Cry for Joy

By Dylan Bennett

IN AN AUSTERE aisle of screws and nails at the new Yardbirds on the hill in Santa Rosa I was almost in tears. It wasn’t because I’d missed the turn going north on Mendocino Avenue. Or that I’d gotten lost in the bleak social realism of upper-crust suburbia while trying to find the godforsaken entrance of this colossal hardware store.

And no, it wasn’t any intellectual epiphany, a childhood ghost returned, or even PMS. Only this: Within myself I could feel the pure salty tears that flow when my black heart dares to acknowledge love for another person. Not a lover, just love; love unrestrained amid the nuts and bolts of a misplaced city on a hill.

Such an emotional deluge should have come as no surprise. I’d been warned this could happen. Just the day before I’d been Rolfed, a specialized form of bodywork known to straighten the body through the deep manipulation of muscles and connective tissue. It also releases the repressed emotions that hide buried in our body. Certainly, I was too jaded and road-tested to fall prey to any such quaint emotionalism.

I was wrong, and there I stood, glazed over in aisle No. 54.

Biochemist Ida P. Rolf developed the basis for Rolfing before World War II. But the alternative therapy first entered the public realm in the ’50s and ’60s at the Esalen Institute, the New Age center and think tank in Big Sur, where Rolf collaborated with celebrated psychologists Frederick (Fritz) Perls and Abraham Maslow.

In recent years Rolfing has gained acceptance as a growing list of professional athletes have used Rolfing to improve performance, speed recovery, and bring relief from injuries. Big-name devotees include ice skater Michelle Kwan, basketball powerhouse Charles Barkley, country star Willie Nelson, and concert pianist Leon Fleisher, who credits Rolfing with returning him to his craft after tendinitis had sidetracked his career for many years.

What took off as an alternative therapy in the Age of Aquarius now may be the perfect antidote for the human carnage of the computer age. For aching workers suffering from repetitive-motion syndrome and the stress of hunching over a computer, Rolfing holds a tempting carrot: better posture, more relaxation, ease of movement, and often the end of nagging migraines and lower back pain.

“I had chronic shoulder pain for the last eight years,” says Kory Sessions, a Santa Rosa travel agent who works in a busy corporate environment. “Chiropractic didn’t help it. Regular massage didn’t even do much. After the first Rolfing session I was free of pain. It was really startling, the difference that I felt after one session.”

The Associated Press reports that the world’s largest custom hearing-aid manufacturer, Starkey Laboratories Inc., in Minnesota, saved over $1 million in worker compensation costs for repetitive-motion stress injuries with the help of Rolfing

Here’s how it works. Rolfers ply their knowing hands on the soft tissue in the act of “structural integration”: the bodily alignment of muscles, ligaments, tendons, and the fascia, a matrix of thin, stretchy tissue that runs through the whole body. These tissues stiffen and limit both movement and, according to Rolfing practitioners, emotion. Rolfers pay attention to their client’s personal history and say our bodies have a “physical memory.” Thus, in my case, a wall that crushed me on a construction site 15 years ago may still affect how I hold my chest.

Historically, Rolfing has had a dubious reputation for being quite painful.

ON THE MASSAGE table of Petaluma Rolfer Debbi Stone, the part that was supposed to hurt didn’t. Instead, it was the slow, deep, patient massage I’d longed for; the kind of treatment your spouse is unlikely to share at the end of a workday. It felt like the kind of body tune-up that seems lacking in some professional massages that feel good but don’t get past the surface while trying to cram a “full body massage” into an insufficient hour.

Stone says advancements in Rolfing have eliminated much of the pain for which it was known in the past. “Sometimes it’s mildly uncomfortable,” says Laura Sandoval, a Santa Rosa website developer. “Sometimes you are extremely happy that Debbi is so nice to talk to because you think you’ll die from the pain. The interesting thing is, after she loosens you up, that spot that hurt before doesn’t hurt anymore, so it’s beneficial pain.”

According to Sue Seecof, publicist for the Rolf Institute in Boulder, Colo., the amount of pain really depends on how skillful the touch of the individual Rolfer is. Also, she explains, the therapy has improved with age. Instead of pushing hard on the soft tissue to release tension, Seecof says Rolfers now wait instead, applying a gentle touch and staying within each client’s pain threshold.

Seecof reports there are only 1,002 certified Rolfers in 26 countries, with 676 in the United States. Of those, 125 are in California. Most Rolfers start with a background in bodywork of some kind, and Seecof reports that doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and Olympic athletes are among the new generation of Rolfers.

“It’s hard work,” responds Stone when asked why there are so few Rolfers worldwide. “Training is a big commitment financially, and there are a lot of prerequisites such as college-level anatomy and physiology. After you are certified, you must do advanced training and continuing education.” Seecof acknowledges a Rolfing education takes two rigorous years of study and can cost $6,000 or $7,000. This compares to only a few months of training and less than $1,000 to become a certified massage therapist.

“You have to really want to be a Rolfer,” says Stone. “It’s like getting a master’s degree.”

HAPPILY, Rolfing is not an open-ended therapy, but a set program of 10 intensive bodywork sessions, followed by occasional tune-ups if someone really suffers from repetitive-motion stress.

Still, it’s the psychological side of Rolfing that crowns its clear physical success; Rolfing unleashes a semi-mystical, bug-eyed metamorphosis as never-seen creatures are hauled from the psychic deep. “Whatever emotions are repressed will probably come to the surface,” muses Sessions.

Sure enough, 20 minutes after my own single session with Rolfer Stone I was rolling around the floor in animated childlike excitement. By nightfall I was wiping my tears alone in the garage. “I had a really bad emotional trip after the second visit,” says Sandoval. “I felt like I was in a grouchy mood for two weeks–on and off–but still in a grouchy mood. On my third visit I didn’t have any emotional response aside from feeling good.”

Stone notes that Rolfing can work well in conjunction with yoga and psychotherapy. “A lot of people just feel like it’s changed their life. They’ll quit their job, get a boyfriend, start making movement in their life. I don’t know what it is exactly. A couple of things happen: People feel really good being in less physical pain. Pain really drains people’s energy. [After Rolfing] they realize, ‘I can move.’ It creates movement in their bodies, and that echoes into other aspects of their lives.”

From the January 14-20, 1999 issue of Metro.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

Sonoma County Library