About Dr. Ida Rolf Posted by Lesa Pensak Lake Tahoe

Dr. Ida Rolf

Dr. Ida Rolf was born in New York in 1896 and grew up in the Bronx. She attended Barnard College, graduating in 1916 in the middle of World War I.

The war, with the associated lack of suitable male applicants, gave her a unique opportunity for a woman in that time and she was hired by Rockefeller Institute (now Rockefeller University) in NYC and continued her education while working there.

She went on to receive a PhD in biological chemistry from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. Dr. Rolf started to work with people almost accidentally in the 1940’s. As she tells the story herself (Ethel was a friend’s sister):

“…so the day came when Ethel came up the front lawn. She’d fallen on a hole in the pavement in New York and she had very badly injured one hand and arm and the other wasn’t that good. I looked at her and I said, “I bet I can fix that. Do you trust me to try? You can’t be worse off”. She was feeling pretty low in her mind.

I said, “I’ll make a bargain with you. If I can get you to the place where you can teach music, will you teach my children?”  She said yes. And so I started in. I started, really,with yoga exercises, which I myself was using at that point. After we worked together about four times, she was in good enough shape to start teaching music. And that’s where Rolfing really started…”

The influences on the development of her work were numerous. From her studies in homeopathy she took the understanding that symptoms are the layered residues of earlier illnesses and that a cure will come from the sequential healing of each residue in turn. Osteopathy gave her an understanding of how improved bone alignment was an index of improved bodily function. Yoga, under the direction of Pierre Bernard in Nyack, New York, provided her with an experiential understanding of body lengthening and “a core line”. She worked for a short period of time with an Alexander teacher in Massachusetts and studied intensively with Amy Cochran, an osteopath, in California. Another significant influence was the work of Korzybski and the school of General Semantics.

Dr. Rolf taught to chiropractors and osteopaths, both in the USA and Britain over a number of decades. But in her opinion they didn’t get the full understanding of the work she presented to them:

“…they used it as an adjunct to their work, and this I did not particularly like. They wanted to adopt it into chiropractic and osteopathy, and I said no. Rolfing’s not chiropractic; it’s not osteopathy. I’ve been saying no to that ever since. But, on the other hand, when you start, you start with a couple of broken sticks if that is all you can find…”

For these reasons, she considered her early attempts at teaching unsatisfactory. Rather than see her work as a whole point of view about the human condition the majority of these early students co-opted it as just another set of techniques.

In time, Dr. Rolf refined her teaching and developed a standard way of delivering her material within a 10 step protocol. This made it easier to distinguish her work, Structural Integration, from other manipulative schools and approaches.

It was her good fortune to then meet the gestalt therapist, Fritz Perls, who invited her to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. It was at Esalen that she finally found a group of students that wanted to do the work of Structural Integration exclusively. This core group provided her with her first group of teachers who were sufficiently dedicated to assist her in the formation of the Rolf Institute. Developing the various aspects of the Rolf Institute, especially the training of those people she selected to carry on the teaching of her work, occupied her until the time of her death in 1979.

“This is the gospel of Rolfing: When the body gets working appropriately, the force of gravity can flow through. Then, spontaneously, the body heals itself.” – Dr. Ida P Rolf


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