IT’S week four and there’s a lot to remember. My tail, for a start. Yes, my tail. It’s long, fat, heavy and drags behind me like an anaconda on a leash.
It’s kind of like the tail of a diplodocus, if you must know, except it’s pink with purple polka dots. It’s new, and I keep forgetting about it. But what’s it doing there, you ask. And when did I take leave of my senses?
The short answer is that I’m Rolfing, not that this explains much. For now, back to the tail. My Rolfer, James Howard, tells me there are two kinds: a cheeky monkey one that rises up like an antenna and curls around branches. This is for people who need a bit more lift in their lower backs. And a fat, heavy, grounded one for people who need a bit less arch in their lower backs. People like me, it turns out.
Rolfing, for the uninitiated, is a form of holistic therapy that uses soft tissue manipulation (of fascia, the complex, connective stuff around all our muscles, joints, and bones) to encourage the body to function better. Basically, it’s a little bit like deep massage, a little bit like physiotherapy, a little bit like osteopathy, and a little bit like yoga. (It can also be eye-wateringly painful.) Then again, it’s not really like any of them. It’s like nothing else I’ve experienced, in fact. Even Howard acknowledges this. When I ask him for a soundbite he just laughs and keeps on Rolfing me. There just isn’t one, though it was once described on The Oprah Winfrey Show by a surgeon as yoga that somebody else does for you.
Anyway, some basics. There is only one Rolfer in Edinburgh: Howard, who trained in Colorado and Bavaria, and is also a practising yoga teacher. Ten sessions are usually recommended, tailored by Howard for each Rolfee. Each focuses on a different part of the body and for most of the session you’re lying on a massage table being kneaded and elbowed and moved and softened. Not that you’re passive. There is talking, exercises and body awareness techniques too, and a lot of the work is done by you, alone, outside the session. My sessions began in summer with my feet and ended in winter with my head. Actually, they haven’t really ended. I continue to think about my Rolfing whenever I’m walking, sitting, breathing, living …
Rolfing is named after its creator, Ida Rolf, a distinguished, kindly looking biochemist from New York whose portrait hangs on Howard’s wall. She came up with the system, initially called Structural Integration, after years of studying bodywork in the 1920s. In the Seventies, when she died, Rolfing was at its peak with the founding of the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration and the likes of Kris Kristofferson spoofing it on the silver screen. It has since, however, fallen into obscurity, possibly because it’s hard to attach to an aspirational celebrity lifestyle, with the lack of opportunity for yoga mats and Juicy Couture. Others, meanwhile, have dismissed it entirely on the grounds that it lacks any scientific evidence.
I am slightly sceptical but, as someone who has been through all the usual channels of physio on the NHS, long-term osteopathy, acupuncture and massage, I’m also game for anything. My problems aren’t groundbreaking but they are chronic: a decade of upper back and shoulder pain on my right side, related to too much typing, in recent years has spread to pain in my right arm, hand, right hip, leg and foot and, on a bad day, the right side of my jaw. I have tried everything. Nothing, so far, has really worked in a meaningful, sustainable way. Howard is unfailingly positive, which is one of the best things about him as a Rolfer. His interest lies in helping your body do what you want it to, whether that means typing all day or running a marathon. He never says anything negative about my body or its capabilities, which is important considering a physio once twanged a knot in my upper back, laughed out loud, and said she had never felt anything like it. I’ve never forgotten that and always end up apologising for my back when I have a massage or go to the doctor. Not any more.
In each session I learn something new about the body that has housed and carried me for 32 years. I have always obsessed over my right side because that’s where the pain was, but when Howard works on my left side, I’m shocked to discover it’s much more painful to the touch than the right. The right side, it turns out, is overworked because the left side isn’t doing enough. “Ah, yes,” says Howard. “One of Ida Rolf’s favourite sayings was ‘The pain is where it isn’t’.” This is a revelation. It quickly becomes one of my favourite sayings too.
In another session, I’m given my tail. When I walk, I imagine it thumping behind me and slowly, slowly, my lower back stops straining so much into an arch. The difference is minimal, but massive. I’ve always walked around holding in my stomach, like most, but now I realise I don’t need to because I’m standing straighter. Also, when I’m typing I’m able to relax my shoulders, when I just couldn’t before.
There’s more with each session. I discover that the arches of my feet wouldn’t be so flat if I rolled on my feet more as I walked, propelling myself forward instead of hanging back on my heels. I try this and the pain in my leg goes away. I discover that I feel no pain whatsoever in my right shoulder when it’s Rolfed, as though it’s dead to the world from feeling so much for so long (the left, meanwhile, is agony). I discover that I can handle more pain than I expected, even in the session when my butt and groin are Rolfed, bringing tears to my eyes. I discover so much, it’s mind-boggling just walking down the street and trying to remember it all.
Rolfing isn’t for everyone. If you’re not prepared to open your mind, tell your inner sceptic and defeatist to sling their hook, and be ready to change, it won’t work. But if you are, it’s nothing short of life-altering.
In my last session Howard asks me what I feel I can’t do when my body is in pain. “Well, I suppose I can still type and walk and run and swim and sleep ...” I note. “I know ... I can’t pick up a roller and paint my walls.” Howard nods sagely. After ten sessions, he’s getting to know me. “But do you really want to?” he asks gently. And you know what? I don’t.
• A Rolfing session lasts around 70 minutes and costs £70. For information and to contact James Howard go to www.jamestherolfer.com or call 07769 681 685.