How I Became a Rolfer®
In 2002 I graduated from NC State University with a degree in Computer Science. By the time I graduated I was fairly sure that tech wasn’t exactly going to be a deep and abiding passion, but I had the story that I was supposed to go to college and supposed to get a job based on that. So, when I started in 1997, it had seemed like tech was going to keep being more and more important in almost every field and I figured it would work itself out in one way or another. Through this time I was working for various facilities departments at UNC-CH mostly doing mapping of their underground utilities.
Also in 2002 I went to my first swing dance. I’d taken a social dance class for PE credits somewhere in the prior year then broken my hand playing basketball in the spring. As I was waiting for it to heal up, a friend of mine who’d been involved in swing dance a few years earlier during the original revival days was talking about getting back into dance. Right after graduation we went out dancing a couple times then I took off to Australia to visit a friend studying abroad and she moved to Denver just as I got back. I happened to go out one more time on my own and ran into another friend at the dance who directed me to some places for further dance instruction. I started taking classes and within 6 months the then fairly shy and introvert me had the rather weird idea that I wanted to learn how to teach swing.
Early Dance Years and (Slight) Intro to Rolfing
Jump forward a couple of years and I was learning to teach, dancing up a storm, and temporarily unemployed for a year. I also happened to be dating someone who messed up her shoulder in a car accident and after extensive difficulty with it, had finally been directed to a Rolfer which she described as “an hour of intense pain, but it worked” and was the only thing that really got her moving forward out of the injury. At the time I can recall she suggested it as a career path saying “you’re strong, you could hurt people, you should be a Rolfer!” I was a bit intrigued as I looked into it and was not feeling particularly motivated by the search for another tech job. However, I had only recently paid off my college loans and had no desire to go back into debt at the time so I set the idea aside.
By this point I was also traveling enough to discover dance beyond the confines of the Triangle where I started. I was particularly enamored with the teaching of Paul Overton and Sharon Ashe and realizing that there was a lot more possibility to the teaching of dance than any of the local instructors were offering. Even so, I was taking from everyone I could locally including a period of taking three classes from three different instructors in three different locations on one night. At the same time I was also watching what life looked like as a dance instructor and coming to understand that while I loved it, I had no desire to make it my primary source of income.
I eventually found my way back into my first (and only) private sector tech job at a company called Paragon Application Systems working on ATM testing tools and financial transaction simulation. While it was satisfying to create products that our customers found useful, I didn’t feel any particular passion for the work. This was also the first tech job where I had a few coworkers who were really stoked about programming. They would go home and read about new coding ideas, wanted to implement whatever the latest coding methodology was, etc. Watching them I knew I felt similarly about dance but was clearly never going to feel that passionately about programming. As I considered what another 30 years in programming might look like for me I decided I’d better find a different career if I wanted to have that sort of passion.
Around this time I was partnering with another dancer who was going through massage school. It seems to be common for massage schools to briefly mention the existence of Rolfing and when she mentioned something about wanting to try Rolfing, it re-sparked my inquiry into it. I wasn’t experiencing any particular pains, but my 8-10 hour-a-day computer posture was something I knew was holding me back in competition dancing and dance instructors just telling me to “stand up straight” for years hadn’t done much to alleviate it. So I looked around, found Bethany Ward who was the only local Rolfer with a reasonably informative website at the time plus she offered Saturday appointments, making the half hour drive or so to her office much more accessible for me.
First Session and Series
I’ve talked to Bethany about this recently and she doesn’t remember how our first session went so I’m reporting this from admittedly probably a bit biased recollection. I don’t honestly recall the session as a whole but I remember three salient points.
- My own thought of “What do you mean my ribs are supposed to move? Nobody told me ribs are supposed to do that” (now I recognize that it’s a pretty common idea in physical modalities but at the time it was very clear that this was a whole deeper level of understanding the body than any dance teacher I had yet encountered).
- Heavily-introverted-at-the-time me rambling on for pretty much the entire session. I really remember just feeling totally unable to shut up.
- Walking out with a clear sense of YES, THIS! I WANT IT. and almost immediately asking Bethany when we could find some time to meet and talk about what it looks like to train to do this work.
The rest of the session is sort of lost to my memory but it was great having it established early on that I planned to go to the Rolf Institute. As we went through my series Bethany kept me in the loop in a behind-the-scenes sort of way that gave me insight to build on in training. And as we worked and I talked to friends about my plans to become a Rolfer, people started willingly letting me put hands on them and experiment, trying to replicate some of the stuff I felt Bethany doing on me.
Support and Hurdles for Getting to Boulder
In my life there had been a few projects that just seemed like foregone conclusions from the time I started them: getting my Eagle Scout, becoming a dance teacher, and then becoming a Rolfer. It was one of those pursuits that, in hindsight, I basically powered through hurdles without thinking about it where I have let challenges stop me in pursuits less important to me.
The first hurdle was getting my work to give me leave to take 2 month sabbaticals to go train. I had a meeting with my boss and simply told him I didn’t think I wanted to be a programmer for the rest of my life and here was this Rolfing thing that I wanted to do, here’s how the training looks, and could we make it work for me to keep my job through the training. Very fortunately for me they liked my work enough that they wanted to keep me around and we made arrangements for me to take two months off at a time then come back to work for 6-8 months in between trainings.
Knowing that work would support it, my next challenge was family support. My mom was supportive but my parents had apparently had a friend years ago who’d become a Rolfer and was fairly un-grounded so my dad seemed convinced I was just going to turn into a crystal-toting hippie. In past I think I’d almost always tended to hide it or fight back when my dad disagreed with something that stoked my fire. This time I simply accepted his concern without much comment and proceeded along with my plans to go. When I came back a month or two later with my registration for Unit 1 in Boulder, he seemed a bit surprised then fell into being more accepting of my plans.
The final big hurdle came during my drive out to Unit 1. I took a solo trip from Raleigh, NC to Boulder, CO and somewhere in the middle of Missouri the fuel pump in my Saturn started to die. The car managed to limp to the next big town where I found a Saturn dealership and lost a day’s worth of driving time and all of my discretionary fund for the trip. The Saturn guys went out of their way (including driving halfway to St. Louis for a part) to get me back on the road. I arrived in Boulder a day late(r than planned) and a number of dollars short with barely enough time to land and get my head on straight for the first day of class.
Boulder, Colorado Unit 1
Unit 1 is the section of the Rolfing training that gets you started and focuses on anatomy and touch skills. I rented a basement room from a Rolfer about 2 miles from the Institute and the class was taught by Michael Polon and Suzanne Picard with Sterling Cassel assisting. A few of the salient points from my Unit 1:
- On the first day that we started getting into anatomy we ended up modeling scapulae (shoulder blades) out of clay. As I worked to get the acromion process right I had the thought “I’m definitely in the right place.” And all throughout my training past and continuing I’ve been impressed with the multi-dimensional approach to teaching at the Rolf Institute.
- I went through a rough breakup at the beginning of the second week with a woman I’d been dating for 2 years at that point. It was a long time coming but at the time it really hurt and after a day of trying to stifle it I ended up breaking down crying in front of the whole class, sharing what had happened. Hugs ensued and the whole class got me a card the next day: one of many lessons to follow in the power of vulnerability.
- About halfway through the training I was trading a session with one of my closer classmates. We were following an area in her lower ribs that felt “dark” to her and after 10-15 minutes of working into it she started sobbing and went through a big emotional release for another 10-20 minutes. In the aftermath of this experience I realized that in a sense I hadn’t actively done anything to make it happen and it had only taken patience and presence to co-create the space with her for her to have that experience.
- Jonesing for barbecue one day and taking Michael’s suggestion that my classmate, Allie, and I head down to Daddy Bruce’s BBQ where we got mammoth ribs slathered in sauce and a generic sandwich cookie for dessert. The place has since closed, but the memory retains a special place in my heart for that moment of comfort.
- Towards the end of class I felt like I was having an easy time with the anatomy and touch skills and was looking to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I asked Michael what I should be working on personally/spiritually to round out my skills. His response was “figure out what’s holding you back from giving yourself fully to the world” and recommended a book to me: The Way Of The Superior Man that ended up shaping a lot of my exploration into healing my relationship with masculine energy and my own masculinity over the next few years. In some ways I’ve moved deeper than the concepts in the book since then but it was a huge turning point for me at the time.
I finished Unit 1 with a certificate in Skillful Touch, a wording that earned me plenty of juvenile comments (not that I have anything against good innuendo, it was just pretty consistent).
Boulder, Colorado Unit 2
Unit 2 in the Rolfing basic training took me deeper into anatomy and touch skills and is where we first learn and practice the Ten-Series on each other. At this point I’d already been sort of practicing it with a few friends based on what I remembered from my work with Bethany, but this was where I really started to get it. Thomas Walker lead the class with Kima Kramer assisting. A full 2 months in Colorado staying with a local dancer and her husband in Longmont stuck some of these memories in my mind:
- I started to feel a little bit more at home with some of the dancers in Boulder and Denver. I was going out more regularly, starting to try a few things and getting out to dinner and such more often new and existing dance friends. This is where I started feeling like Colorado was (and still is) my second home dance scene.
- Thomas’ influence played a strong part in the development of my Rolfing touch having more listening in it and learning to be effective on the lighter pressure side of the spectrum. It helped further enhance ideas about how Rolfing doesn’t have to hurt and how to be effective in the moments when it doesn’t.
- I found two things that to this day remain some of my favorite breakfasts when I’m in Boulder; Santiago’s breakfast burritos and pretty much anything from Lucile’s Creole Cafe which became a haven when I wanted grits.
- In Unit 2 we learn the Ten-Series by practicing it on each other. I had been warned by Bethany to make sure I had good work lined up after I got back because getting learning sessions several times a week can really mess things up. I felt very lucky to have my closest friend from Unit 1 as my practitioner and a male classmate who I jived with as my practice client. My practitioner however had conflict with her practitioner so on the days she worked on me after receiving her session I had to be pretty on my game about minding my own boundaries and at times taking care of her while I was on the table. Overall though I had great sessions and came out of Unit 2 feeling built up rather than broken down.
- I have a strong recollection of my 7th session with my client. 7th session involves the mouth and nose work which he had an emotional charge around but hadn’t mentioned to me. The session went totally fine but when he got off the table it was fully soaked in sweat. It was a good lesson about how I might miss a client’s reaction or how they might hide something to make a session go the way they thing it is supposed to.
- Work on opening my chest has been a mainstay of my personal Rolfing journey. One day Thomas was doing a demo session with me standing in front of the whole class and working on opening some of my ribs using hands-on pressure and my own movement. At some point he asked me to see if I could let the corners of my mouth float towards the ceiling. As my mouth crested towards a smile I felt a major draw back in and had to say “I’m not ready to go there yet.” This became one of the early realizations that feeling happy was one of the most vulnerable and scary things I could feel. It also started to shape my idea of allowing the work to pace to the client and not always trying to force things open.
I ended Unit 2 feeling good, happy to be flying home rather than driving, and both excited and nervous about my developing plans to take my Unit 3 training in Brazil instead of returning to Boulder.
Barra do Sahy, Brasil Unit 3
When I had been in my Unit 2 trying to decide who to do my Unit 3 training with, an email had gone out notifying us of a Unit 3 training in Brazil. The Brazil course had a combined Rolf Movement Certification with the Unit 3 completion and would be taught by Monica Caspari for Movement and Jan Sultan for the hands-on with Raquel Motta assisting. As far as I could tell from asking around this was like a dream team of instruction so despite not knowing the language or anyone who’d be there, I signed up and booked a room in a beach house to stay at in Barra do Sahy, São Paulo, Brasil. Along with the Movement Certification, Unit 3 involves further deepening our anatomy and therapeutic skills and taking two practice clients through a Ten-Series with instructor supervision. If the view alone isn’t enough to explain why I decided to go, here are a few other highlights of what I got out of that training:
- There were several weeks of exploration and embodiment work with the movement training; challenging the ways we moved and exploring ways to move with more ease and less effort. Monica was an incredible teacher and more than anything else what has etched itself on my soul was her statement that “The primary cause of physical dysfunction is social inhibition.” I take this statement with a grain of salt but ever since in my dancing, my teaching, my work, and my self explorations that idea has informed my work, helping me make sense of motions, pains, and challenges that pure biomechanics couldn’t fully explain.
- I got dumped again (by a different woman) somewhere around the second week into training. This was probably the most challenging breakup of my life as I was thousands of miles away from any familiar support network. In hindsight I dodged a bullet with her, but at the time it added a really rough component to contemplate throughout the training.
- The beach house which several of us stayed in had a wood-fired sauna that became a focal point for the nights when we needed to decompress. Multiple nights 5 or 6 of us would pile in, watch the bay through the window in the sauna overlooking it and talk through whatever was going on with us through the training or life in general.
- Jan became my primary influence from basic training for the power and value of the heavier side of the Rolfing touch spectrum. Between Jan’s teaching and Thomas in Unit 2, I feel I got a good sense of the ends of the spectrum and a foundation for finding a lot of shades in the middle. I don’t think Jan typically used or encouraged us to use any more force than necessary to achieve results but he also had no problem digging in. I have an image of him at one time coming up to observe me working on a client, assessed what was going on and the result we were after and simply said “You’re just gonna have to hurt her.” I also watched a few of my classmates who were really reticent to work in uncomfortable levels with their clients and in my perception it seemed like it sometimes prevented them from creating the healing that their clients needed.
- Watching Jan working was amazing and inspiring. It both gave me an idea of what might be possible at at the same time was so distant from what I was able to do at the time that I started to realize there was no way at one year I’d be able to do it like Jan was doing it with his 40+ years. Instead of being disheartening, it actually became an idea that helped me relax, be at peace with where I was as a practitioner and do the best work I was capable of in that moment without so much judging it against the work of those far more experienced than me. This ease seemed to make my work better and my learning faster as I was able to be more present to where I was rather than worrying about where I thought I should be.
- My Ten-Series clients were a 60-something Brazillian aesthetician who I didn’t have much language in common with and an ex-pat American who I was grateful to be able to conduct sessions in English with. We relatively quickly fell into a routine of lectures in the morning followed by a two hour lunch break where I’d typically eat then go swim in the ocean for 45 minutes or so, come back, work with a client, then finish the day with lectures. My clients progressed well and I had the absolute best tan of my life.
- We were in Brazil over Thanksgiving so one of our ex-American clients who owned a restaurant bought a turkey and invited all the class and all of our practice clients to Thanksgiving dinner.
- After the end of her series, my ex-American client invited me over for dinner at her house. It’s the sort of thing that might have been frowned upon in Boulder but in Brazil it was no big deal. It turned into one of the most formative experiences of the trip as my client and I talked about and shared our experiences through the series and in both our lives in general. Of particular influence to me was the fact that she called me out on a few of my less composed moments in class and helped me realize that my clients could see my issues as much as I saw theirs. It’s taken a number of years to really pull it all together, but it has made a huge difference overall in how I work with and relate to my clients now.
I don’t know what to say about Brazil other than I think it has made worlds of difference in who I became as a person and a practitioner and I am forever grateful for having had the opportunity and courage to go there. While I don’t think it’s for everyone, I pretty much recommend every Rolfing student consider it as an option. That said, I was also grateful to return home and be able to not have to worry about sharing a common language when I wanted to go buy a burger or soap or just say more than “Oi. Tudo bem?” to someone on the street.
Lucking Into The Center
The final stage of the “becoming a Rolfer” process for me landed in finding an office and building a practice to the point where saying “I’m a Rolfer” felt natural rather than new and weird. I landed at The Center through a curious series of events. As I was settling into the idea of being an alternative health practitioner, I figured it would be worthwhile to familiarize myself with some of the other practitioners locally. I was curious to try out acupuncture and got a referral to Quinn Takei as a great acupuncturist. I went and did a few sessions with Quinn and was impressed with his office and professionalism. On my last session of the series with him I noticed one of the massage therapists packing up her office to move out. I asked if he would be interested in having a Rolfer in the office and the rest is kind of history.
About a month after I had gotten a lease at The Center I was laid off from my programming job at Paragon. It was a year or two in the banking crisis and they were having to make cutbacks. So instead of the slow easing into Rolfing that I had intended, I got a bit shoved into full time. It took a few years and a few withdrawals from my retirement savings to really get settled in here, but I haven’t looked back. And while I can’t exactly recommend the way I got here, I’m dreadfully grateful to have found work that feeds my soul and lets me do something that I feel is of value to the world.