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!).
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.
And, 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!