The “Does Rolfing Hurt” Question
Nine times out of ten if I mention Rolfing to someone and they happen to have heard of it but not tried it, the first thing out of their mouth is “I hear that hurts a lot.” My short answer to this is “It can, but it doesn’t have to,” a response which, while good for passing conversation, is incomplete. This post is intended to provide a more balanced view of Rolfing and pain.
The image that Rolfing is just a brutal style of work that pins people to the table and makes them yell uncle is one that mostly persists from the early days of Rolfing. When Dr. Rolf’s work was first being taught at the Esalen institute, part of the therapeutic context of the time was to delve deep and push for abreaction. Rolfing at the time carried a similar sensibility and while it could produce some amazing results, it also traumatized some patients. But just as psychiatric and psychoanalytic care has evolved beyond Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Rolfing has evolved beyond the “If they’re not screaming, it’s not Rolfing” image of the past.
Yes, Rolfing can hurt. Any therapy with the power to heal also has power to do harm and most Rolfers I know take steps to maintain awareness of this double-edged sword. That said, Rolfing is so much more than just “it might hurt”, so here are a few things to consider.
You are in control
Rolfing is not a therapy that is just being done to you. It is requires active participation on the part of the client and part of that is working with the Rolfer to find your edge and the most effective pressures to work at. It is always at your discretion to go deeper or direct your Rolfer to ease off. Through the course of a series, many clients will find themselves going deeper and more capably than they may have thought possible at the outset. And that deepening of ability to work into discomfort/pain areas can enhance your ability to grow in other ways as well.
Growth requires discomfort
Almost any growth or healing requires some variety of discomfort. Exercise makes muscles sore, stretching is it’s own form of discomfort, even simple acts like meeting someone new provoke a certain level of anxiety. In much the same way, Rolfing benefits most from a willingness to step into uncomfortable places. By playing our edge, we can learn to differentiate between pain that leads to injuries and pain/discomfort that leads to healing. This awareness can extend into other areas of life as well, knowing what discomforts will do us good and which may harm us.
A wide range
Rolfing today teaches a very broad spectrum of touch. A good Rolfer can work very deep when needed, but they can also affect change via feather-light pressured touch. Just as you wouldn’t only use a hammer to build a house, Rolfers don’t only use full on pressure and elbow drops off the top rope (a la Pro Wrestling). Additionally, constant high intensity work is not any better for the Rolfer’s body than it is for the client. Rolfers who want a long career are going to use the minimum amount of pressure they need to get the job done.
Rolfing can at times be described as pleasurable, relaxing, intense, and yes, even painful. And just as with exercise, stretching or personal growth pushing into those temporary sensations can yield many great growth benefits.