By Darren Buford
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, October/November 2003.
Tom Myers’ first Anatomist’s Corner column appeared in June/July 2000. Since then, he’s gone on to write 20 compelling columns for Massage & Bodywork and publish a book on his myofascial approach to treatment entitled Anatomy Trains.
This issue in an exclusive one-on-one interview, I was fortunate enough to discuss past, present and future with Myers and to flesh out his experience with some of the massage industry’s biggest names (Ida Rolf and Moshe Feldenkrais), under whom he studied. We also spoke about his latest project, the International Association of Structural Integrators (IASI), an organization for the “heirs of Ida Rolf,” designed to bring disparate factions of the Rolfing community together.
In his first Anatomist’s Corner column Myers wrote, “No matter who you are or what you do, your body is your dearest and most prominent tool. That is why we hands-on therapists create such close relationships with our clients — it’s because we work with everyone’s closest friend.” Myers goes on to call bodywork a “privileged job.” The same earnestness and love for the profession was also evident in my talk with him:
M&B: I believe many of our readers are familiar with your name and area of massage, but are probably curious as to how you got started in the profession?
TM: In 1973, I travelled to Boulder (Colorado) to try and fly an airplane. I was in a crazy state of mind, a few years out of college, trying to figure out what was going on. I was just searching for social contacts. I ended up in a group called Arica. That was a wonderful smorgasbord of meditation, physical techniques, martial arts and psychological clearing. It was a great thing for me.
But there were these people who were disappearing off into these things called “Rolfing sessions” and they would literally come back with welts on their bodies and say how wonderful this was. I thought, “This is absolutely nuts.”
A few months later I heard Ida Rolf needed models for her class. So, I signed up. But it turned out I couldn’t be a model. They had enough and I was one too many, so her assistant offered to do my sessions after class. This turned out to be a very fortunate thing for me. One, because I got much better work than I would have from the students. Secondly, because the students, with my permission, would stay on after class and ask questions they didn’t dare when Ida Rolf was around.
She (Rolf) did not suffer fools gladly. You had to be really prepared to stand up to a very smart old woman if you were going to ask her questions at all. Sometimes you were cut down if you asked what she thought was the wrong question.
So, I was getting both the work and getting a background on the work at the same time.
M&B: So, where some massage therapists can recall a moment they were “called” to the profession, it seems as if it was a more gradual process for you.
TM: Well, I remember it was during the third session I was having Rolfing done that I asked, “How do you do this stuff?” The guy who was working on me said, “Forget it, you’ll never do this.” And I’ve spent the past 25 years proving him wrong.
Never underestimate the power and shame of fear-based learning.
I remember going to camp when I was 9 or 10. I used to give the camp counselors backrubs. I had a natural talent for it until someone told me it was queer. Now I was 10 years old and from Maine and didn’t even know what queer meant but I knew it must be bad. So, I stopped doing it.
I grew up in a New England family where I shook hands with my father and said, “Yes, sir.” We were not exactly a touchy-feely family. So this was a very new and different approach to life for me.
M&B: Was taking on massage a reaction to your family environment or an exploration of attitudes that were more or less shunned?
TM: I think I would express that there was an honesty; there was a real feeling involved. And that’s what the rest of my professional life has been about: Nuclear families, the pace of modern life, etc. Pick what demon you want, but we are living in a very body-alienated culture. So all of these are ways of getting back in touch with kinesthetic feeling, which is the basis of a lot of intuition. People think the culture has been too masculinized, too electronicized or it’s removed from the Earth, or we’re removed from each other. I think all of those things are going on, but in any case bodywork and movement work are wonderful ways to reverse that trend.
M&B: I’ve read that in college you were headed in a very different direction.
TM: I spent two years at Harvard majoring in English literature because they won’t let you major in anything with a practical application. There wasn’t any theater major, but I spent most of my time at the theater. That was in 1968 when we were taking over the place and all the courses got cancelled and turned in favor of socialist rhetoric.
I left that environment and ended up in Southern Illinois studying with Buckminster Fuller. So my degree is in design. But the type of design I was doing was a systems analysis type of design, not architectural design.
M&B: Did working with Fuller later affect your massage and bodywork practice?
TM: It affected my worldview and work very profoundly. There are two major things: One is I believe Anatomy Trains in particular, and my view of anatomy in general, is a systems view. What has characterized anatomy in the 500 years since Vesalius and the renaissance of anatomy is that it’s all been informed by Newtonian mechanics that says if you understand the parts and you put the parts together, you’ll know what the whole does.
Fuller and other modern thinkers said there are activities of wholes that are unpredicted by their parts — that the whole behaves in a way that is more than the sum of its parts. Alloys are a common example. Nickel has a breaking point of X, titanium of Y and steel is Z, but if you put them together you get this alloy that’s breaking strength is greater than X plus Y plus Z.
Human beings are like that, too. For example, you go to understand the bicep muscle. In class, what they usually do is put the bicep muscle on a skeleton that has no other muscles attached to it, and then say that the bicep does X.
My view of anatomy is a Fuller view of anatomy. We’re looking at: What does the whole system do that you can’t predict just by looking at the individual parts? What if we look at where the muscles are strung together in long strings like meridians of latitude or longitude around the body and hold it together and organize it as wholes rather than individual muscles? I don’t mean to negate the individual muscles, but as well as individual muscles, there are these other behaviors.
The second thing that came from Fuller was the idea of tensegrity. Instead of what we’re used to, which is a brick sitting on a brick sitting on a brick — and that’s how you make a building. With tensegrity structures, the bricks, the sticks, float in a sea of rubber bands and they stay where they are because of the balanced tension between the rubber bands.
In the past, we have thought of our bodies as a stack of bones with the muscles hanging off of it like the cables of a crane. And it’s not that way — the bones float in the soft tissue. It’s those tensegrity structures that give us a geometric model to see how that works.
I’m not the only one doing this type work. There’s a whole bunch of people coming up looking at how the body is structured as a tensegrity structure. I believe this will revolutionize muscular skeletal therapy over the next 20–30 years.
If you think of the bones floating in the soft tissue, then grabbing the bones and manipulating them as many chiropractors and osteopaths do, it’s second best. First best would be to adjust the rubber bands — the fasciae of the muscles and the muscles themselves.
Bony manipulation, knocking the bones back into place, has done what it can do. There are many cases in which people go to a chiropractor — some get relief, especially those with chronic problems — and find that the relief from bony-manipulations is short-lived. The soft-tissue manipulation is potentially more powerful. The trouble is we’re not well enough trained yet as an industry.
When I started in the profession, training was abysmal. Now, it’s getting much better very rapidly because of the work of John Upledger, Paul St. John and many others. This profession has really pulled itself up by the bootstraps. But it’s potential is such that it needs to pull itself up even more in terms of people’s understanding of anatomy, people’s understanding of these systems and how they work together.
M&B: Can students in today’s massage schools really grasp anatomy from a book, or would it be more in their favor to study using cadavers as medical school students do?
TM: I’ve done a number of dissections and I’ve learned a lot from books and from student questions. I’ve also learned a lot from clients who have come in with problems that I didn’t first understand and that I would then have to go back to the Internet or friends to get more information. Many things push your study and it shouldn’t just be in school. I think this thing between mechanical anatomy and systemical anatomy has bedeviled the massage schools because very often they’ll go get a physical therapist, a chiropractor or a nurse to teach the anatomy so they’ll have good medical school anatomy. Well, if you start with medical school anatomy, you’re going to have medical school conclusions. And most people did not get into this profession because they wanted to be a lower-class doctor. They got into this because they wanted to be a real wholistic healer. If we’re going to have a wholistic profession, we’re going to have to have wholistic anatomy studies to go with that profession. So, that’s why I’ve been writing the books and writing the articles for your magazine and others to try and develop a wholistic anatomy that’s not based on the mechanistic principles that inform medical anatomy.
Cadavers can really help, but cadavers are dead. One of the best anatomy classes I give all year, I give in Germany on a farm. It’s in a real Heidi-like, Alpine setting. We usually do it over Easter. The farmer kills a sheep or a lamb for the Easter feast. We’re out there within five minutes of the sheep being dead, and with the help of the farmer we take the sheep apart over an hour or two and we get to see the attachments of the organs and everything is warm. When you put your hands on that connected tissue and it melts in front of your hands, you can see what is actually happening in a living body. It’s harder with the cadavers you get in some med school course. It’s great to see the positioning, but it’s awful to get a sense of what’s going on with the connective tissue because they are so changed by the process of embalming that they don’t feel or respond at all the way they do with a living body.
A cadaver is great for understanding human anatomy but if you want to understand human tissue go down to your butcher, get the freshest leg of lamb you can, with the skin still on it, but one that hasn’t been frozen or one that hasn’t been sitting around for several days. Run home as fast as you can and dissect it with your fingers, not a knife, and you will get a sense of how the muscle and connective tissue respond in a living human being.
M&B: Being that much of bodywork was in its early American development when you visited Colorado in the 70s, were you skeptical of the field at first?
TM: Oh sure. I was very skeptical of a lot of “new agey” things and still am. But my skepticism has also been hinged by my experience. When I first went to massage school and learned reflexology, I thought what a load of horsecrap. You press somewhere on the foot and it’s supposed to do something someplace in the body? Then, over the years of working with people’s feet, I’ve been impressed again and again at how true this thing is. I’m not sure how wonderful it is as a healing method, but as a diagnostic method it’s totally accurate. If you have a hormone problem it shows up in the pituitary point on the feet. So, there are some ideas which presented themselves to my skepticism at first. There are other ideas which I’m still skeptical about. I try to keep an open mind in this field.
M&B: Why the focus on Rolfing as opposed to another modality?
TM: I liked Rolfing immediately and have kept liking Rolfing because it’s halfway an art and halfway a science. Art is a passion pursued with a discipline, and science is a discipline pursued with a passion. So I like combining the two. I really feel like both halves of my life are satisfied. I keep practicing this thing because the science keeps advancing of how we think about what we’re doing, and the art keeps advancing.
M&B: After you were trained in Rolfing at the Rolf Institute, did you remain in Boulder or move to another location?
TM: I moved to Little Rock, Ark. I wanted to move somewhere where I had no antecedents and with no big “new age” movement. Where I would really have to begin things from the bottom up. Little Rock was very good to me in that way. I had someone who offered me the beginnings of a practice there. It was great to just get down to work. I did 20–30 sessions a week, week after week, until I had paid off my debt and until I felt that I had this work under my belt. I highly recommend that to anyone who takes on a method. Get somewhere and work like hell.
M&B: How was the work received in the South?
TM: The work was very well received. I had women who couldn’t tell their husbands they were doing something like this, though. I had people who were skeptical, but I was skeptical myself. I always encourage people to maintain their skepticism. I’m quite leery of the client who comes in and says, “I’m sure this is going to be the best thing since sliced bread. I’m sure you’re going to solve all my problems.” I go, “Whoa, wait a minute dude.” The person who comes in and says, “I’m not sure but I’ll pay for a couple of sessions and see what it does...” That’s a good attitude. I appreciate that. And I’m up to the challenge of making them feel enough change in a few session to see if they want to keep going.
M&B: Now that it’s been some time since you studied with Ida Rolf and Moshe Feldenkrais, what’s it like reflecting on those whose names have become seminal to the industry?
TM: Buckminster Fuller, Ida Rolf, Moshe Feldenkrais and a few others whom I was able to study directly with — I feel extraordinarily lucky to have been back to the source for these things. You have to understand, though, that these people we call sources now were also part of a long line of educators and healers that stretch back to a long history. Ida Rolf learned from her osteopaths and from her yoga; Feldenkrais learned from (Frederick Matthias) Alexander and from martial arts; so, it’s not like they came out of a vacuum.
Having said that, they were great originators of their own methods, and I was really pleased to have been with them even though this was very late in both of their lives.
Looking back now, the next generation is going to revere Upledger and St. John and whoever else, maybe me. Maybe I’ll be an original by the time I die. But if I’m an original it’s because I’ve stolen from lots and lots of people and made it into something people recognize and have some resonance with.
The other thing I can say about originators is that originators are difficult people. Ida Rolf was not easy to be around. And neither was Feldenkrais. The words “son of a bitch” come to mind. But that was when he was off his stool. When he sat down to work, I cried. I literally cried because his work was so gentle, so beautiful, so effective, so economical, so centered on the person he was working with. That was something to be in the presence of.
M&B: Was this at Esalen?
TM: No, this was at Amherst. I went to his training in Amherst because I had met him in London. I moved to London after Little Rock. I was in London and I was invited to dinner by a piano player who was a client of mine. Often in London when someone invites you to dinner they are going to set an intellectual question running and you’re going to have to speak for your supper. The piano player had over a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a Feldenkrais person he had run across and myself. The question of the evening was: Do you learn more from pleasure or more from pain? He figured because he had experienced my sessions — and these were the early days of my Rolfing session, which were pretty painful — that I would be on the side that you learn more from pain and everyone else would be on the side that you learn more from pleasure. And his intentions were probably that I would get a lesson out of this. But by the time the smoke had cleared that evening, the psychiatrist and the psychologist were reluctantly saying people learn more from pain avoidance than pleasure seeking and both the Feldenkrais practitioner and I were saying that people learn more from pleasure. I always thought that the pain was simply a byproduct of Rolfing and not essential to it.
This experience began a relationship between the Feldenkrais practitioner and myself, and she introduced me to Moshe. Moshe had just come in off the airplane and was fairly tired when we first met. We met again in the apartment of this piano player which was beautifully designed. And here’s Moshe wearing the same clothes he has been for the past three weeks and he had a glass of wine in one hand and the ever-present cigarette in the other, holding sway with his favorite subject, which was the superiority of his method over anyone elses — which right then was Ida Rolf, so he was probably addressing me. He sat down on the coffee table and the legs of the coffee table were in the middle, so the table started to upend. I imagined the hors d’oeuvres in his pocket and him ending up on the floor. But here’s this guy who has lost the crucial ligaments in both his legs due to earlier accidents and without even breaking the flow of his conversation he regains his feet, lets the coffee table back down onto its feet and kept on talking. I thought, “Here’s somebody who lives what they preach.” Because by all rights he should have been on the floor with the wine all down his front. I just thought I’d go and study with him. I was fortunate enough to have some of that training in Amherst. Unfortunately, he died in the midst of that training.
M&B: Tell me about the creation of the International Association of Structural Integrators (IASI).
TM: When Ida Rolf formed the Rolf Institute, Boulder became the training center for Rolfers. Over the years, various people split off: Joseph Heller broke off and formed Hellerwork; Bill Williams splintered off and formed a similar school called SOMA; CORE; and there was postural integration; rebalancing. You name it, there were several of these Rolf spinoff schools turning out graduates.
The Rolf Institute was the biggest and definitely the most prominent. There was a membership organization after you graduated from the Rolf Institute. You were de facto part of this membership organization. And each one of these schools had their own membership organization. But there has been none over the years for practitioners of all these schools. And there’s actually been very little individual dialogue between them.
In the early ’90s, the Rolf Institute itself fractionated with some of Ida Rolf’s original teachers going off and forming the Guild for Structural Integration. And others of Ida Rolf’s teachers stayed with the Rolf Institute. There’s kind of the feeling that the Guild is the Ivory Tower keeping the flame alive, keeping things how it was when Ida Rolf died, or what Ida Rolf intended, and the Rolf Institute saying, “Well that’s all very good, but we have to keep developing. Ida was developing all her life and she wouldn’t want to keep it frozen.” So we have these ideas coming in from osteopathy, from visceral manipulation, from these other places, so it was kind of the purists versus the developers which is a common kind of split among organizations.
So with all those different schools putting out graduates we need a general organization that serves the field of structural integration. This is an organization open to those who have trained in the 10-session recipe of Ida Rolf. And like the NCBTMB, we’re going through a period of grandfathering for anyone who can show up and wave a certificate at us that they’ve done this training. And then after this period is over, sometime next year, people will be admitted based on an evaluation of their skills.
M&B: Is the goal to have the people of these varying fractions begin to communicate?
TM: I’m really wanting to bring all of these groups together to give a professional image. We all either join the American Massage Therapy Association or we join Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals to get our insurance, and that throws us in with most massage therapists, which is great, but there’s no organization specifically designed for our needs. You can imagine that oriental bodyworkers might try to get together, sports massage therapists might try to get together, to advance their cause. So that’s what we’re doing.
M&B: Because of the fractioning of the Rolf Institute, were you forced to take sides?
TM: I respect each for their approach and I have good friends as individuals in both organizations. I feel a bit like a child of divorce, though. “Why is daddy going here and mommy going there?” Looking at it from the outside, it seems silly and ego driven to have two separate organizations in the first place, but having two separate organizations allows Ida Rolf’s work to develop into two different directions, both of which are probably valuable.
Her work is large enough to support work that is bodywork psychotherapy-oriented, that is more spiritually-oriented, that is more clinically-oriented, that’s more movement-oriented. So I think it’s good to see these schools developing their different directions.
I developed my own school because what I wanted to do would not have working within the political structure of the Rolf Institute. The Rolf Institute was where I was teaching when I left. I wasn’t mad at anybody, I just wanted to do this experiment.
I do think it’s valuable to have all of these schools, but that’s where IASI steps in to help keep communication among the the practitioners.
M&B: Is “structural integration” the umbrella term under which Rolfing falls?
TM: Ida Rolf only referred to her work as Rolfing in the last few years of her life. But she hated that moniker. It was one that was given at Esalen where “structural integration” had too many syllables for Californians at that point. “You should be Rolfed over.” Then shortened to “Rolfing,” “Rolf.” But it’s the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration. It’s the Guild for Structural Integration. My thing is called Kinesis Myofascial Integration. The idea is generally the same. I think Ida Rolf called it “postural release,” then changed it to “structural dynamics,” and then to “structural integration.”
M&B: When most people mention structural integration, they are referring to the 10-session series mainframe, correct?
TM: The knowledge of that recipe I would say would be the closest thing we have to a journeyman’s card. If you’re a journeyman electrician, you have a card that you flash if you want a job. Whereas here in the structural integration world, you flash your knowledge of the recipe. Even if you’re working outside the recipe, it’s a reference point. And to my mind Ida Rolf’s recipe is her central contribution, not the individual particular methods she uses, but the way these techniques are organized by this recipe — which is a brilliant piece of work.
And even though I work around it, and though I may not always be working within that recipe, I always know where I am relative to that recipe, and it’s still a very informing and deep piece of work. I have modified that recipe myself. I teach a 12-session recipe, but which is very much based upon the principles of Ida Rolf.
M&B: I really like the idea of her work being called a “recipe,” because it provides a looser definition than “formula,” “method” or “treatment,” and it sounds as if it leaves a lot of room for exploration.
TM: Yeah, if you have a recipe it depends on what you have in the kitchen as to how you are going to proceed. The recipe could be taught, and in some schools is taught, that first you go here, then you go here. I think that’s a very, very low basis for the recipe.
The recipe should be taught as a series of goals, a series of principles. But how you are going to achieve that is going to vary. If you have a skinny person with a anterior pelvis and an overweight person with a posterior pelvis, those two people are going to be approached in very different ways even though the unfolding of the recipe is going to be pretty much the same: Open up the superficial fasciae, then go open up the core, then hang the two together on each other. That is essentially the 10-session recipe.
M&B: What would you want SI students today to know about Ida Rolf?
TM: Her unflinching courage and honesty with herself and anyone else. The thing that attracted me toward this to begin with was that it was very honest. If you do a move and it works, you keep it. If it doesn’t work, you have to try something else. So there wasn’t any of this bowing down in front of the teacher or bowing down in front of a method. It was very much, “Let’s look at what works.”
The second thing about Ida Rolf that we need today is this ability to pay attention. Her ability to pay attention to her clients was fabulous. And so many people pay attention to someone else through a filter, through themselves. And she was totally unguarded. Her attention to her clients was total. She was not sympathetic in terms of the “Ah, there, there. That must have been awful for you having a parent like that.” It was more, “You had a parent like that, so now what are you going to do about it.” Real help as to how to get out of a situation.
She had the ability to take on all kinds of situations — people who were paralyzed. Sometimes she was able to work a miracle. Sometimes she was able to give them some help. And sometimes it really didn’t work. Because if we’re honest, no one method works with anybody. That’s why it’s nice we have all these methods.
M&B: When people think about participating in a Rolfing session, they often believe pain is an essential component of the work. Is that something still involved in the practice today?
TM: Yes, it can be. But it’s sure a lot less than the days when I learned. When I moved to England and when I talked with the osteopaths there, they said she (Rolf) had a wonderful method, but she just put too much pain into her clients and they couldn’t follow that method.
I know that in the ’50s and ’60s, when she first got to Esalen, her method was extraordinarily painful indeed. Wonderful benefits, but you almost had to endure the sessions, rather than enjoy them. And I think that’s one development in the method that’s been great. We’ve reduced the pain involved in stretching the connective tissue to a minimum.
If you’re familiar with the sweet pain of stretching muscles that aren’t stretched, well that’s the same kind of thing we’re dealing with here. It’s something that’s totally under control of the client and something that the client and practitioner work out — how much stretch do you want to get out of this, how much sensation are you willing to put up with, or is comfortable for you. And that varies from client to client. There are some people who have really high pain thresholds and want to get a lot out of it, and “I’m paying you a lot of money, so do whatever you can to get it done.” And other people are saying “Ease up a bit. I don’t care if it takes a couple of extra sessions, I don’t want to have all that sensation.” And the pain level goes up and down with trust.
There is one exception to this. The whole design is not to impose pain upon the body, but to expose and eliminate pain from the body. And though we only have one word for pain, there are gradations and different colors to this type of sensation. There’s the pain of telling the truth if you’ve been lying. But if you tell the truth you feel better afterward. There’s a parallel here. There’s areas where it’s not being imposed pain from the outside. The pain that’s already there on the inside is being exposed and released.
When there’s pain stored in the body, I believe it has to be felt on the way out. Now that can be titrated, that can be done gently and gradually over a period of time, or it can be done more suddenly. The physical parallel to that is if someone’s had a ski accident or a car accident and they’ve suffered a fracture to their tibia and that whole area was frozen and severely traumatized, when you go into that tissue, it’s hard to avoid. There’s pain stored in there that never got out. When you go in there, it’s hard to avoid the client feeling some pain. But the feeling afterward is, “Oh my god, I can trust my leg again. I’ve got my leg back.” It’s worth it if it’s a momentary thing. If that pain has been released from the body, then what’s left is energy, joy and feeling.
M&B: Are there “tune-ups” thereafter, year to year? And is this something you still receive?
TM: Sure. I still get sessions from my teachers to see what they’re doing. And I get sessions from my colleagues when I need some help. I’m 54 years old, I can use that help. The series of sessions are designed to take you from one place of balance to another place of balance. Not necessarily to nirvana, just to another state of balance. That’s what we hope to get within those 10 sessions. Then we ask people to wait awhile. To let that settle in. That’s a lot of information, a lot of change in the connective tissue. And it takes awhile for the body to settle into what has been done. Often we take pictures at the end of the sessions, then we take pictures six months later. They’re not worse, they’re better after those six months.
After that, people can come back for a shorter, advanced series of 4–5 sessions. We totally leave that up in the hands of the client. Some people I don’t ever see again, some come a couple times a year for a number of years.
M&B: Do you have sports enthusiasts come to you in hopes of increasing their performance?
TM: If you look at what you can use this thing for, performance enhancement is one of those things. I have actors, dancers, yoga people, sports people, whose bodies are normally great, who are looking for enhancing their performance. An actor needs to be able to put their bodies into all kinds of situations to take on a role. And needs to know their body very well to take on a role. And dancer needs to know their bodies very well to take on a dance. I was working on an Olympic track runner last year for quite a while. Her body was already at where I would hope I could get some of my other clients. So it was a matter of fine tuning and getting the last few seconds off her time by improving the alignment of her legs, by improving the movement of her arms in relationship to her legs. I love that kind of work because I have to pay very close attention, because we’re looking at very fine details.
One of the hallmarks of structural integration is, where you think it is, it ain’t. Some small thing in her neck might be affecting how her pelvis moves.
M&B: How did you end up in Maine?
TM: I started in Maine. I was born here and grew up here and returned here 12 years ago. I’ve now moved back onto my family’s property to try and maintain that. It’s a saltwater farm right on the sea. I have my horses and my boats here. Sailing is still a big part of my life.
People ask what was the your best training for being a bodyworker. I say being a sailor because you have to pay attention on so many levels — to the feel, the smell, the sight of the sails, and you have to watch close by and far away and you have to know where you are on the map. I didn’t realize it until I’d been doing bodywork for a while.
But that’s something that’s helped me be a teacher. If someone says they are a painter, I know they’ve developed a sensitivity to it, and the question is, How do you carve a channel from the sensitivities they already have to those for bodywork?