Getting Rolfed isn’t as fun as it sounds, but it just might get rid of chronic pain
I can’t remember a time in my life when my back didn’t hurt. Whether sitting or standing, lying down or dancing, my back has always just ached. But nothing was wrong with me, not technically. I didn’t have a traumatic accident, and I’ve never even broken a bone. Yet no matter what I did or how many chiropractors “adjusted” me, there was always the stiffness that made moving from side to side (forget touching my toes) a painful impossibility.
Then I got Rolfed.
Thomas Gordy, 36, grew up with the same chronic back pain as I did.
“I had back pain, neck pain, all sorts of knee pain,” he says. “My body was a wreck.” While working as a public interest lawyer in New Orleans, Gordy was a dedicated gym rat. “I was not only in pain but really limited. I had such a sense of awkwardness in my body. Along with that comes a real emotional and psychological component. Going to the gym and bulking up was how I compensated for deficiencies I saw in my own body.”
On a whim, Gordy tried Rolfing, a method of structural integration that works with the soft tissue in the body to realign muscles and relieve tension. “It changed my body, which changed my life,” he says. After seven years as a successful attorney, Gordy quit practicing law to become a full-time Rolfer.
Now working out of the small but chic Advanced Bodywork Center in South Reno, Gordy spends his days practicing the Rolf method of structural integration, relieving clients of the same pain he felt for years.
“I can empathize with how they feel,” Gordy explains, running a hand through his blonde hair. “As a Rolfer, I can change somebody’s life in a very real and personal way, much more than as an attorney. I had the right aptitudes to be an attorney, but aptitude doesn’t measure passion.”
I first decided to try structural integration after the failure of yet another chiropractor’s diagnosis. The latest one told me the back pain must be because one of my legs is longer than the other (statistically almost impossible). He had me wearing a lift in the shoe belonging to the “short” leg, possibly for life, which in addition to being costly and inconvenient, looked completely inappropriate with a stiletto.
Though I’ve always been a bit skeptical of “alternative” therapies, structural integration was the only thing that helped my father overcome a lifetime of chronic back pain. So I found myself one afternoon waddling with my usual turned-out duck feet into Gordy’s office. My back was stiff and painful as ever, my range of motion restricted to an awkward few centimeters left and right.
Gordy met me with a smile, his imposing 6-foot-4-inch frame offset by gentle eyes. I followed him into what looked like a typical massage room. But instead of breathing in aromatic candles and slipping onto the table for an hour of tranquility, I stood in front of Gordy in my shorts and tank top while he took notes on the structure of my body. He asked if my back felt sore, especially on the right side. Yes! I often had neck pain and trouble stretching.
“But doesn’t everybody?” I asked.
“No,” Gordy responded with a smile, as if he had heard it before. But to my surprise, instead of going into those problem areas as chiropractors had always done, Gordy went straight to work on my legs and pelvis, moving his hands as a masseuse would except much deeper and much more deliberately.
“I’m working with your foundation, your legs and pelvis,” he explained. “It’s just like the foundation of a house. If it’s off-balance, the whole structure will be.” OK, that makes sense. “I’m looking at alignment but thinking of soft tissue, not bone but fascia, muscle, tendon and ligament. You have a significant soft tissue component, a dysfunctional pattern in your pelvis, which causes your vertebrae to be in lockdown. It’s a painful pattern that causes back pain. It’s pretty common.”
Gordy explained that if my pelvis was out of whack, shifted up on the right, for example, the rest of my body would have to compensate. So then my right leg would turn inward and my left foot outward just to keep everything stable. (Duck feet, anyone?)
“A problem in one part of the body means compensation in another,” says Gordy. “This is simple, gimmick-free stuff. I work through the entire body in a very holistic nature. … Rolf is working with the structure of the body to create a more dynamic structure as a whole. Once that’s achieved, the body is much more able to heal itself.”
Rolfing doesn’t always feel so good. All that de-straining and re-structuring means the Rolfer has to work with the deeper layers of the body. Because I had only experienced the soothing gentleness of standard massage, I was a bit surprised to find myself cringing during my Rolf.
“The difference between structural integration and massage is the difference between going superficial or deep,” he says. “Massage is more like gliding over tissue. I’m engaging tissue and looking for tissue that’s short and restricted to lengthen it. I’m lengthening and balancing the entire body.”
The difference is worth it. I felt a stretch and lengthen throughout my entire body like I’d never experienced. I felt tall and agile and in control of my movement for the first time. Simple tasks like bending over to pick up groceries didn’t cause painful spasms like it once had. I no longer waddled like a mallard.
I was hooked.
Kim Webster is also a local, practicing Rolfer, having helped people through structural integration for the past 19 years. Like Gordy, she became a Rolfer through personal experience.
“I went through the Rolfing series myself in 1985, and it changed my life,” she says. “I gained nearly an inch in height, felt 10 years younger and felt much more connected to my physical self. I’d been working as a geologist and had been living only in my head.”
Webster believes structural integration is complementary to chiropractic work. “After structural integration work, chiropractic adjustments can become easier, less strenuous and hold longer,” she says.
“Chiropractors send their patients to us when they recognize that tight, unbalanced soft tissue is a problem. After structural integration work, chiropradjustments can become easier, less strenuous and hold longer.” Webster sees how much her work can affect a patient’s life. One former client was an ultramarathon runner who had suffered from exercise-induced asthma since childhood. “After her first session, her ribcage expanded four inches,” says Webster. “After her ‘10 series,’ she had gained two inches in height and was no longer in pain when touched. She took five hours off her 100-mile run time!”
Rolfing can be costly. A typical session runs around $100, though discounts for students and low-income clients may be available.
I’m currently into my fourth Rolf session with Gordy, and I feel like I’ve been handed a new body. The changes should be permanent.
“All the changes will stick, your neck and back, if the foundation is fixed,” he told me. “You can anticipate more balance. Things will just be easier. If I do my work right, I don’t anticipate you having back problems again.”
Rolfing isn’t just for people with screwy backs and painful necks. Rolfers also work with athletes looking to improve their performance.
“Anyone really can benefit,” says Gordy. “Anytime you improve your alignment and balance, you’re going to feel better.”