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Rolfing® structural integration: Is it deep tissue massage?

By the time I graduated from the Bancroft School of Massage Therapy, Worcester MA, 1981,  I had gotten a little addicted to a good Swedish massage.  Henry LaFleur, P.T., kept that place hopping with high standards and tough talk, and was a great teacher.  I was privileged to learn from him as he was in the twilight of a great teaching career.

Henry also brought in a famous Shiatsu teacher,and a famous reflexologist, and some of us also learned Touch for Health™ outside of class with one of the school’s teachers.  Nowadays the school has modernized itself a lot with “Tank” and is still a great place to get a diverse massage education as well as learn a good Swedish massage.

As I went on through the admissions process to get into the Rolf Institute® of Structural Integration, I forgot about massage some, but after I started my Rolfing practice, from time to time I would want to have a good massage, relax, get better circulation, nice oil, etc.

I quickly learned not to tell the massage therapist that I was a Rolfer™, because they would give glad cries, “I know what you like!” and go after me with hammer and tongs hands.  I squealed, “too hard!” but there was always a reply that we can’t get this bad spot unless we press this much. “Deep tissue” was gaining by leaps and bounds in the late ’80’s, and people seemingly had forgotten the assets of Swedish massage.

One of my favorite Swedish massage places is in the National Park bathhouses of Hot Springs, Arkansas, a state where massage was severely regulated and the only allowed teacher in the state for a long time was a direct disciple of Peter Ling.  If she didn’t certify you, you didn’t work there.

I shudder to think what Ling would think of “deep tissue”.  The grinding out of “knots” willy nilly without regard to structure or the overall body circulation and energetic properties would not be pleasing to Ling, I’ll bet.

It certainly isn’t to me.  I have never been hurt worse than by some so-called “deep tissue therapists” (and I have had sessions with some of the old time pokey-fingered “this drama we call pain” Rolfers™).  One of the worst hurters was a “therapist” who poked my guts so hard with such righteousness (and not even for long) that I had blood in my stool and had to have sigmoidoscopy to rule out “whatever”, as my doctor said.

Until I learned better, twice I had to have 3 or 4 Rolfing® structural integration sessions to make up for getting taken apart and not put back together.  Now I may go to someone if I think that by training or experience that they may know Swedish massage, but I don’t mention that I am a Rolfer and I always say, “strictly Swedish style, no digging!”.

I would never subject myself again to the dis-integrative work of deep tissue massage. And–especially if you have taken the time and expense to get yourself structurally integrated–I encourage you to never subject yourself to a “deep tissue therapist” either. Try Swedish…you may like it!

This could be a subjective discussion.  In that corner, we have the people who think pain is good and the rush of endorphins is hunkey dorey, and in this corner we have those like me who believe that damage is done and scar tissue is laid down with these kinds of works.  I also think that problems crop up afterwards, maybe days later, in that dis-integration of which I speak.

Now, what does the word “deep” mean to me if using it away from the “deep tissue massage” domain and into the structural integration domain?  I’m going out on a limb here and say that I believe it is characterized by an ordering of the tissues and even the bones that creates horizontals in the flesh and bones.  There is an idea that one side is not drawing down and the other pulling up.  For example, in the legs, there is a direct bearing of the weight through the bones.  It is geometric.

If you are wearing tights or stockings with a seam in the back, the seam won’t go wandering off if your legs have been deeply organized.  This level of organization is deeply relaxing.  BTW, one can work this deeply without creating pain, scar tissue, and squirming and whining.

This blog could get too long, and I have already left practically all of the male readers behind in the dust with this stockings idea example, unless Joe Namath is reading this blog.  (Look it up, Joe’s famous photo in stockings.)

(Ok, the answer to the title question is NO. NO, structural integration is not deep tissue massage.) Nor is Rolfing® structural integration deep tissue massage either.

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Great article! Thanks for writing down such an important point.
    I had a frustrating conversation with a longtime massage therapist recently. She would not be convinced that our work was not about hurting people. She asked for my card and said that she would refer the clients to me that liked to be ‘hurt’ and that had more severe problems to be ‘fixed.’ I almost asked for my cards back!
    How thrilled I am to be able to forward your article to her. Thanks again!

  2. In my last blogging class conference call, a suggestion was made that I never did say when to get one or the other kinds of massage.
    I like Swedish massage, of classical technique.
    I like Shiatsu massage, of classical technique, not “digger”.
    I was hoping that it was apparent that I think “deep tissue massage” can be disorganizing and hurtful. Sometimes the hurt of the low back or neck doesn’t come on
    until later, maybe days later, as the disorganization takes its toll on the structure.
    Also, when someone has the investment of time and money that it takes to receive the
    standard basic 10 of Rolfing, it would be extremely foolish to go out and have someone disorganize your structure.
    Ok, anyone else, go for it. Here is the link after you have been hurt: http://www.rolf.org

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