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Since the beginning of recorded history, the mobilization of the pelvic bone and the soft tissues surrounding it has been used in therapeutic practices. Medical texts of ancient China, Egypt, and Greece describe pelvic manipulations and related effects on breathing, body temperature, arterial pulse and muscle tone.1
Rolfing, a school of manual therapy, has rediscovered these practices in the United States during the last century. Pelvic mobilization is advised for many clinical problems involving the autonomic nervous system.1
What is Rolfing? Where did it originate?
Rolfing is a system of manual therapy and sensorimotor education whose purpose is to improve bio-mechanical functioning in humans overall rather than treat select symptoms.2
The Rolfing method of soft tissue manipulation and movement education was founded by Ida Pauline Rolf, a biochemist.3 Her influences included hatha yoga, osteopathy, the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski and many postural training and movement awareness therapies.2
According to her, the angle of pelvic inclination is the key to “integrating” body’s “weight masses” in the gravitational field. Her hypothesis states that in the erect and standing position of the body, the position of the “balanced” or “horizontal” pelvis can be determined using two anatomical measurements:
- A horizontal line that connects the superior border of the pubic symphysis to the tip of the coccyx
- A vertical line that joins the pubic symphysis and the anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS)3
Rolf, a long-term practitioner of hatha yoga, emphasized the vertical axis as the ideal posture.2
How is Rolfing beneficial?
- Rolfing pelvic manipulation can be used clinically to treat certain types of low back disorders.3
- It can also be used to treat musculoskeletal dysfunctions associated with autonomic stress.3
- Rolfing pelvic lift leads to a rise in cardiac vagal tone in young and healthy male subjects.1
Studies/Research on the efficacy of Rolfing
- Cottingham et. al. have demonstrated that manipulation for 3 minutes using the Rolfing pelvic lift technique induced a somatovisceral–parasympathetic nervous system reflex in a group of male subjects who were young and healthy.
- The reflex was manifested in the form of a substantial increase in PNS tone during the manipulation.
- A control procedure given to the same subjects did not elicit the reflex response.3
- Hunt and Massey performed an electromyographic analysis of 6 basic movements before and after 10 standardized sessions of the Rolfing method.
- Decreased EMG activity was seen in the antagonist muscles of many agonist-antagonist pairs such as the iliopsoas-hamstring and gluteus medius muscles as well as the gluteus minimus-deep lateral hip rotator muscles.3
How is Rolfing performed?
- In 1958, Rolf’s 10-session method was published in a description authored by Lawson-Woods. Around 1940, Rolf had begun practicing manual therapy. Initially, she called it Structural Dynamics.2
- The goal of Rolf’s method is to integrate the patient’s energy field with that of gravity. This is done by aligning the physical structure of the patient around the vertical vector defined by gravity.2
- By increasing the pliability of selected fascias via skilled manipulation, the “equipoise” of fascial tone throughout the body can be improved.2
- Other techniques taught by Rolf are anterior-posterior “horizontality” of the major body segments, bilateral symmetry, “grace” in movement.2
How can people get started with Rolfing?
Rolf has proposed that when manual pressure is applied to the soft tissues, a phase transition in the ground substance of the connective tissue (fascia) occurs.
- It changes from a colloid “gel” or semi-solid phase to a “sol” or liquid-like phase.3
In 1971, Rolf’s teachings were assembled under the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration (RISI).
- By 2010, the institute had graduated 1,536 practitioners in countries like Brazil, Germany, Japan and Australia.2
Any precautions, contraindications, interactions
There is insufficient information to determine if Rolfing is unsafe for certain people.
- Cottingham JT, Porges SW, Lyon T. Effects of soft tissue mobilization (Rolfing pelvic lift) on parasympathetic tone in two age groups. Phys Ther. 1988 Mar;68(3):352-6. Review. PubMed PMID: 3279437.
- Jacobson E. Structural integration: origins and development. J Altern Complement Med. 2011 Sep;17(9):775-80. doi: 10.1089/acm.2011.0001. PubMed PMID: 21875349; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3162380.
- Cottingham JT, Porges SW, Richmond K. Shifts in pelvic inclination angle and parasympathetic tone produced by Rolfing soft tissue manipulation. Phys Ther. 1988 Sep;68(9):1364-70. PubMed PMID: 3420170.