Rolfing or Structural Integration is a system of soft tissue manipulation, with the objective of realigning the body structurally and harmonizing its fundamental movement patterns in relation to gravity. The term Rolfing is a registered trademark of the Rolf Institute of Boulder Colorado. The system was founded by Ida Pauline Rolf. Practitioners of Rolfing believe it to enhance vitality and well-being, and claim that after sessions, many clients stand up straighter, gain in height, and that soft-tissue bodily asymmetries tend to disappear. Rolfing is in some ways similar to deep tissue massage (see especially Myofascial Release), however, practitioners claim that Rolfing's attention to the balance of the body in gravity sets the practice apart.
Rolf developed a method in the early to mid 1950s with the goal of organizing the human structure in relation to gravity. This method was originally called Postural Release, and later, Structural Integration of the Human Body. Early consumers of Structural Integration coined the term "Rolfing".
In 1971, Rolf founded The Rolf Institute of Structural Integration.
The Rolf Institute and a number of other schools, including the Guild for Structural Integration, Kinesis Myofascial Integration and Hellerwork Structural Integration, currently teach methods similar to the method presented by Rolf. In addition, many modern modalities of "deep tissue bodywork" can trace their lineage back to Rolfing and the legacy of Ida Rolf's ideas about the fascia.
Rolf theorized that 'bound up' fascia (or connective tissue) often restricts opposing muscles from functioning independently from each other, much in the way water, having crystallized, forms hard, unyielding ice. Her practice aimed to separate bound up fascia by deeply separating the fibers manually so as to loosen them up and allow effective movement patterns. Rolf believed that an adequate knowledge of living human anatomy and hands-on training were required in order to safely negotiate the appropriate manipulations and depths necessary to free the bound-up fascia.
Rolfers often prescribe a sequence of ten sessions to gradually "unlock" the whole body, usually beginning with the muscles that regulate and facilitate breathing. During a Rolfing session, a client generally lies down and is guided through specific movements. During these, the Rolfer manipulates the fascia until they have returned to their 'original length'. This takes place over the course of ten 75 to 90 minute sessions, with a specific goal for each session, and an overall goal of cumulative results. Some clients find the experience of Rolfing painful, but Rolfing has continued to evolve over the decades into a practice far more gentle than in its early origins.
Rolfing is generally regarded as safe. Because it involves deep tissue manipulation, pregnant women and people with skeletal, vascular, or clot disorders should consult a health care provider before undertaking Rolfing sessions.
Some within the Rolfing community question the original emphasis placed on fascia by Rolf and now believe that the symptoms they detect and treat may have more to do with abnormally high muscle tonus than actual fascial restrictions.