Advice From My First 7 Years as a Rolfer®
It’s been a little over 8 years since I graduated the Rolfing® basic training and slightly under 7 since I completed my licensure, got laid off, and made an abrupt transition into “full time” at about 2-3 clients a week at the time. Last year I completed my Advanced training and assisted a Unit 3 training for the first time and it’s had me thinking about how much has changed since I first stepped into a classroom in Boulder. I’ve reached the point where there’s no thought to calling myself a Rolfer anymore and even on the days that it just feels like work I still wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
I’ve had my first Rolfling (client who decided to become a Rolfer) and possibly a few more in the making so I’ve been thinking about some of the advice I can offer that I feel really helped me become the Rolfer I am today. It’s not a comprehensive list, but a number of salient points I’ve found useful along the way.
Worry Less About Fixing and More About Learning
It’s challenging to remember when someone is paying for your help but one of the things I wished I’d realized earlier is that it’s not incumbent on me to be everyone’s savior. In the course of my career I might seem like a total wizard to some people and a charlatan or waste of time to other people. In training it was easy to watch an instructor be magical and think that that was what I was supposed to produce in the next hour. And in hindsight what may have held me back in my first few years was the tendency to try and push harder when that sort of magic wasn’t happening.
Having recently assisted a training for the first time, I think that ideally Rolfing training would be something like a 4-year degree. But for a variety of factors it’s not reasonable to run things that way so what we get is a training that teaches enough enough to be dangerous then sets us up to spend our early years getting our “finishing school” from our clients and continuing education. Even being told “the 10-series is what you do for 5 years or until you know what you’re doing” is easy to lose sight of in that moment when you have hands on a new client who’s coming to you for help and your training didn’t tell you exactly what to do in that moment with that client’s particular issue.
Looking back, and in working with my first Rolfing mentee, I think one of the things that most served the Rolfer I have become at this point was learning to back off, stop trying to fix, and focus more on learning. Making my Rolfing practice into my Rolfing *Practice* as it were. When my job became not to fix in the moment but to be effective enough that people came back (when appropriate for them) that was when I think I started to really become more effective. Pacing things not only to the client’s rate of change but also to a level or touch where I could work but still listen an gain understanding of what was going on. So that has become my primary stock piece of advice to new Rolfers which I also found echoed to some level by my advice to first time dance students.
Your primary job for the first 5 years is not to fix people. It is to be effective enough that people want to come back so you can continue to learn from working with them.
Sweat the Small Talk
I started Rolfing training as an avowed introvert, quiet and shy. When I share with clients that this is where I started from, most having little to no trouble believing this (although that’s starting the change lately, *happy dance*). They are far more likely to have a hard time believing I’ve been a swing dancer for 15 years and taught, competed, and ran my own dance studio for a while. So when I say that I’ve found being chatty with clients is a valuable thing, it’s a pretty big statement from where I started.
I think the early stages of Rolfing training made it easy for me to get focused on the client’s body and issues therein. After all, as Dr. Rolf said, it is the part we work with because it’s what we can get our hands on. People tend to show up in my office because they have big issues that have been affecting their life for a while and it’s easy to hang up on those. But one of the things I’ve realized over time is that if I focus too much on the current issues it becomes hard to see why we’re doing all this work and where it is going for the client. Understanding my client’s strengths and resources and joys has proven every bit as important as their problems and it takes a certain level of trust and familiarity to share any of those.
Making small talk with clients (or bigger talk), chatting about their day, their likes, what they or their kids did this past weekend, etc. has been a major source of insight that I didn’t expect it to be. I find that the more levels I’m willing to work with my clients on the more effective I’ve been able to be. Since it’s impossible to really know a person from an intake form I find myself that I can learn and connect more with my clients in a conversational”rolling intake” way not unlike getting to know another human being in any other situation would. The more I’m willing to roam through subjects with clients, the more I get to see the bigger picture of who they are, how their issues and activities and woes and joys are influencing their lives, and very often in conversation I find words or ideas or other hooks to help empower them in their healing process (and I find plenty to help heal myself as well). Sometimes the conversation itself is an important part of the healing. And let’s be honest, it can be a weird thing to meet someone, get in your underwear, and have them work on you; carrying on a conversation like a normal person often seems to help with the process of normalizing the newness of Rolfing for a lot of clients.
When in Doubt, Ask the Client
Being unsure what to do seems to be a pretty common thread in my first few years and strikes me as likely to continue showing up pretty regularly in my practice for the rest of my life. In theory unless I’m working with another Rolfer, I’m the person in the room most likely to be the expert on Rolfing but that still often means not knowing. I’ve often seen situations where Rolfers seem to think they need to know what the client needs as a default. “How do I know when to do X?” is a common question I’ve heard in classes and I think it speaks to the uncertainty of working with bodies and human health. I’ve found that, for me, the simplest and most powerful solution is to own my uncertainty, say “I’m not sure” and then ask the client for input. After all, the client is the expert on being themselves and have been figuring out and meeting their own needs for a lot longer than I have, so why not use them as a resource?
I usually give the client an out by telling them”You’re paying me to figure it out” if they don’t have a clear preference or sense of which direction to go, but sharing ideas and asking for client input helps make the process collaborative and a team effort for the their health. It invites them into conversation with their body and offers them some practice with better defining their internal landscape. It makes my job a hell of a lot easier than trying to know everything all the time and it gives me more information for my own learning process. It’s humbling and humanizing to say “I don’t know” but I’ve found it’s almost always improved on my results and helped keep my ego from getting in the way of the work.
Get a Mentor
There is a lot to learn in this little niche therapy of ours, and fairly likely still a lot more than I’m aware of at 7/8 years in. My de facto mentors for the first few years were my first Rolfers, Bethany Ward and Larry Koliha. I knew going into my first 10-series that I was interested in being a Rolfer so Bethany gave me a behind-the-scenes view of her processes as we worked together and it was incredibly helpful and something I’ve carried in to working with potential Rolfers. Larry and Bethany are also faculty at the Rolf Institute which meant they were full of helpful thoughts on preparing for the training or reigning in my occasional oversteps in practicing (I got scolded for trying nosework on a friend before I had done any training).
It was a real boon to be able to have someone I could ask when I got stuck with a client or when a session had a detrimental result or even when I just felt like a client’s issue was out of my depth and it was better to refer them out to someone more experienced. At the same time, I had Larry’s advice that often the difficult clients are the ones you learn the most from as a guide to work on staying calm and continuing to hang with the moment when I was having trouble with a client or with my own body. And being able to take classes from Larry and Bethany and receive work from both of them over the years has been a great source of new-to-me ideas and feedback on if I’m getting the right idea or if I missed the point of something they were teaching.
And ultimately having mentors has also provided me a metric for realizing that I can be both different and awesome. One of the things I’ve noticed over time is that the people who excel in various fields often seem to do so in part by being deeply themselves in the process. Being able to compare notes with Bethany and Larry and the occasional shared client helped me realize that I didn’t have to always use their ideas to be effective and on occasion I saw something for a client that they didn’t and vice versa. Knowing and working with them gave me a model for success in this trade and over time also helped me realize that my success didn’t have to look the same way as their success.
Get a Colleague
I think perhaps even more important than finding a mentor is finding a peer with whom you can connect. Someone who you feel on an even playing field with and free to talk about your experiences, exchange work, challenge each other, be a shoulder to cry on, and grow in unison (if not always in the same direction or at the same rate). A good colleague provides a safe space to grow in a different way than a mentor and can also help be a great yardstick for our own progress.
One of the most valuable resources to me has been my first client-turned-Rolfer, Lisa Barr. While we started in sort of a mentor/mentee relationship at first, we transitioned pretty quickly to trying to be more like colleagues and equals and both of us feel we got far more benefit from that relationship in the long run. Lisa knows me far better than any other Rolfer because we make time to trade sessions, get coffee after the session, and spend time talking about life beyond the table. This close friendship not only means we have a strong supportive colleague but also gives us additional space to grow and often helps us connect the dots and do deeply transformative work with each other. I believe we are often able to evoke change with each other that more experienced practitioners couldn’t or didn’t because of the additional layers of trust and familiarity that we have built with each other.
Get a (Really Good) Therapist
I feel like I got very lucky with the therapist I started working with just after I finished Basic Training. I’d be dumped HARD during my Unit 3 and came home incredibly distraught and finally ended up working with the therapist who a doctor friend had been advising me to try for several years prior. Frank has been my go-to therapist through the growth of my career and someone I still see off and on as my life, body, etc. continue to shift and grow. Working with him has not only improved my life but it has made me a better Rolfer.
While I started from a place of being a pretty good listener, having a therapist to model on has provided so many small and large pieces towards presenting both a more compassionate and more open model of listening for my clients. My early few years working with Frank involved a lot of anger and his willingness to simply sit with it and advice to “get comfortable being uncomfortable” has, I think, made me a far more accessible therapist to my clients. I’ve learned how to sit and simply hear their stories and when appropriate share my own stories or my own thoughts as opposed to jumping to giving advice or trying to fix things for a client.
And in a more general way, I think it’s an important aspect of presenting balance in ourselves with our clients. As I keep my own personal self developing, I keep myself relatively sharp for helping others develop as well; plus having a close relationship with a therapist has been useful when I need to get a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist for a client.. And as a colleague recently said to me “I keep going to a therapist so that I don’t have to”.
You Get To Co-Create the Context
It took me a while to recognize it, but the average client coming into my office doesn’t seem to know what to expect from a Rolfing session. Rolfing can be hard to describe even if you’ve had it and it seems to almost defy the “elevator speech” level of communication. So even if they’ve been referred by another client, many new Rolfees seem to show up not knowing what the experience is going to look like.
While it’s easy to view this as a detriment, I have found this can be spun as a strength of the work as well. With minimal pre-conceived notions, it becomes possible to set the stage for our work in a different way than if someone is going for a spa massage or other therapeutic intervention more oriented to them simply receiving care. I have found this ability to re-contextualize our work together as something collaborative, exploratory, out-of-the-box, and holistic is of great benefit and helps go beyond just “fix my pain” to allow room for the sort of transformative work that drew me to Rolfing in the first place.
I aim to meet my clients on a person-to-person level first and foremost and to work as equals rather than play into certain professional roles and expectations. It works for me and it seems to work for the majority of my clients. I’ve seen other colleagues work it different ways that serve them where my strategy wouldn’t fit. But in essence, you get to set the tone of the relationship you want to create with your clients and the more you take advantage of that, the more your work starts to look like you which I generally seems to make the more powerful both for Rolfer and client.
It’s OK to do Free Work
At times, offering free work has been one of the best tools to create a learning environment for myself and to be effective with clients I might not otherwise have helped. Offering free work significantly cuts down the anxiety around producing results for money which helps me feel space to experiment and take risks I might have talked myself out of. Sometimes a client shows up with an issue so outside of my experience that I have no idea if I can help but I want to try and see both if I can help them and if I can learn something. For instance, when I had a lactation consultant start sending me infants with tongue tie issues I spent the first few months doing free work on babies. This allowed me to create training space for myself and the freedom to experiment helped me to play with tactics that were both new to me and seemingly outside of what other tongue tie workers were doing.
Offering free work has also been a great way to smooth things over with clients on the rare occasion where something goes wrong from a session. This happens occasionally when a client struggles with integrating a session or every once in a while when I make a mistake. I try to first do no harm, so when I feel I’ve done something that adversely affected a client, it helps me stay in integrity with my intentions to either return their money for that session or offer free work until they feel better. Some of this is self soothing but it also goes a long way towards restoring trust with clients and being clear that we are working for their betterment and it gives me a chance to get hands on them again and try to learn where things went sideways. The most memorable case of this working for both me and a client happened when I was working with a first time client and had one of her ribs pop out of alignment. She called me the next day saying she was in pain and would be unable to come back, so I offered to do free work until the issue resolved. I spent 6 weeks doing free sessions for her until it felt better but I learned a lot about ribs and haven’t had that happen since, plus she became one of my best clients for a number of years.
Be Careful With Discount Work
One of the things I’ve learned over time is it’s equally important that my clients are covering my needs as that I am covering theirs. At the base level this means that I need to get enough money and/or emotional return on my time and energy to make doing work sustainable. While offering discounted work is occasionally valuable as a marketing or accessibility tool it can also be fairly destructive to the sustainability and quality of my work and client relationships.
I’ve run Groupons twice in my earlier days and found that those kind of steep discounts invite a lot of clients only looking for more discounts. I’ve gotten a few wonderful folks out of each one, but not at a much higher rate than what was already coming through my door by referral. At the same time Groupon tended to bring in a higher than average level of people just there for cheap work and less engaged in the process in general. Additionally the ones who wanted to stick around but only if I kept offering them a discounted rate tended to be the ones frequently going on fun weekend outings worth several times the discount they were asking for. While I don’t fault anyone for trying to save money, it typically seemed like the issue with these cases was one more of priority than true need for a discount which ended up feeling to me like a de-valuing of my time and effort. Noticing this effect has also made me very mindful of making sure my providers feel fully valued when I go to other therapists/practitioners/artists/etc nowadays.
So my early years pricing advice has been to set a price that feels good, and maybe a little uncomfortably high in the sense that it gives you space to grow into. Start from the market price for Rolfing in your area and adjust up or down to find that sweet spot for yourself. I don’t think money is everything but it is the most easily quantifiable and I do believe it communicates something about how people value my time and effort. What I found running Groupons was that doing a lot of work at a steep discount tended to affect the quality of my work across the board. So at this point I’m very mindful of offering discounts and making sure that I take care of my needs in a sustainable fashion that keeps me doing great work for my clients and myself.
Start with 3s When Strategizing and Pitching Work
I started out doing a lot of one-off sessions at dance events so I didn’t get particularly tied to the Ten-Series sales pitch but over time I’ve learned that it’s not where I prefer to start with clients. And clients coming in for the first time tend to find the idea of committing to 10 sessions upfront for a therapy and a person they have never tried to be rather daunting.
3 sessions is a much more manageable amount to consider for trying something new and I find it is typically enough for most clients to decide if we are making forward progress towards their needs and goals. For the last few years I’ve told new clients to “give it 3 sessions and that should give you a good sense of whether or not we’re making forward progress and/or if we need to change directions.” After a year or two working with that number as a proving ground, I’ve found there’s better client engagement and return, more people helped, and I’ve gotten much better at honing in on my clients’ core needs. Plus I find it typically takes 3-5 sessions to really start establishing a trust and rapport that allows for deeper work so when clients stick around past that point we usually get to dive into even cooler territory. Or if a client and I aren’t making some progress in 3 sessions I’m much better informed by then to be able to suggest someone or something that might be more helpful to their needs.
Strategise/Be Opportunistic About Classes for Advanced Training
My practice is in Raleigh, North Carolina in the USA. In the time I’ve been in practice there have been just a handful of RISI credits offered within even a day’s driving distance. When I finally got around to planning for Advanced Training I found myself scrambling to get the required prerequisites done in time. I actually ended up finishing my prerequisites mid-Advanced by flying to LA for a class on my way down to Brazil for the second half of my Advanced Training.
So generally now I recommend to newer Rolfers that they keep an eye out for the workshops near them, try to spread out the CEUs you need to get through RISI for your Advanced Training. If you live in Boulder or Seattle or the like it’s probably not a particular issue. But if you live a couple hundred miles or more from the nearest place where RISI regularly offers classes then pay attention to when they come up and try to maybe take one class every year or two. This will help you be ahead of the Advanced Training game when it comes time to cash in those prerequisite classes.
Titration and Pacing
One of the first pieces of advice I got from Bethany when I did a mentored session with her was to slow down and find the first layer of resistance rather than diving straight to as deep as I could do. I started out with a “Get in there and FIX IT” mentality that, in hindsight, was partly driven by a desire to speed through my own discomfort with my client’s expectations of relief (ESPECIALLY in the cases where I got a client who’d been to a much more experienced Rolfer elsewhere). It took a number of years and a fair amount of confidence and self loving growth to reach a point where I could just hang out at a client’s pace of change and feel (for the most part) comfortable with the discomfort of “they’re not feeling better yet and I’m not sure if they will”. The more I became comfortable with not having to ‘fix’ a client and just helping them evoke change at a pace that worked for them the more effective my work became. And curiously enough, the less I rushed things, the more rapidly they seemed become available to shift.
Pacing for myself as a human and practitioner is important as well. When I first started, two of the local Rolfers were closing their offices and I expected to be flooded with clients. In hindsight I’m glad I ended up getting very few of their people coming to me because it gave me time for my body to adjust and strengthen with this work. It made for some tough financial years in the middle but I believe that taking 5 years to reach a relatively full practice helped me be a better kind of strong and stable for this work.
Learning to pace and spread out my learning has been of great help. The desire to know ALL THE THINGS is certainly there for me at times and occasionally it’s worth cramming a few classes together. But it’s worth remembering that sometimes our clients integrate the most when we take our hands off of them. And similarly, we as practitioners and people integrate similarly when we just settle in and do the work where we are and with what we have at that moment.
Go Beyond Fascia/Try Things/Make It Your Own
I didn’t plan it this way, but looking back at the last 4 or 5 years of Continuing Ed for myself, I did as much learning about tissues other than fascia, as I did taking more traditionally Rolfing/fascial work classes. Nerve work, scar tissue, visceral, and deeper cranial rhythms all helped me refine my touch, expand my range, and take my fascial work deeper as well. Plus watching the various instructors for these courses helped gain a broader idea of how many directions this work can go and how much you can personalize it to your own knowledge base, body type, and way of being.
I started to define Rolfing, at least for myself, as something more of a philosophy than a technique. Most of the experienced Rolfers I know seem to have borrowed pieces of other work that isn’t strictly from the original Rolfing tradition and most of them do work that is in some way distinctly reflective of who they are as a person. As I observed this, I began to think of Rolfing less as a tool and more of an organizing principle for how I arrange my toolbox and how I go about using those tools to help someone (ordering of interventions, seeing beyond the surface, etc.). Thus, to to me, Rolfing becomes not a specific product or service that I offer but rather a context for offering my best therapeutic self to help people, which is part of how my work began to reflect me as a person.
Get Some Work for Yourself
Simple enough but so easy to get away from the habit. Believe in your own product and get Rolfing (and any other work that calls you) not just when you need it but before you need it. Having gone through phases of both I can say I think my clients’ results are markedly better in the periods where I’m spending or even overspending on self care compared to the periods where I wasn’t getting any work for 6 months or so.
Make Room for the Work to Change You
When I started down the path of this work, I oriented to it strongly as “I want this so I can do good things for others” What I failed to predict in those early stages was how much the work would also become a tool for letting the world do for and change me. At nearly 10 years since my first Rolfing sessions, I’m suddenly encountering the idea from multiple sources that the spiritual/personal growth work that we do is not just for ourselves but for all of our relationships and our clients as well. And after spending most of my life orienting as a giver, I find myself learning some really powerful lessons about how much I’m capable of receiving as well.
When I started training as a Rolfer I was on antidepressants, living in a construction zone of a house , and unconvinced that I had much value in the world. I was rather painfully shy, afraid of judgement, and felt stuck going down some family paths that I didn’t even realize I was on. Last year one of my colleagues told me when she had first met me seven years ago she was sure I was going to be a pain in her ass because I was dreadfully unhappy and couldn’t see it for myself.
Yesterday the same colleague told me she’s looking forward to the day when her children reach the point of change that I’ve gotten to lately. I’ve also had comments from pretty much every Rolfer I’ve worked with long-term about how much my body and way of being have changed over time. I still have the rest of my life to grow but I’m significantly happier, healthier, and more fulfilled than I was before I entered this process.
As I changed, my work changed and grew. The more my energy and way of being improved, the better my clients’ results got. In a grand sense, I don’t think of this work as fixing or creating a change in someone, it’s helping them (and ourselves) remove or work through the roadblocks to being our best, happiest, lightest selves. The more we allow ourselves to soften into our hard spaces, the more we learn how to offer similar space to our clients, our friends, and ourselves. So regardless of where you start from, probably my biggest advice to new Rolfers is to be open to the work changing you, challenging you, and bringing you to places in yourself that you may not have been able to imagine when you walked into your Unit 1 training.