Vogue Features Rolfing
“Back In Style”
By Heidi Julavits
This past year has been, for me, a period of intense personal searching. I asked myself the hard questions. What Kind of Person Am I? How Do I Want Others to Perceive Me? And Will My Computer Fit Inside? For months, I pitilessly self-scrutinized as I scoured the earth for the perfect handbag.
And then I found it. A faux-reptile, space-age grommetted Marni tote, “a work of art” as the saleswoman said. Righto, but let’s see what it holds, I thought as I emptied the contents of my current Sad Sack (laptop, books, pens, wallet, diapers, wipes, emergency baggie of bread sticks) into the work of art. Everything fit, and the work of art, not only stunning but sturdy, seemed structurally up to the task. Then I tried to pry it over my shoulder for the crucial test drive. I struggled. I contorted. I removed my coat and my sweater. Finally I had to admit to myself: the bag’s straps were too short. Gamely, I held the bag in my hand rather than wedging it into the boney shoulder groove I’d perfected over the years. For an hour I walked around the store, bag in hand, trying to convince myself that this was indeed the perfect bag. But deep inside I knew otherwise. The Marni handbag triggered my toddler-chasing-computer-ogling forward shoulder slump, and the energy required to counteract this slump (in order to keep me upright) meant I’d be exhausted after walking half a block.
I cursed handbags—a sadistic, impractical invention—and then blamed the Marni bag in particular. It was the bag’s fault I couldn’t buy it. I blamed my kid. I blamed gravity.
Then, reverting to quest mindset, I turned my scrutiny inward. Maybe the problem was me. Maybe I simply needed to correct my posture. Except, as I discovered when I tried it, “simply correcting my posture” was precisely as impossible as existing for my entire waking life in Mountain Pose. My mind was unable to counteract my spine’s naturally unnatural curvature toward the earth even when the perfect handbag was at stake. My body, in short, was imprisoned by itself.
Worse still was this realization, assisted by the store’s full-length mirrors: my body language conveyed timidity, insecurity, even a tiny bit of self-shame. The inexorable aging process, laziness, a momentarily shopworn sense of self-worth had initiated my downward slide, but now my bones and muscles clung to this new shape like a grudge.
I decided to take extreme measures. No wimpy massages or sweetly encouraging physical therapy sessions for me. It was time to radically renegotiate my relationship with gravity and put the “ow” back in powerful. It was time to explore a reputedly hardcore yet effective bodywork technique created by a woman who, in her heyday, resembled the love child of Eleanor Roosevelt and Yoda. It was time to regain my inward (and outward) delusion of worldly dominance so I could buy that Marni bag.
It was time to get rolfed.
Rolfing should connote a ‘60s-era hell massage administered by a hairy, Big Sur sadist. It should connote the words “torture” and “primal scream” and inspire visions of your muscles being separated from your bones, among other gruesome posture-improving procedures. Even though rolfing’s brutal reputation turns out to be an old hippy wives tale, it’s unsurprising that Michael Bulger, my chosen rolfer, doesn’t call himself a rolfer. Given rolfing’s inaccurately negative rap, many recent trainees of Ida P. Rolf’s methods (developed in the ‘40s and popularized, or some might say primal scream-ized, at the infamous Esalen Institute in the ‘60s) refer to themselves as she did—as practitioners of structural integration.
Bulger’s office is located near Union Square, in an ornate old office building where, rumor has it, Man Ray once kept his studio. With his boyishly messy surfer hair, Bulger might be a rock star I should recognize. Many of Bulger’s clients work in the fashion world: editors, photographers, models, in short, the people who both initiated and embraced the mind-body paradigm shift that’s occurred over the past decade and helped to mainstream formerly fringe practices like yoga, Pilates and acupuncture.
I’ve been told to wear “nice underwear” since this will be my only attire for the next hour and a half (it’s not because of car accidents your mother warned you to wear nice underwear; it was because you might unexpectedly get rolfed). I strip and stand by the wall while Bulger, in jeans and a t-shirt, sits atop a blue exercise ball. I bust out my best mountain pose, but he’s only momentarily fooled by my fake-powerful stance. One look at my legs when I’m lying on the table yields a troubling observation: my right leg is one inch longer than my left. My pelvis is cocked. My ribcage, too, is laughably uneven, with my left ribs protruding further than my right, a problem I’ve long observed from below when in Bridge Pose.
Yoga, in fact, is a logical entry point to structural integration. Rolf, decades ahead of her time, became a yoga junkie in the ‘30s to help resolve her back problems after the birth of her child. Subsequently, Hatha Yoga strongly influenced her when she was formulating her soon-to-be eponymous structural integration techniques. Put simply, her techniques are founded on the following premise: bones, joints and muscles are interconnected by a web of tissue called fascia. Due to injury and habitual use, the fascia—“intelligent tissue,” Bulger calls it—compensates around these hurt or overused areas, and reconfigures the body in such a way that you become literally trapped in the shape of your own bad patterns. The keyboard slump. The shoulder-as-hook for the life-bearing tote bag. The torqued pelvis protecting the ski-injured knee. Since the fascia is plastic, not elastic, it can be reshaped or, as Bulger phrases it, “reeducated” to respond to gravity in a more balanced way. Or as he puts it to me once: “I’m doing yoga for you.”
This sounds good to me, a lazy, lazy yogi and chronic keyboard slumper whose shoulders feel most gravitationally at peace when jutting slightly forward of my chin. My first session begins mildly enough, and does not, in any commonly understood way, resemble a massage. Massage is to structural integration as getting your hair washed is to getting your wet, knotted hair combed straight. Bulger inserts his thumb, fingers, even his elbow into the indentations between my muscles and joints. He applies pressure and gently manipulates the rubber band-like bits of tissue under my skin.
I’ve signed up for the “Basic Ten Series,” which forms the foundation of Rolf’s structural integration methodology. Manipulating the fascia—separating it from surrounding tissues, eliminating “unnecessary gossamer adhesions” between the fascia and the joints—works like cognitive therapy does on the brain. “Your body remembers that it has a choice,” says Bulger. While the effects can be long-lasting—even permanent—Bulger has a lot of regular clients who, after completing the Ten Series, continue to work with him to help solve their specific issues.
The experience of being rolfed is primarily a painless one, though it feels less soothing and sleepy-making than it does like sub-dermal hygiene. Occasionally it becomes intense. “This is going to hurt,” warns Bulger, before he separates two filaments of connective tissue that have adhered just below my armpit—but in fact it feels wonderful after a few deep breaths, like the good-hurt of the hamstrings during a forward bend.
While Bulger is open to methods that combine bodywork with psychotherapy, he believes that a past motorcycle accident is more to blame for his internally rotated knee than, say, his relationship to his father. Still, Bulger remains highly attentive to possible mind-body connections. A woman, say, with a history of bulimia may have an intense emotional response to having her stomach and her digestive system rolfed.
Given my relatively emotionless digestive system, for me the most notable bi-product of a good rolf is this: I am mentally floating when I leave Bulger’s office, lucid, calmly receptive and cheery. I’m protected inside a clear glass bubble that prevents me from reacting to the Union Square chaos with tensed shoulders or a lowered head. I tell Bulger about my post-treatment high; endorphins, I suspect, or maybe my beginning-to-improve posture is already elevating my sense of powerfulness. Both are probably true. Bulger informs me that there’s a link between acupuncture pressure points and fascia. Basically, the acupuncture medians, those pathways for chi, are embedded between the connective tissue he’s manipulating. Which means my chi is flowing readily, and that’s contributing to my heady glow.
A second benefit is this: I’m getting great conversational mileage out of the announcement, “I’m getting rolfed.” I even meet some closet rolfees this way. “Are you talking about rolfing?” a woman asks me the other day in the park. Robin Aronson, author most recently of a book called “The Skinny: How to Fit Into Your Little Black Dress Forever,” tells me about undergoing an arthroscopic hip operation. Afterwards she had the unnerving (and painful) sensation that her femur, which had been pulled out of her hip socket for the surgery, was in the wrong place. Aronson visited a rolfer who observed that her feet were two very different colors, suggesting a circulation problem. As the rolfer worked on her, she said she felt a pump-pump-pumping sensation in her leg; soon her previously blue-ish foot had “pinked up like a baby’s.”
From a power posture perspective, however, I’m not convinced I’m experiencing any noticeable improvements. Bulger’s work is occasionally so gentle as to seem imperceptible. Yes, there are those ooooweeee moments, such as when he snaps on the surgical gloves and rolfs the inside of my mouth or works those gossamer adhesions between my organs and my intestines. But at times it feels as though his fingers are merely hovering between my muscles. Only when he shifts, again almost imperceptibly, do I realize he’s performing a stealth manipulation.
But after my third session I realize that in fact I have changed physically. One day I look down and am amazed to find my handbag is in my hand. A mistake? Clearly. But since my shoulder is no longer hook-shaped, the bag has slid down my arm and come naturally to rest in my palm. I don’t question it. I keep walking. One block. Two blocks. Three. Suddenly I can walk comfortably, and seemingly forever, carrying a handbag in my hand without having to exert myself to maintain a decently upright posture; my body assumes this balanced shape without my having to force it. I look less like my usual slumped sherpa self and more like a chicly confident Cold War spy carrying a briefcase full of money.
I’m sold. Like yoga, rolfing is one of those practices that your body instantly tells you makes a lot of sense. Meanwhile, I keep catching glimpses of this unrecognizably poised woman in glass storefronts; her back, despite the fact that she’s pushing a stroller or weighted down by her office-in-a-handbag, is laughably, even arduously straight. But that power-exuding woman in the window is me, and it requires no effort at all to be her.
From Michael Bulgers website.