Pain is a completely subjective experience folks, and neuroscience has done a lot in recent years to help us understand this. Check out this TED talk; the speaker does a great job outlining how this all works. Your brain has a set of meanings that are associated with different sensations – some are safe, and some are dangerous. Your response to those sensations, your relative perception of “pain,” depends on what they mean to you.

During a Rolfing Structural Integration session, you WILL feel sensation. I often use my fingers, palms, soft fists, and forearms with a gentle shearing force to coax stuck fascial tissues open, to unstick them from their too-closely-held friends and neighbors. Sometimes this burns a bit, sometimes we’ll approach an edge of your tolerance to free something up, and you’ll certainly feel the pressure of my hands and arms contacting your body. How your brain defines pain will determine if it “hurts” or not. And it’s not as you’d expect all the time – I’ve worked on huge, muscle-bound athletes that wince at a relatively light touch, and thinner, more-delicate people that don’t bat an eyelash with deep contact. Everyone’s different.

I make it a point in my practice to not just make it an overly-simplified matter of “Well, you just have a lower pain tolerance.” The most important thing in my Rolfing Structural Integration practice – I can’t over-emphasize this, the most important thing – is that you and your nervous system are able to integrate the experience of our work together. That means that you’ll actually get some long-term benefit from it. You can certainly overwhelm the system with huge, intense, sweat-inducing work, but most of my clients that have experienced that from other types of bodywork tell me the results last just a few days (That’s just endorphins folks! Your body just sent some feel-good chemicals to the rescue.)

So how do we know whether or not your body’s going to be able to integrate the work? How do we know that we’re at a “good edge” vs. a bad one? Well, I think the simplest way to track for that is to notice what you and your body are doing during the session.

•Are you bracing for impact? Are you clenching your teeth / curling your toes / holding your breath and just suffering through with the hope of relief when it’s over? This is a surefire sign that your nervous system is overwhelmed and on the defensive.

•Are you checking out, dissociating from the experience, heading off to your happy place (or even your non-happy, thinking-about-work place) to avoid noticing the sensation? Yep, this means you’re not integrating the work well too.

•Are you having trouble relaxing into the contact, with the perception that the tension simply needs to be worked through?

If these types of things are happening, the pressure’s too much. Perhaps you think that I can work deeper than I am…even that thought (like your definition of what pain is) may be based on a preconceived set of definitions for what constitutes work, benefit, change, etc. in your body, and often that’s at odds with how your body is responding as well. That’s what I’m listening to as I work — how is the body responding? The physiological response in your body always trumps the “thinking” response. As I’ve written previously, working in mindfulness is a powerful way to authentically connect with the true response of the body, beyond the thinking mind’s construct of what “should” be happening.

During Rolfing Structural Integration sessions I make it a point to regularly ask for feedback about the contact, and how the body’s responding. I’m pretty good at tracking your body’s response to the work, but I also want regular, mindful feedback; it all helps me learn how to best work with you and your unique system. My goal as a practitioner is for you to get the absolute most out of each and every session. I’m committed to your growth and change as a person as manifested in positive change in your body. So while you will feel sensation as we work, I want you in a curious state, a place where you can be interested in the changing sensations as we go, so we can both notice where we begin, where we go, and where we end up. That makes for a positive challenge in the journey, where we both learn about you and how your body works along the way.

Does Rolfing Structural Integration Hurt_babyAnd, interestingly enough, most of my clients will tell you that they were surprised at how much they could relax during sessions (they really thought it was going to hurt!)…I regularly have to ask people to wake up and participate a bit! Besides, if this little guy can take it, it must feel pretty good.

If you’re curious about what Rolfing Structural Integration will be like for you, give me a call! I’d love to answer your questions!
(512) 470-8998

Posted: March 15, 2016 By: Comment: 0

Rolfing in Austin: Rolfing & the Human Puzzle


I’m a puzzle person.

It’s partially what attracted me to finance as a first career. It’s what drew me into Rolfing as a second career. It’s why I obsessed for three weeks at the beginning of the year to master the Rubik’s Cube my mother-in-law got us for Christmas (nailed it, by the way!). And it’s what’s driven my interests within my Rolfing in Austin practice from the get-go.

Rolfing on its own is beautiful system of manual therapy; I’m amazed at how consistently it creates incredible results and pain relief in the human body, person after person. But from the very early days in my practice I was drawn further in, wondering why it is that we end up where we are physically, especially in the absence of major physical trauma or pathology. Often, it seems, we choose (mostly unconsciously) very physically expensive ways of being. My next puzzle then became to figure out how to help clients make better choices.

Rolfing in Austin PuzzleSo where has this human puzzle led me? If someone were to ask me today what my main professional interests are my first answer would likely be “orientation and coordination.” I’m not talking here about our typical sense of how coordinated we are – this isn’t about whether or not you can pat your head while rubbing your belly. What I’m talking about when I say orientation and coordination is the set of strategies we use for doing EVERYTHING. Orientation, in a nutshell, means where your attention and efforts go as you prepare for an action. That can mean how you orient to the space around you, or even how you orient to your own body as an instrument for movement. And coordination, then, is how you do that action.

What kind of strategy do you have in place for walking across a room? Or sitting at a desk? Or even relating to other people (because that strategy, too, ultimately has an effect on the physical body)?

Do you first connect outward into your environment, or bring yourself inward? Is the way you act effortful? Is it relaxed? This collection of strategies is effectively your operating system, your ‘software’; it creates the way your body works in the world. Whether or not you’ve come to a Rolfing session, the physical structure of your body likely has room to improve – hardware often needs to be rebalanced and upgraded after years of use. Working to change and improve the way you orient to and coordinate movement as well upgrades the entire system. In fact, with some clients I do very little manual work, focusing primarily on the software, with tremendously positive results.

Last year I had the pleasure to train with one of the Rolfing community’s thought leaders in this field of movement Rolfing in Austin Visualizationand coordination. Since that training I’ve been integrating this type of work more and more into my Rolfing sessions. This might be simple guidance to allow heaviness and to feel the sense of weight in the body. It could be having clients dramatically slow down movement, and begin it with a sense of reach into a support surface like the table or the ground, or even with a visual awareness of the space around them. And many times I ask clients to literally just imagine that they’re moving or that someone else is moving their bodies for them – our nervous systems map imagined movement exactly the same as actual movement (think about athletes doing visualization training, like Lindsey Vonn before a downhill), so your physical body gets the information it needs to more efficiently move. Fascinating stuff!

This has been incredibly impactful on client outcomes; this type of work helps your nervous system understand and integrate the hands-on work we’ve done on the table back into gravity and out into your world. Why? For one, you’re more engaged in the process as we go along, so you’re literally learning how to move better while I’m working on you rather than just passively being worked on. And importantly, it changes the way you relate to gravity.

Rolfing in Austin Improved PostureGravity exerts a constant downward pressure on us from the day we’re born. Generally we’re unaware of it, but if you are structurally imbalanced, you most definitely are aware of its effects. When you’re lying down on a Rolfing table, you don’t have to work against gravity, you’re probably mostly at rest. When you sit or stand up, however, your nervous system brings on line a host of operating strategies for being upright under that constant pressure. Oftentimes it’s these very strategies that are the “expensive” ones I’m talking about – they’re create the pain and limitation through inefficiency and overexertion that is the root of your pain symptoms.

So, as we’re working on the table with these types of slow, mindful movements, then transitioning to similar work seated and then standing, we’re literally building new neural pathways – a.k.a. habits – into your nervous system, giving you a software upgrade alongside the work I do to upgrade your hardware by differentiating and balancing your fascia.

It’s a big puzzle, a fascinating puzzle, figuring out how the human system organizes and works for each of us. Putting all these many pieces together throughout a Rolfing in Austin session or series of sessions – Rolfing, mindfulness, orienting and coordinative work – creates an amazing set of new possibilities for you to carry back into your world.

If you’d like to experience this type of transformational work, contact me anytime to ask questions or schedule an appointment. I look forward to working with you!  512-470-8998

Rolfing Structural Integration & Mindfulness


“You can’t do what you want till you know what you’re doing.” – Moshe Feldenkrais

Rolfing Structural Integration Austin TX MindfulnessWhat is this mindfulness stuff you keep talking about Mike? And why is it important anyway?

Right! What’s the big deal? Your body hurts, you heard that Rolfing Structural Integration can really help resolve your pain, so why do you need to be mindful? Can’t you just go get Rolfed and be good to go?

Maybe. It depends on the person and what’s going on for them at that particular time. I’ve had a ton of clients over the years come in, go through a program we put together of pretty straightforward Rolfing in Austin work, get great results, and go on back into their lives happy and feeling much, much better. I’ve also discovered that it’s not always that simple.

Most of the time, the pain that motivates people to come in to see me is not the result of an accident, or a specifically-identifiable incident. Usually, bodies have just kind of “broken down” as the result of many factors – the aging process, chronic stress, bad habits, psychological and/or emotional states of being, etc. – and the pain has been creeping in for a LONG time. One day it’s just too much to work around or through anymore, the body says “Enough is enough,” the signal gets really loud, and help is finally sought out.

The unifying factor among the tremendous variety of people that seek out Rolfing Structural Integration is this: a habit. Those habits are killers, and they’re created for many reasons. Sometimes the pain itself creates a movement habit; you’ve been dealing with back pain for so long that you now don’t even notice that you chronically tense your back and shoulders to brace yourself for a possible spasm. Maybe you were in the military and you can’t help but to constantly stand rigidly at attention. Or you work at a computer 50 hours a week and have a slouch built into your posture. And then there are even trickier ones, the ones based on belief systems. Sometimes, for example, we believe that it’s just not OK to not be productive (Type A’s out there – this is one of you talking to you – this can be a big problem for your body over time), so we’re in a constant state of tension and movement, never doing the rest thing very well.

These habits become your software, the system running your hardware (aka your body). A lot of people get relief from Rolfing or other bodywork without going near the habits. But, if you’re addressing the physical impact of these habits through bodywork without bringing awareness to the habits themselves, you will most likely continue the patterns that created the pain in the first place, and the symptoms will probably return.

So, how do you “do” mindfulness, and what’s it look like in a Rolfing Structural Integration session?

Mindfulness, in a nutshell, is being in the moment and observing the moment. In my practice you could call it gRolfing Structural Integration Austin Mindfulnessuided self-study. It’s not meditation, but it’s meditative. It’s a slower-paced, reflective state of self-observation and non-judgment toward your experiences right in the present moment. I act as your guide into your internal environment as we talk, do hands-on work, and learn about what arises as we go. I don’t know what we’re going to find when we embark on our journey, we’re discovering this territory together, but I know some typical sign posts as we go along. Your job is to simply report on your experience – things like physical sensations that arise, images, impulses, memories, or emotions that come up.

My job as a Rolfer Austin is to help you gain a deeper understanding of that territory, so I may ask simple questions as we go to help fill out the picture of what you’re reporting, or offer small experiments along the way so we can study the impact on your system. For instance, I may say something simple (and nice) like, “It’s OK to rest.” If you have a belief that it’s not OK to rest, your system will usually have a pretty quick response. In a state of mindful awareness, it’s usually pretty obvious what the impact of that statement is, whether it’s tension that arises somewhere in the body, a loud internal voice that says “No it’s not!” or an impactful memory of a time when it wasn’t OK. Then, we have an amazing piece of new information which probably wasn’t available to you in your normal day-to-day awareness. We know that it’s not just that your body needs to be fixed, but that you need to address a deeper part of your world that you didn’t know about before. And, you have a deeper understanding of why it is that your body is creating the symptoms that brought you in.

Rolfer Austin MindfulnessThat begins the re-wiring of your software to a system with greater freedom and greater balance. That is the beginning of actual healing. Not just fixing the broken-down body, but understanding why it broke down in the first place. New information gives you more awareness about your habits, which gives you more choices and more power if you find yourself in that habit again. Then, you have the true fix.

If you’re interested in experiencing Rolfing Structural Integration and mindfulness for yourself, or if you have any questions, feel free to contact me anytime. I’m happy to answer your questions.

Posted: January 26, 2016 By: Comment: 0

Rolfing In Austin: Beyond Rolfing

Mike Williams Rolfing Austin TXOver the past 7 years as a Rolfer – 7 years this month! – I’ve had the immense pleasure of partnering with over 500 unique clients on their quests for greater health, logging thousands of hours of Rolfing sessions along the way. I’ve worked with an amazing variety of human beings:  children as young as just a few months old, adults as old as 80, professional athletes and musicians, weekend warriors, cubicle workers, and people that just want to be able to grocery shop without being in pain. It’s been an incredibly rich and enlightening exposure to the diversity of people in Austin and beyond, the challenges we have, and how powerful Rolfing in Austin can be in providing our bodies a new platform for movement, comfort, and health.

And yet, over the years I’ve often been challenged, sometimes frustrated, and even left scratching my head and saying “Huh??” when client outcomes aren’t in sync with the work I’m doing and the change that we both perceive happening as practitioner and client. Those moments have naturally led me to adapt my practice and learn new skills along the way, but recurring questions have been “So, you’ve done the work of Rolfing….now what? And how can you better help clients take what we accomplish during a session out into the real world to integrate it into their daily lives for lasting change?”

Those questions have been the primary guiding principles in my practice these last several years. In the last two years alone my practice has expanded beyond just Rolfing in Austin as I’ve added two significant methodologies to the way I work: mindfulness-based self-study (the Hakomi method), and coordinative and natural movement education. While these additions are somewhat outside of the scope of the classic Rolfing process (which I still do as well), they are both oriented toward function and awareness of the body, and combine beautifully with Rolfing to create a very unique experience of transformation.

So, what does this combination of work – Rolfing, mindfulness, and movement – look like for a client? And how has it changed client outcomes? One recent example stands out as a powerful blend of these three methodologies.

Scott, 39, began seeing me as a client this past summer on a referral from an excellent chiropractor here in Austin that I often share clients with. His primary symptoms were low back pain and a tight jaw and neck, which led to difficulty standing, sleeping, and walking comfortably, and were interfering with his ability to work. He’s also an avid gardener, so he spends a lot of time in a squatting position, moving up and down to and from the ground, and carrying heavy loads. As a teenager he’d had back surgery for a herniated lumbar disc so I knew structural integrity and support was a key issue.

We began our work using a rough sketch of the classic Rolfing protocol, the 10 Series, to see how his body would respond to more traditional hands-on work. Although my initial focus was on balancing his myofascial tissue to reorganize his structure, early on I began giving him specific homework exercises designed to elicit a better connection to his body’s natural support system while beginning to build basic mindfulness skills:  focusing on his feet pushing him forward from the ground as he walked, and using his feet and legs to go from sitting to standing rather than pushing out of his seat with his hands and arms.  As his body began to change over the first several sessions and our work together began to create better core stability in his body, we upped the ante a bit and began looking at more complicated movement patterns for getting down to the ground and back up again, all the while eliciting the core support we’d already evoked through the hands-on work.

Early on with these relatively simple measures, significant change in Scott’s symptoms occurred. By his 4th session, Scott reported only one day in the previous two weeks of back pain, and by the 6th session he reported increased confidence in his body’s integrity. Just a few sessions later and he was “pretty consistently well”; any pain that did recur tended to be of a lesser nature and he rebounded quickly if he overdid it in the garden. He also described a better understanding of his body and a new ability to understand the difference between normal aches and pains from overexertion and more significant structural pain. Along the way I recommended Pilates to build core strength and continued chiropractic care as needed, both of which added to the overall improvement of Scott’s body.

Given the success of our early work, Scott and I began to devote more focus toward movement-specific skills in our later sessions. Alongside these skills, I introduced the use of a deeper layer of mindfulness to build a better understanding of the nuances of his system, and awareness of habitual patterns that create tension and instability for him.

Armed with a better understanding of how he uses his body day-to-day, I began challenging Scott with balancing skills in order to engage his newly-stable body in multiple dimensions, which would translate well to his real-world activities of moving up and down from the ground with precision in the garden. This was an extraordinarily fun part of our work together, as we continually connected back to the improvements Rolfing had evoked in Scott’s body, used them as a framework for movement integrity, and took them forward into the natural movement exercises of balancing (and recovering from imbalance) while walking forward, backward, turning around, and going into and out of a squatting position. As a client, Scott did a great job of owning this work, continuing to practice the skills we’d developed outside of our sessions, which did a tremendous job of integrating them into his movement system.

Importantly, I introduced Scott to a more-nuanced type of mindfulness during this phase of our work: tracking basic sensation in his body so we could discover where, when challenged with balance, his body wanted to create inefficient tension patterns in order to stabilize prior to moving. As a practitioner, this was very helpful to guide the continued hands-on interventions that were woven in during these sessions and, even more importantly, they illuminated the source of a problem area’s recurring discomfort. Understanding this gave us a great piece of information about how Scott’s body habitually moves, and a very specific movement pattern he could then track for and correct to create more balance and ease in his whole body. Finding awareness of those inefficient efforts, and then working together to reorient his nervous system to the support of his body, the support of the ground, and the space around him (skills we’d also woven through our later sessions to help improve his coordination), created the “next level” of Scott’s body intelligence and ease.

Tracking “positive” sensations during and after sessions (such as feelings of groundedness and circulation), in addition to finding areas of tension, and practicing reconnecting to those sensations regularly, also was a great tool to deepen our work’s integration into Scott’s nervous system. This practice effectively rewrites your system’s software, building new neural pathways to use rather than allowing you to continually fall into the well-trodden paths of old habitual patterns. For Scott, this was a great way to continue to teach his body that support could be easy rather than effortful.

Scott shared this with me about his experience working together:

rolfing massage austin tx“After twenty-four years of chronic back pain I found Mike Williams, Certified Rolfer. I have benefitted from work with chiropractors, massage therapy, acupuncture and yoga but after two, three week bouts of debilitating back pain this year I wanted to start over. Rolfing has given me a chance to rebuild and relearn my body so that I can enjoy doing what I love. Some have asked me if Rolfing is painful. It is not, it is quite relaxing and energetic at the same time. Mike has a very comfortable and secure space for his practice. I am so thankful to a have found Rolfing, it is truly changing my life and body for the better.”

Start to finish, this was an amazing journey to have as a practitioner. It showed me first-hand the transformative power of client engagement in the practice of rediscovering the body. Rolfing in Austin itself solved a lot of the pain and basic challenges Scott brought in very quickly. And transitioning to a deeper level of reflection, awareness, and mindful movement deepened the process tremendously, creating a platform for Scott’s continued self-discovery and somatic exploration for a long time to come.

While the specific work I did over the last several months with Scott was unique to him, this is a great example of the scope of work and the expertise I bring into my Rolfing practice. If you’re curious about how we might work together, feel free to contact me anytime, I’d love to chat with you! 512-470-8998


Posted: December 17, 2015 By: Comment: 0