By Karrie Osborn
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, October/November 2004.
When most of us think of the 10-session recipe that’s intrinsic to Rolfing,* we typically don’t envision children as the benefactors. The old stereotype made famous by Ida Rolf herself of the “rough and tough” demeanor of this body therapy seems to preclude the thought of putting a child through the Rolf protocol. But a kinder, gentler age of Rolfing has long come to pass, by which the little bodies of children can be unfurled and realigned, opening the door to long-term structural health.
Ida Rolf believed so. That’s why throughout her career she devoted a significant amount of time to the health of children, including, of course, her own.
“She worked with children all along and she thought about kids in her development of the work,” says Jim Asher, who trained with Rolf beginning in 1971 and worked with her until the end of her life in 1979. Now in practice in Boulder, Colo., Asher says Rolf began her inquiry into children’s structural patterns very early in her career. In fact, not only would she work on her two sons, she would help the neighbor’s child, as well as other children and babies she encountered. “She was always working with kids,” he says. “It was almost a motherly instinct. People sometimes forget that about her.”
One specific instance of Rolf working on a child, Asher remembers, is what led her to understand that some people can see structural changes occurring, while others cannot. This particular young boy’s father was an osteopath who, upon witnessing improvement in his child’s movement, knew Rolf was doing something to help. When he invited another osteopath over to see the work in action, Asher recalls, “He couldn’t see it.” That’s when Rolf realized everybody didn’t “see” in the same way.
But why focus on children anyway, when adults would typically present more obvious structural challenges? “She would focus on children, believing that the imbalances in their bodies don’t need to become entrenched patterns,” says Russell Stolzoff, a faculty member at The Rolf Institute. “She believed early intervention in their structures would promote ease in their lives,” in fact, the earlier the better.
To illustrate Rolf’s belief, consider the Institute’s logo, which embodies the philosophy this bodywork matriarch held for children. The logo depicts the before and after photos of then 4-year-old Tim Barrett who had been diagnosed with Legg-Perthes disease (a femur capital necrosis occurring in children). Doctors told Barrett’s mother to put Tim in a cast for five years; others predicted he would be in a wheelchair by his 20th birthday. Listening instead to Ida Rolf, the child’s mother subjected her son to several months of treatments. The payoff? Tim is now a 40-something surfer who grew up without any disabilities or lasting reminders of his childhood challenges.
Rolf emphasized that even babies are born with structural imbalances and often come into this world with patterns of stress that will have a subtle, yet ongoing influence on both their growth patterns and their adult form.
“The birth process is one of pushing, squeezing, and shoving,” explains Richard Mintz, a certified Rolfer from Austin, Texas, who enjoys working with children. “The baby itself is pushed against the mother’s pubic bone to open the birth canal. In the process, little bodies are compressed and connective tissue is displaced.”
Stolzoff says when he works with infants, his focus is on trying to discern where, if anywhere, their pattern is, and if unstuck, would free up their system more. “The work is much more free-form than the 10-session recipe,” he says.
In addition to addressing any birth-related traumas, Mintz says there are certain times Rolfing can be especially helpful to an infant, including when they begin to roll, crawl, and walk. “It is a special joy for me to see how babies respond to Rolfing as their bodies unwind and lengthen, their structures becoming restored to their more proper relationship to themselves and the environment around them.”
It’s important to remember, Stolzoff says, that not all structural patterns are trauma-based. “Some of it comes from being a little kid with a ton of energy and feeling they have to contain themselves. They end up holding in some way.”
Whether injury-related, condition-related (as in scoliosis), or psychologically-related, once the structural stresses and strains in children are eased, Stolzoff says, the “path toward verticality has been cleared and children have the potential to grow into balanced bodies.”
A lifetime of bumps and bruises causes the body to eventually lose its vertical alignment and natural grace, says Robert Toporek, author of The Promise of Rolfing Children. Emotional trauma can do the same.
“A child who is often yelled at and criticized may carry his head tipped downward as an emotional response to the hostility he has experienced,” Toporek says. “Not only does the imbalanced posture become set, but the associated emotional feelings of inadequacy become locked up in the musculature as well.”1
Rolfer Victor Geberin explains it this way: “As we watch a child and the way he expresses himself in his body, we see shyness, fear, anger, shame, depression; or gracefulness, uprightness, confidence, belongingness, etc. Negative emotions can become locked into the physical body through the connective tissue and become chronic expressions.”2 These imbalances, he says, can manifest themselves as growing pains, attention problems, emotional distress, and obvious postural problems.3 But Rolfing can help these children find balance again.
Toporek saw the positive results of addressing a child’s structure firsthand when he collaborated with Ida Rolf on the Children’s Project, a three-year pilot study of the effects of Rolfing children conducted in the 1970s. Toporek, Rolf, and a handful of other structural integrationists worked on nine children and five babies over a four-week period (so as to eliminate growth as a factor in the changes). Except for the babies, all the children received the full 10-session protocol.
The reported results found increased confidence, better verbal expression, more self-control, and less destructive behavior, as well as improvement in the children’s overall physical, psychological, and behavioral patterns, even years later. Researchers also found that Rolfing could address conditions such as cerebral palsy and scoliosis.
“There is no way to separate the physical child from his mental and spiritual self,” Toporek says. “A child who slumps physically, slumps mentally and emotionally. Conversely, a child whose body is balanced and who moves gracefully and confidently, reflects an inner grace and confidence.” This “balanced” child, Toporek says, is at ease with his own body and confident of his own state of grace.4
In the spirit of Ida Rolf’s commitment to working with children, Briah Anson has documented some of her own sessions with children in the video Growing Right with Rolfing. Of the work, Anson says, “Rolfing infants and children helps their healthy development and maturation by stimulating and facilitating the integration of all body systems by working with the connective tissue. This unique approach recognizes our lifelong relationship with gravity, the need for balance within the human structure, the relationship of the body and emotions, and the importance of touch in connecting us with others.”5
So why should parents consider this modality above others for their children? To address the physical traumas of, for example, an auto accident, Stolzoff says Rolfing is key. “If you are comparing Rolfing to Swedish massage, there are big differences. The massage paradigm is mainly one of relaxation and restoration of physiological function,” he says. “If you compare Rolfing to energy work, the focus would be more subtle, where the practitioner helps to energetically settle what has been stirred up, from the impact of the accident.
Rolfing encompasses these two examples and adds an additional dimension. “The reason you’d want to consider Rolfing after an accident,” Stolzoff says, “is because the impact of an accident travels throughout the structure of the body and can actually move segments of the body relative to one another. In Rolfing, we’re working with the segmental relationships of the body and trying to ascertain how these segments have shifted as a result of the impact. Addressing these patterns early prevents the strain of an accident from becoming permanent.”
Rolfing and the Road Ahead
Like so many bodywork therapies, research in the area of Rolfing children has been limited, but anecdotal accounts describe numerous positive results.
Children who’ve broken a bone will often come for Rolfing sessions once their cast has been removed to help reclaim their sense of balance after a severe injury.
Scoliotic patterns, hip asymmetries, rib torsions and fixations, and even strains in the cranium (if addressed early and appropriately), may potentially have an enormous impact on the child as he develops into an adult, says certified Rolfer Ray Bishop.
“Early intervention by a Rolfer aware of the unique needs of children can sometimes make a profound difference in a child’s awareness, comfort level, and self-esteem,” Bishop says. “The importance of receiving loving supportive touch in and of itself may have immeasurable value to a developing child, but this is usually an ancillary benefit of the work. Rolfing clearly tries to accomplish so much more, potentially creating palpable change in the child’s connective tissue matrix.”