Rolfing, also called Rolf therapy or structural integration, is a holistic system of bodywork that uses deep manipulation of the body’s soft tissue to realign and bal ance the body’s myofascial structure. Rolfing improve posture, relieves chronic pain, and reduces stress.


Ida Pauline Rolf (1896–1979) was a biochemist from New York who developed structural integration over the course of many years after an accident as a young woman. She was kicked by a horse’s hoof on a trip out West and developed symptoms resembling those of acute pneumonia.

She made her way to a hospital in Montana, where she was treated by a physician who called in an osteopath to assist in her treatment. After the osteopath treated her, she was able to breathe normally. After her return to New York, her mother took her to a blind osteopath for further treatment.

He taught her about the body’s structure and function, after which Rolf became dissatisfied with conventional medical treatment. Following completion of a doctorate in biochemistry from Columbia University in 1920, Rolf studied atomic physics, mathematics, and homeopathic medicine in Europe.

After 1928, when her father died and left her an inheritance that allowed her to pursue her own studies, she explored various forms of alternative treatment, including osteopathy, chiropractic medicine, tantric yoga, the Alexander technique of tension reduction through body movement, and Alfred Korzybski’s philosophy of altered states of consciousness.

By 1940, Rolf had synthesized what she had learned from these various disciplines into her own technique of body movement that she called structural integration, which later became known as Rolfing. During the Second World War, Rolf continued to study with an osteopath in California named Amy Cochran.

In the mid1960s, Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls invited Rolf to Esalen, where she began to develop a following among people involved in the human potential movement. In 1977, she published Rolfing: The Integration of Human Structures, the definitive book on structural integration bodywork.

She continued to refine the therapy until her death in 1979. Rolf’s work is carried on through her Guild for Structural Integration, now known as the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration, which she founded in 1971 in Boulder, Colorado.


Rolfing helps to improve posture and bring the body’s natural structure into proper balance and alignment. This can bring relief from general aches and pains, improve breathing, increase energy, improve self-confidence, and relieve physical and mental stress.

Rolfing has also been used to treat such specific physical problems as chronic back, neck, shoulder, and joint pain, and repetitive stress injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome.

Many amateur and professional athletes, including Olympic skaters and skiers, use Rolfing to keep in top condition, to prevent injuries, and to more quickly recover from injuries.


Rolfing is more than just a massage of the body’s surface. It is a system that reshapes the body’s myofascial structure by applying pressure and energy, thereby freeing the body from the effects of physical and emotional traumas.

Although Rolfing is used extensively to treat sports injuries and back pain, it is not designed as a therapy for any particular condition. Rather, it is a systematic approach to overall wellness. It works by counteracting the effects of gravity, which over time pulls the body out of alignment.

This pull causes the body’s connective tissue to become harder and stiffer, and the muscles to atrophy. Signs of this stiffening and contraction include slouching or an overly erect posture.

Rolfing identifies the vertical line as the ideal that the body should approximate. The mission statement of the Guild for Structural Integration describes Rolfing as “a method and a philosophy of personal growth and integrity... The vertical line is our fundamental concept. The physical and psychological embodiment of the vertical line is a way of Being in the physical world [that] forms a basis for personal growth and integrity.”

The basic ten

Basic Rolfing treatment consists of 10 sessions, each lasting 60–90 minutes and costing about $100 each. The sessions are spaced a week or longer apart. After a period of integration, specialized or advanced treatment sessions are available.

A “tuneup” session is recommended every six months. In each session, the Rolfer uses his or her fingers, hands, knuckles, and elbows to rework the connective tissue over the entire body.

The tissues are worked until they become pliable, allowing the muscles to lengthen and return to their normal alignment. The deep tissue manipulation improves posture and agility, and increases the body’s range of movement.

Rolfers also believe that the blocked energy accumulated in the tissue from emotional tension is released through Rolfing treatment, causing the patient to feel more energetic and have a more positive frame of mind.

Clients are asked to wait for a period of six to 12 months before scheduling advanced work, known as the Post Ten/Advanced Series. This period allows the body to integrate the work done in the “Basic Ten.”

Rolfing movement integration

Yoga rolfing
Yoga rolfing

Rolfing movement integration, or RMI, is intended to help clients develop better awareness of their vertical alignment and customary movement patterns. They learn to release tension and discover better ways to use body movement effectively.

Rolfing rhythms

Rolfing rhythms are a series of exercises intended to remind participants of the basic principles of Rolfing: ease, length, balance, and harmony with gravity. In addition, Rolfing rhythms improve the client’s flexibility as well as muscle tone and coordination.


No pre-procedure preparations are needed to begin Rolfing treatment. The treatment is usually done on a massage table with the patient wearing only undergarments. Prior to the first session, however, the client is asked to complete a health questionnaire, and photographs are taken to assist with evaluation of his or her progress.


Rolfing profiles
Rolfing profiles

Since Rolfing involves vigorous deep tissue manipulation, it is often described as uncomfortable and sometimes painful, especially during the first several sessions.

In the past decade, however, Rolfers have developed newer techniques that cause less discomfort to participants. Since Rolfing is a bodywork treatment that requires the use of hands, it may be a problem for people who do not like or are afraid of being touched.

It is not recommended as a treatment for any disease or a chronic inflammatory condition such as arthritis, and can worsen such a condition. Anyone with a serious medical condition, including heart disease, diabetes, or respiratory problems, should consult with a medical practitioner before undergoing Rolfing.

Side effects

There are no reported serious side effects associated with Rolfing when delivered by a certified practitioner to adults and juveniles.

Research and general acceptance

There is a growing amount of mainstream scientific research documenting the effectiveness of Rolf therapy. A 1988 study published in the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association indicated that Rolfing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which can help speed the recovery of damaged tissue.

Other studies done in the 1980s concerned the effectiveness of Rolfing in treating figure skaters and children with cerebral palsy. In 1992 a presentation was made to the National Center of Medical Rehabilitation Research regarding Rolfing in the treatment of degenerative joint disease.

A 1997 article in The Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy reported that Rolfing can provide effective and sustained pain relief from lower back problems.