Structural Integration

When it's Better Than Just, "I Feel Better."

Woman Forming Heart Shape with HandsI am writing to you on the plane home from Munich, where I just spent the weekend presenting at the European Rolfing® Association’s annual conference* and, while I normally talk here very specifically about how people can feel better in their bodies, a weekend of being surrounded by Rolfers in Munich has brought back to the fore for me just how valuable that is beyond the straightforward, “my knee feels better”, or “my headaches are gone”, so I thought I’d jot down some of those thoughts here. The mission here at the FFF is to liberate bodies from chronic pain, mobility issues, and subpar performance. Which (and I think those of you who have come out from under pain, mobility, or performance issues will back me up here) is pretty dang fantastic. So fantastic in fact, that we normally end the story with, “I feel better! Hoorah!”

But I would argue that an additional, and pretty interesting, story starts to unfold both during and after the “Hoorah!” That, once your body has been positively impacted in this way (once you have, as we say in the Rolfing and SI fields*, more structural integrity), you are changed. Not just your knee, and not just your headaches. You.

I have the great pleasure of watching it occur on a regular basis with my clients. As they go through a Rolfing 10 series with me their anxiety attacks cease, or they decide to change careers or leave a relationship that isn’t serving them. All kinds of stuff unrelated to their bodies gets stirred up. It seems that, even though it isn’t a psychotherapeutic process at all, for many people working in their tissues in this framework of a larger organizing process (i.e. Structural Integration) does change people’s “life stuff” and not just their “body stuff”. In fact, Dr. Rolf once described Rolfing as “an approach to the personality through the myofascial collagen components of the physical body.” Whoa.

Considering that our goal, at least in Rolfing and SI, is to better align a person in gravity- to make them more upright, more at ease, and less at war with this whole gravitational field that we live in- its implications are pretty profound. In fact, at one of the talks I attended this weekend given by Pedro Padro, he said that Rolfers are, “consciously doing work to change the evolution of the species.” Wooowee! If you read this and it sounds creepy, like we’re fancying ourselves puppet masters of humanity, please instead just turn your attention to how your body feels while you read this, or while you stand in line at the grocery store, or while you take a long drive in your car, and you should start to better understand what I mean. We’re just trying to be helpers to uprightness. Gravity is so ubiquitous that we forget about it and the thousands of micro-wars (like standing uncomfortably in the grocery store line) that we have with it every day.

But what if we didn’t have to be at war? What if we instead felt buoyantly lifted and supported in it? Well if we can say that one of our biggest goals of evolution has been getting upright (and I think we can pretty easily say that), then to stop struggling against gravity and be yet more upright is a piece of our evolution. We’re not “finished” evolving, it’s an ongoing process, and one glance at any teenager texting on their phone should tell you how easy it can be to lose what we’ve collectively worked so hard to achieve. (But I’ll leave the question of whether our uprightness is guaranteed, including a rant on staring at screens, which I am doing right now on an airplane, complete with downward gaze onto my fold out tray table, for another post.)

Sitting at the conference this weekend and ruminating on what it meant to be better organized physically in gravity brought back a memory that I honestly don’t think I’ve considered since it happened. It was on the day of my 10th session (the last session in my initial Rolfing series, though I’ve had boatloads of Rolfing sessions in the 17 years since then) and my Rolfer, Joe Wheatley, had a journal available to people in the waiting room in case they wanted to jot down anything. I remembered how reading through the brief impressions of all the “Rolfees” who had come before me on the day of my first session had soothed my nerves, and so decided to contribute to the journal. For posterity’s sake I guess.

But of course there is always something about the power of writing a thing down that allows surprising stuff to spring forth and grab your attention. After all these years I doubt I’ll quote myself precisely, but I wrote something along the lines of, “I didn’t even know what a gift this work had to give me! I have a body! And now I get to enjoy it for the rest of my life! You’ve given me back to me.” After writing it I thought it was a little corny and amusing, so I wondered what I meant by “I have a body!” or “giving me back to me”? I mean, duh, yes we all have bodies, and obviously I belong to myself. But as someone who grew up with chronic pain, mobility issues, and a seizure disorder, I had gone to great pains to forget that I was stuck inside of this very inconvenient and often unpleasant thing called my body. I had split away from myself without realizing it.

After (and during) Rolfing I was not just pain free, but suddenly self sufficient, capable, and even giddy in ways I hadn’t ever touched into before. Pain and physical limitation, it turns out, are kind of like the metaphoric frog who gets put into the stovetop water at room temperature, which is then turned up so slowly that he never notices he’s being cooked until it is too late.

But I had gotten out of the boiling water! “I have a body! What can it do!?” Was the simple but gleeful thought that bounded through my being. It was like a grand adventure- that of having a body- had been right under my nose and (for me) I needed Rolfing to unlock it. I was free! And I was changed far, far more than as a physical being. Being given a sense of yourself as capable, self-sufficient, and transformational will do that to you. And here I am 17 years later, with that grand adventure still unfolding.

(Shout out to all the amazing European, American, and Brazilian Rolfers who made up this weekend’s conference! Thanks for the inspiration!)

*Footnote1: Had I presented on body nerd goodies I would have included that here, but alas I presented on practice building, which, while still valuable, probably doesn’t quite get people excited here at the FFF.

*Footnote 2: Rolfing is the original form of Structural Integration and so those who call themselves Rolfers have studied at The Rolf Institute, which was the school Dr. Rolf founded (that is definitely the sentence with the most “Rolf’s” in it that I’ve ever written…) but there are other schools of Structural Integration, such as The Guild, KMI, or The New School of Structural Integration, and the graduates of those schools go by the name “Structural Integrators”.

Photo by Patricia Mellin

5 Keys to Age-Proofing (and Reverse Aging) Your Body

5525366853_71d9cf2ba5_bSure we're all going to get crow's feet and, to one degree or another, age. That aging happens is inevitable, but what that means is the interesting conversation. I think in our culture we have been fed the idea that aging means an inevitable downward spiral of ever more medications and surgery (ahem, hip and knee replacements shouldn't be a norm) which ends in a frail, unattractive, pain filled body shuffling towards death. I heartily disagree. Yes, I'm thirty-eight and so many of you out there may be arguing that I'm not allowed to talk about this until I have a few more decades under my belt. To address that, first off, I had a birth injury which meant I grew up with pain and mobility issues until my body gave out on me at the ripe old age of 21. Since that time I have been rehabilitating my own body, which is now light years younger and more capable than it was in my childhood. So I've been reverse aging a body that felt like a ninety-year-old's since I was in my early twenties.

"Yes but you weren't actually ninety!" Ok, ok, secondly I can tell you this: I work in a field where I get a chance to see a lot of bodies, and those bodies in general are the ones who are self-selecting to take care of their physical self. I don't mean in the ripped biceps, botox injecting  model, I mean in the receive bodywork, eat real food, move with integrity model. And what I can tell you is that these people, some of which I've had the chance to watch into their eighties, have a very different experience of aging. And with my colleagues in the field I've just had to accept that I'm always going to assume they are  ten to twenty years younger than they are. Curious? Here's your how-to guide to have the same aging experience that they are:

1) Fascia: There is a fountain of youth, and it lives in your fascia. Your fascia, or connective tissue, is found everywhere in your body. It is your organ of support, and it is also a fluid system which every cell in your body relies on for proper functioning. In fact, connective tissue is mostly fluid, and I often refer to the process of differentiating your fascia (as through some of the methods I will list below) as a process of becoming better irrigated. We have all this information (most of your sensory nerves live in the fascia), and all this nutrition and waste that needs to move through, so you've got to keep yourself well irrigated in order to stay supple and healthy. Sue Hitzmann puts it perfectly in her book The MELT Method"Think of a sponge; when it's dry, it's stiff, but when it's moist, it's flexible, adaptable, and resilient. You can twist, squeeze, or compress a moist sponge, and it returns to its original shape. Your body's connective tissue is similar: when it's hydrated it's buoyant and adaptable. But when it's dehydrated, it gets stiff and inflexible."  It is this hydrated and supple quality to the fascia that I believe yields the most miraculous anti-aging and reverse aging benefits.

Want to get that fascia all supple and re-hydrated so you can look younger, move younger, and be pain free? Some great methods (and there are many so forgive me for not having them all here!), are Rolfing®, or other forms of Structural Integration (Kinesis Myofascial Integration®) , The MELT Method®, Tune Up Fitness/Yoga Tune Up®, Active Release Techniques®, and Strain Counterstrain.

2) Feet:  Ready? Set!? Picture an old person’s feet! Did an image of a gnarled up, bunioned out, tendon popping hammer toe mess spring to mind? Not a pretty picture, right? (Sorry to do that to you by the way.) We all have this image in mind because, sadly, a person’s age often shows very clearly in their feet. Most importantly, those aged feet show in a stiffened and rigid movement pattern in the whole body upstream from those feet. Indeed, if you want to pick one joint complex to be attentive to between now and your ninetieth birthday to dramatically alter your own aging process, that joint complex should be the toe hinge. As an example of how the toe hinge works, when you take a step, there should be a point in your gait pattern where your heel is lifted off the floor, and your toes are still in contact with the floor. This movement, which is also what allows everything upstream from there to move (particularly your spine), is courtesy of your toe hinge. Yep, foot mobility is the key to mobility everywhere else.

Generally speaking your feet are also the key to a healthy and independent life as you age. If you can’t move your feet, mobility shuts down everywhere and you become rigid, in pain, and have an unstable gait and poor balance and coordination. This all puts you at greater risks for falls and their resulting long recovery periods which bring yet more atrophy to your whole body, which is harder to recover from in older age.  So if you want to be springy and young now, mobile feet are the key to your springy-ness.  And by keeping that up through the years, you will also be preparing for an independent and mobile life in your eighties and beyond.

You can make better friends with your feet by regularly walking in nature on uneven surfaces, wearing neutral heeled shoes, reading this great resource, or rolling them out as I do in video #2 here.

3) Food: I’ll fess up that I am not a nutritionist or any other kind of –ist or –ician that has any business giving people advice on food. In fact, as a manual therapist I almost never open my mouth about food to people in my practice. However, I can unequivocally tell you that when we’re talking about age-proofing your body, you are, indeed, what you eat. Having put my hands on lord knows how many bodies over my years in practice I can tell you that the people eating a lot of processed food and sugar have tissue that feels more like a tree trunk than like human flesh. I’ve even encountered some people whose tissue quality was closer to marble. Ouch! I’m not going to tell you that you need to adopt some specific dietary regimen because, as I said, that’s not my expertise. So this is not my big moment to tell you to go Paleo or go vegan or go whatever. But what I can say is if you want healthy tissue, glowing skin, and the juicy hydrated fascia that leads to all that, you should eat food that is food. So if you go the vegan route, um, soy bacon is not food. And if you go the Paleo route, a paleo “nutrition” bar is not food. Eat clean, eat food, live long, prosper.

4)Move Well: Everything we do with our bodies is input. If you sit slumped all day, your nervous system gets the idea that that's what you want and supports it, thereby gradually shutting down other movement options. We have so much gorgeous intricate movement available to us, and we’re generally using such a small percentage of it in our day to day lives. Yes, move it or lose it really does apply. And if you lose savvy and diversified movement patterning, like your body’s version of putting the blinders on, you lose what goes unexplored and develop ever more body blind spots. The old folks shuffle that everyone can imitate is the physical embodiment of living with many unused avenues of movement potential.

Generally in the fitness world, loads of emphasis is put on moving your body more and being more physically fit. What we don’t hear about all that much is the importance of moving well. One of my favorite quotes from Gray Cook is, “First move well, then move often.” [italics mine] More commonly in our culture people will first sit on the couch or in front of the computer for many years thinking about how they should be more physically fit while atrophying all healthy functional movement patterning. Then they will decide enough is enough and get off the couch and work their asses off at the gym, or training for a marathon or what have you to “get fit”. And lastly they will injure themselves through overuse or poor mechanics or a combo platter of the two, and will have to either stop being active or back way up and learn how to move well as they recover and slowly get back into activity.

But there is a better way! Before you throw yourself whole hog into some new fitness frenzy please, please, please dedicate some time to learning smart movement as you ramp it up. I believe that much of the plague of chronic pain that we see nowadays comes primarily from a culture that reinforces poor movement patterning with all of our sitting, and sitting, and well, also there is the sitting. Oh and the inactivity that comes as a package deal with the sitting. Did I mention sitting? This is my way of saying that you are not immune to this one even if you have a six pack and think you are way past learning how to move intelligently. If you live in our current culture and haven’t abandoned modern society to go create a new hunter gatherer tribe, then you are affected. Even with a career in this field and with spending the last 17 years rehabilitating my own body, I am still constantly uncovering and eradicating my own body blind spots.

To ferret out your own body blind spots, become a smart sassy mover, and injury-proof your body while reverse aging it, some excellent systems to check out are Tune Up Fitness/Yoga Tune Up, Restorative Exercise™, Functional Movement Systems®, and MovNat®.

5) Move Often: Now that you are moving well (P.S. that’s a lifelong endeavor, so keep it up) now you can move often! Hooray! Do I really need to do the thing where I repeat what we all know about how important physical activity is? That as humans we are born to move and when we don’t we break down in a myriad of ways? I didn't think so. You guys are totally on that, so what I will say is that you should move as often as feels good, while still remembering that recovery is a super important part of the training process. If you start to feel tired and cranky all the time and you notice you are recovering from your workouts more slowly or are getting injured or dealing with pre-injury nagging aches and pains, remember to take some recovery time. Beyond being attentive to not over training  all you have to do is to find movement that you can fall in love with and embrace it! I don’t know that anyone ever fell in love with walking on the treadmill at the gym while watching The View, so I give you full permission and encouragement to chuck that, but when you begin to explore the endless choices for moving your body, you’re bound to find several things that will resonate with you and put you in your happy place. Hiking! Stand Up Paddleboarding! Capoeira! Yoga! Rock climbing! Powerlifting! Kayaking! Break dancing! Parkour! See, lots of options. Go explore the wide world of movement, find what you love, stop dreading your “workout” and instead fall in love with moving your body.

Photo by ShelterIt