Massage Me Like a Horse: Digging Into Rolfing

Rolfers treat aching athletes and office workers by manipulating and loosening the body’s connective tissue.

Sukie Baxter discovered Rolfing because of a horse.

Now, she has built an entire business around the therapy. While she occasionally works with horses, she’s more likely to be digging into tight, knotted connective tissue on the average human office worker.

An alternative to massage therapy or acupuncture, rolfing — known officially as Rolfing Structural Integration — first hit it big in the 1970s. The practice has seen somewhat of a resurgence in the past decade, according to Baxter. She knows of at least 10 certified rolfers in Seattle proper, with a number more in greater Puget Sound. Baxter’s business has been growing each year.

There aren't any or on Mercer Island that practice Rolfing — yet. A recent New York Times article featured the growing popularity of Rolfing in the Big Apple. The headline, “Rolfing, Excruciatingly Helpful,” played off Rolfing’s reputation as squirm-worthy and painful. That article cites the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration as noting a rise in rolfing enrollment. 

Rolfing developed a rap as being a therapy best suited for masochists because practitioners apply intense, sustained force to break up and loosen fascia, the tissue that surrounds muscles and bones. Whereas massage therapists work with the muscles themselves, rolfers use their hands, elbows, knuckles and body weight to put long, steady pressure on tight fascia. Baxter believes, however, that the sessions aren’t necessarily any more excruciating than a deep tissue massage, as rolfers can adjust intensity based on how a client’s body responds.

Baxter’s introduction to Rolfing in the equestrian environment dates back eight years. At the time, she was rowing for Western Washington University’s crew team, and she suffered from regular aches and pains. The crew coach’s punishing boot camp-style workouts meant her novice crew group dwindled from 140 girls to 22. The survivors, like Baxter, became accustomed to pain.

“Everyone on the crew team hurt,” Baxter said. “That was normal.”

About the same time, Baxter’s mother began looking for new back therapy. She’d fallen off a horse and shattered two bones. While at the stable near the family home in Mukilteo, Baxter’s mother watched a therapist use Rolfing techniques on an ailing horse. Once she learned it could be applied to humans, she decided both she and her daughter might be able to benefit.

Baxter had tried massage therapy and chiropractor work in the past, but never felt a lasting effect with either. She decided to give Rolfing a whirl. At the time, her shoulders hunched over, her hamstrings were in knots, her right hip regularly seized up, and her left forearm burned. Rolfing couldn’t hurt, Baxter thought.

Baxter’s mother paid for her daughter to enroll in a typical 10-session Rolfing series. At the first one, the patient typically stands in her underwear in front of the rolfer. The therapist observes the body – both still and when in motion – to identify tightness and imbalances.

Baxter felt both awkward and fascinated by the experience of having someone stare at her in her underwear and identify so many problem areas. She utilizes the same technique with her own patients, but in a nod to modesty, tells them that they can wear shorts, tank tops, or whatever garments will make them feel comfortable during the process. The rolfer told Baxter what they needed to work on, and then began to dig right in.

By the end of the 10 sessions, Baxter felt stark changes in her body. Her aches went away, her limbs lengthened, and her anxiety level decreased. She was sold. After graduation from Western, Baxter began training to become a certified rolfer. She now sees a range of human clients at her practice in Fremont and visits Puget Sound-area barns to work on horses.

While Rolfing remains a novel idea for many, the practice dates back to the 1940s. Biochemist Ida Rolf began experimenting with new ways to manipulate and relax the body. Rolf wondered why some people could hold challenging yoga poses and others could not. She soon found that fascia play a critical role in strength and flexibility, and discovered that by manipulating the fascia, she could change the way a body moved.            

Like many alternative therapies, Rolfing doesn’t come cheap. At Baxter’s studio, she charges $1,297 for the full 10-session package. She recommends at least three sessions ($360), but someone can also pay $145 for a single 90-minute visit.

Baxter’s clients range from competitive triathletes to tech workers who spend all day at a keyboard. The majority complain about neck, shoulder or lower back pain, and many are surprised when Baxter begins by working on their feet and calves. Imbalances and tightness in the lowest extremities, Baxter explained, play a major role in neck and shoulder pain.

When I came into Baxter’s office for an interview, she took me through a condensed version of a sample rolfing session. I stood and sat in front of her. When she asked, I took deep breaths, turned my head from side to side, and turned my body to face sideways to her. She asked me what I felt when I took a breath, and what I noticed about my feet and the way I was standing. I tried to answer as best I could.

Right away, Baxter could tell the left muscles of my body were larger and more built-up (common in people who use their right hand for fine motor skills, she said). She noticed tension in my feet, causing my breath to be more shallow and my second toe to extend farther than my big toe. If I was an actual patient, Baxter said, she would start with my feet.

As it was, Baxter demonstrated sample moves on my shoulders. While the pressure felt firm and intense, I didn’t find it any more painful than sports massage. Granted, I’m someone who finds massage a waste of time if it just feels good. But I came away from my session with the opinion that even the delicate could handle Rolfing just fine.

Leah Cotler March 14, 2011 at 06:04 AM
For those who are interested in 10 session series Structural Integration work, all of which owe their existence to the original work of Ida Rolf, there are two people that I know of on Mercer Island who do this work. One is myself, Leah Cotler, and the other is Donna Bialas. (Forgive me if I did not spell her name correctly.) I grew up receiving Rolfing and loved it. However, I didn't feel there was a container for the emotional fall out and transformation that this work initiated. Therefore, when deciding to become a structural integrator myself, I chose a form of work that helps facilitate emotional transformation, which naturally happens when the body is peeled back like an onion, when we are exposing our core. This work is the most amazing form of bodywork I have come across in my 20 years of practicing massage. I can't imagine ever retiring and giving it up. The work does not have to be painful. For me, it brings me the curiosity and awe of similar to traveling the world, seeing and experiencing things one has never explored...and the beauty is that it's all in your body!!!!


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