What Is Rolfing? A Guide to the Massage Therapy Emma Lovewell Swears By

Massage is a great way to treat yourself or relieve tension in achy muscles. But if you’re looking for a way to transform your overall well-being, Peloton instructor and Flow Advisor Emma Lovewell recommends booking a Rolfing session.

Rolfing, also known as Rolfing Structural Integration, is a type of bodywork that targets and manipulates the deep tissue in the body. The practice is focused on the fascia — connective tissue that holds together every organ, bone, nerve fiber, and muscle. This webbing stabilizes your organs and bones while reducing the friction your muscles have when moving.

Think of the fascia as the white threads you see when you peel an orange, describes Lovewell. This white spongy substance surrounds the oranges, and similarly, the fascia surrounds your muscles and tissue. And like with any muscle, stress and prolonged immobility can tighten this structural support, restricting your range of movement and worsening posture. A tight fascia network can prevent oxygen from entering and exiting the muscles. With Rolfing, “the idea is to loosen the space around the muscles so that the muscles can move more freely. It can feel like a lot of pinching, kind of like separating the skin off of the meat.”

Lovewell says she first discovered Rolfing when she had just started teaching Spin and was suffering from plantar fasciitis. “I was going to this one physical therapist who was massaging my foot and having me roll my foot around on a tennis ball, and nothing was working,” she says. She finally found relief from a Rolfing session focused on her hip and groin. “The whole belief is [that] everything stems from something else. So if you have knee pain, it’s probably connected to your hip or your ankle.”

For her Rolfing sessions now, Lovewell works with Jessa Zinn, owner of The Fascia Lab. “I can’t sing her praises enough. I see Jessa every other week now, or once a month, depending on my availability, and I’ll go for a two-hour session. It’s just the most therapeutic thing…she’s helped me so much.”

Zinn found Rolfing after experiencing back pain. Yoga temporarily helped, but when her back pain returned, the practice actually made it worse. With a colleague’s recommendation, she found Rolfing and found the experience empowering. “Rolfing gave me a connection to my movement patterns that I hadn’t previously had awareness through. By becoming aware of those patterns, I was able to manage them over time.”

If you’re curious about the practice, here’s what to know to see if Rolfing is right for you.

Rolfing is different from massage. Advocates of Rolfing suggest the release of tension and realignment of the body provides long-term health benefits that go beyond the traditional massage. “While a regular massage can leave you feeling looser and more relaxed for a limited time after, Rolfing focuses on releasing pain and assisting in restoring proper alignment of the body, creating long-lasting pain relief,” says CG Funk, a massage therapist at Massage Heights and board member of the International Spa Association.

Stacie Scarbery, an Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals member and owner of Denver Highlands & Wheat Ridge Rolfing acknowledges the usefulness of massage and physical therapy. However, when it comes to Rolfing, she finds the practice unique because it is aimed at educating the patient on their body and treating the root cause instead of the symptoms. “I find that when patients understand their body and its patterns, then they are able to avoid falling into old habits that keep them locked in pain.”

Rolfing is traditionally divided into 10 one-hour sessions. Rolfing is a full-body workup, but because of the intense amount of work needed to realign each area, most Rolfing treatments require more than one visit. To get the full experience, Funk says most massage therapists will create a series of 10 sessions, each focused on one body part at a time.

The first three visits are “sleeve” sessions that work to loosen up the superficial surface of connective tissue. Your massage therapist will spend a lot of time on your breath work and promoting blood flow and circulation. The second session promotes balance in your foot and muscles. The third session will align your body vertically when standing to address any twisting or bad posture. A Rolfer would use a combination of mild, direct pressure to loosen up the fascia and slow, deep strokes to stimulate nerve endings and relax the muscles.

Sessions four to seven are considered the “core” period, and cover areas including digestion, balance, and stabilizing the head and next. After the fourth session, Rolfers say people should start feeling better when moving and noticing longer strides when walking. Sessions eight to ten involve integration. These are focused on applying pressure and stretches to allow your body movements to flow together as well as correcting for any minor misalignments.

Of course, there are variations to Rolfing that do not require a 10-session commitment. Lovewell says Zinn mixes Rolfing into her physical therapy massage, removing the need for the sequence. “She’s become a friend of mine because I go to her so religiously now.”

Rolfing may offer relief to people with chronic pain. Anyone can sign up for a Rolfing session. Some massage therapists apply Rolfing to children as young as three years old for overall health. “Rolfing is generally safe for everybody. Even patients with brittle bones, sensitivity to touch, and most issues in between, do well with Rolfing,” Scarbery adds. Zinn recommends trying it at least three times to see if it’s a fit.

But Rolfing has gained a following among people living with chronic pain. “For those seeking more than a temporary fix, Rolfing may be the answer,” explains Funk. “Rolfing provides those with the relaxation and zen of a traditional massage, with long and fast-acting results.” Note that if you’re considering it as a treatment for chronic pain, it’s always a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider first before beginning a new type of therapy.

There are a range of ways to experience Rolfing. If you can’t get in to see a Rolfer, Zinn has created a fascia release program you can do at home. “They are small self-practice fascia releases to help us map our own bodies and create a release in our fascia system so that we can align, move better, and get out of pain.” The course has 10 sessions with 60 videos to teach fascia release techniques.

Zinn recommends fascia release for everyone but says it’s especially beneficial for women in all stages of menopause. “As we age the layers of fascia dehydrate creating sticky restricted movement. Rolfing and fascia release restores the tissues.”

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